Over one hundred and forty film scoring projects to his name, Bruno Coulais is a French composer who was born in Paris on January 13th 1954. He is the first composer to write the music for the first 3-D stop motion animated film ever made; stereoscopic 3-D. When he thinks back to the beginning of his composing career it can be a bit blurry, after all it’s been over thirty years since Coulais began as he remembers, “I can’t remember the titles of the first films I scored in the seventies. I was eighteen or nineteen years old when I scored my first music for film. I remember scoring the documentary called México mágico with directorFrançois Reichenbach, he’s who I worked with on all my first films. He’s very famous in France regarding his documentaries, especially the music; he made this wonderful film about Arthur Rubenstein in 1969 called L'amour de la vie - Artur Rubinstein. He asked me to compose the music for his first documentary, then another one, and México mágico, after that I never stopped scoring films.” It was many years of hard work that led the composer to one of his greatest collaborations with multitalented director Henry Selick. Coraline was theatrically released on February 6, 2009, that’s a year ago, but the film is generating award excitement. It was nominated for nine Annie Awards including Best Animated Feature, Directing in a Feature Production, and Music in a Feature Production, it won a BAFTA for Best Feature Film/BAFTA Children’s Award, and this year it’s nominated for a BAFTA for Best Animated Feature Film. Coraline was nominated for seven other awards including a Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature Film and won for Best Animated Feature from The San Francisco Film Critics Circle. With the Oscar nominations coming up on February 2nd and ten films to choose from this year, Coraline is great enough to earn one. Now you can even actually purchase the DVD and watch it in its normal form or see it at home in 3-D with the glasses they provide you. You might think this is a kid’s movie, but it’s every child’s nightmare. Where there’s light there’s darkness, twisted fantasies, creatures, and characters abound. As director Henry puts it, “The true childhood to me has wonder, discovery, some nastiness, and some great fear. Kids and their fears, what they imagine and the dangers out there, the real danger in what they imagine is intense.”
Bruno Coulais began his musical education on the violin and piano to become a composer of contemporary classical music. However, a series of acquaintances gradually re-oriented him towards film music. The first full length motion picture Bruno composed was Lien de parenté (1986) for Willy Rameau. Until the end of the 1990s he kept a low profile composing mainly for television. He composed the soundtracks for Christine Pascal’s Le petit prince a dit (1992), Agnès Merlet’s Le fils du requin (1993),while in 1994 he met television producer Josée Dayan, who had him write a theme for La rivière esperance. This began an ongoing collaboration with Dayan that led to Les nuiteux (1994), Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (1998), and Balzac (1999). The largest turning point of Bruno’s career came in 1996, when he worked with directors Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou on the documentary Microcosmos. This single film, which highlighted Bruno’s music, was a great success and made Coulais one of the most demanded film composers in France. Microcosmos won the César award for Best Music Written for a Film as well as a Victoire de la Musique. He’s also scored Himalaya (1999), Les rivières pourpres (2000), Belphégor (2000), and Vidocq (2000). After producing the magnificent soundtrack to Winged Migration (2001), Coulais significantly reduced his contributions to film music and concentrated on other projects, such as the creation of an opera for children, and collaborations with Akhenaton, Akhenaton’s group IAM and the Corsican group A Filetta, with whom he had worked since he scored Jacques Weber’s Don Juan (1998). In 2002 his name was found on the ending credits of the animation L’enfant qui voulait être un ours and also Genesis, while in 2004 he worked with Frédéric Schoendoerffer’s on Agents secrets. That same year he wrote the music for Les choristes by Christophe Barratier, which became an international hit.
The music and the film received great praise and won Coulais his third César award. When I mentioned his brilliant work for director Christophe Barratier on Les choristes he responds, “Christophe made another French movie Faubourg 36 in 2008, it was about terrorists, but I didn’t score this film.” Since then Bruno continues his collaborations with films by Jacques Perrin, Frédéric Schoendoerffer, and James Huth. His collaboration with Henry Selick on Coraline started at the beginning of 2007, two years before the film was released, and his next score can be heard in the Disney film Oceans directed by Jacques Perrin, which will be released in April. Coulais’s musical style changes to fit each film he works on, but there are consistent influences: his taste for opera, the human voice, especially children’s voices, a search for original sonority, for world music and mixing different musical cultures, and his scoring approach that musically perceives a film by its ambience created by lighting rather than the film’s narration.
