Composer Corey Wallace Discusses “The Wishgranter”, “Misguided” & More

After looking at composer Corey Wallace’s resume, it’s safe to say he is somewhat of a chameleon when it comes to the projects he has worked on. Wallace has scored everything from horror films (Epic Pictures’ Artik), network tv shows (NBC’s Siberia) to animation (The Wishgranter).  Since his animation projects have received a combination of 250 million views and numerous awards, we decided to speak with Wallace about his work on The Wishgranter, Dust Buddies  and Misguided. Read his in depth interview here:

You have scored many animation projects. What is the biggest difference between scoring animation and live action?

Animation is inherently a very stylized approach to storytelling, and this opens the door for very stylized music as well.  While live action generally tries to convey realism, even in fantastical films, animation tends to showcase other-worldly stories of imagination, and this exaggerated perception gives room for the music to be extremely expressive, colorful, and dramatic.  I remember studying Ennio Morricone’s Spaghetti-Western work and thinking, “that guy really knows how to make an entrance with the score”.  Being so bold with film music is not always fashionable in live action, but animation usually allows the score to be very forward and active in the storytelling.  I can’t remember ever being told that my animation score was too “on the nose”, but I’ve worked on many live action scores where I’ve been asked to play a scene more neutral, to blend more into the background, or to avoid what is perceived as emotional manipulation.  On the other hand, playing big with strong emotions is usually a good attribute in animation scoring.

Technically speaking, music being correctly in sync with the picture is critical to animation.  Sync is very important to live action scoring as well, but in animation, a couple of frames difference can make or break an effective score.   At the extreme, we call this “micky-mousing” where every action on screen gets an equal musical action in the score, but even when not being so literal, animation music is usually much more tightly knit to the story than in live action.

You scored an animated short called “The Wishgranter” that has garnered almost 25 million views and won numerous awards. Why do you think this project resonated so much with audiences?

First of all, it’s very technically well done which allows viewers to get sucked in to the story, and the story is beautiful and universal.  I think most of us connect with the hope of wishes, finding love, and making an impact on others with our actions.  Literally, on the surface, it’s a human story, but the magic of animation brings us into the hidden world underneath, imagining there is a wish granting creature living beneath the wishing fountain.  It’s a well-crafted story that mostly follows the main Wishgranter character, but at the same time, it gets the audience to invest in the outcomes of the ancillary characters as well.  Without giving anything away to those who haven’t seen it, I think many people also appreciate how early details come back around to affect the story in a meaningful way.   It’s a feel-good story with the “aww” moment and happy ending that is a strong part of the animation tradition, and I’m not surprised it took home Silver at the 2016 Student Academy Awards.

What was the direction you were given for “The Wishgranter” score? Did that direction change at all once you got to working on the project?

Animator and director Echo Wu headed the three-person team with Kal Athannassov and John McDonald, and she asked me for something magical and whimsical with pace that would carry the story, and that didn’t change during the scoring process.  One of the early questions I always ask animation directors is if they have a sense about the type of music sync they want, in other words, how “cartoony” or not they want the score to be.  We decided going in that Wishgranter would be more dramatic and emotional with broad musical strokes, focusing on the bigger picture feelings rather than the details of the action.  At one point Echo said “the film would be nothing without the score”, but I thought that was just director-speak.  Looking at the final product, I was surprised how up front the score is mixed.  Even during the climax when there is some vocal sounds from the characters as they’re being corralled by the magic, they let the music continue to play in the foreground unabated.  I’m glad they were happy with the music and felt it did the story justice.

About how long did it take you to score “The Wishgranter”?

All summed up, it took a little over a week to write, orchestrate, record, and mix, but the time was spread out over a few months.  Usually these animated shorts take a week or two to score depending on how quickly the main theme comes to me, how complicated the orchestration is, or how many recording sessions need to be done.  Producing music is much faster than producing animation, so there are usually months where the animators are finalizing the film that allows a large window for scoring.   When there is this luxury of time, I can afford to compose when the inspiration strikes.  Any seasoned film composer is trained to get the faucet flowing no matter what when there’s a deadline, but it’s always ideal to work when I’m feeling my most creative.

Did you have an orchestra when scoring “Misguided”? The score feels very grand.

Thank you! We recorded the score with a 60-piece orchestra with Budapest Scoring.  The opportunity to write orchestral music was one of the main reasons I fell in love with film music and pursued it as a career.  Even though I use other music production techniques, my first love will always be the orchestra.

While animation is very stylized, it’s also inherently unrealistic, so recording live musicians on a score is essential to me for helping the image come to life.  They give it a human touch.  Animation usually expresses larger than life feelings and actions, and the size and grandeur of the orchestra conveys that really well.  It’s possible with modern technology to fake the sound of the orchestra (which is how I make the score mockups to present drafts to filmmakers), but something special is lost until the music is recorded with the real thing.  Logistically, there’s nothing more flexible than the orchestra, so when I have to record multiple animation scores at one session, it can switch from being demented and zany, like The Final Straw, to rich and emotional, like Dia de los Muertos.

