When I met Shawn Patterson through my Padawan Darilyn on Facebook I had no idea who he was or what he did for a living. I knew he was funny as hell and enjoyed verbally sparring with my Jedi feature writer in training. I had ABSOLUTELY n0 idea that he was the Music Composer for two of my favorite animated tv shows of all time; Titan Maximum and Robot Chicken. One of the most surreal experiences I have had since we started this silly website was listening to the commentary on the Titan Maximum DVD and suddenly realizing that I had been talking to the dude who wrote all the music for it for months. Hell – just the week before he had been tormenting me over my irrational fear of the ventriloquist dummy from the Anthony Hopkins movie Magic. (Don’t judge me – that damn thing is scary – look it up!) It didn’t take long for me to realize that my friend Shawn Patterson is one of the most talented animation music composers in the business.
I decided to do some research on him and exploit his friendship for the good of the website.
Oh relax – it’s a joke; the truth is I think he’s a very interesting person with an awesome job. I think you’ll enjoy learning more about him and what he does. Plus he’s been to Skywalker Ranch!!! SKYWALKER RANCH!!!! (Hey stop judging me – it’s not “FOOTBALLFANPROPAGANDA” now is it?)
We join our interview already in progress . . .
I read that one of the first jobs you had in Hollywood was on the trailer campaign for Terry Gilliam’s film The Fisherking ? How did you get that job?
Right after I got to Los Angeles, I started bringing my music demos around to trailer houses to try and land work. I dropped them at many places and I think it took about six months until a piece I wrote made it to Gilliam. The Fisherking was about to drop their trailer campaign and he happened to hear what they had cut in. So, they bought it and that was the early, early stages of a long journey. Sadly, I didn’t get the chance to work with Terry but I’d love to eventually – he’s brilliant.
Along the same vein – was John K fun to work with on Ren and Stimpy or was he already miserable at Nickelodeon by the time you joined that production team?
I met John very briefly at Spumco where I worked as “cabin boy” (production assistant/slave/gopher). I don’t know if John was miserable because he stepped back when production went over to Games Animation. But, you know… judging from the climate over there during the transition there was a lot of crazy stuff going on. I had nothing to do with it; didn’t matter to me. I just needed a paycheck until I could land full time work composing.
When I took over as music editor there and composed some songs for Billy West, I was working with the directors that did make the switch to Games; Steve Loter, Michael Kim, Ken Bruce, and Bob Camp, etc. I’m still close with many of those directors still and have composed for most of them on different projects since. I’ve also worked with Vincent Waller quite a bit over the years since then and he is always a joy to work for.
Was composing for so many animated projects a planned career path or a happy accident?
I always saw myself composing in film and television and truthfully not in animation. But, I guess it makes sense – my brain seems to function like a cartoon. I was drawn to action and humor, and as much as I loved and still love Carl Stalling’s genius work it wasn’t my thing. I consumed all the original Star Trek music by Courage and Goldsmith. Then John Williams just blew my mind; Superman, Star Wars, Jaws – his style was a true connection to the romantic era of the 19th century. I also got into Bernard Herrmann and Copeland which in turn got me into other guys; Hans J Salter, Max Steiner, Dimitri Tiomkin, etc. I guess I see myself as more traditional composer who gets pulled into weird and wacky stuff – if you can believe it. I certainly identify with a great deal of the “old school” composers. But, I do have to admit the constant compositional and production challenges of a show like Robot Chicken, El Tigre or Titan Maximum is always fun. There are tons of mainstream musical parodies and jokes that I enjoy – kind of a guilty pleasure.
Did you watch a lot of classic Warner Brothers Animation growing up?
Absolutely. I was a WB junkie and Loony Tunes was my universe. Stalling’s seamless integration of song and music set the bar so incredibly high. Pure genius.
From a composers point of view, is there a difference between scoring live action projects and animated?
Well… sometimes, the cliché of animated projects is that the score can be more “cartoony” in that the music follows more of the physicality or extreme emotions of the characters. And sometimes there is an overall exaggeration to the styles of music used – often far, far more interesting that a lot of mainstream feature scores now. So much of what we hear in feature style score is an incestuous child of all the scores we have already heard. But… the composer’s job is to make the director happy and support/drive the characters and story. That’s what our job is regardless of the medium; television, theater, live action, etc. But, generally it comes down to the approach to the music and how it relates to the specific project. Music is music and in scoring it has to serve the characters, the story, the director, the producers and the person holding the checkbook.
What is the process of writing music for a show like Robot Chicken? Do you get a request to write a funny song about the Thundercats for a sketch or are you involved with the development earlier than that?