Is the pink Victorian hotel and its surroundings all that exists in Coraline? Is there even a world beyond the countryside around the house? Quite often and especially at the end of the film you get the feeling that there is no world, only Henry Selick’s universe that pulls you into the pink hotel and its immediate surroundings. Whether it’s the real world or an alternate reality where temptation lives and evil lurks, both are internally infinite. The exciting music of Coulais brings the never ending internal world of Coraline to life. Whether you’re listening to the darkness of the Children’s Choir of Niece on the End Credits or the magnificent orchestration of The Hand, a Mechanical Lullaby, Ghost Children, or the playfully mysterious Bobinsky, to the lurking and threatening DangerousGarden, right from the beginning Bruno’s music inseparably celebrates Selick’s vision. It’s not easy to define Coraline’s musical style, but it sounds like the story was actually written for the music creating perfection for every scene.
On Monday January 18, 2010 at 8:30am Los Angeles time it was the beginning of the largest rain storm of the year, it started last night and became stronger as the week progressed. I could hear the rain falling on my office skylights, it was dark outside like the ‘other world’ in Coraline, and my office phone rang. It was French composer Bruno Coulais calling me at from his office in ParisFrance, not his studio, but a place of solace where he writes his music and creates his demos. With a thick French accent Bruno talked with me for over an hour about working with director Henry Selick, a film that took him two years of his life, and a unique approach that discovered the perfect music for Coraline. Scoring animation is nothing new for Coulais who composed music for one of his favorite scores to The Boy Who Wanted to Be a Bear (2002), then next a Swiss stop motion film Max & Co. (2007), and a creative collision in 2009 with Brendan Et Le Secret De Kells as he explains, “I also scored the animated French film Brendan Et Le Secret De Kells or The Secret of Kells. Brendan is an Irish movie with a very low budget, but very singular and creative. I composed the first music for Kells before working on Coraline and finished the score just after. Working on this film was very different from scoring Coraline. It was Tomm Moore’s first film, a very young and gifted director/writer. He wanted Irish inspiration in my music. I worked with the Irish band Kila, whose style is a fusion of Irish and World Music, and we recorded the score in Ireland. It was very interesting for me because Kila did not read music, but after listening to my demos they were able to play everything with emotion and Irish ornamentations. I also composed a song for the young actress in the film and other cues with a French choir.”
Coulais is the real thing, always searching for new philosophies and instrumentation to underscore a film and a composer who doesn’t even know how to deal with an orchestrator because he’s orchestrated every project he’s ever worked on. How rare is that? He absolutely loved working with Selick as he joyfully says, “I’m really a huge fan of Henry, the man and the director too.” As our discussion progresses, the musical philosophy of scoring Coraline is revealed. A story about a little girl in an animated film, not quite, what appears on the outside leads the viewer into a seductive adventure of good versus evil. There’s the little girl, her parents, her friend Wybie, a black cat, and the quirky tenants in the pink house, but once Coraline enters the small door into an unsuspecting parallel world, a completely new and appealing life becomes an illusive temptation as its overwhelming evil powers unleash themselves to possess the little girl’s life forever. Not a kind tale for children, though the lesson to be learned is invaluable to any youngster; they must endure a terrifying transformation with creatures, ghosts, and the paranoia that they will be lost forever in darkness. You can’t just go to bed, go to sleep, and wake up in the real world free. It’s the innocence and appearance of a lie that swallows up a child with fear, and when the truth is revealed, it leaves them with nightmares forever.
You are the first composer to have scored the first 3-D stop motion animated film ever made. Did that change the way you approached the music?
