If you don’t know Dynamic Music Partners by name, then you at least know their sound. The trio, consisting of Michael McCuistion, Lolita Ritmanis and Kristopher Carter, have composed the music and themes for countless animated projects over the years. From serving as the legendary Shirley Walker’s protégés on Batman: The Animated Series to their Emmy-nominated work on Justice League, the trio have contributed just as much to the sound of each project as the recognizable voice talent. With their latest project, Batman vs. Two-Face, debuting soon, the composers took some time to answer a few questions about scoring these projects, writing a theme for William Shatner, and much more.
Jay Yaws: The three of you have worked on some high-profile projects over the years, with many of your scores and themes becoming as iconic as the series themselves. What are your personal favorite scores or character themes you’ve composed?
Michael McCuistion: I have so many favorites and each one’s a “favorite” for a different reason! I love the score and themes from Sub-Zero—in large part because the entire score was performed by a live studio orchestra and chorus here in Los Angeles (on the legendary Paramount Scoring Stage M, no less); hearing the music come to life in that way was so very inspiring for me. The main title for Justice League Unlimited holds a special place in my heart as it’s the only main title that I’ve written for a series. Channeling the epic ‘feel’ of a 70s glam rock opus in a single minute was a real challenge and the recording session with guitarist Greg Herzenach was a total blast! I also enjoyed establishing the Green Lantern theme and charting its evolution, not only within the original Superman series but also throughout subsequent series and incarnations like Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. Ultimately, my favorite scores and themes tend to be those that both stand the test of time and hold up on their own as enjoyable listening experiences independent of the DC animated shows.
Lolita Ritmanis: I’d say my most notable theme is the main theme from Justice League. I was overjoyed to receive a Primetime Emmy nomination for it. Having this theme performed by orchestras all over the world at film music festivals and concerts has been thrilling and we’ve had great fun connecting with the fans who’ve watched this series. On a more personal note, the theme from Mystery of the Batwoman remains particularly close to my heart, as that project was my first solo feature length film credit. It was great as always to work with the masterful John Yoakum, who was the featured saxophone player for that theme.
Kristopher Carter: For me, the moments that are most memorable are often those when the visuals, music and story all coalesce in perfect harmony! The Batman Beyond Main Title is one of my all-time favorites because Darwyn Cooke’s creative imagery perfectly encapsulated the look of the gritty, technology-driven future envisioned by Bruce Timm and his co-producers for that series. My favorite of the character themes I composed is still Wonder Woman’s theme from Justice League— my favorite ‘Leaguer.’ It was so much fun to write music that expressed her sense of honor, ferocity and pride alongside her kindness and the pain associated with her banishment from Themyscira… all in one melody! Quite a challenge! My favorite stand-alone score is definitely Return of the Joker. It was thrilling to accompany Terry McGuinness through a feature-length tale, with a full orchestra serving as a wonderful reinforcement for the guitars and drums we used in the series.
JY: What size orchestras do you work with? Is there an “in-house” group, or do you use different groups of musicians?
KC: Everything from an orchestra of 70-80 all the way down to an “orchestra of one” (synthesizers)! Every project differs in terms of the resources available for hiring musicians and we always strive to add the most value to every score we write. There is no substitute for the beauty and expression that even a solo musician can bring to a recording. The recording musicians in Los Angeles are freelance so there isn’t a set orchestra ‘roster’ that we always work with, though we certainly have our favorite players and we try to work them in whenever they are available. We work with a musician contractor to put together the recording groups and fortunately for us, L.A. is blessed with so many wonderful, world-class musicians! We can always count on the presence of a stellar line-up of talent when the time comes for our music to be performed!
JY: What was it like working with Shirley Walker?
MM: In a word: transformative. Lolita and I began working with Shirley as her first protegés on Batman: The Animated Series. Being new to the fold enabled us to absorb lots of industry best practices almost immediately. Shirley was very generous with her knowledge; she provided plenty of guidance in the form of tried and tested solutions for the problems we were encountering. Kristopher joined at the tail end of Batman as Shirley’s assistant and before long we’d all been schooled in her seasoned method of scoring: an approach which benefits us — and those with whom we work — even to this day. It was wonderful to be able to draw on that wisdom without having to reinvent the wheel every time we were faced with an unexpected challenge! We have such reverence for the time she shared with us.
JY: How do you typically collaborate? Is someone the “action theme” composer, while another is better at interstitial or transitional pieces, or do you like to mix it up?
LR: We absolutely mix it up. Naturally there are times where one of us is drawn to a particular character or storyline. Whenever this is the case, we make sure to share one another’s thematic material in order to guarantee a seamless dramatic experience for our audience. Each one of us has a unique musical voice and we use these voices to our collective advantage, crafting scores for each and every one of our projects that are hopefully rich in the appropriate textures and themes. This collaboration allows us to harness the mood of a given dramatic scenario musically and leave a lasting impact on our audience.
