Andrew Lockington is the eclectic composer behind heart racing blockbusters and intense television series including San Andreas, Rampage, Frontier, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Frankie and Alice, The Space Between Us, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, and Sanctuary. Hailing from Canada, Andrew entered the film music industry as an apprentice for Oscar winning musical luminary, Mychael Danna. Since stepping into the spotlight, he has established a reputation for elaborate, vigorous scores, which have merited four BMI Film Music Awards and seven SOCAN Awards. Driven by an enduring love for found sounds and ethnic instruments, Andrew continues to surprise his listeners by incorporating everything from dying piano to vintage glassware into his work. In our insightful discussion, Andrew reveals his methods to create touching moments within epic, destructive worlds and the origins of his improvisational instincts.
You are from Burlington, Ontario, Canada. I understand that you were originally drawn to piano playing and classical music. What was your introduction to the world of music making? Can you tell us about your early influences that inspired your pursuit of film composing?
My father and mother played piano as kids and it was important to them that my sisters and I be exposed to music at a young age. So, my grandparents passed on their piano and we began to take piano lessons. I loved it right away and was in awe of how my parents could both play music by hear. When I was about four, we went to a concert in Toronto. The artist was a French Canadian classical-pop composer named André Gagnon. His music reminded me of a more modern version of Debussy along with a classic, pop 80’s band sound. I was immediately inspired. “Oh, wow! There’s a rockstar playing piano. That was so cool”. That’s probably my earliest memory of idolizing a musician and thinking playing piano was an amazing thing to do.
In terms of the writing side of things, it was honestly born out of my complete ineptitude at practicing. I had terrible discipline when it came to practicing piano. I was one of those kids who would show up for my hour lesson once a week not having practiced any of the days in between. So, I’d get to my lesson, of course, not having done any work and play the few bars I knew of the Mozart sonata from the previous week. Instead of stopping, I’d start improvising a little and see where I could take it, wondering if my teacher would notice. Of course, they always did because they knew how the pieces would normally go, but out of this was born a love of creating my own music instead of performing music of others.
That continued... When I would get bored of practicing, I would just close my eyes, start playing by ear, and sometimes, use the first couple bars to get started on a whole new piece and follow a whole new idea. I loved doing that. As time went on, I got more into songwriting and adding lyrics to these pieces. Then in high school, I applied those skills through a rebellious phase of playing in a band. I was 15 and still in high school, playing in this semi-professional band with older guys in their late twenties. I remember answering an ad in the paper for a keyboard player and them laughing when I showed up in my dad’s suit jacket and shoulder pads designed to make me look older than I was. I must have impressed them with the audition though because a few weeks later, I was in the band. The band continued for a few years then eventually, we all went our own ways. I went to university to study orchestra, composition, and piano. One thing led to another and I revered back into film and music for audio-visual stuff.
What’s interesting is, I realized pretty early on that orchestral music was what I was most impacted by, and that led me to film music. For me, it was where all the new, exciting music was happening. I was a kid of the Spielberg and John Williams generation as so many people are in the industry today. I was moved by those themes and I loved that you could make something totally classical that had an emotional vibe to it. Classical music had always been this thing that old people could relate to and young people could not. Here was an era of orchestral music that spoke to my generation. I definitely latched onto that and it became a real inspiration for me to get into this.
What events led to your five-year mentorship under composer, Mychael Danna? What were some of the most meaningful lessons you learned during this time that are still valuable in your work today?
Oh my goodness. First of all, I learned more about music and the business working with Mychael than I ever could have in any other way. It was an extraordinary experience. I'm so lucky to have had his mentorship all along the way. In addition to being an amazing composer, Mychael is also an amazing collaborator with the directors that he works with. I think I learned a lot about fostering those relationships and the importance of communication. I think there’s a bit of a misconception that a composer's job starts with being given footage of a movie, being able to go and do their thing, then hand it in and say, “Here you go” when it’s finished. That doesn't happen. You have to get inside the head of the director and the filmmakers and balance that by doing something you love that feels 100% yours. Mychael has always been a master of that. Being his right-hand guy for all those years, traveling the world and working with all sorts of different orchestras…It’s definitely something I never took for granted.