I didn’t think about this when I was composing the music, but now I’m impressed by the idea. I was very impressed by the quality of this film. In France I’m very lucky, I’m always working on very interesting projects, but French movies are very realistic and the role of the music isn’t so important. With Coraline I found the atmosphere, the spirit I’ve been searching for in films for years.
How did you get the job to score Coraline?
When Henry did an anamatic it was only with drawings. I think he was looking for temp music and I don’t know why, but he tried the music I composed for Microcosmos and Winged Migration and he called me. I was very happy because I’m a huge fan of The Nightmare Before Christmas.
You have a taste for opera, for the human voice, particularly children’s voices, and you can hear this in your score…
I used children’s voices in Coraline; for me childhood is not a time of innocence, it’s also the time when you’re scared for the very first time. All that comes from your childhood, but for me the music can be terrifying. In Coraline when you hear the children’s voices it creates anxiety, it’s scary with fear and anguish. It’s the age where we discover fear; we just don’t have an explanation for these things. For me it was definitely the age of fear.
Also you love world music and mixing different musical cultures together, did that have anything to do with Coraline?
Yes, but I approach this very carefully. I don’t like war music if the composer takes a rhythm or a song from Africa and uses its beat to that idea; I think it’s not very honest. If you create a real work with musical traditions it’s very interesting because you can learn from them and they can learn from you, but it’s a real work. You have to spend some time to work with other cultures to achieve this.
What ethnic instrumentation did you use in your score?
I used some harps from Madagascar, this piece of wood with strings around it, we called this a valiha, but I also used some Chinese instruments. Also I used a lot of strange world instruments including a glass harmonica, water phones, various harps, chimes, glockenspiels, marimbas, and creative world percussion to give the soundscape a plucked personality.
How did you approach using the choir, the children’s choir, and the vocal soloist?
I was recording the symphonic part of the score with the Hungarian Symphony Orchestra of Budapest and I knew that we could find a very good choir there, so we used the Choir of the Hungarian National Radio. Where I recorded it wasn’t so important for the music; the most important element was the children’s choir that I recorded in Nice, France. I recorded some operas there and I also worked with Mathilde Pellegrini, it’s easier to explain to the singer what to do in this studio, what I expected out of her performance. Mathilde was the soloist and we had eight girl singers who were very young, but so gifted, you can do all you want to with the music by using the color of the Children’s Choir of Nice. I don’t use words; it’s only musical sounds or expressions. There is no meaning to the words they are singing. I wanted to create fear, the unknown, and a strange atmosphere. The audience should feel the voices words as if they were ghosts and The Children’s Choir of Nice did this perfectly.
You orchestrated the complete score, how important is that to you?
It’s very important for me. When I have a musical idea I’m also imagining the instruments, for me a melody, a theme, and a chord is never abstract, it depends on an instruments sound. It’s very important to orchestrate my score. For me, the light, the atmosphere of the movie needs special orchestrations, special tonalities, so it’s absolutely essential for me to control this aspect of composing. I definitely have orchestrated all of my films and if I had to work with an orchestrator I wouldn’t know what to do, it would be so strange for me that I’d be totally lost.
How did the lighting of Coraline influence your compositions?
It was really fantastic because there’s such a distance between us. I worked in Paris, France and Henry was in Portland, Oregon. Curiously we have a very close relationship. In the beginning I composed all the themes and all the melodies of the film, he was OK with this. After this we wanted to work from the beginning to the end of the film because the music had to change, had to transform, and that’s where the ambience of the film changed, the lighting became darker in the other world. At the beginning the music is very normal, very quiet, and little by little it becomes scarier. It was important for me to keep a unity with my melodies, but to create a lot of variations little by little with the score and its orchestrations. In the beginning the orchestration is very simple, you have a harp, the voice of Mathilde, and gradually the orchestra becomes much stronger and much more important when you feel the fear. In the beginning of Coraline the world she lives in is bright, while after she enters the small door into the other world it becomes more ominous and darker each time she returns. I was absolutely fascinated by this aspect of the film. Henry is very courageous, a great director, in the beginning of the story Coraline’s world isn’t that special, and in fact Coraline is boring. It was courageous to show that and gradually the film becomes this exciting adventure, it becomes very active when her other mother is after her. The lighting of a film is so important. My favorite film is The Night of the Hunter directed by Charles Laughton and it stars Robert Mitchum, I remember this sequence when the kids are on the boat and the girl sings this beautiful song called Once Upon A Time There Was A Pretty Fly (Lullaby). It’s the sensation between the music, the lights, the characters, the set, everything is absolutely magic. For me it’s ‘the example’. I always try to approach scoring a film with perfection, but it’s impossible. Yes, lights, atmosphere, it’s very important. The Night of the Hunter is a unique movie, it’s a masterpiece.
