Interview: John Paesano on Dragons: Riders of Berk

John Paesano at the Annie Awards

Back in March I mentioned on this blog that one of my favourite films in recent years, How to Train Your Dragon, had been spun-off into a TV version, Dragons: Riders of Berk. Airing on the UK’s Cartoon Network, the series has proved to be a fine addition to the Dragon universe and I was keen to find out more about one its most important aspects, the score by composer John Paseano.

Here, Paseano explains his musical background and inspirations before going on to discuss his work on Riders of Berk, which will soon have a sequel series in Defenders of Berk.

Jonathan Melville: Over the last few years you’ve worked on a number of TV and film projects. How did you come to work in this area? 

John Paseano: I really love it all. I have wanted to be a film composer as far back as I can remember. It really hit me about the age of 10 after seeing Steven Spielberg’s Empire Of the Sun. I was so drawn to that film, and of course to John Williams amazing score. There was just something very magical about that film, which sounds strange considering the content of the story. A young English boy who struggles to survive after being separated from his parents during Japanese occupation during World War II.

The main character in that film, Jim Graham (young Christian Bale), had a fantastic imagination, and had uncanny ability to always find adventure in whatever task or circumstance he was put too or up against. I was so amazed how John Williams was able to use his music to show the viewer how a 10-year-old boy would view the events of that war say vs. an adult.

I was amazed how the music functioned in that film, and how integral it was in order to help the viewer see this story through Jim’s eyes. The score really grabbed me and I remember having a conversation with myself and said “that’s what I want to try to do when I get older!”, and I stress the word TRY.

So private music lessons started around the age of 12-13 (Piano), music school after formal school (Berklee College Of Music), and then out to Los Angeles to start the long road to become a film composer. So it was a very premeditated music journey, it was never about anything else besides scoring film. People always say “oh you are in the music business”, and always have to correct them and say “actually, I consider myself more a part of the film business”.

Do you have a preference for live action or animation?

Live action, animation, video games, commercials, trailers…anything where you write music to moving pictures, I love.

Which one is more difficult?

Sometimes doing a 20 second advertisement can be more challenging than doing a 10 minute action sequence. I think that is the beauty of this job. It’s never about the complexity of the music, or elaborate counterpoint and harmony. It’s about what fits the picture. Sometimes intricate counterpoint, harmony, rhythm, orchestration works great in a scene, other times three piano notes work much better.

How did you get involved with Dragons: Riders of Berk? Were you approached or did you audition?

I have always been a huge John Powell fan going pretty far back as well. When I heard that they were doing a TV series based on How To Train Your Dragon I called my agent and said “let’s try to go after this”. I had worked on another Powell property prior to this, an Ice Age short called Ice Age: Mammoth Christmas, so it just seemed like Dragons might be a pretty good fit.

So, we started working the channels to try to get music in front of the right folks at DreamWorks. They interviewed a couple of composers that they were interested in. I am sure from that point they developed a “short list” of composers that they liked, based off music reels and interviews, then we all had to demo a couple of scenes for show, and by some miracle I ended up with the show.

Dragons: Riders of Berk

Ad for Dragons: Riders of Berk

Had you seen How to Train Your Dragon before you discussed working on Riders of Berk?

Let’s see…about 1,000 times.

John Powell’s original score for the film is one of the finest in recent years, winning various awards and being nominated for an Oscar.

Was it daunting knowing you would be effectively “inheriting” the score?

I remember when I booked the Ice Age short. I said to myself “sweet i get to try to be like John Powell” and then almost immediately after that thought i said “Oh shit, I have to try to be like John Powell”. Nothing makes you feel smaller than listening to John’s Ice Age scores, How To Train Your Dragon and some of John’s other scores.

He is one of the best in the business live action or animation, and when it comes to animation, in my eyes, he is the best.

