Earth, Wind and Choir
With nature and nurture, creative composers score Planet Earth II.
In the “Deserts” episode of BBC America’s Planet Earth II, a pride of African lions attempts to bring down a giraffe, strategically trapping the animal with a waiting lioness ready to pounce.
But the giraffe unexpectedly lunges, delivers several well-placed kicks that send the attacker tumbling and gallops away to safety.
To score the encounter, composer Jacob Shea included the thrum of drumbeats to reflect the tension — and, as the giraffe rushes the lioness, metallic sounds emulating a high-speed car chase.
The scene is among the more than 250 minutes of music that Shea and fellow composer Jasha Klebe were charged with providing Planet Earth II under the guidance of Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer (The Lion King), who wrote the theme.
The six-hour docu-series, which premiered in February and is available at BBCAmerica.com, iTunes and Amazon Video, captures the behavior and habitats of animals, birds and insects on grasslands, mountains and islands and in deserts, jungles and cities. The show is a follow-up to Planet Earth, a BBC coproduction that aired on the Discovery Channel and won four Emmy Awards in 2007.
“That was a unique and amazing episode,” Shea says of “Deserts.” In truth, the two found themselves captivated throughout their nearly yearlong assignment. They talked to each episode’s producers, plus biologists and other scientists, to learn about the habitats. When viewing footage, Klebe says, “We would each react to certain things. It all happened organically.”
“We cross-pollinated our sound, to be cohesive,” adds Shea, whose credits include the Discovery Science docu-series Through the Wormhole; Klebe’s work includes the Netflix documentary Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom. “And each of us had our strength in composing. Jasha would gravitate to the emotional and magical scenes, and I would go for the quirky, character-and action-driven sequences.”
Shea’s scenes included a swarm of locusts — whose buzzing sound in flight he electronically manipulated to support the orchestral music — and a group of ants biting on grass, which he scored with the sawing sound of stringed-instrument bowing.
Klebe manipulated the sound of mountain winds into a musical tone that he incorporated into melodies. And a “hilarious” scene, he notes, was that of grizzly bears in the Canadian Rockies scratching their backs against trees, inspiring the use of Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie.”
The two also took cues from the narration of Sir David Attenborough. “We carved out a certain frequency,” Shea says. “We had his voice in our heads. Sometimes it was informative, sometimes playful.”
Klebe and Shea are reuniting with Zimmer for BBC America’s upcoming ocean-themed nature series, Blue Planet II, a sequel to the Emmy-winning Blue Planet: Seas of Life. As for Planet Earth II, “We lived and breathed that series,” Klebe says.
Adds Shea: “It’s such an important program. We feel so privileged to work on it, and come up with interesting devices to score.”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2017
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