Since this film took three years to make and you worked on it for two, how did you work on the score as the film progressed, from a script, talking with Henry, seeing the film, or by storyboards?
At the beginning I read the script and I composed four or five themes, melodies, and then I met with Henry and he cared for these melodies. He thought they were good, that it was going in the right direction. Afterwards Henry sent me an anamatic drawing with the structure of the movie and I started to imagine some demos with light orchestrations. Little by little I sent to Henry my demos of each sequence and very quickly he E mailed me his remarks. It was very easy, very quick and easy. After the editing of the film had progressed I traveled to Portland, Oregon and we had a lot of discussions, a lot of direct conversations about where the music was going to be in the film. This happened two or three times. I returned to Paris and part by part Henry sent me the actual cut of the film. This changed my music because suddenly the scenes I had to score were so precise, so strange, and so fantastic, that I had to change my music. What’s very interesting for a composer when working on an animated film is that the process is very long, so you can confront your opinion, but you also have the opportunity to change your mind and try something new. We were on the same page and had this great collaboration. Sometimes Henry wanted something different, he wanted to change some aspect of the music, but we’d always work it out and the music became much better. Henry was great; he set me free and was very positive. I was given the opportunity to be extremely free because he wanted very experimental music, but at the end, and this is why Henry is such a great director, the score in this film is really Henry’s music. He wouldn’t give directions, but he was extremely clear and so precise when he explained what he wanted to obtain with the music. Definitely, I believe this music is from Henry.
Considering what film music means to you, what are your thoughts on approaching your compositions?
For me the music is not there to explain what the narration explains, the music is not there to be underneath, to be a secret, but it’s another character who works with the movie. Like the light, I see a very important relationship between the light and the colors, just like with the atmosphere and the music. It doesn’t directly relate to the story, the story’s not important for me, but film music can be another character. Sometimes the music reveals another part of the film, the music can reveal what’s not said in the dialogue, and it’s very mysterious.
It’s another world of a movie, another part. The emotion is the most important element, especially when you want to create fear, the audience has to be moved and the music can do that. Yes, the drama is important, but it’s also sometimes very dangerous to be too close to the story. Sometimes it’s very interesting to create contrast, to have two or more voices independent of each other or counterpoint with the music. Film music is not there to explain, but to create emotion, to create over sentiments, and to bring the story together. From Coraline I remember the fantastic garden (FantasticGarden), which is a beautiful sequence. I needed some very special tonality, very special orchestrations, and it’s very subjective, but for me it directly relates to the atmosphere of the film.
What was the very first part of the film you worked on?
More than the story itself, it’s very intuitive, but it’s like alchemy, very strange. It’s more than thinking about a scene, it’s a strange approach. I had an idea, but I didn’t think of one part of the film because it’s more like an opera, an object; it’s a fairly complex idea with a lot of things inside of it. Not only musical things, sometimes some directors are looking for something specific for their films and I’m unable to come up with one musical idea. From the beginning of Coraline I was absolutely sure, but it’s a way of approaching a film inside your own world, so it’s very subjective. When I start a new film and have to come up with music I don’t have the impression that I can write music even though I’m able to compose the music for the movie, it’s always different. This is why I hate temp music. Temp music is the enemy of invention. From the storyboards I had some ideas dealing with timbre, instrumentation, musical colors, and after this I started writing down my ideas.
