Composer Sebastian Evans has created scores for a large number of well-known cartoons, including since 2012 the score for the relaunch of the animated classic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. We spoke to Sebastian about how he got the chance to help bring the cult show to a new generation, his musical inspirations and how he approaches composing new scores.
An interview with television soundtrack composer Sebastian Evans
Jordan Smith? Hello Sebastian, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. How did you get the chance to score Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?
Sebastian Evans: When I was a kid I was really into the show. I had worked with the executive producer on a previous project in 2004, so when he was working on the pilot, he asked me to do the music for it. I was very excited to do so and after the pilot I got the job for the first series.
JS: How did you go about changing the score?
SE: I really tried to add a bit of the ninja side with drums and some eastern instrumentation. I also incorporated underground sample laced hip hop to it, particularly in the first two seasons. In season three, the show shifted to the woods and that required me to develop a new sound. This had more of a horror feel to it.
I watched a lot of 70s kung fu when I was developing ideas for the score and I also drew on my huge love for old skool hip hop, artists like Mos def, the beastie boys and wu-tang Clan.
JS: How about the breadth of your musical influences? I know you’ve mentioned composers and artists as diverse as Edvard Grieg and NWA.
SE: Yes, these are all artists I like to listen to, but I don’t really think about these as I’m composing. I would rather say that these are preferences I have cultivated over time. Apart from those you have already mentioned, I could also include George Gershwin and NWA.
JS: How did your own early experiences with music come about? Did you know from a young age that you wanted to pursue composition?
SE: When I was seven, my dad took me to the Star Wars film “Return of the Jedi.” I was fascinated by it, with the music, not just the movie. Later, I began Collecting scores and this introduced me to classical music, including Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. As soon as I realised that composing was a job, that’s what I wanted to do.
I didn’t play the piano until i was 10 or 11 years old, but prior to that I used to whistle passages from tv shows. I would show this off to the rest of the family, but some friends thought it was annoying. Learning the piano made sense to me and I learned how to play purely by ear. My piano teacher was impressed, but it took some work to get me to engage with the theory at first. I’m glad that I did. Theory is invaluable in this job: it helps me to understand orchestration, which instruments compliment each other, and even for the scales used on a daily basis. I feel its a lot easier knowing it, although I know some who would say it is less important.
JS: And were you always hoping to focus on television or did you ever consider film?
SE: When I was younger I always wanted to do film. But then I started seeing shows with vast musical scores like daredevil, Game of Thrones and walking dead. I realised that this was more something that I wanted to do, so my end goal became feature television shows. I feel its almost like a giant movie and for me its more appealing to create something that grows over time as opposed to a score for one film that maybe lasts 90 minutes or so.
JS: Turning to your approach to composing, How do you tackle a new project?
SE: I approach every project in a relatively similar way. I usually watch the show eight or nine times to allow me to identify each of the key themes. I then think about what I can add and how I can bring these themes out more clearly with music. Most of the projects I have worked on are 20 minute shows, so I try to find points where music can enhance it, either by setting a mood, pointing out the views or emotions of a character, or developing a character.
From there, I play around on the piano to develop some initial concepts. This is usually followed by a meeting where I say what I think is needed from the soundtrack. The producer or director will have ideas too, especially if I’ve been working from an incomplete episode. So we’ll compare notes and then I can just pretty much go to town.
I have a passion to create music, but at the same time I believe it’s important to consider the people who have the whole picture. By the time an episode gets to me, producers and creators have maybe been working on it for six months or so. They’re familiar with every aspect of the episode. I see my role as trying to help them reach their final vision by understanding their point of view. I find this a less selfish approach. So my point is that it’s not just about how you think something should sound.
JS: Are there any challenges you’ve faced when composing for animated shows?
SE: The challenge that constantly needs to be overcome is the turnaround time of seven to ten days. You try so hard and sometimes you get periods of time where nothing is coming to you, but you still have to come up with notes within that time scale. That would be the main one for me.
Want to find out more?
Sebastian is currently working on season 5 of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. You can get more details about his work from his Facebook page.