Blue Planet II: Creating an epic soundtrack with Hans Zimmer and Radiohead

Although it was only launched four years ago, California-based Bleeding Fingers has become a go-to music production house for some of television’s most popular shows. It’s not hard to see why.

Not only does ‘Bleeding Fingers’ sum up the collective’s work ethic in a profound, two-word statement of intent, but it also boasts some of the world’s most-talented composers amongst its roster of collaborators.

Russell Emanuel serves as chief creative and CEO of Bleeding Fingers and explains that the company “wanted to get into the field to counter the influx of companies coming into the custom music space”.

“There was a massive gold-rush, with companies creating music for almost no money and sometimes actually for nothing and creating music that was very much in the box, with almost no live instruments,” he continues. “These poor composers were getting so little for a track, they would sometimes have to put out three or four a day.”

Emanuel adds that due to some composers being required to create up to six queues a day, the production values of these companies was often incredibly low.

“This wasn’t the composer’s fault, they were just trying to make a living; it was more the fault of the company that was relying on just the back end,” he says. “So, we essentially wanted to counter that.

“We felt there would be a need for a custom music company of quality; it was pretty much the same process as when we set up Extreme Music, my other music production company. We believe there’s always going to be a customer that gravitates towards a high-end product. ‘Reassuringly expensive’ are the words that we like to use.”

One of Bleeding Fingers’ most recent large-scale projects was scoring the sequel to the BBC’s David Attenborough narrated and award-winning 2006 nature series Blue Planet.

Blue Planet II aired in October 2017, was the year’s highest-rated show of 2017 and the most-watched natural history title in over 15 years. More than 14 million people watched the premiere episode.

Emanuel served as creative producer for the score, while composer duties were shared by Hans Zimmer, David Fleming and Jacob Shea with additional collaborators Radiohead. Here, Emanuel tells us how he got started in this business and how the scoring process all came together…

Could you give us some background on your own career?

I started, as many people do, as an assistant in studios throughout London, starting in Abbey Road, De Lane Lea and Marcus, all the famous London studios. I eventually became an engineer, then a producer, and finally a tour manager, over a protracted period of time. That’s a very quick history, but I kind of graduated through the ranks and ended up managing a lot of very big, seminal punk bands at the time. I was on the road for, I believe, 18 years, and that was my intro into production music, because I needed to get off the tour bus. I kind of came across music for film and TV and felt like ‘those guys are having a nice easy life, and they get to go home on the weekend.

What was the brief for this project?

Well, we’d just come off doing Planet Earth II, and that needs no introduction: the big, blue-chip, epic, panoramic, beautiful project for which we had to be very careful and very respectful of how we treated the sounds of the earth. Blue Planet II was kind of an evolution of that, being undertaken by yet another dedicated team of scientists from the BBC Bristol Natural History Unit. The brief of it was to create another project exploring the depths of the ocean, and so we asked ourselves how we could sonically come up with a signature for that, you know. What’s the sound of underwater? That was really the brief of it.

They were a team of very experienced filmmakers and they wanted to do something different and original. Of course, different and original could probably describe every brief we get, but here it came wrapped in an enormously challenging show, one for which you could instantly see spectacular imagery and fantastic stories. So, the brief kind of writes itself, but we’re blessed with a team of composers who are overachievers.

What were some of the main challenges that this particular project presented you with?

Once we’d decided on our approach we wanted to create what we termed a Tidal Orchestra and that was its own challenge. Essentially, what we wanted to do was allow the musicians in the orchestra to create an ambient tone that would reflect the ebb and flow of the tides and the oceans. We did that by creating tiny movements within each instrument. For example, within a section such as the violins, if we had twelve violins, neither of them would play at the same time; this allowed us to create these tiny brush strokes.

The challenge was recording a large orchestra in this way, then piecing it together and weaving it into the bigger score. Even once we’d created this sound, we had to go back and make it work for the entire project. When you’re doing a score like this, you’re essentially scoring four movies: it’s seven hours, and that’s a lot of music. The hope and challenge coming into that, is that you need to realise that what sounds good at first might not sound as good nine months into the project. So, I’d say the real challenge is keeping the whole project on track all the way through.

How does the scoring process work? For example, how many composers are involved, are different scenes assigned to different composers or teams of composers?

There were three composers: Hans Zimmer, David Fleming and Jacob Shea. Each episode would be divided up into scenes as it came in, and it was as simple as the composers sitting down and just choosing ones that spoke to their sensibilities. It seemed to work very well, and there weren’t very many fights.

Could you describe an average day working on the score for this type of programme?

Apart from the composers, there’s a team of score producers, coordinators and assistants. it’s a pretty large team. I think in any one day, you’ve got at least ten people working on a score. As the project went along, deadlines got tighter. But to give you an average day would be rather difficult, because at the start of the process you’re spending your days writing, and by the end you’re coordinating orchestras in were in Vienna and Santa Monica, and still writing because there are scene changes in LA. It’s a big undertaking, logistically and I think no day was the same.

How long did it take from beginning to end?

Around nine months, right from where we started to final delivery.

Were there any standout moments from the process that you’d like to tell us about?

There were many, it’s hard to pinpoint one. As I quickly think about it, the moment I saw the giant trevally scene – where the ginormous fish jumps out of the water and snatches up a bird in mid-air- was a standout. Everyone was really amazed by that. I also think that when we understood that this show had an ecological responsibility, we really felt like what we were doing was significant, and it doesn’t get more standout than that.

What was it like working with Radiohead on the track Ocean Bloom?

It started out with the idea to work with Radiohead, and we found out that the song Bloom, which they had created fifteen years earlier was actually inspired by the original Blue Planet. It just seemed like an opportunity not to be missed. It started with them providing us with the piano chords and the vocal stems, and then they got out of the way and allowed us to create something without any handcuffs. They were very generous, and then as we started to play them what we were doing, they were extremely encouraging and it just all fell into place very naturally and organically. Then, at the very end, when we were getting ready to finish the project and re-record the vocals, it all just clicked. It was really a dream project.

Was David Attenborough involved in the scoring process at all?

Sadly no. We would have loved to have had him involved in the scoring process. The only thing you can say, is that his voice is an instrument in and of itself. As in Planet Earth II, we were very mindful that we needed to be sympathetic to how his voice was such a character, and just stay out of the way. It’s a part of the overall sound.

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