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.

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Dragons: Riders of Berk arrives on UK TV

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There was some good news at the weekend for British fans of 2010’s animated film, How to Train Your Dragon, as the TV spin-off arrived on the Cartoon Network.

Dragons: Riders of Berk picks up a short time after the events of the Dreamworks film, when (and this is a spoiler if you haven’t seen How to Train Your Dragon) the Vikings of Berk and their dragon neighbours are living in harmony.

Well, as harmoniously as can be expected when you’re talking about flying beasties that breathe fire.

Now it’s up to the humans to stop killing the dragons and train them to help them in their daily chores, with the first double bill of episodes neatly reminding fans what had gone before while informing newbies what they’ve missed.

The young voice cast from the film has been retained for the TV series, including Jay Baruchel as lead Hiccup, while the adult actors are now Americans pretending to be Scottish as Gerard Butler and Craig Ferguson are off doing bigger things.

Thomas Wilson (Biff from the Back to the Future series) is Bucket while ex-Doctor Who David Tennant is also due to pop-up in a future episode as Spitelout Jorgenson, recreating his role from the movie.

The series retains the computer generated look of the feature film and much of John Powell’s terrific score, a soundtrack I’ve been listening to regularly for a few years now. Composer John Paesano joins the series for weekly scoring duties.

Two seasons have been commissioned and 40 episodes are in the works, with season two to be called Defenders of Berk. Season one began in the US in August 2012 so we’re a bit behind, but judging by these first episodes it’s a programme worth sticking with and I can’t wait to follow the adventures of Hiccup, Toothless and co.

We’re also promised two new feature films in 2014 and 2016, meaning the How to Train Your Dragon franchise should be a long and fruitful one, something worth celebrating in this world of soulless sequels.

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