A Conversation with Daytime Emmy Award Nominated Composer Michael Kramer
Jay Cochran - April 14, 2017
Adapted from the Cantina Chatter Podcast: Episode 8 Ė Conversation with LEGO Star Wars Composer Michael Kramer
Interview and Transcription by Victoria Brazil
Last year, Disney XD delighted fans of LEGO and Star Wars with LEGO Star Wars: The Freemaker Adventures. The acclaimed series follows the adventures of the Freemaker siblings: Rowan, Kordi, and Zander in that galaxy far, far away. On April 3, 2017, StarWars.com announced that a follow-up season was in the works for release this summer. A new preview promoting season two was released simultaneously, teasing the appearances of new and established characters such as Hera from Star Wars Rebels. The announcement of the new season came on the heels of the news that the series had garnered four Daytime Emmy nominations. With nods in the categories of Outstanding Childrenís Animated Program, Outstanding Sound Editing Ė Animation, Outstanding Casting for an Animated Series or Special, and Outstanding Music Direction and Composition, LEGO Star Wars: The Freemaker Adventures has proven to be another success in the expansive and ongoing catalogue of Star Wars media. Michael Kramer, the fresh-faced composer of the hit series, agreed to sit down with the Cantina Chatter Podcast (the official podcast of Victoriaís Cantina) to discuss his career and Emmy nomination.
VICTORIAíS CANTINA: You are an accomplished composer. The roster of projects on IMDb that you have worked on is quite expansive. You have been nominated for an Annie Award. Youíve won two BMI Film & TV Awards. And now, you are nominated for a Daytime Emmy Award for your work on LEGO Star Wars: The Freemaker Adventures. What sparked your passion for music composition?
MICHAEL KRAMER: Oh wow. Well, I think the first touchstone was seeing Jurassic Park in the theater when I was growing up. That was something really special. It was my first time hearing John Williamsí music, and seeing it to picture, and seeing how music brought to life these moving images. It really captured my imagination and never left me.
VC: So you saw Jurassic Park in the theater, and that essentially set you on your path to becoming a composer?
MK: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, John heísÖ itís a little bit fateful now that Iím working on Star Wars and working with this music again. It very much feels like coming full circle.
VC: So, before your work on The Freemaker Adventures, you and Jay Vincent composed the music for LEGO Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu. Tell me a little bit about the genesis of your involvement with the LEGO franchise.
MK: Yeah, so Jay and I went to grad school together at the University of Southern California. Thereís a really fantastic grad program there for writing music for film and television. When we graduated, we kind of did a few projects together, and this one really random post online came about that Jay found asking for generic Asian action music. And I happened to just the week before buy some new drum sounds, and whenever I buy new sounds, I like to test them out and make a little song. So thatís what I did. It was just me in my underwear late one night writing some music. And we sent that in to LEGO, and they really responded to it. It went all the way up to the top. And thatís how we got the gig for Ninjago. We had no idea what it was. To be honest, I donít think LEGO knew what they had either. I think the success of the show really surprised everyone. And it took off. Season after season, the writers and the producers and the directorsÖ everyone on that show does really amazing work and I think it really connects with the kids. I donít think the show dumbs down to the kids. It really gives them the benefit of the doubt and challenges them. So, I think thatís why itís lasted so long.
VC: LEGOs are a big part of many peopleís childhoods. Was this also the case for yourself?
MK: (Laughs) Yeah! Funnily enough, growing up I had a ton of LEGOs. And I remember I actually used to steal my dadís video camera. And I used to set up these grand scenes of LEGOs repelling from fishing wire and stuff. I would basically make my own stop-animation LEGO films. So now as an adult to be working on the grown-up version of that, itís a very surreal experience for sure. But yeah, once again, itís one of these things that comes full circle. I love that I get to wake up every day and work in the universe of what I loved growing up as a kid. Thatís not lost on me. Iím really grateful for that.
VC: Star Wars is transgenerational. It is perhaps the most beloved and most enduring franchise out there. It was always a big part of my own childhood, and as an adult it is still a huge part of my life. When and how did you first fall in love with Star Wars?
MK: Well Iíll be 100% honest with you. I didnít fall in love with Star Wars until a little bit later in life. My family wasnít big on movies and so when I was in junior high I went kind of on a big exploration of film and I remember just going night after night and checking out different classics from the then-video store that is no longer. Sorry, Blockbuster! But you know one of the things I checked out, I think it was in eighth grade, was Star Wars. And I really liked it, but I didnít love it. Maybe it just wasnít the right time of day. I donít know. But I was introduced to it again through working on this. I really had to do my homework. Going back and watching the films and immersing myself in the whole universe of Star Wars, Iíve really fallen in love with it and the characters. And Iíd say more so with the characters than the specific films even. Theyíre just so universal and thereís so much to relate to and theyíre so well put together. George Lucas really was an incredible visionary and tapped into these archetypes that are undeniable. So yeah, I didnít love it then but I love it now.