We spot each episode and Chris McKay and Matt Mariska (editor) will very often cut in some kind of temp music as a starting point. I am almost never involved in the initial planning stages of music ideas. Between McKay, Seth Green, Matt Senreich and even some of the writers make musical suggestions at the script stage – they have it all covered. Not to mention, there is no time at all for me to be suggesting music or musical direction when I am in the episodic grind; it’s just too intense.
When there is a big song to score, I am often given a pretty good deal of freedom. We have a big Broadway tune coming up called, “The Ballad of Gay Tony”. This tune like many Broadway show tunes goes through a wide series of tempo, key and mood changes. I was given lyrics and a few suggestions as a starting point and then left entirely on my own to create a first pass. After the guys hear it, they will give notes addressing tempo, feel, overall tone, etc. I make a second pass incorporating their notes and typically we are off and running. Also, I am writing more lyrics on this series than ever before and I love it. I always enjoy writing lyrics and music – and this show has been amazing for that. Every couple of episodes I get to write a tune with lyrics – sadly, I usually end up singing it. ☺
The greatest challenge on a show like RC is, although the cues are generally short in length, I am often having to compose in a huge range of styles often spanning decades of music. So…. it can never be “band in a box” – where you can leave one sonic palette pulled up. We do some action orchestral based music and that is fairly consistent but beyond that it constantly changes. Creatively, I would prefer musical scenes be longer, of course… but overall working on this show is seriously one of the funnest jobs I have ever had.
How involved are Seth and Matt in that process; do they leave you alone and check in or are they in the studio as you’re writing.
I would not meet my deadlines if they were in the studio all the time while I write – because we would be getting stupid; I am 100% sure of that. Seth and Matt step in with McKay at the planning and then shaping stages – although a ton of initial musical suggestions come from the brain of Mckay – and it’s a dark scary place you would not want to vacation around. Matt and Seth’s musical input is absolutely at every stage and they too have great musical suggestions. They are always involved, but I feel they give me a huge amount of freedom and generally enjoy my work. In that way, its an absolute pleasure and of course always makes the composer work that much harder to do his or her best because you know they will let you turn out your best.
We are in the studio together quite a bit for bigger song sequences; like when we recorded Christopher Lloyd, Patrick Stump, Eden Espinosa etc. After I get the tune in the condition they feel solid about, we all powwow in the studio. Matt and Seth typically take the lead in character/voice direction and choosing the takes, while I try to limit my input to getting additional takes, background harmonies and just generally being on top of any musical issues that may arise – melody choices, alternate suggestions, etc. They already know what they want out of each character within the song – so it works awesome.
Do you use live Orchestras or keyboard created ones? I imagine from a budget perspective the keyboard would be more prevalent, but do you have a preference beyond cost?
Most commonly on this show, I am using digital samples. I also play a range of live instruments myself to incorporate a more human element. There is little substitute for the extraneous noise created by live instruments rattling off each other. But I use digital samples from a huge range of companies that are the absolute best of the best. I am fortunate that many leading sample and audio companies give me their products to use and I find the best of each thing and incorporate it. The ones that don’t I seek out and frequently, I am told by friends about them. I do hire musicians where time and budget allow. Depends on the project, what is needed and what can be paid for.
I am lucky I get to hire and work with such incredible musicians; Chris Tedesco, Sammy Allen and Jamie Kime are three brilliant musicians I work with all the time. Absolutely great and they make me sound that much better.
I have a friend who has scored a bunch of independent films and gained some recognition and accolades from the community, but the business just isn’t coming in fast enough to lose the “day job”. Do you have any advice you would offer musicians trying to break in and take it to the next level? Should he just up and move to LA?
There is no one way to break in, I suppose. No one making choices in music cares about a formal education. They care if you can deliver, hit your marks, hold their schedule together with absolute confidence and handle anything they can throw at you. And trust me – they throw a WIDE range of things your way. That just takes experience and exposure to all the film and tv music you can. In fact, the wider your range and knowledge of music is – the more successful you will be in taking on any job you can get. Hook up with directors, and people that potentially can hire you. Quality music will rise up and with some persistence get noticed. I think being in Los Angeles is pretty important – producers and directors want a human connection before they hire you, I think.
The music in Titan Maximum really MAKES that show work on a much higher level. Is there any chance of a soundtrack release?
Thanks! Titan was a blast to compose and I have a soft spot for it – especially Eden’s performance as Sasha. I get to write songs that portray her as a mediocre recording artist and it’s an absolute blast. Assuming we get to do a second season, I would love to release a soundtrack CD. I could do it myself, but I’d rather have Matt, Seth, Tom Root and McKay involved; it would automatically be more fun.