I remember the first really big score I did on my own was Journey to the Center of the Earth in London. Nicholas Dodd, who I'd known for years from working with Mychael, was conducting and he turned to me and he said, “How are you feeling? This is your first big one.” It was funny because I thought, “Wow, it doesn't feel like it is because I've been in this situation so many times.” I learned an enormous amount from Mychael both assisting him and on the few projects we co-composed and the few projects I orchestrated and conducted for him. Working with him in all these capacities was an amazing education from the musical side of the business, as well as the business side of the business.
Let's talk about Rampage. Your score incorporates epic orchestral arrangements fused with organic samples of animal screams, a children's choir, vintage video game elements, and more. What were the challenges of fusing together such a vast array of both traditional and electronic instrumentation?
I’ve worked with Brad Peyton [director of Rampage, San Andreas] on a number of projects and the great thing is that he gives me a lot of leash to try many different ideas. Because I was brought on to Rampage so early, I had a lot of time to do research and conceive a unique angle to bring to the film. Having a relationship to the video game world came up in our early discussions. As much as it’s a really fun ride, the film is anchored in a real world with real emotions as much as possible. Since knew that having 8-bit video game sound effects wouldn’t have worked, music became the only sonic place to pull it off that homage.
Honestly, the biggest, most fun challenge of the project was figuring out to have an original approach to these things. I had to figure out how to use the choir and include some of these electronic, programming elements in a way that hadn’t been done before. This led to researching African and Polynesian rhythms, especially some of these unique time signatures. I started playing with them through these modular synths, which was really exciting. The score was built off that basis and the orchestra was brought in as a final element. It was complicated but also really inspiring.
So many scores I've done have started with the orchestra, later supplemented with sprinkles of other things. This movie was very different. After exploring percussion, I experimented with manipulating animals sounds. I would slow them down and stretch them to sound musical. The orchestra was the last element to be added, and even then the orchestral components were heavily processed. The brass went through ring modulators and all these interesting distortion elements gave it this ballsy quality. It was amazing how much of a difference the inclusion of those sounds made, subtly bringing an aggressiveness without trying to wave a flag.
Amidst the high octane action of Rampage, there is a tender friendship between Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and George, the gorilla. How do you typically highlight and intensify touching moments and emotionally relatable storylines within the context of the narrative?
It’s the hardest part. It always has to come across emotionally honest yet potent. I love the tender moments, especially working with these innocent eight-year-old kids from Uganda. When they sang, it was pure emotion in every note. It was difficult to find that balance. I think this process was helped a lot by the fact that Dwayne Johnson is probably one of the best when it comes to quick transitions between emotions. One minute, he’s being silly, tender, and honest, then he cracks a joke, and then it’s followed by an action sequence where he’s beating someone up. Musically, you follow him and he shepherds the audience as they move emotionally from one scene to another. This allows the music to take that ride with him.
He’s such a nice guy and I feel lucky to have worked with him on three films. Another cool thing about Dwayne is that he knows his audience. He knows that people are going to see a movie to have fun with him. They want to be emotionally moved but primarily, they are looking to be entertained. He fully understands his brand. I think that’s an important piece of the puzzle because it definitely gives guidance to everyone on the team. We're able to understand the parameters within which we’re trying to tell the story.
Dwayne Johnson is the hero of Rampage. It’s somewhat like a Marvel movie in terms of the stage it sets, the scope of the battles on screen, and the mission to save the world. In this case, the hero doesn’t have any magical powers. He’s just crazy big. No shooting webs out, he can’t fly. Having a superhero theme wouldn’t be appropriate. Even when he’s being heroic, it’s only at the end of the film that he ever wins. So often with a film score, you have these moments where your protagonist is losing and the antagonist has a strong bad guy theme. Take Star Wars. The rebel alliance is winning and they have a theme. Suddenly, the empire is winning and they have a theme. With Rampage, it’s chaos because no one ever wins or loses until the end of the film. You've got these little moments and glimpses of heroism, but they never really take control of the scene. That was probably the biggest challenge of writing Rampage.