Sometimes when I don’t have any ideas I have to leave my office and walk around, I go to exhibitions, and it’s very mysterious when my ideas appear during these moments. Afterwards it’s like an open door, the process is very easy. I write the melody for the score, the harmony, details of the instrumentation. I watch the sequence for a very long time and after I write the music I don’t remember or even watch the sequence or pictures, because using your memory is better. You have a memory of the sequence and very often the music becomes closer to the film than when you are always composing with your eyes watching the picture. After I write the score I eventually return to the sequence and use my software and samples to create demos with Logic Pro, Vienna Instruments (VSL), and other samples. I record demos for the sequences and send them to Henry and then wait for his remarks. For Coraline the first part of the film I started with was the opening credits, they are extremely important for the music. You can define the color, the tonality of the film with the opening credits because now you have a place where you can imagine the music. It’s a sequence where you see the dismantling of an old rag doll, and its reconstruction into a little girl. You hear the pizzicato strings and the children’s voices at times. It’s very important because the audience is extremely reactive to the music underscoring the first images. This part is so beautiful in Coraline, so strange, mysterious, that it was important for me in the beginning to start scoring the opening credits.
Do you think in terms of parts or themes?
I’m thinking of all of the aspects, but the characters were important. Henry wanted special themes for each character. I mix many elements together, the themes, the evolution of the orchestration, and especially the structure because it’s very important for a composer to imagine the complete structure of the score in the movie. It’s not only working on one sequence and then one after another and another, it’s important to keep inside your head all of the music from the beginning until the very end. I wrote The Coraline Theme, it’s a very simple theme with Mathilde singing and the harp, which was the first theme. The second theme Henry was very happy with was The Other Mother’s Theme, for me she’s one of the most interesting characters in the movie. I love darker characters; they are very interesting to compose to. I prefer dark characters to happiness or to light characters. This theme was very important because many of the great directors really love their dark characters. It was important to create a strange dark theme, but also something moving, I wanted to create some emotion with the music for this character. At the end of the film there’s a beautiful sequence with the last confrontation between the other mother and Coraline. The scene and the music are very violent, but I composed this by mixing two ideas together. I mixed very violent orchestral music with an emotional and soft oboes melody, opposing the violence with the softness created an impact between this character and the audience. The contrast is what brought out this character.
What are the most powerful parts of the film, where the score and story are one?
The fantastic garden, the music and the sequence of the film are definitely on the same page. Also I composed the music for the cat, which is very special. The cat is a very strange character between the two worlds, the normal world and the dark world, and the music has to create a specific atmosphere, peaceful and very strange, yes with fantasia. I used this Africa instrument called a Sanza with strings, the music and the sequence are definitely one element. The Sanza is a small thumb piano from Africa, you know this is very simple, but it was so strange to have this instrument underscore this part of the film mixed with a string orchestra. It was so strange that it worked with the cat.
What are some of the difficult parts of the film you worked on?
I remember a sequence which they wanted me to score; it was the circus of mice with Bobinsky (Mice Circus). I wanted the music to be the same scale as the picture, very small. It was very difficult for me to find a good way to do that. It was actually the last part of the score that I wrote for Coraline. I had the idea to use these toys, Chinese instruments, strange percussion, piano toys, and afterwards a brass band. I used piano toys, but not only pianos, quite a lot of different toys that make all kinds of sounds. It was very easy because of my daughter who’s two years old at this moment, so I could use all of her toys, it was very funny. I’m very proud of this sequence; it works perfectly because the music is in the same scale that the characters appear as.
There were two songs you worked on, you wrote and performed Dreaming with The Children’s Choir of Nice and Teri Hatcher.
Dreaming is very funny because we wanted Teri Hatcher to sing it. She recorded some elements of this music and we were looking for a singer for this song. I sent Henry this demo with my horrible voice on it and I wasn’t very proud of this. At the end Henry told me, ‘I want to keep this voice,’ so we mixed the song with The Children’s Choir of Nice, Teri Hatcher, and my voice.
You also worked with Henry on Sirens of the Sea with Michele Mariana and bass player Bernard Paganotti.