I apologize in advance for being such a dork, but ahhh I know you went to the screening of Robot Chicken Star Wars 3 at Geek Mecca. what was Skywalker Ranch like? Are you a big Star Wars Fan?
That’s the 4,000,000-dollar question. Skywalker was like going to the Willy Wonka factory. Although honestly it left me wanting to see more because we were not allowed to see a great deal. But, it’s pretty spectacular.
Tell me more Shawn . . . but not too fast . . . take your time . . . Its super peaceful there and sits in a valley; very quiet and very tranquil – which only lends itself to the mystery of it all. There are cows grazing on the hills, the Ewok Pond (I am not making that up…) very surreal. And one thing I noticed….lots of secret doors, I saw George in the last row of the theater, I looked back right as lights came up and he had vanished. Into one of those little doors I suspect…
One of my favorite moments on that day was my son and I were walking back from the gift shop and Seth comes trotting down the path with a huge ass grin on his face and a quart of Jameson whiskey in his hand. The grin seemed to be the feeling we all had; that we had not only wrapped SWIII but got to screen it in Lucas’ theater at the ranch; a pretty great day for the cast and crew.
Did you get to meet George Lucas? Did you want to ask him what the hell he was thinking when he made the prequels?
I had to walk directly past him in the last row of the theater and I was an inch from crushing his foot as I walked by. He was on his cell phone before the film started so, I didn’t want to tourist him to death. But… It was a little bit like seeing Ghandi sitting there. He was an enormous influence on my life creatively as a kid. I don’t give a crap what he was thinking about the films. I’m not that much of a dork – no offense. ☺
I’m sorry Shawn. I need to breath more.
Take your time. I’m going to close my eyes and dream about white sandy beaches and belly dancers. And box kites.
Okay – one more Star Wars themed question if you don’t mind – If my Padawan Darilyn Tiberius Skywalker ever turned to the darkside and became Darth Darilyn do you think it would be possible to cut off 3 fourths of her limbs and leave her on the side of a volcano?
I would cut her down without blinking an eye. Then drag her limbless torso back to the lab and stick her head on life support so she’d have to hear my voice for the rest of her days. It would be a party….a real god damn party.
Wow. You two really have some . . . issues.
Are you a big John Williams fan? Who are your influences?
Talking about Williams is a subject I can never tire of. I am an enormous JohnWilliams fan – one of the geekiest I am sure. He is a massive influence for me as well as Goldsmith, Courage, Bernstein, Stravinsky, Ives, Tchaikovsky, also a lot of jazz musicians; Coltrane, Monk, Parker, Charlie Christian, Pat Martino, etc
What kind of music is on your iPod?
My iPod is fairly diverse in terms of genre. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to name a style of music that isn’t on it. Music is a disease that I can’t shake and often wish I could. I have stuff on there purely for research purposes and stuff I would never listen to. I try to find new music all the time, but, people have to tell me about it. I’m just writing too much most of the time. When I finish a project, listening to music is the last thing I want to do. I want to hear smart people speak and look at the ocean, ride motorcycles.
When you were 16 years old what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be Eddie Van Halen. Any kid with a guitar at my age was heavily infected. We were not exposed to orchestras and classical music in my house. It was like the cultural poverty belt all we had what as big on the radio and rock and metal reigned supreme. His guitar playing is still an influence – although I was sick to death of it for about a decade – couldn’t listen to any of it. I always kept returning to the idea of writing music for pictures even while I slugged it out in clubs and bars and taught music lessons privately. Composing for picture was always what I wanted – I just took a detour to get there.
What have you got on deck that you want us to know about?
There is always something coming in. I finish Robot Chicken Season 5 in about 4 weeks or less. When I finish, I plan to get on my motorcycle and ride for a few days. Riding motorcycles is one of my rare few hobbies and it always helps me to clear my head before I start the next project. I am scoring a short animated film with no dialogue that I am pretty excited to dive into. All Afro-Cuban styles, some elements of Django, Charlie Christian, many of my jazz roots will finally get to emerge in a film score. I’ll be hiring a bunch of musicians, writing out their parts, conducting and recording them all in a big room. I’m pretty stoked. There will be a Robot Chicken Season 6, there is talk of a Titan Maximum Season 2 – but I have no confirmation as of yet. Some other things I can’t mention…. Super secret. You know how it is. ☺
I do indeed. Thanks for taking the time to play with us Shawn!
If you aren’t watching Robot Chicken on Adult Swim make sure you take steps to remedy that and if by some chance you have not seen Titan Maximum . . . GO FIND IT FOR THE LOVE OF GOD – it’s GEEKTACULAR !