Looking at Percy Jackson, for example, or even San Andreas, where you don't have that really bad villain. You've got a hero who's being heroic, but there's nothing to counter it. That creates space for a powerful theme. The Rampage score follows Dwayne and the other characters continually being threatened and trying to stay alive for almost two hours. It was a challenge to find a way to subliminally evolve, stringing these little themes together to get to the end of the film while never having an appropriate moment to be overtly heroic. As a result, the score never rests or has moments of victory until the payoff at the end of the film, which makes it appropriately unsettling, but also adds to the payoff when you can finally go there in the climax.
In terms of the relationship between Dwayne and George, the music really wanted to pursue that to understand the depth and gravity of their bond. It was about sharing what lengths they'll go to to protect each other. The movie and the music both hint at the theme of self-sacrifice. What’s so cool about the way the story is put together is that you are led to think the film is about Dwayne’s character, teaching George, the gorilla all these things about life and friendship. But the end of the day, through their enduring friendship, what George picks up is self-sacrifice, which was something Dwayne never meant to teach him. Musically, this was vital to the film. In order for it to work, I had to really convince the audience that George was going to die. Through the music, acting, and directing, it had to feel like life or death.
You have had an ongoing collaborative relationship with the director, Brad Peyton. How did you originally connect with him and what makes your dynamic continually creatively stimulating and successful?
I scored the Journey to the Center of the Earth film for director, Eric Brevig. When the second film was greenlit and they had to make it within a certain time frame, Eric wasn’t available. They interviewed a number of directors and hired Brad. He had been a fan of the first movie, and specifically the score, and wanted to meet with me. We hit off. It had a lot to do with us being from the same generation, loving E.T., Jurassic Park, Star Wars. That age of John Williams and Spielberg. We had so much to talk about in terms of how those films had influenced us. We didn’t even realize we were both Canadian until we were a couple months into the process.
That was our first time collaborating and it was a really good experience, so we continued to build on that. The great thing about working with the same directors over and over is that you can pick up where you left off. I feel very fortunate to have been in this position. In the case of Rampage, there are elements in the score that we discussed five years ago while working on another film. Back then we thought, “It’s not going to work. Let’s shelve this and maybe return to it someday.” It’s great to not have to start from ground zero each time. There's a trust that you have with somebody you've worked with multiple times. At this point, I can go to Brad and say, “You know, this might be a terrible idea, but what about…?” and he’ll often tell me to run with it and see what happens. That permission to fail can lead you to incredible places. There are lots of ideas that end up on the cutting room floor that will never be heard but we only found the great ones because of the safety in making those wrong turns.
Coming on a film early, Brad thinks about music and talks about the sound of the film before it’s even shot. You know, it'll be at script stage and he'll send it over to me, saying “Let’s talk about music. What do you think and what are your ideas? What are some of the themes you see and how can the music parallel in telling the story?”. Music can very easily be an afterthought or regarded as background sound to some directors. When it’s on the page and part of a script, it’s all hypothetical. Everyone sees the footage in their head, but it’s hard to imagine how the music will fit behind dialogue and sequences that don’t even exist yet. These initial conversations about music and themes allow us to determine what should the music represent, what the sounds should represent in these scenes.
For example, Brad could be like, “There’s a real theme of existence and trying to play God here. Humanity trying to rewrite the laws of mother nature” and that will become a musical path to explore. There is a macro vision, a 30,000-foot view that can happen at that stage, which is something Brad and I seem to benefit from on each project. He loves to roll up his sleeves and be a part of the process. He’s excited by it and he likes to let the music influence how he’ll edit or even how he’ll shoot a scene in some cases. It’s a gift to be able to contribute to all the levels of filmmaking as a composer - to offer ideas that might influence key elements like casting, writing, and shooting because so often, music is the last thing to be added and you can only react to what has been done.
