Composer Michael Picton Talks MARVEL Universe LIVE! and SyFy’s FLASH GORDON
We recently had a chance to speak with composer Michael Picton about the MARVEL Universe LIVE! show now touring the U.S., his work on SyFy’s Flash Gordon and more.
What has been your favorite part about scoring Marvel Universe LIVE?
This show allowed me to bring together two sides of my work as a composer: epic cinematic action music and the kind of live event scoring I’ve been doing in the circus world. Getting my hands on all these Marvel characters at once is, for a composer, like being a kid in a candy store; I didn’t just get to work with one Marvel hero, I got to score almost all of them.
How long did it take you to come up with an all new original score for the show?
I started working in earnest around January 2014 and we opened in July 2014 so about 6 months total. There was a lot of experimentation in that time, reworking many pieces and the script and staging were both in states of flux at different times so it wasn’t a straight line from start to finish. When you work on a live show like this, the month or two spent in rehearsal is a period when all the timings are up in the air, action is reconsidered, new action is added, and scenes are cut or extended. Sometimes the closest thing you get to the locked cut you would work with in a film situation is the last dress rehearsal before opening night. That’s all part of the thrill of live shows, though, the sense that what you are seeing is being created in that very moment right in front of you.
Do you use one instrument more than others in the show?
No specific instrument in particular. There are some signature sounds, though. For example, I created a pulsing spinning, shimmering sound to musically represent the power of the Cosmic Cube. There are a lot of guitars during the motorcycle sequences as well as Iron Man’s featured moments. And in general the sound of the soundtrack leans more heavily on guitars, drums and synths than your average orchestral superhero score.
If you could score 1 Marvel film, what would it be?
It would be the first film featuring the new female Thor, whenever that happens. It would need an appropriately ground breaking and earth-shattering score and I already have an idea in mind of what it might sound like.
You just released the 3rd volume of your Flash Gordon soundtrack. You must have had a lot of favorites to have 3 volumes?
I was really lucky to have Perseverance Records get behind this soundtrack in such a big way that they were willing to release three full volumes of music. I was prepared to cut it down to two discs worth of material but I was going to be leaving some favorite cues behind so I was thrilled when Robin Esterhammer at Perseverance said that he’d be up for a three disc release which still only represents about 30% of the music I delivered for the series.
What episode were you most proud of musically?
There were a couple of standouts. Episode 14, “The Sorrow”, was particularly rewarding – it was a special Earth Day episode which provided backstory regarding the destruction of the planet Mongo’s ecosystem. I recorded a full choir at Capitol Studios for the episode so it has a unique vocal element to it. Dramatically, I think maybe Episode 17, “Thicker Than Water”, had the best musical coherence to me. The introduction of the Deviants in that episode brought a new look and feel to the show as well as a really magnetic new character and I think the music complemented those advances in the story.
The Flash Gordon character first originated around 1934 with many films/shows following since then. Did you go back and listen to any of those scores for inspiration?
I certainly knew the iconic Queen score from the 1980 movie and their Flash Gordon song was used in a few promos for the show before it premiered. But so many of these incarnations of Flash Gordon were of different eras, I approached them more as curiosities than as models for a show that needed a more contemporary tv scoring sensibility. The show creators wanted something new for the series, not an homage to Flash Gordons past. That said, the spirit of the serial adventures of the 30s and 40s lives on a bit in the beginning of the Flash Gordon main title music: those big orchestral fanfare gestures relate in my mind back to the Korngold swashbuckler scores of old Hollywood but then these driving rock riffs hook into the theme and pull it screaming into the present.
You have scored short films, full length films, tv shows & live shows. Is one more challenging to score than the other?
Every project has its own set challenges. Even a 5 second network ID presents a struggle to condense the essence of an identity into a few moments. TV shows have the challenge of delivering acres of music week after week. Live shows have the challenge of unpredictability and constantly changing parameters. All music is challenging in its own way if you want to do it well.
What projects are you currently working on or have coming up?
Right now I am about to get started on something completely different, a kid’s show for Nickelodeon called Mutt & Stuff by Sid and Marty Krofft, the creators of H.R. Pufnstuf. It features Calvin Milan and his father Cesar, the dog whisperer. It’s an enjoyably bizarre blend of puppies and puppetry. It’s pretty far removed from saving the universe in Marvel Universe Live.
You can learn more about Michael at https://www.michaelpicton.com/.