A PhD in 18th-century music might not seem particularly useful when it comes to composing for Disney animated programming, but Christopher Willis has found otherwise.
"I do a lot of research," says Willis, who earned his doctorate at the University of Cambridge in England, where he was raised after moving from his native Australia. He now composes for The Lion Guard, a television sequel to the feature The Lion King that premiered earlier this year on Disney Junior and Disney Channel. "I think I've inherited it from being a musicologist."
There's a lot to research for the African-set series, such as native instruments and vocal sounds. "I've been doing a lot of homework on Kenyan music specifically," he explains. "I write the chants myself. And there's a wonderful sub-Saharan flute. I've been using that for [honey badger] Bunga, a sidekick character."
Willis also composes for Disney Channel's Mickey Mouse animated shorts, which premiered in 2013 and are set in locales all over the world. For an Alpine-set short, he found a father-daughter yodeling duo in Utah. "These people were very much in the Alpine yodeling tradition."
And for a change of pace, he writes for live action as well, as co-composer with Rupert Gregson-Williams of HBO's Veep. "The classical repertoire seems to suit the needs of that show," he notes. "[Creator] Armando Iannucci is a classical musician."
Gregson-Williams has been a guiding force in Willis's career; Willis met him in London and later apprenticed with him in the U.S. He then worked for Gregson-Williams's brother Harry, who introduced him to animation with Shrek Forever After. When Rupert was tapped for Veep, he suggested bringing Willis along.
Nowadays, Willis is ensconced in Pasadena, California, with his wife Elyse, a singer with the Los Angeles Master Chorale who also serves as his vocal contractor. His home country has changed, but not his identity: "I describe myself on Twitter," he says, "as an eternal music student."