Sebastian Evans interview: scoring Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

We chatted to composer Sebastian Evans about scoring Nickelodeon's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles...

If you’re a regular reader of this site, you’ll be well aware that Den of Geek are huge fans of Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. So when we were approached about speaking to Sebastian Evans, the composer of the show, we were thrilled. Not only would we be able to gain some insight into an under-investigated area of television making, but we’d get to talk about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The music on the show is great (you’ll find us calling for a release of the show’s score towards the bottom of this article), so this felt like a particularly exciting opportunity).

Here’s how our interview with the terrific Sebastian Evans went.

What’s the process of scoring an episode? How does it work?

I usually get an animatic or a loosely-finished but locked-time version of the episode. I’ll watch it a couple of times and make notes, check it out to see what’s needed and then I’ll have a meeting with the director or producer or sometimes both about what is needed and what needs to be enhanced. Anything from the environment to them filling me in to what’s missing in the footage, like ‘it’s gonna explode here’ or something like that. Then I’ll just go ahead and start scoring it. Then I get notes back and that’s pretty much it.

Ad – content continues below

And how long do you get for an episode?

About 10 days, I would say, of turnaround time.

Given the noting process, do you work on one at a time?

Well actually episodes will overlap a bit. I’ll have about 10 days to work on an episode, I’ll turn that in for notes, and then while I’m working on the notes for that I’m starting the next episode. Once I’ve addressed the notes I’ll send the episode that I’ve just worked on in for the mix.

Can I ask you about the notes, then? What kind of things do they say?

Notes usually have to do with ‘can we punch up’, because after they’ve heard the music to the footage, then they get more ideas, so usually then it’ll be ‘can we get more emotion from the scene, but from Donnie’s point of view of the scene?’ or ‘can we take down the music when the explosion happens?’ It’s more practical things that happen once they’ve seen the music to picture, that they’re able to get changes in before it goes to the mix. It’s usually small things.

Ad – content continues below

You mention that the notes sometimes address changing the music for a certain character’s point of view, and that’s not something I’d have considered. So, who is your favourite character to write music for?

Oh, to write musically for? I’ve had a lot of who’s your favourite character before. My favourite character to write for is Shredder. My favourite character of the whole thing is Donatello, but that’s probably because I see a kinship with him from since I was a kid. But as far as musically, it’s Shredder, definitely.

How far ahead are you done? I know you’re working on season 5 at the moment.

Yeah, I’m, right now, on the eighth episode of season five. Me personally working.

How’s it looking?

Ad – content continues below

It looks amazing. I think season 5 is premiering this weekend (March 19th, in the US). Yeah, season 5 is amazing. It’s a departure but it’s, like, I don’t think I can go into it, but people will be very happy about it and impressed. The format alone will be really cool.

Yeah, I love that they’re doing Tales. It’s such a fun way to take it.

Yeah, they’re having a lot of fun. ‘Cause it’s the last season, they were like ‘let’s go out with a bang’.

So, a couple of years ago I interviewed Ciro Nieli, the Executive Producer of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and we talked about your music in relation to horror on the show. One of the things he told me was that he would give you these soundtracks to these old cult horror films as references. Is that right?

Oh yeah. Actually when we started the third season I started getting the footage I felt a little insecure, because as much as I had done, I was not very experienced in the horror genre, except for things that are very recent which is something that he didn’t really want. That more recent sound. So he gave me horror films from the 80s, a little bit of the 70s, just soundtracks to get inspired by and pull from. So things like Wes Craven stuff, there’s, I dunno, he gave me a lot!

*both laugh*

Ad – content continues below

I just listened to that for two weeks. That was all I was listening to, and I was finally able to get where he wanted to go musically. But he was very good at that anyway, just framing. He kind of frames it out. He sees the whole episode done in his head, even down to the music somewhat. So he’s able to say a couple of words like ‘this is kind of like The Empire Strikes Back, that part…’ It feels like that. He’s very precise.

That can’t have been good for your mind-set, though. Two weeks of solid horror soundtracks!

Oh, I don’t know, I don’t think so. I was opened up to a whole new world. It was really amazing to me. I wasn’t familiar with the footage that they were on either, so I was just taking it for musicality only, and then applying. I thought it was cool. It gave me a new power.

That leads me to another question I wanted to ask you. Ninja Turtles gives you a lot to cover: you have action, horror, suspense, comedy, science fiction. Has that been helpful in developing a wide range of styles?

It definitely has as far as mood and environment and switching between them. That was a big challenge because when I started the show I had no idea it would be changing in mood and environment so often. I kind of just had the idea of other incarnations of Turtles, from the movies through to the TV shows, and when it started taking sharp turns it did become a challenge, but also, like the horror thing, it gave me another power. I’m able to balance moods within one 20 minute episode and it sounds alright and it all works, ‘cause it’s all built on the same foundation.

Ad – content continues below

There are a couple of pieces of music in particular I wanted to ask you about, but I know that some of this stuff you worked on years ago, and so I do understand that you might not be able to remember everything.

