The Natural Beauty of Steven Price’s Our Planet Score
By Etan Rosenbloom, Deputy Director & Editor, Marketing & Communications
The Netflix series Our Planet is a sensory feast. Viewers are treated to eight hours of stunning footage of hundreds of species of plant and animal life, many of which are seldom seen on camera at all, let alone this intimately. The vastness of the series’ subject matter – and its clarion call for action to combat global warming – requires an equally panoramic score. Few composers are as fit for the task as Steven Price, whose Oscar-winning score for Gravity captured both the terror and the beauty of space. Price’s music for Our Planet does the same for the earthly realm, conjuring musical worlds every bit as vivid as the environments he’s scoring. We caught up with him during a late-night studio session, a couple weeks after he netted two Emmy nominations for the show’s main theme and first episode, “One Planet.”
Congrats on your Emmy nominations! What do you do when you get news like that?
You get a load of phone calls! And you’re very surprised, really. I was just really pleased for the show. It’s a massive labor of love, a show like that. People worked on that show for four or five years. It’s just nice that it got recognized. It felt like icing on the cake to a really good experience.
It sounds like it was a long journey for Our Planet, between the start of production and release day. You were the new kid in town!
Yeah, absolutely. I knew about it when they started making it. And then a couple of years into it, they showed me a bit of footage, and I [felt] rather daunted that there were eight hours of this thing coming up. But I started writing the occasional little tune, and started this little sketchpad of bits and pieces. Gradually, it ramps up to your start date. Once we got to it, it was an eight-month period of just every day, writing for the show. But because the [episodes] were so different, and they let you write in lots of different ways, it was always fun. There was a lot of spirit behind it.
You’ve worked with the show’s producers before. Was that partly how you got involved in Our Planet in the first place?
Oh, absolutely. I met them in the early 2000s, working as a music editor on a film they made called Earth, which George Fenton did a beautiful score for. So it’s been a long time that I’ve known them, but we did The Hunt back in 2015, that was the first time I had worked with them as a composer. It was towards the end of that process they mentioned that they were hooking up with Netflix, and they were doing this show. I would always ask questions about it, hoping that they might ask me. They were a bit cagey for a while, and finally they did [ask me] when we got to the end of The Hunt.
What’s it like knowing that your music is sharing sonic space with one of England’s national treasures, Sir David Attenborough?
He’s remarkable, really! The very first time I’d done the music, then I heard him doing the voiceover, it immediately finished the music off. You suddenly became part of this line of shows that I’ve been watching since I was a tiny kid. Life on Earth, I think he did in ’79. I remember my folks watching – that voice has always been there. When you suddenly here it combining with your music, it’s amazing.
And also, he’s really musical. When he’s doing his narration, he might have my demos or my finished score, and he kind of performs his words around the music, as well. He has this incredible ability to land words as if he’s the lead instrument.
He does have a tonal, almost melodic way of speaking.
There was one scene in the first episode – when he first recorded it, they had the sound effects blaring. It was the glacier melting at the end of episode 1 – this huge 75-ton thing. He performed it at first with this great powerful voice, then he listened to the music, which was this intimate tiny little piano and violin thing. He did it again, and he placed every word exactly where you’d have done it if you were writing a lead vocal line. Fascinating. I’m very grateful to him for making the music sound better.
You’re playing with a huge orchestral palette in this score. How early did you determine what kind of music this series needed?
We knew that orchestra was going to be very heavily involved from the word “go,” just because it’s a very emotional show. If you’re talking music and emotion, players – orchestras – every color within the orchestra was going to come in useful at some point. I was very keen to use the same orchestra for every episode, so we kind of became this family during the making of the show. A lot of the players were the same throughout the entire series.
Because each show is in a different environment, they all conjured up different sounds. The “Frozen Worlds” episode has a lot more electronics than the other episodes, to fit with the glacial thing. But when you went into the “High Seas,” then voices seem to be appropriate for that. So they’ve all got their own colors and flavors, but the orchestra, and emotional, melodic writing was the thing that seemed to land really early.
The main theme has a pretty unenviable task: it sets the tone for what you’re going to see in each episode, but it also has to maintain consistency with the rest of your score. How did you put the theme together, and when in the process of scoring did you write it?
It was one of the little demos that I played on the piano into a tape, quite early in the process. I’d seen some early footage, and we talked about the fact that we wanted a theme that could recur in every episode and be used in different ways. It had to do different functions. We also knew we wanted it to feel big in scale, have a melancholy to it, but also an optimism. So it was a bit of a nightmare to think about. But then I went back to this sketchpad that I’d been making, and I listened to a couple things, and there was this one little nugget that seemed to have the potential to be that. And then we started to talk about the visuals of the opening of the show, the blue marble in space. And this wide-open melody seemed to be the one I was hearing in my head as we talked about it. I played and developed a demo out of that. It did seem to be a melody that could be used in different ways, and often it seems to be used for the “environmental message” stuff, and it’s often played really sparsely as well – when the words are getting serious, it’s this thing which recurs. It was daunting, but I seemed to write it by accident.
Did you tweak the main theme at all after you wrote the underscore for the rest of the episodes?
It evolved through the episodes, because each time you’d go back to do a new version of it, you’d develop it a little bit more. And I would go back sometimes and tweak the opening. But I think we recorded the opening titles with the third episode. It was there in its full, main-theme form then. But there’s all sorts of variations within the episodes, and little counter-melodies that would occur. But I was often working on an [entire single episode] at once, so the version that would appear there would be a slightly more environment-appropriate one.
