How ‘Hostile Planet’ Composer Benjamin Wallfisch Channeled The Beauty & Horror Within Nature, Telling Animals’ Stories Through Music
For esteemed composer Benjamin Wallfisch, National Geographic’s Hostile Planet was “one of those opportunities which I wasn’t expecting to get.” Having never before worked on a docuseries, Wallfisch was captivated by the project—a brutally realistic nature series, which depicts animals struggling to survive in different environments—not only because of its cinematic and immersive visuals, but also because of the message at its heart.
“It’s very important to me that the message about the urgency of the need to take action on climate change is communicated,” the composer explains. “We’re living through a time where we carry a responsibility to future generations to take action, and so much of that is about creating a groundswell of everyone being motivated to make sure our representatives take action—and the right action—and take it quickly.”
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For the first-time Emmy nominee, who recently completed his score for the highly anticipated horror flick It Chapter Two, the challenge with Hostile Planet was to be intimate and epic all at once. Aiming to foster an emotional connection to animals surviving in brutal conditions—heroic characters that couldn’t speak for themselves—Wallfisch first had to consider how to tell the story of an animal through music.
Your score for Hostile Planet reflects both the sublime beauty and horror to be found in nature. Could you flesh out a sense of your early conversations with the series’ key creatives?
I think Guillermo [Navarro, director] was keen that they didn’t lean too hard on the voiceover, having the visuals illustrate what you’re being told. He almost wants to reverse the polarity so that the story is on screen as the starting point, and the narrator fills in the gaps when needed. And also, [it’s] just never shying away from reality, in that a lot of nature shows don’t necessarily go for the jugular. The raw reality of living as an animal, in an environment which is getting increasingly difficult to live in because of climate change and other factors, these things needed to be shown in a way which was not shying away and not sugar coating. So, I think a lot of the conversations were geared towards [that]. If you watch and listen and feel without being given information through narrative, how much can we convey?
So, the music kind of became the voice of these creatures who can’t speak. That was the first part of the very first conversation with the filmmakers, was treating the animals as protagonists, giving them a narrative. Each episode has a central protagonist, so there was an overarching theme, which ties all the episodes together, but then within each episode, we have our primary theme for each of these main characters—a mountain lion, a tribe of elephants, and so on.
What was really interesting is that the minute I started thinking like that, it felt like home, in terms of the way I knew what I needed to do. What they really wanted was the score to motivate the narrative, rather than comment on it, if that makes sense.
I remember they just said, “Don’t hold back. Don’t think of this like it’s a documentary—make it feel like it’s a movie.” That was the main thing, and I think it was because Guillermo was really keen that it didn’t feel like just another nature documentary. He wanted it to be an experience, something [where] you could almost turn off the narrative and you’d still understand what was going on.
For you, what was key, in figuring out how to tell the story of an animal through music?
I think the key to it was to think about what unites all these animals. It’s survival and it’s the heroism of the survivor, and no matter what species you’re talking about, that is the instinct of life. In this case, it’s about survival against the odds. “What are the odds, and why are the odds increasingly more difficult?”
So, it was not trying to get into the minutiae of the rhythm of an animal’s speed of walking. I didn’t want to get into almost animation-style scoring. It was more about thinking bigger picture, about communicating the heroism of survival, and then fine-tuning that. For example, the gelada [monkey] tribe, and how they have an almost ritualistic style of conflict. They don’t dance, but there’s a kind of rhythm to their movement that immediately inspired something very rhythmically powerful, almost with that tribal sense. With the great blue whale, that incredible majesty of that creature inspires soaring string melodies, and the mountain lion similarly.
The series is full of surprises, so I think the other part of it was to never settle on a sound. Each episode has a very distinct hue in the score. For example, the “Oceans” episode, it’s probably the most melodic of all the episodes because I was thinking of the flow of water, and just the fact that most of planet Earth is water. We’re united by that—by that sense of flow, and of line and continuity—so it was an opportunity to write very thematically, and almost have it feel like the climax of the whole series, in terms of the use of melody.
Then, for example, in the “Jungles” episode, I got almost completely away from the orchestra and started using very processed electronics, to communicate the strangeness of some of the species we see—and also underwater. You’ll see in the “Oceans” episode that some of the tiny jellyfish and luminescent creatures [make] you feel like you’re suddenly on another planet, so that was all about not being beholden to the sound of an orchestra. We were very lucky to have an orchestra for every episode. But that’s really just a starting point.
Your score for Hostile Planet really is diverse, in terms of style. Occasionally, you seem to evoke the sound of a horror film, or a war movie. Did you think of the music you were writing for the series as existing within different genres?
What I would say is that the experience I had, with all the episodes, was really akin to scoring a thriller. It really felt like everything was high stakes. There was always a sense of time running out, and the idea of survival against the odds as a mission, almost. So, I think it was really more about establishing a different sound for each environment. But the overarching genre, if I was to pick one, would definitely be that of a thriller.
How did you arrive at your more classically beautiful, overarching theme for the show?
It was again stepping back and thinking about what unites all the animals, and also the environments. It was about hope and survival. We didn’t want to make the show just feel like a pessimistic, cautionary tale. We wanted it to be an eye-opening, very dramatic and emotional experience, but imbued with hope for the future. Imbued with the sense that life finds a way to survive, if the odds allow, and it’s up to us to make sure that the odds are kept in balance so that we can still take care of our home.
I think the way to start with trying to find a thing which unites six hours of television, which covers so many different stories, is to find out, what is that unifying concept? And it was survival—hope and survival.
So, the theme, it rises—the theme keeps climbing. And also, we were really trying to come up with a melody—because there was a lot of back and forth between me and the filmmakers—which almost felt like an anthem. It was very hard to do that, and they key was actually to think, Okay, we’ve got to almost give Mother Earth a song.
There’s an incredible vocalist, Judith Hill, and the idea was [that] she is the sound of Mother Earth kind of crying out, in a way. So, when she sings, the idea metaphorically is, “That’s Mother Earth. That’s the home of all these creatures.” I mean, it’s impossible obviously to define that; that’s just a completely subjective thing. But that was our hope, to communicate that using Judith’s vocal, which is so passionate and powerful.
The big, booming drums you incorporated into your score seemed to be a big factor in lending the series its epic blockbuster feel. What kinds of percussion did you use?
It’s really interesting you pick up on that, because it was again about trying to find a sense that communicates planet Earth, [and] the one instrument that is ubiquitous in all musical cultures is a drum. So, trying to make a drum sound which was not too region-specific, it was a combination of western tom-toms and bass drums with Japanese taiko drums, and also some very high-pitched African djembe drums. You find a kind of balance between those, and then I used a lot of compression and other processes to give it incredible power and intensity of sound.
In Season 1, you created three full volumes of music for just six episodes. How much time did you have to work on the score?
The project went on for I think nine months, so there was a decent amount of time, but it was very concentrated towards a two-and-a-half month period. So, there was nine months of talking about it, and then it was a case of finding a window of time between my film projects where I could focus entirely on the series.
It was a very, very intense period of writing, having spent maybe four months of thinking and talking with the filmmakers whilst I was busy with other projects, and then finally [getting] down to business, in the way you always have to with any project. There’s always a moment of crunch where you’ve just got to sit down and write it.
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