On July 29, Cartoon Network unleashed a brand new THUNDERCATS cartoon series upon the masses. But this was not a mere rehash of the mid-1980s Lorimar/Telepictures cult classic; this was something new! Developing more like serialized, animated science fiction drama (a rarity for American television viewers), the reimagined THUNDERCATS displays grit, compassion, violent culture clashes, and that wicked Sword of Omens, all neatly wrapped in a thinly-veiled coming-of-age tale.
Also new is the musical score. Rather than a handful of incessantly-repeating themes episode-after-episode, the producers hired New Jersey native Kevin Kliesch (a well-regarded orchestrator of such diverse Hollywood fare as Walt Disney’s TANGLED, FLIGHTPLAN, and HANCOCK). Through complex and soulful arrangements, Kliesch has transformed a simple cartoon into a compact theatrical experience. More than a mere reboot, Kliesch’s compositions for THUNDERCATS illustrate a lush, breathing world in a similar fashion to how James Horner treated AVATAR.
Examiner was fortunate enough to secure some time with Kliesch in the midst of his work for the first season of THUNDERCATS. Read on and explore the new Thundera!
How did you come to be chosen to score the new THUNDERCATS series? I don’t mean to be rude, but your composing track record doesn’t provide much history or background in the cartoon circuit.
I came to the attention of Warner Bros. after my work last year on Disney’s TANGLED. They saw that my work on that film went beyond just orchestration (part of my job was to do all of the electronic orchestral mockups before the real orchestra recorded the score), so I was asked to come in and demo for the job. I was up against 9 or so other composers, so naturally, I put all of my effort into making the demo really stand out in terms of composition, orchestration, and believability in terms of orchestral simulation.
Your orchestrator credits also ring heavily in the comedy market. How has spending time as an orchestrator helped you prepare to score something with so much dramatic depth as THUNDERCATS?
I’ve been collecting and studying film scores since 1977 when STAR WARS came out. I’ve worn out the grooves on a lot of my original film score LPs. So when I actually got the chance to do orchestration when I moved out to L.A. in 1996, I had already been composing my own pieces for many years, using the techniques I had learned from listening to the masters of the genre for so long. I’ve worked as an orchestrator on many films since then, in almost every conceivable genre. Knowing how to utilize each section of the orchestra in order to achieve a dramatic sensibility has proven invaluable when it comes to composing my own works.
You have taken an extremely cinematic approach to scoring THUNDERCATS. What were your primary inspirations for taking this route? I almost get a John Williams meets Joe Hisaishi vibe when listening to the background music.
Well, you’re right on the money with the Williams reference, but I have to say that I have no idea who Joe Hisaishi is! When I got hired to score the series, the producers had one word in mind for the music: “Epic.” They wanted the score to have the same emotional impact as the music from THE LORD OF THE RINGS provided. I decided that I would incorporate all of the other influences I’ve had over the years into the music, such as the aforementioned Williams, as well as James Horner, Jerry Goldsmith, etc. The producers wanted each episode to stand on its own as a “mini-movie,” so I approached each show with a very cinematic awareness.
The light-hearted moments definitely ring of a STAR WARS influence, specifically the Jawa and Ewok scenes – resembling innocence and frolicking.
Absolutely! As I mentioned, John Williams is perhaps my greatest influence – his ability to translate emotion into music is second to none. In particular, WilyKit’s and WilyKat’s theme pay homage to the lighter moments from STAR WARS, since the characters themselves are so innocent and naive.
Similarly, the science fiction drama atmospherics bear a mild echo of early-mid 1980s Jerry Goldsmith, where there is a sort of electro-organic hybridism going on in the music.
Goldsmith was a pioneer in terms of incorporating electronics into the orchestra. In fact, he treated electronics as a “fifth section” of the orchestra. After Williams, Goldsmith may be my heaviest influence when it comes to blending traditional with contemporary elements. TOTAL RECALL is probably my favorite score of his.
THUNDERCATS unfolds more like a serialized film than a standard action cartoon. I feel that the original ran the same way, though most people regarded it with a bit of a cheese-factor. Were you a fan of the original series, and did you have thoughts on the music for that series?
I was just past the demographic that I think the original series was shooting for, so I had never watched the original series until I got asked to score the new one. The original series used a musical approach apropos for the 1980s, which was electric guitar, drums, bass and horn section, amongst other instruments and orchestrations. The new series has none of that – in fact, I was specifically asked to stay away from the “older sound.”
It’s very rare that an American cartoon contains music with as much sophistication and dramatic nuance as what you have presented on THUNDERCATS. What drove you to put so much into it?
I treat each episode not as a cartoon, but as a dramatic film which deserves appropriate underscore. There’s no reason that cartoons require a different treatment than live-action films. I’m just bringing what I’ve learned from the live-action arena into the cartoon realm.
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