As far as inheriting the score, I would almost consider it borrowing the score. TV shows function differently from films. The content of a television series is much broader. One week a show might be about Hiccup trying to find his father a dragon, another week it’s about Fishlegs finding magic dragon eggs. So the score has to have a great deal of variety in it.

We try to borrow themes from HTTYD for big dragon moments in the show, but we also try to do a lot of music in the “spirit” of the original score. If we just used the Dragon themes note for note in every episode I would worry that the viewer might grow tired, although I feel like I could listen to that score 1,000 times over and never grow tired, it is truly a masterpiece.

Also, the series is a little different then the movie, there is a touch more of comedic interplay between the characters, which has been one of the greater challenges of the show from a musical perspective.

Did you speak to Powell at any point?

I have. I spoke to him right before I started episode one. He gave me some great words of encouragement/advice and definitely let me know that he was not envious of the share amount of music I had to write under the super tight post schedule. Season 1 had over 400 min of music! I would touch base with him periodically throughout the season. Great guy! Each episode includes the original theme but with your own variations and additions.

Do you compose a set amount of new music for each episode, or does it vary?

It always varies. Just whatever fits the moment. It’s nice to be able to grab those themes and use them, but sometimes they just don’t fit certain scenes in the TV show, as crazy as that sounds!

Watch a trailer for Dragons: Riders of Berk

Can you give me an idea of how your involvement in the series works, from script to transmission? How far in advance of transmission do you work?

I never get to work to finish picture and usually write to animatics (60% finished). I usually have around seven days per episode, around 19-22 minutes of music per episode. It moves fast!

How important is it that you understand each character?

It’s really important. The other relationship that is important is the one between the kids and their respective dragons. Each character has a unique relationship with their dragon. That relationship plays a big part in determining the tone when that relationship is at play in certain scenes. The quality of this animated series is exceptionally high, from the scripts and cinematic look through to the presence of many of the voice actors from the film.

Does it feel like your part of something special?

It does. This is a very important property for DreamWorks, they really wanted to do as much as they possibly could do within reason to try to get this show as close to the feature as possible. Obviously we don’t have the same budget as the feature, and time is much tighter on this show as well.

It really is an amazing production considering how quick we have to churn these episodes out. Everyone from the writers all the way to the guys mixing the final production work extremely hard to make it happen.

John Paesano at the Annie Awards

John Paesano at the Annie Awards

You’ve already won an Annie (an American award for accomplishments in animation) for your work on the series. What was it like going on stage for that?

It was exciting, any time you get recognition for hard work it feels great. I really felt like I was accepting that award for a couple of people not just myself. Obviously John Powell created this whole world that I get to play and explore in every week, but also I work with a team of guys at my own studio, there is no way one person could get this show out all on their own.

It truly is a team effort, that is how film scoring is these days, schedules are tight, budgets are smaller and more music is required. It takes a village to get these projects out the door. So that Annie is shared by myself and my whole team, and of course, John Powell…but it was fun being able to be acknowledged, although I hate speaking in public!

Will a soundtrack from the series be released?

Yes, we are working on editing down 489 min of music into 60 min, it’s hard!

Have you started working on season 2, Defenders of Berk?

I am two episodes in, it’s going to be a fun season.

Can you reveal much about the second season?

I can’t…watch and see!!

With How to Train Your Dragon 2 due for release in 2014 does that mean John Powell is working on a brand new score just now? Have you discussed the second or third film?

Not sure what stage John is in as far as his production of HTTYD 2. I will tell you this though, the one thing that I know for sure about HTTYD 2, I guarantee the score will be incredible!

What’s next for you?

Well, of course season 2 of Dragons. I will be doing a feature for 20th Century Fox called The Maze Runner based on the New York Times best seller by the amazing author James Dashner, for a brilliant young director named Wes Ball. It’s going to be special project. A lot of really talented people are involved.

Thanks to John Paseano – follow him on Twitter at @jpaesano or visit his website.

Dragons: Riders of Berk airs on the Cartoon Network on Saturdays at 10.30am and 6.30pm.

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