DC Super Hero Girls Composer explains how to create themes fit for super heroes

With larger than life characters such as Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Bumblebee and Supergirl all in one animated series (DC Super Hero Girls), a score that matches these over-the-top personas is a necessity. Cue composer Michael Gatt. Michael is no stranger to the animation genre, and he has scored multiple shorts for Illumination/Universal featuring characters from Minions, Despicable Me, Sing and The Secret Life of Pets. What makes DC Super Hero Girls a unique experience for Michael (besides getting to work with the hugely talented and Emmy-winning Lauren Faust) is that he has been able to experiment with almost every musical genre in one series, whether it be 8-bit for Bumblebee, exotic instrumentation for Wonder Woman or EDM for Zatanna. Michael goes into further detail about the show below in this exclusive interview.

Each episode of DC Super Hero Girls is musically very charismatic. Did Lauren Faust want it this way from the beginning or did it grow with the creative process?

I can’t overstate how involved Lauren is with the music. From the very beginning, there were in-depth meetings between Lauren, myself and the other creatives. We made it a point to really have the musical themes and signature sounds for each character established before fully launching into the score for the series. To that end, the same themes and sounds in “The Late Batsby” theatrical short that launched the new series are heard in the #SweetJustice TV movie and episodes.  This process continues as for each episode we have a thorough spotting session, going through the emotional narrative of each scene and exploring ideas on where we can take the score.

Wonder Woman’s theme has been around for a very long time. How did you make it your own with this project?

This is part of the fun of doing new takes of existing characters, especially ones as well-known as these from the DC canon. During the creation of the respective themes and genre direction for each character in DC Super Hero Girls, we focused on their personalities and powers. In the case of Wonder Woman, the series definitely speaks to her background of being a warrior and a princess from another land as well as time. In #SweetJustice, Diana’s mom points out that she is “only” 317 years old, young by Amazonian standards but giving her quite a lot more experience in the hero department and she quickly takes on a leadership role of the team. We considered all of the things when approaching her music. While the other heroes have more modern directions like EDM for Zatanna, or 8-bit for Bumblebee, we stayed a bit more classic hero orchestral for Wonder Woman with hints of exotic instrumentation like Duduk and Shofar to highlight her Amazonian heritage.

In Batgirl’s theme for #BurritoBucket, do you incorporate the sax when she confronts the bank robbers? If not, what was that instrument?

Most of the lead brass elements in #BurritoBucket are solo trumpet. For that episode, the idea was to play into Batgirl’s surf driven theme when she is Batgirl but still have Latin overtones given the nature of the episode. When she becomes the “Burrito Bucketeer,” her usual surf theme gets totally transformed in a Latin/mariachi direction. The trumpet was a great way to glue all of this together. Along with being a mainstay of mariachi music, it has big moments in the history of surf music as well.  For example, along with being the king of surf guitar, the late, great Dick Dale also played the trumpet. He actually performed the trumpet solo on Misirlou.

For DC Super Hero Girls I play all of the instruments including all the live guitars etc. as well as virtual instruments like the trumpet you hear in #BurritoBucket.  For virtual brass and wind instruments, I use a breath controller for a more realistic sound and performance.

In #BurritoBucket the score goes from 0 to 100 multiple times. Was it hard for you to convey the musical message you were trying to get across because of this?

Indeed I recall it was around 23 separate starts/cues in 11 minutes for the #BurritoBucket episode. It was helpful that we purposely “cut” the music to emphasize Batgirl being out of time and having to go back to the restaurant. So if a musical idea did not finish, it was almost better for the narrative as we were trying to emphasize her racing against the clock and never quite making it. From a technical side, I would write a full piece of music that went past where we were going to cut and then would edit out the entire end of a track.

The Burrito Bucketeer and Batgirl are the same person (just in different costumes) but have slightly different themes. Can you discuss what you did to change up these themes while still keeping them cohesive?

The melody that is Batgirl’s theme gets played exactly the same for both the Burrito Bucketeer and Batgirl. That said, all the instrumentation is completely changed up when we go from her usual surf band line up… electric guitar, bass, drums, brass section to an all Latin lineup… much heavier brass, guitarron, nylon string guitar, percussion and so on. This was a blast to do and happens often in the series where I’ll get to take one of the characters traditionally heroic themes and re-imagine it in a different genre or emotional direction.

DC Super Hero Girls is an animated show for kids yet certain scenes, such as the #MeettheCheetah locker room scene almost sounds like a horror movie as Wonder Woman is being preyed upon. When you first began working on the show, were you surprised about how many musical genres you got to experiment with?

Playing into different genres both musically and cinematically is one of the many things I love about scoring the show. Before moving into long-form composing for TV and film, I scored commercials which are equally varied in what genre you may be writing in from one day to the next. So any surprise for me was a very pleasant one as this kind of variety is something I love doing and have a long history in. There is almost no genre of music we have not touched, 8-bit, EDM, pop, punk, surf, orchestral, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s indeed horror and much more. In the #MeetTheCheetah episode, along with some classic Hollywood score horror textures, there is also a lot of exotic world instruments to lean into Cheetah’s origin story as well.

You said in previous interviews that you gave very different themes to all the main characters. Have those character themes adapted at all from episode 1 to the current episode? If so, how?

The theme melodies have been constant since the very beginning. As mentioned earlier, even the themes heard in “The Late Batsby” theatrical short that preceded the show are indeed the same themes that live on in the series. This was a very conscious effort that we made, spending a concerted effort to lock down the main themes before actually starting the series. What does change from cue to cue is how the themes get expressed. Along with the melodies, there is a signature sound and genre for each character, this really helps in places where we just want to sting a moment for that character. For example, a surf guitar slide or brass stab when Batgirl swings on to the scene or the drums being taken over by an 8-bit beat when Bumblebee joins the action.

What musical genre have you not gotten to experiment with yet for DC Super Hero Girls that you are hoping to?  

That’s a great question. We have already covered a ton of ground, along with what’s mentioned above. There have been jazz cues, speed metal, demonic choir, Spaghetti Western, and at times we take genres already explored in yet another direction, like in the #SheMightBeGiant episode, Korsakov’s 1899 classic, “Flight of the Bumblebee” is reimagined in 8-bit synth. It’s really vast. We just spotted an episode that has a new genre to add to the list.

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