VC: Is there a particular Star Wars character that most resonates with you? And if so, who is it and why?
MK: Oh man, thatís a really good question. It may sound funny, but I really relate to Rey. The Force Awakens is, I think itís tied for me for favorite Star Wars film. Itís that and The Empire Strikes Back. But yeah, I just think sheís an incredible character. Thereís a vulnerability and a sensitivity that coexists with strength that I really love about her character. Iím just so proud of Lucasfilm and all the creators involved for creating such strong female characters. I just think itís really inspiring and couldnít be happier that itís the direction that the franchise has turned.
VC: Stepping into the shoes of John Williams, who of course, by all measures, is a musical genius and a legend, must have been extremely exciting and perhaps a bit daunting. Iíve gotten to see him conduct a few times at the Hollywood Bowl, and each time I am absolutely mesmerized not only by his music, but also by his incredible humility and his sheer presence. Many of the themes he created for Star Wars are very well-known and beloved by millions of people. What was it like being able to take what he did for Star Wars and then build upon it with your own creations?
MK: Sorry, John who? (Laughs) Itís pretty amazing because if you were to ask anyone off the street to name a film composer, 95% of people would only be able to name one and thatís John Williams. Yeah, he casts a very large shadow. And Iím not going to lie, and I will say that itís very scary to start the process! After kind of letting it sit for a bit I just realized that theyíre just musical notes, and if I were to get through it I needed to stay authentic to my own musical voice while at the same time trying to do justice to what he has created so far and is still creating for the Star Wars universe. Thatís the crazy thing! Right now, I think theyíre recording music maybe as we speak, or last week they were in Abbey Road. Heís 85. Itís very humbling. Thatís one of the cool things about this job is that thereís a lot of longevity to it. You can do this if you do it right for a very long time. Iím incredibly grateful that we get to use his themes for the show, and Iíve learned so much from reverse engineering what heís done and trying to apply it to all of our work at Freemakers. But yes, very daunting for sure.
VC: Have you already scored season two of The Freemaker Adventures?
MK: Yeah! Weíre in the thick of it. We actually for season two we went to record orchestra in Nashville last month which was really, really fun. So yeah, weíve got the new, big themes for season two recorded and weíre cranking away. Thereís a lot of big, big action and adventure and a lot of heart in season two. Iím really excited to see what people think about it.
VC: Why do you think music is so universal? Why do you think it has that effect of gripping people at all stages of their lives and bringing them together?
MK: Oh wow. Thatís a tough question. Thereís something undeniable about the way music interacts with our physiology. You can look at a baby and a baby can tap along to rhythm. Itís in our bodies. And those musical harmoniesÖ those relationships. Why the interval of fifths sounds the way that it does. Why it sounds good to our ears and not something different. Sound is just such a visceral sense for us and so whenever you try and organize that sound and turn it into an organized device, which I guess youíd call music, it taps right into our core as humans. I donít have a better answer unfortunately for that. Itís a mystery. People are going to be trying to figure out why it makes us move and cry and smile for many years to come.
VC: What types of instruments do you perform? Are you pretty wide-ranging in terms of what you are able to play?
MK: Yeah. One of the things that I love is learning a new instrument. Itís kind of an obsession of mine. Itís a little bit of an addiction. One of the amazing things on Ninjago is that each season we bring in musical influences from all over the world, and so Iím constantly acquiring and learning how to play new instruments. Iím not terribly virtuosic or anything on any of them. I can play enough to get by. But I love, love, love learning new instruments. Thereís like a dozen or fifteen instruments that I play consistently.
VC: Soundtracks for Ninjago have been released. Do you anticipate that the Freemakers soundtrack will also be coming at some point?
MK: Yes, yes! We are working on it as we speak. Hopefully it should be out later this summer. I donít have a specific release date, but hopefully weíll know soon.
VC: You shared on Twitter a few days ago that you will be speaking at Star Wars Celebration in Orlando. Can you tell us a little bit about what you have lined up, as well as whether or not this is your first time attending a Star Wars Celebration?
MK: Yeah, this is my first one. Iím really excited! I donít know what to expect. But I canít wait to dive in and check out as many panels as I can and people watch! Itís going to be a good time. Iím actually speaking on Sunday the 16th at 11:30. Iím speaking with Bill Motz and Bob Roth who are the co-creators for Freemakers and weíre going to be talking about season two. I think theyíre going to share some artwork. Iím going to share a little music for the new season. Itís going to be a good time!