Henry’s song is very good, very funny. He used it when he shot that particular sequence and he recorded it much earlier in the process, so we kept this song and it’s very funny. I made the instrumentations, I changed something with the orchestrations, but it’s really Henry’s song. It really works, when I was watching Coraline at a movie theater the audience was laughing during this song, so it works very well. It was so easy because they kept editing and afterwards it was very difficult to keep everything synchronized with the music.
Henry recorded this with actress Michele Mariana in a studio and we didn’t have the same tonality, so I had to use my imagination to change the tonality. I remember that we had three different tonalities for this song. It started in A and the song finished in B, it was very funny.
In this score you play the keyboards, Christophe Grindel is on the oboe, Helene Breschand plays the harp, and Bernard Paganotti is on the bass guitar. How important are the soloists?
Very important, for example the bass, the sound that Bernard’s bass brings to this movie is a special effect, very strange and deep. That kind of thing you can obtain only with very good soloists. Also Helene on the harp was wonderful as well. There’s something about hearing the oboe, Christophe Grindel is a great French soloist, a soloist of the opera and orchestra. First of all I recorded the oboe in Budapest and it was great, but it wasn’t exactly what I wanted, not what I expected, so that’s why I asked Christophe to record it in a studio in Paris. It absolutely changed the emotion of the music. You can hear it in the last meeting between Coraline and her other mother, the contrast between the violence and softness. These performances and interpretations are so important, so special, and so magic, that you can’t obtain this with very good instrumentalists, so sometimes you need a soloist to obtain greater dynamics and more emotion. It’s also very important for me to play the keyboards because it’s much faster to work that way, it’s much easier.
Did you have to keep going back and changing your music because of the editing of the film?
Yes, that was the difficulty because they’d change the formula. For example I’d compose the music for one sequence, a long sequence, and afterwards they cut the sequence, so I had to always keep changing. Until the last moment I had to change to get Henry the score. This is why scoring Coraline was so difficult. I do my own orchestrations, so this changed with the timings as well. I remember the last month, I didn’t sleep during one month because it was a lot of work to change and to add certain music to the film when you’re editing.
What was different working with Henry compared to other directors you’ve worked with?
I remember the first time I met Henry in Los Angeles; it was before the shooting of the film. He explained his movie to me; it was incredible because I remarked that he had his complete movie in his head. He knew exactly what he wanted to obtain with this movie. The difference is this; it was a very precise job.
In France I’m very lucky, I work on very interesting movies with very interesting directors, wonderful projects, but French movies are very realistic and the place of the music is not so important. It was great to work on a fantasy, a nonrealistic film, with a creative director with so much imagination, it was magical.
From working on the film, start to finish, what was the most important part of the scoring process that makes your music work with the film?
I think the most important part is the first relation with the director. It’s at this very moment when I’m able to understand if I’m even able to compose the music for his film. If we are on the same page with our first discussion, afterwards it’s easy. Afterwards the most important thing is the discussion with the director about the place of the music in the movie, where does he want to put the music, what does he expect from the music? I don’t like it when directors give me a lot of musical references; I prefer it when they speak about the movie, what they want to obtain with the music. After this it’s the recording session because I don’t want to definitively fix the music with the score. The moment of recording is very important because if I have a new idea I want to be reactive and be able to change something when I’m working with a great interpreter. As a musician new ideas are always happening, so I want to be able to change the music and be flexible.
What do you love about film music? When I was very young I hated cinema because my parents wanted me to watch only cinema for children, so I wasn’t interested in cinema and not at all by the music for movies. When I started to work in this world I discovered that movies are so different that they became an opening to the world. It’s a way of discovering the world and it’s why I hate temp music. For me, each movie is different from each other and the musician has to imagine new musical ideas, special music, and that’s only for one film. Cinema changed my life; it changed my opinion about music, but the world too.
Editor's note - Bruno Coulais took home the Annie Award for Best Original Music for a Feature Animation on February 6th, while the film itself has indeed been nominated for Best Animated Feature at the forthcoming Academy Awards.