Composer Alexander Bornstein on Transformers: War for Cybertron Trilogy: Siege (Interview)

Alexander Bornstein photo by Brett Peters/Key art courtesy of Netflix

Transformers: War for Cybertron Trilogy: Siege is the highly anticipated CG-animated series from Netflix, Hasbro and Rooster Teeth, and it features the neverending war between the Autobots and the Decepticons. The series takes place right before the Autobots leave for Earth, giving fans another look at the wreckage caused by the Decepticons.

Composer Alexander Bornstein brings a dramatic score to Transformers: War for Cybertron Trilogy: Siege by combining electronic and orchestral music. This fusion isn’t a new thing, but if there ever was a franchise that’s perfect for it, it’s the Transformers. Bornstein chats with Nerd Reactor about his excitement with joining the project and composing the music for the Autobots and the Decepticons. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

John Nguyen: How big of a Transformers fan were you before tapping onto this project?

Alexander Bornstein: Pretty big. In the first and second grade, I was a big Transformers fan because the Sci-Fi Channel was airing G1 as part of this animation block in the mornings. It was one of the first cartoons I remember vividly wanting to wake up and watch before school. It was really exciting when the 2007 movie came out and hearing Optimus Prime, voiced by Peter Cullen. There have been these little moments growing up where I really have gotten into Transformers, and I’ve really enjoyed it. Now to be a part of it is very surreal.

Were you brought on before the main production?

Yeah, I was brought on before animations were in so that I could do themes. I had a discussion with F. J. DeSanto, the showrunner, and went off after that discussion. I started working on the themes in isolation and started coming up with stuff for the Autobots, Decepticons and Cybertron. The timing was actually pretty organic, and once those themes were squared away, I was able to start working on Siege and actually start scoring the episodes, bringing those themes that we had agreed on into the show, and then coming up with others along the way. We really wanted to have that bedrock laid before we started getting too deep into the music.

Did you get free rein with the themes and how you wanted to compose the music? Was there a part where you wanted to add some influences from G1?

We talked early on and F. J. had some specific influences, and I had some influences too. We were able to meet in the middle in a really interesting way, trying to fuse this very synthesizer-driven score that takes a lot of inspiration from Vangelis and Tron, the Daft Punk score specifically. We then tried to fuse it with more of these solo organic textures like the cello that doesn’t make it sound quite as electronic as some of the other scores I’ve mentioned. Then obviously, there’s the orchestra in there as well for some of the bigger epic moments.

Credit: Netflix

Was there a preference between the Autobots and the Decepticons? Were there any challenging themes?

I think the Autobot was the hardest thing to come up with because you want to do a theme for them that’s noble and heroic that gets the heart pumping. You want it to ring true to what people expect from characters like Optimus Prime, Wheeljack, Bumblebee, and all of them. There was a lot of pressure there to feel like I could compose something that resonated and was like, “Oh, yeah, that fits,” especially when there are the Vince DiCola and the Robert Walsh and Johnny Douglas scores for G1. I will say we probably made a conscious effort to not emulate them because they’re, in a way, not easily imitated because they’re so iconic. I think that was the biggest challenge. Hopefully, when people hear it, they could whistle or hum it so that they feel that connection when the Autobots are on screen.

I don’t want to say the Decepticon theme was easy. It’s always difficult figuring it out. It’s like how the actors say it’s more fun to play the bad guy sometimes. I think there is some of that in terms of coming up with a theme for the Decepticons. It sounds angry, aggressive and very in your face. What I tried to do to create some musical continuity is take the B section of the Autobot theme and basically turn that into the Decepticon theme. So when you hear them, it will make sense in the context of the show. But this fragment of the Autobot theme is also the Decepticon theme because ultimately, they are all citizens of this planet. They just have completely opposing viewpoints on what they think the best course of action is for that planet.

There are some gray areas in terms of certain characters and how they feel. Did you have to create something that’s more in the middle?

Absolutely, yeah. I think the idea to take a part of the Autobot theme and then reharmonizing it to be the Decepticon theme is to paint that picture that you’re describing. Essentially there is a gray area that some of these characters exist in and have to grapple with over the course of the chapter. I think that’s a really exciting thing as a composer to musically paint that picture.

Obviously some characters are always bad. Starscream is always going to be manipulative and conniving. But there are characters we do get to get a little in their head about, and I tried to be conscious of that when doing the Decepticon theme. It’s not a mournful tone, but it’s a little pensive and a little bit introspective when it’s not aggressive and in your face. By that same token, the Autobot theme can be very heroic and uplifting. It also shows up in very sad, contemplative arrangements because it’s a huge component of the series where Optimus Prime is coming to grips with his role as the leader.

You’ve worked on Amazon’s The Boys. Are you working on the second season?

Yeah, that’s with Chris Lennertz and that’s underway. The second season comes out on September 4.

What’s it like creating music for superheroes? Well, they’re more like anti-heroes or assholes.

It’s a show where it’s like, “What can’t we get away with?” And Chris established just a very punk, very intense gnarly sound to that show. That’s a lot of fun because you get the throw the kitchen sink at the wall and just see like, “Alright, what can we do here?” Earlier in the year or maybe 2019, we did recording sessions and I just brought a whole trunk full of toys. We just made noise for a couple of days, and it was a lot of fun.

What’s the craziest experiment you’ve done?

I did some rhythmic breathing stuff on The Boys on a cue for Chris. It was exhausting because I kept on running out of breath. It’s doing this really aggressive-sounding breathing into a microphone to make a cue more intense. It was pretty weird, but a good way.

And then on Earthrise, which is the next chapter of Transformers, I’ve done some kind of weird sound design experiments with voices, but I probably shouldn’t get into too much more because it’s a little spoiler.

Are there any differences in the way you work during quarantine?

I was doing some small recording sessions for Transformers before we finalized the mixes, so that has shifted into recording at home where I prep all the materials and then send them over to the musicians to start recording. I then get everything back and assemble it. We were missing that recording session vibe, which can be a lot of fun and lead to some improvisation. Everyone on it does a great job regardless, but I do miss that in-the-moment collaboration I’ve been working from home for a couple of years, so very luckily, that transition of starting to work from home wasn’t too jarring. And the show’s animated overseas, so we haven’t slowed down too much.

After this, I guess it’s back to work for the second and third season?

We’re underway on the next chapter of the War for Cybertron Trilogy. That’ll be coming out on Netflix. After we finish up with that, we’ll start work on the third chapter, and we’ll see how fans react to the show.

You can now watch Transformers: War for Cybertron Trilogy: Siege on Netflix.

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