JY: You’ve worked on quite a bit of superhero and comic book related projects for the past few decades. Are you fans of comics? Any favorite characters or stories?
KC: We’re all huge fans of these characters! I didn’t grow up reading comics; my exposure to superheroes was exclusively through TV and film. Having had the chance to work on all of these shows has helped me to gain a much broader appreciation of the characters and the depth of their stories. The producers are well-versed in the comic book ‘canon’ and it’s fun to have discussions with them whenever I encounter a new character on one of these series. We always take plenty of time to talk about a character’s backstory from the original comics and what their trajectory may (or not) be as we discuss their involvement in the new adaptation.
JY: As a musician myself, I like to incorporate different styles into my playing, like throwing a Motown-inspired bass lick into a rock song. Do you draw any inspiration for your compositions from some unlikely sources or strange instruments?
LR: Ah, a bass player! Very cool! There are few things in life that are more exciting or fulfilling than working with live musicians. Every time another human being adds their energy or breathes life into music that I have composed, it elevates what I have created to an entirely different level! I am humbled by the brilliance of musicians. Sometimes we have an opportunity to write for non-traditional instruments — usually for a very specific villain or a certain location. It is also exhilarating when a producer or director provides a verbal prompt requesting a specific style or mood, to which we, as composers, must respond in kind! Sometimes we hit that bullseye and other times we miss the mark — but the task of sparking that all-important collaborative dialog and ending up on the same page as our director or producer is really fun. When everything aligns and we as composers help to amplify the vision of the creative team, it’s a beautiful thing!
KC: Yay, bass players! (Me too!)
JY: At this point, Neal Hefti’s title sequence theme and the scores by Nelson Riddle and Billy May are just as familiar to people as the characters of Batman and Robin. Do you feel it’s easier to compose music when there’s already such a rich foundation to work from and be inspired by, or is it easier to start from scratch?
KC: Composing for film always involves working within a framework that we embrace in order to build our music. Whether it’s the flow of the story, the speed of the dialog, the rhythm of cuts in the picture editing, or the task of composing within a well-known genre, we have to take the boundaries of that framework and fill it with the best of our creative talent! In contrast, Michael, Lolita and I have been tasked with creating a whole new ‘sound’ from scratch for Young Justice, which has not exactly made for an ‘easier’ job than the aforementioned process, but nor has it been any more difficult than what we’re used to in terms of how we work. Both scenarios are equally joyous for us!
JY: Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders‘ score was particularly buoyant, with elements of the Sixties TV series’ jazz and surf rock-inspired sound. From what we’ve seen of Batman vs. Two-Face, though, it looks like the story is a bit more dramatic. Does that reflect in the score?
MM: Absolutely. With producer James Tucker’s guidance, we approached Batman vs. Two-Face as a continuation of Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders. The musical mood was set by the first film, which firmly established the characters in their campy, retro universe. The second film picks up where the first installment left off and features a dramatic story and score to match! Although we used much of the same musical ‘language’ in both movies, we are using that language to express a darker, more sinister story in Two-Face, while staying true to the jazzy roots of the instrumentation and orchestration itself.
JY: William Shatner is voicing Two-Face, and he has a big personality and presence. How did you approach scoring a theme for him?
LR: William Shatner’s vocal performance is sublime! He truly embodies the character of Two-Face. Michael wrote a really haunting theme for the character that all three of us used throughout the film.
MM: I wrote an innocent melody for Harvey’s first entrance; thankfully, that same melody worked well in the context of whichever “face” (creepy, horrifying, sweet, disarming…) that Harvey was presenting at any given moment in the plot.
JY: Are there any original cues you kept from Return of the Caped Crusaders?
KC: There was no instance of an existing recording being dropped in verbatim but we did bring forward our original character themes for Joker, Penguin, Riddler and Catwoman. Also, the scene in which Batman and Robin slide down the poles to the Batcave makes use of a new arrangement of the piece that accompanied the corresponding scene in the first film.
JY: Are there any upcoming projects that you can tell us about?
MM: We’re very excited to have already started work on Young Justice: Outsiders for Warner Bros. and DC! We can’t tell you much about that yet but we want to give a special shout-out to all the Young Justice fans who, in voicing their sheer enthusiasm for the show, made Season 3 a reality! We’ll also be scoring the next incarnation of the animated Avengers Assemble series, Avengers: Black Panther’s Quest! We really couldn’t be more excited to be a part of the fifth season of this terrific series. It’s going to be a great 2018!
Dynamic Music Partners can be found at their website and on Twitter and Facebook, and Lolita and Kristopher also have active Twitter accounts. Much of their work can be purchased at La-La Land Records. The world premiere for Batman vs. Two-Face is tomorrow, October 8 at New York Comic-Con. It will be released digitally this Tuesday, October 10, and follow on DVD and BluRay October 17th.