The first thing that came into my head when I had an opportunity to speak to the composer of Ninja Turtles is the episode where Baxter Stockman gets mutated, and there are some action sequences with Turflytle and you made this kind of ‘wub-wub wub-wub’ sounding music. Do you know the piece I’m talking about?

I remember the episode but I don’t particularly remember the piece. I do remember scoring that episode though.

But then I imagine that must be the case when you’re scoring 26 episodes a year, five years in a row.

Yeah, a lot of it starts blurring together. I can pick out because I know the plot, but as far as the actual cue itself at a moment, it all starts to run together. It’s like, I don’t know because Baxter’s in a lot of episodes. But it does happen a lot, where’s it’s all like a big run of Baxter cues. I’ve done over 60 Baxter cues.

Ad – content continues below

Well, I’ll ask you about Dream Beavers. You have a cue in that episode that is very similar to A Nightmare On Elm Street. Can you tell me a little about that?

Yeah, it basically was one of those things where Ciro kind of laid it out for me as far as what we have. That kind of Nightmare On Elm Street style, but he didn’t want me to dwell on it all, you know? That’s one of the episodes where what you’re hearing, I want it to be horrifying, but still not too scary. But that’s notes from network basically saying ‘not too scary’, so I’m trying to balance that. That’s one of the episodes that I remember, and why I remember it is because I didn’t get any notes. He was like ‘perfect!’

*laughs*

‘That’ll work.’

The final episode I’ll ask about, and I promise I won’t be too specific, is Transdimensional Turtles, where you have a lot of callbacks to the music from the 1987 Turtles cartoon. How did that work? Did they have music from the old show or did you have to recreate it?

Ad – content continues below

I had to recreate it. It’s actually it’s really interesting, because I used to watch the show religiously so I knew the cues from Dennis Brown’s library by heart. So when I was doing it I actually did a rough score of them going into that dimension and they gave me notes saying it sounds too much like it. I know, I thought that was the point! And then I heard it and it was basically the exact cues, pretty much, so I had to redo them, because without even listening to them I’m so familiar that I kind of reproduced the same tracks.

So when you sit down to watch an episode to get an idea of what you’re doing, what are you hoping to find? What’s your favourite stuff to score?

Hmm. I don’t know. It’s kind of hard to answer because I love doing action music but I’m not looking for anything in particular. I guess I’m always scanning for, while I’m watching it and doodling on my piano, maybe a scene that connects an idea or a character or a mood, and then developing that idea and integrating it into the broader score of Ninja Turtles. As far as a favourite thing, I love action stuff but I also love doing very sad, emotional music too. Being very subtle.

In scoring a TV show, you’ll have to reoccur themes. There will be music from the first season that, to evoke it, you’ll use it again. But I find if I ever have to revisit old articles I’ve written I’ll often be struck by the things I would do differently. Do you find it difficult not to be critical when you go back?

Yeah, I’m very critical. I mean, as I’ve work in this particular area of scoring, I guess it’s common. I’m not 100% happy with anything. And when I hear it, from when I do it to when I see it on TV, I’m like ‘Ahh, I should’ve changed that’ ‘Ugh, I should’ve done this instead of that’. ‘Next time I’ll do it differently’. Also, when I’m doing it there’s no sound effects. The score would be much different if I had sound effects first. The whole sound ADR and everything, if I had that everything would be different.

Ad – content continues below

But yeah, I’m very critical. I’m not happy about it.

*laughs*

But then time passes and you’re like ‘Oh yeah, that’s pretty cool. What did I do there?’ It’s a process that ebbs and flows.

Well allow me to not be critical and say that I love your score. In fact, my next question is, is there a chance we would ever see a release of it? Where I could buy it and listen to it?

There is a chance, actually. I guess that’s all I can say. But there is, there is a chance.

I’m pleased to hear that. I’ll press you no further.

Ad – content continues below

It’s new news to me too. We’ll see. It’s not 100% yet.

The last Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, Out Of The Shadows: did you see it?

Yeah.

When you see something like that, it being so close to your job, do you come out with a full opinion of the movie or do you get distracted by the score and come out primarily with thoughts on the music you’ve heard?

Yeah, I’ve tried to change that. That is, throughout my childhood, and even now although I try to curb it a little bit, I actually almost base movies on the score and how much I liked it.

Ad – content continues below

*laughs*

So if it’s good, I think the movie’s good. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve been able to pull back a little bit and just appreciate one without the other. But to answer your question, it is hard. I hear the score. What they did, what I could do.

Like, everyone is talking about Legion right now, but I don’t think I’ve heard too much about Jeff Russo’s score. That score is amazing. The show is crazy, but I really love the score. He’s come up with some great stuff. What can I learn from him?

It’s hard to separate the two for me. But I’ve grown up a little bit.

What is your favourite Jason Statham film?

It’s hard for me to not go with Snatch.

Ad – content continues below

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles airs on Nicktoons in the UK.