Music Lessons: Insights from Composer Michael Giacchino


Karten Design’s Conversations series gives our studio the opportunity to peer into the creative process of leading thinkers in other disciplines. Recently, we took an intimate look into the work of Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino, whose music has enhanced the emotional experiences of films including The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, Super 8 and Up.

Giacchino does not just see himself as a composer, but as a storyteller. His music is meant to create emotions that help the audience relate to the stories they’re watching on the screen. His process gave us important lessons in using stories to connect with people and create experiences that resonate. Here are some of our favorites:

Tailor your work to the story. “Composing music is scary,” Giacchino admitted. “One wrong note, and the audience feels something they’re not supposed to feel.” With that in mind, he collaborates closely with writers to ensure that his music provides the right expression for each story. Early on, Giacchino takes cues from a story’s characters and its emotional tone. When diving into Ratattouille, the story of a sewer rat that aspired to be a chef, Giacchino asked himself “what sounds ratty?” He used funny scurrying, fluttering noises created by flutes and plucking strings as the thematic foundation for his music. His collaborative process extends from such big-picture thematic expressions down to the nuanced emotions of each scene. Each project kicks off with a spotting session, in which Giacchino watches the movie with its creators, analyzing each scene and creating a map for the music.


Look beneath the surface. The on-screen visual is not always an accurate representation of what is really happening in a scene. Sometimes the best solution requires you to dig deeper to find the most poignant emotion. As a case in point, Giacchino referred to the scene in the movie Up where the main character, Carl, launches his small home off its foundation and into the air with the help of thousands of helium balloons. At first read, this is a triumphant moment. Giacchino’s first draft of music for this scene is dramatic, featuring horn blasts. But something didn’t feel right. He realized that this scene wasn’t about the house launching. It was about what was happening inside of Carl’s heart. The old man was leaving the spot where he and his late wife grew old together to pursue the dream they’d held since they were young. It was a very bittersweet moment. Giacchino contrasts his first draft with the final version of this scene– a quieter, slower, waltz-inspired melody that brings the audience to tears.

Challenge clichés. Some creators are victims of their own success. They find the perfect solution and start relying on a formula. Giacchino avoids resting on his laurels by focusing on different sets of instruments in each new project. When he began writing music for the TV series Lost, it was important to him that the audience felt uncomfortable. Viewers needed to emotionally accompany the characters through their journey on a mysterious island netherworld. Giacchino challenged the obvious “island” cliche that would have called for a soundtrack heavy on shakers and woodwinds. Instead, he decided to focus on strings. He created the feeling of discomfort by using classic instruments and breaking all of he classical rules. Violins scratched with their bows; cellos played out of key– everything a music teacher tells you not to do.

It’s not about you, but your experiences bring important inspiration. Michael Giacchino’s work draws heavily from his own life experiences. His talk was punctuated with stories of emotionally resonant moments in his past that, for him, have come to represent emotions like sadness, danger and heroism. However, Giacchino is careful to emphasize that making movies is not about the creator as an individual. Composing music for television or film requires a singular focus on the story. “Take what inspires you and contextualize it in your work,” he advises.

It was his storytelling approach that ultimately made Giacchino’s presentation so engaging. Whether you’re sharing your own work or bringing someone else’s product to life, a well-told story will always grab attention.

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