I always make sure there is a budget for recording live musicians whether it’s a full orchestra or just a few soloists.  Sometimes the orchestra is too big sounding or too expensive for the film, so we find a sound that fits the film’s style and budget.  The score to A Bumpy Ride comes to mind.  With only the budget for 3 musicians, the score features a trio of violin, accordion, and bass, and it’s a perfect sound for the quirky film.

Without saying it, the score for “Dust Buddies” feels very French. Was that the intention of the filmmakers? How did you decide on this perfect French vibe?

Yes, animators Beth Tomashek and Samantha Wade approached me by saying it was set in France, and they were using Michael Giacchino’s Ratatouille score as temp music.  There isn’t much in the story that is explicitly French, other than the villain is clearly dressed as a French Maid, but that was the general feeling they were after.  One thing that’s fun about being a film composer, especially in my animation work, is that I get to be an ethnomusicologist and study music of other cultures from around the world.  I’ve explored music from Italy (None of That), Hawaii/Polynesia (Tiki Time), Japan (Taiko, Kyrioku, Gatcha), and Mexico (Dia de los Muertos).  I wouldn’t claim to be an expert in any of these musical cultures, but I learned enough to be able to infuse their flavor into the score, like using specific instruments or melodic styles.

To get the French vibe of Dust Buddies, we used a lot of accordion.  It’s one of my favorite instruments that I’ve used in many scores in both animation and live action.  It has a quirky, odd-ball quality that I love, and as a folk instrument it’s used in lots of musical cultures.  I’ve worked with accordionist Gee Rabe on a dozen scores that include Pirate music, Mariachi, German music, and Indie Rock. Gee has a large collection of accordions and the expertise to go along with it, so she was a big help in getting the right accordion and playing style to make Dust Buddies sound specifically French.

Do you feel more pressure, musically, when scoring animation, and more specifically animated shorts to create a bold sound? Because you have to capture and heighten the character’s emotions pretty quickly?

It’s the opposite of pressure, it’s more like the joy of release that I get to run loose and make big statements with the music.  I think it’s way more pressure when I’m asked to be soft and subtle.  If I only get to use a few notes, then those notes have to be just perfect in order to work.  It’s a lot more freeing to make strong gestures and utilize the expanse and numerous colors of the orchestra.  I like my music to make a strong impact and be very involved in the story telling, so I feel at home in animation.

Out of all the animated projects you have worked on, does one stick out more to you then others? If so, why?

After working on over 40 films in 10 years, it’s hard to just pick one.  There’s so much diversity in the films and the musical styles, so each one feels like something unique to me with some aspect that sticks out, like the “trash percussion” ensemble we recorded for Trashonaughts, or the throwback, tongue-in-cheek horror score we did for Attack of the Potato Clock!, and certainly the very first one, Adventures are the Pits, holds a special place for me.  The one that sticks out just a little bit more is my music to Rivet Busters because of the extensive forces we used, featuring a 75-piece orchestra combined with a 17-piece big band for an epic, jazz-age inspired sound.   It makes a big splash right out of the gate and the energy keeps cookin’.

For Rivet Busters, the animators told me they wanted the score to sound like The Incredibles, so I said, “why don’t we just get those guys to play it then?”.  That’s the great thing about being in LA and having strong relationships with the amazing community of musicians here.  The studio musicians don’t have an ego about it, so it doesn’t matter if it’s a 100 million-dollar Pixar film or an animated short, they give it their all if they’re hired to play, and it shows. Peter Rotter of Encompass Music Partners contracted an absolute A-list group featuring the great Wayne Bergeron on lead trumpet, who also played on Michael Giacchino’s score (and hundreds of other films). The music was then mixed by Satoshi Noguchi (Disney’s Micky Mouse, The Report, Defending Jacob), and I couldn’t be prouder of how it turned out.  Jazz is where I got started in playing and composing before turning to symphonic music, and it doesn’t come up too often in film scoring these days, so it’s a special score to me. (Some music from Rivet Busters

Which animated short that you scored do you think has a lot more story to tell and could be made into a feature? How would you approach extending the score?

I’d love to see a feature version of the film The Rose Garden by Jessica Stanley and Nina Gerstenhaber.  The film works as a short, but it also feels like the introduction to a longer story.  [SPOILER ALERT] We’re brought into a little boy’s world as he plays with a toy plane, narrated by a woman talking about how much “she loves her children”, with the implication that this is her child.  The boy loses his plane over the fence of an estate, he breaks in and tries to get it back only to be captured by magic vines and transformed into a rose by the woman who turns out to be a witch that preys on trespassing children.  It’s such a clever short because everything in the woman’s voiceover works in two ways as the perspective of the story shifts dramatically from loving mother to evil sorceress.  The film ends with the camera pulling back into an aerial shot revealing a vast rose garden of stolen children, her “children”.  There is a larger story about the next child that is seemingly doomed but then able to avoid this terrible fate, then works to bring down the witch and free the children.   I love the magical fantasy sound that we came up with for the score, and I love the creepiness as it turns into a dark story.  The first time we see the estate, a melody plays in a beautiful arrangement, but that same theme turns into a creepy violin solo when the witch is revealed.  I only wrote one phrase of the melody, so in approaching a feature length score, I would first extend it into a complete theme.

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Jim Napier

Jim Napier

Lover of movies and The Big Lebowski.