It was one of the fun challenges, having a show where every episode, every sequence was specifically, individually scored, but within that you knew that you were listening to an Our Planet score even if it was voices in one thing, and synths in another thing, a tiny little mandolin cue in another thing. It all needed to be part of the same family.
The first episode, “One Planet,” netted you an Emmy nomination. Aside from the main theme, are there musical elements that you introduced in “One Planet” that you play with later in the series?
Yeah, and one of the great things about how they worked the schedule out was that I recorded the first episode quite late in the process. I think it was the penultimate thing I wrote. Each other episode has its own theme, as well, that will recur during the episode. So in episode 1, we go through these different environments to show how they’re all interlinked. That meant that I could introduce the theme of the “Forests” episode when we show the forest thing, the “High Seas” theme appears there for a minute – just sort of seeping in, so that hopefully when you get to that episode, there’s a trigger there.
The only one I hadn’t done by that stage was the “Coastal Seas” episode, [which is] pretty much the opening action sequence of the introductory episode. So I had to write that sequence knowing that it was going to be the one I used and developed in the [“Coastal Seas”] episode. It was very kind to me – the fact that by the time we did the opening episode, I had gone through most of the environments, and knew what they sounded like. I’ve always been kind of fascinated by the idea – I wonder if anyone noticed that things did come back. Because at the time, it all felt very natural to do it that way.
One of the reasons the series works so well is that it’s shot narratively. There’s a story to each sequence. How did that impact the way you scored Our Planet?
I’d often work in locked cuts – we were on such a tight schedule, I would get the 45, 50-minute film. And I tended to start at the beginning and work my way through. Often you would introduce your theme for the episode in the “pre-titles” as it were. And most times, the sequences do stand alone, and they’re all beautifully-structured storytelling. So it was really satisfying. Every three or four days, you’d be onto a different story, a different theme.
It was lovely to work like that – and because you’re working to a locked cut, you can be really brave with what you were doing. You didn’t have to work out “Well if I need to conform this, it needs to be future proof.” I’m going to hit that shot, really precisely, everything’s going to build toward that. And I know it’s not going to change. And you just don’t ever get that. I think musically, you can hear that someone was really enjoying what they were doing!
Was there a sequence that was particularly memorable – or difficult – to score?
The sequences that were the most scary were the ones where it was a huge moment. The walrus moment, that a lot of people responded to at the end of the “Frozen Worlds” episode. It was so indicative of how things are going very badly wrong with the climate, the global warming situation. It was a scene everyone was talking about for four years before I scored it. I knew one of the people that was on the shoot who was sending me stills when they shot it, years in advance. Everyone you spoke to was like “Have you seen it yet?” And you were just aware all the time that this was gonna be important.
That was daunting, but when you got into it, because they structured their storytelling so well, the picture keeps pulling you through. And as with a lot of the big moments with the show, I ended up doing something quite small, intimate. Those are probably the moments I’m proudest of in the series as a whole. We’ve taken a big, global event, and made it very personal, very small. You’re not being battered by sounds, or anything. You’re actually leaning in to hear the words. They were always scary, those big [moments], but they’re the ones when you felt something in the room during the recording session.
I have this vision of you sitting in your studio, watching some of the only footage ever captured of a Siberian tiger in the wild. How did you approach that scene?
Several times! It had to be a heart-stop moment, when it comes around and you get that shot of the tiger walking towards the camera. It was one of those where, again, less was more in the end. Just finding the right instrument was tricky. My first response was to do something very orchestral, give it a sweep, a grandeur. And actually, it’s a solo cello line when it happens in the final version. That was the result of back and forth with the filmmakers.
I did it, and it was approved, and we were going to record it, and I remember getting a phone call a few days before the session: “I just watched the demo again – do you think we can have another go?” It was one of those [moments] where your first reaction is “Oh, god, it’s at the printer’s!” But then you do it again and you’re kind of pleased that you did.
You collaborated with Ellie Goulding on “In This Together,” a musical companion piece to your score. Have you done much straight-up songwriting before?
Songs were how I started writing, really. I do love working on songs, and I keep ending up on films where I get involved in adding things to songs, arranging. I’ve done a lot of work with [filmmaker] Edgar Wright over the years, and there’s a lot of songs in his films that we end up adding to, or playing with, or some way being involved with. So I’ve always been keen to do stuff like that. And I’ve always had this bee in my bonnet about songs needing to feel like they belong, that they attach to the rest of it. So when WWF [the World Wildlife Fund] and Netflix mentioned that they would like to do a song for this, my first response was “Great, but can we have it feel a part of the same world?” So we did. Ellie does a lot of stuff with WWF so she was a natural choice to do it. I sent her some of the thematic stuff from the show, to see if she would respond to it, and she came up with a little melody thing here, and we went back and forth, sending over mp3s over a couple of months, before recording it right at the end of the process.
A lot has been made of the explicit environmental message of Our Planet. Would you say that your music helped to bring that message across?
I hope so. For me, the wonderful thing about the show is that it wasn’t shying away from that stuff. Musically, I always felt that I had to be very careful to find the right tone. We didn’t want to depress people, but we did want to make these points. It needs action now. So it was a matter of finding a way that we can be optimistic – because it’s very easy to get scared by it and run screaming, and not do anything. I did my best to be part of what I hope is the inspirational message of the show. I was really lucky to work with these collaborators, who are very good at working with me – are we getting the tone of this right? Are we feeling right? And hopefully, we had some moments there where all of our different departments came together to do that.
I’m so proud of the show. I absolutely loved it, and if the Emmy nominations do anything, I hope it means more people go and watch it.
Our Planet is Now Playing on Netflix
Find out more about Steven Price on his IMDB page
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