Oscar-winning Composer Steven Price on Scoring Netflix’s Expansive ‘Our Planet’ Series

83

“Look deeper into nature and you will understand everything better,” said Albert Einstein, and composer Steven Price agrees. With the eight-episode series Our Planet, premiering Friday (April 5) on Netflix, Price’s score helps illuminate earth’s mysteries and reinforces the message that whether man or beast, we are all in this together. 

“A strong story inspires the music, and this documentary is as strong as any fiction I’ve worked on,” says Price. That’s no small praise from the man who won a best original score Oscar for Gravity and who includes Suicide Squad and Baby Driver among his credits.

Concurrent with the series debut, Decca Records/Universal Music Group is issuing two CDs and a double-vinyl set featuring score selections and the track “In This Together,” performed by Ellie Goulding and written by Price and Goulding. “It’s a series that wakes you up to the emergency [of climate change] but also instills wonderment. Watch it and you will never take the earth for granted again,” Goulding said in a statement.

The CD and vinyl releases are touted as the first to use renewable seaweed packaging. In addition, the music for each of the eight episodes will be available for digital download – more than six hours in all. “This was really the equivalent of doing a feature film a month in terms of the amount of music,” Price says of the environmental statement produced by Silverback Films Ltd. in partnership with the World Wildlife Federation. The program – whose Super Bowl ad featuring coy orangutans and canoodling polar bears was a standout— is a lead in to April 22’s Earth Day. Price previously worked with Silverback on the action-driven 2015 BBC nature series The Hunt. For Our Planet, he and Silverback director Alastair Fothergill “had a lot of conversations about the tone. The actual Our Planet theme is kind of melancholy, but also has an optimism to it. We wanted a feeling of hope,” Price says. “There is a lot we as individuals can do to correct course.” As the father of young children Price is attuned to the needs of posterity. “The goal is preservation, to show people what we’ve got and what we’re losing. It’s not a lost cause, but we’ve got to act.”

Each Our Planet episode, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, covers a different biome, starting with the overarching One Planet and exploring through Fresh Water, From Deserts to Grasslands, Forests,  Jungles, Frozen Worlds, Coastal Seas and High Seas. The contrasting moods and locales challenged Price to sweep from epic scope to intimate moments. “At the end of One Planet we see ice falling into the sea – a huge noisy event, and we found a way to pull away all the real sound to just a piano and violin, to emphasize the incredible beauty as well as the scale,” he says. 

Price recorded the score with the London Philharmonia Orchestra at London’s Abbey Road Studios over a period of eight months, ending in December. “During the crunch periods I’d be writing the next episode while mixing the one just recorded and doing orchestrations for the following week. It was like having two or three films running concurrently at different stages.” But of course being a nature documentary, the budgets were not at all like those for a feature film.  “We were recording a 50-minute film score in a day, which isn’t something you’d do on a big feature, but I wanted it to sound every bit as good. So I pulled in a very small team I’ve worked with throughout my career and we all worked very hard and are extremely proud of the score. It was a case of everyone stepping up.”

Price is effusive in his praise of the Philharmonia, which he used for Baby Driver (and is also favored by fellow composers Brian Tyler and Christopher Lennertz). “The great thing about working with an orchestra like this is because they play together all the time, they sort of move as one,” Price says. “It brings a humanity and emotion to what they do. We used them for every episode, and when you’re that familiar you find yourself writing for certain players that you know will play a certain way.”

Price’s score incorporates choir and vocal soloists, including Irish singer Lisa Hannigan, featured on Coastal Seas. “I think she has one of the most beautiful voices in the world,” he says. “To me it’s all about finding the sound that feels like it absolutely goes with the picture. It’s odd – sometimes you’ll start writing to script, then once you get to picture you realize, no, those harmonies don’t work with this color, or the way that character moves.  The pictures always tell you if you’ve got it wrong.”

Price’s score also incorporates sounds recorded by the multiple film crews, which shot for 3,500 filming days over four years in 50 countries. “In Frozen Worlds we used the movement of the ice, which is a really low, sub-sonic sound. We also used the animal calls of the jungle, combining it with the orchestra to add another layer of connection.” Price always had the orchestra play to screen to help conjure the mood. He describes as a moment he’ll never forget the recording of the track Arctic Refugees. Culminating in tragedy, it brought the players to a stop. “There were some tears, and the room got very emotional very quickly.”

Although he mostly composes on piano – “and sometimes guitar, if I’m writing late at night” – Price does his own demo orchestration using digital gear. And while he does collaborate with a professional orchestrator for the final recordings. he is not adverse to processing the instrumentation, be it classical or otherwise. “Sometimes I’ll add something unexpected to get a bit of texture,” he explains. “There was a moment in one of the action sequences in One Planet that I felt needed a little more grit, so we added guitar with a bit of distortion. Anything that gives the feeling in the gut that I’m looking for.”