Going back to the use of the children’s choir in the score, that came from a conversation Brad and I had a few years ago. I found them and we thought, “Wow, how can we use this?”. The storyline always had Dwayne’s character coming from Africa and spending considerable time there. Having that be the root of the geographic relationship between Davis and the gorilla allowed us to justify the inclusion of that choir in the score.
The greatest thing about Brad Peyton’s team is that we all find ways to fit our craft into the moving landscape. The foundation is built on a lot of communication, pragmatic conversations between departments. There's a choreography to the ensemble that can only exist because of Brad's leadership and the way he insists on making a movie.
San Andreas was tremendously popular, grossing $475 internationally. Your score garnered you a BMI Film Music Award and a SOCAN Award. Did you consider this to be a defining moment in your career? What was your personal high point of the experience?
I’m very proud to have been a part of that film. We recorded the score for San Andreas at Abbey Road. As for my personal high point, there's a cue where the daughter is drowning and Dwayne's character has to say goodbye to her. I was able to use this hundred piece orchestra as a textural pad underneath a very simple piano melody, which was played on the same piano The Beatles wrote and recorded “Let It Be” with. We did it in an evening session. It was something of a pinch-me moment where I had this sparse melody and this whole orchestra doing this Debussy-like effect. That was my favorite moment.
I understand that you have implemented everything from dying piano, vintage ice cream dishes, crystal glassware, and a half-ukulele, half-harp from the 1800's in your work. What propels your curiosity for these unconventional forms of instrumentation?
The interesting thing about all of these instruments is that they’re often like stone soup. They often don't make it into the score, but they still influence the way you write. For one film, I traveled to Papua New Guinea to record tribal log drumming there and yes, that made it in the score. But more importantly, it influenced how I wrote for the orchestra in that score, specifically the structure and modes.
Yes, I'm fascinated by unique instruments and found instruments, but I think I'm most fascinated by how they influence the way I write for more conventional musical elements. In San Andreas for example, there were so many musical things that the dying piano didn’t accomplish well, but there were certain keys and pitches that survived its destruction. Sitting down with only those pitches to write a melody from, forced me to be creative within parameters I’d never experienced before. These random notes became very influential and while never heard in the score played in piano, can be heard in the orchestral theme of the film.
When working with unusual instruments, I imagine music within that instrument that is not possible to create. It’s a very different process than writing something on a plane or humming something, then sitting down at a piano and playing it. The musical voice of that found instrument is predetermined. It’s up to you to find the things that work. It can come down to three pitches working great, so you have to ask yourself, “Is it worth exploring and using those three pitches with these limitations? How will that influence what I do?”.
It becomes an interesting process because it forces you to examine your craft with one hand tied behind your back. So many composers are going to hate me for saying this, but one of the biggest challenges of working on a big budget film is that you have the means to do anything. You can hire 32 violas. You can essentially do whatever you want. So, the challenge now becomes making sure you're still as creative as you had to be on the small films where there was no budget. Working within a small budget often spawns amazing, creative ideas you would never have found, had it not been for the financial challenges. I find that playing around with unique instrumentation forces me to go out in the cornfield somewhere and work my way back musically with the limited tools I have. At the end of the day, I know that I’m lucky because I get to hire a big orchestra, but hopefully, I've approached it from this creative place that I wouldn't have if I'd started with only that set of standard orchestral tools alone.
You are embarking on the third season of Frontier, a bloody colonial drama set in the 1700s starring Jason Momoa, who portrays a Cree Irish man seeking revenge for his people. What are the challenges of striking a balance between historical accuracy and a contemporary, of the moment sound? Can you tell us about how you approached the thematic material for the series and what we can expect musically going forward?
The score for Frontier was born out of assembling a group of instruments together that would have been historically and geographically accurate, then finding a very modern way to use them. My process involves starting with these raw sounds and manipulating them, using outboard processing and analog synth modules. Then I throw an orchestral string palette and the occasional serge analog synth in for good measure.
