This summer, Batman: The Killing Joke might become one of the most successful superhero animated movies of all time.
Batman: The Killing Joke tells one of the most infamous Batman stories from DC Comics, about what happens when the Joker decides to drive Jim Gordon to the brink of insanity. It's a story most Batman fans already know and includes some iconic moments in Batman history, including the crippling of Batgirl, aka Barbara Gordon, which eventually leads her to become Oracle.
However, it's not just the animation and voice acting that tells the story in the film. The music, too, captures the essence of the movie's themes and style, and creates the atmosphere that gives each scene emotional impact.
In an interview, the team behind that music — Lolita Ritmanis, Michael McCuistion and Kristopher Carter, known collectively as Dynamic Music Partners — spoke about creating that music, which features a new song by Mark Hamill as the Joker.
The Killing Joke is probably one of the most highly-anticipated animated comic book movies of all time. Did you feel any pressure composing music for it, knowing about the film's popularity?
RITMANIS: We're thrilled with how the score turned out. You know, what can you do? You just let it out to the world and let the chips fall where they may, and hopefully, people will like it.
McCUISTION: The cool thing about this project: in the very beginning, it was so very well done. When we saw it, we were all just inspired by how the elements all played together. In many ways, it's made it much easier for us. Because when the film is already great, and it's all there, then our job is easy in comparison.
What is your process like when scoring a soundtrack like this?
CARTER: The three of us work together with the producers in finding the best music for each scene. We go through what's called a sonic session, where the three of us sit down with the producers and director and watch the film and we talk about where the music should start and where it should end.
We talk about how we can support the storytelling that's on the screen, and what's off the screen, what the characters are thinking and feeling. And then, there's a big list of music that has to be written. And the three of us work that up, we each go into our individual studios and we write music.
RITMANIS: Yeah, we worked with producer Bruce Timm and director Sam Liu. They came to the studio and we went through each scene. And we also talked about the overall feel, and for this particular project, it was very much that of a dark mystery, intimate, cinematic — plus, to actually immerse ourselves in the great vocal performances by the actors.
It's very much a collaborative process and with the goal being of how to create this cohesive, emotional direction, if that makes sense: what do we want the audience to feel at that moment?
In animated work like this, each character has a musical theme or tone. How do you go about composing scenes for specific characters?
McCUISTION: It's sort of an organic process, especially when we work with Bruce. If a person has a particular scene that features that character, and especially an introduction of that character for that particular project, then the person who is composing that scene writes something for that character, and that speech. And oftentimes, that will become the theme for that character.
That definitely happened for when Barbara shows up in her first scene, and Lolita had written something up for her that Bruce really latched onto and it really spoke to him. So then, we start sharing among the three of us, and we build that material as the production goes on. We'll use it, re-use it, transform it and be sure to connect it all to that character and have that emotional connection for that character.
How is the music in The Killing Joke different from other DC Comics animated properties you have composed for?
CARTER: I think that one of the things that differs with this movie is just how deep in the emotions they got with the characters. This movie — more than the other DC things before — the deaths and the trying to make your mark in the world in a certain way and how that can go in a completely different direction by having just one bad day.
RITMANIS: The whole aspect of this film was the fact that it reunited many people from the team of the original Batman: The Animated Series, which was a major career milestone for us. It's iconic and so respected and it's still held up as the definitive Batman animated product. And that's what we actually started our careers on, working with Bruce Timm, under the supervision of the late Shirley Walker.
So now, we reunited with many of the same people who worked on that original series, including the musicians: we hired a wonderful orchestra, primarily string players, to add a great depth to the music by having them actually perform and do their magic. So, that was another wonderful aspect of this particular project.
You also worked with Mark Hamill on a special song for the movie. What was it like working with Hamill on a musical number?
McCUISTION: Oh, he was unbelievable. When he performs as the Joker, he is so inhabited by this other force — no pun there. The three of us were working on the song, and I happened to be on the stage with him, and just every fiber of his being, every hair on his arms, his eyes, the whole thing, like his body is the Joker and he's building it in a performance voice. I don't know where it comes from, but it is chilling and it is fantastic.
Will there eventually be a release of this soundtrack for fans to purchase?
RITMANIS: Stay tuned.
Ritmanis, McCuistion and Carter will appear at San Diego Comic-Con for a panel called "I Love That Song! Composing, Scoring and Singing Superhero Style," along with Batman: The Brave and Bold producer and lyricist James Tucker on July 22 at 1 p.m. PDT in Room 28DE. A Q&A and some fun giveaways will happen after that panel.
The three members of Dynamic Music Partners will also appear at the LA-LA Land Record Booth at Comic-Con on July 23 from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. PDT to sign CDs.
Batman: The Killing Joke lands in select theaters in the United States on July 25 and on DVD and Blu-ray on Aug. 2.