The sound of the Frontier score was conceived by working with producers Brad Peyton, Rob Blackie, and Peter Blackie. We all put our heads together to develop the direction and it evolved from there. The Blackie's put a lot of trust in me and encourage me to push the envelope when it’s appropriate to the raw aggressive nature of the story. I work hard to capture the emotional state of the characters in the music. Here, they are thrust into this uncomfortable, harsh world where nature reigns and man is reduced to his most basic survival instincts. Much is new and unexpected. I want the audience to feel this way too, while still giving the score a consistent identity, unlike anything they’ve heard in this context before.
In season one, the score is more heavily European influenced since so many of our main characters arrive in the new world from there. As the series progresses, the sound of the score is paralleling their journey and getting further and further from the European culture that accompanied them on the boat over.
What is your DAW of choice?
I work in Logic and I like it most of the time. I feel like, as artists, we all have love-hate relationships with the tools we work with. I really enjoy writing in Logic because it allows me to combine the audio and MIDI elements in the sketches fairly seamlessly. In this day and age of film composing, especially on these big Hollywood films, you have to present a mock-up to the studio that is going to sound very close to what the real orchestra will sound like. I find that Logic works the best in terms of incorporating all of the pre-recorded elements I create beforehand.
Can you tell us about the essential hardware and plug-ins you implement on a continual basis? What do you typically use to mock up an orchestra?
I really like the Soundtoys plug-ins, they're great. I love Eventide stuff, H8000. The delays and reverbs. The Strymon outboard effects. Those are some of my favorites I’d say.
I use all kinds of string patches. Ironically, I even have some 25-year-old sounds that are the tiniest one-megabyte samples. Back then, that was a big deal. Those strings still sound good, but the attack is terrible. However, once they are playing a chord, it can pass. Interestingly, in this day and age, the sounds are so good because they're capturing a performance. When you’re writing, you almost need the sound to not have any spice or flavor to it so once it’s performed by a real orchestra, it can go the direction you want it to go. I have some really amazing string sounds, but some of the best sounds are so impeccable that they already sound like they’ve arrived at their final destination. A sound that already sounds like a final performance forces you to write in a certain way. I like having access to both new and old sample libraries because I don’t have to commit to any sort of performance. I can write freely and let my brain orchestrate where it will go when it’s ultimately recorded.
When composing, how much of your work is improvisational and how much of it is thoughtfully pre-meditated? Do you think of your audience when you write or is it more about self-expression?
I think all writing is improvisational on some level. I record a ton of ideas. I'll sit and play around on the piano or on a guitar with an idea. Sometimes, I’ll be humming and I'll record as much as I can. I often like to record the idea really early on because you come across these little earworms, these hooks. If you don't capture it right away or get some sort of record of it, your brain starts to round it out and simplify it. This happens to me because my brain wants to remember it. So, if it can simplify it and round out some of the rough edges, I'll have a better chance of recalling it. Sometimes, taking out those rough edges are really good, but sometimes, doing that mean removing the very things that made it magical in the first place. The other great thing about recording improvisational ideas is that you make mistakes...that sound better than what you were trying to play. Ironically, it’s the mistakes that end up being the seeds of new ideas.
My studio is very close to Griffith Observatory, so when I was working on Rampage, I would go on a hike in the hills with my phone and listen to my “voice memos”, replaying back all of my musical ideas and keeping track of which ones were good and which ones were bad. For me, it all starts with the theme idea, but there’s no dominant way that any of my melodies, rhythmic ideas, or chord progressions come to mind. They all emerge through different birth canals, so to speak. I really never know how they will arrive, or when, but these little ideas are all the basis and DNA of my scores.
The only trouble with voice memos is when you’re in a meeting somewhere, you accidentally hit the play button, and you hear your voice loudly humming. That’s happened to me more than once. It's a bit of a trick to explain.