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Interview: ‘Wish’ & ‘Once Upon A Studio’ Composer David Metzger

David Metzger is a true Disney veteran with an illustrious career spanning 25 years.  He has worked as a composer, arranger, and orchestrator for 11 out of 63 Disney animated films.  Most recently, David has composed the score for Disney’s new animated short “Once Upon A Studio” which is available to stream now on Disney+, and Disney’s animated film “Wish” which hits theaters on November 22nd.

Disney Plus Informer recently had the opportunity to chat with David about his work on these two projects and much more.

Check out the full interview below:

You have an illustrious history working on Disney projects. And I’m really excited to talk to you about Once Upon a Studio and Wish.  But first, I was wondering if you could fill us in on how you started working with Disney and some of the projects you’ve worked on in the past.

Sure. My first job with Disney was when I was 22 years old. I was a bass player at Disneyland out at the theme park.  And of course, at that point, I was a young person aspiring to be a film composer but never dreaming that it would happen.  So fast forward after that, the first Disney project of any scope I had the chance to work on was as an orchestrator on the Broadway version of The Lion King.  I did that in 1997 and that opportunity kind of came out of the blue but it turned out that the producer of the music for that show was Mark Mancina who’s a film composer and his very next job was to be the composer on the animated Disney film Tarzan. 

So our experience was so good on The Lion King, that Mark asked if I would like to be the orchestrator on Tarzan and I, of course, said absolutely.  So that was my first really major Disney film. I had a chance there to work with Phil Collins and I orchestrated the entire score, but also all of the songs as well.  So every node of music in Tarzan came through my hand.  At that point, everything was done by hand… all the scores were written by hand and then that led to a bunch of other films that weren’t necessarily Disney but the next Disney film I worked on was Brother Bear, which was also with Phil Collins and Mark Mancina.

My next major Disney project, I kind of stepped up a notch, and I was the arranger and orchestrator of all the songs in the first Frozen, and I also orchestrated a little bit of the score for that.  Next on the list was Moana, where I arranged and orchestrated all the score and songs and also did additional composition on the score of Moana followed by Frozen 2 where I was again song arranger, orchestrator, co-producer, and then out of the blue came Wish.

Let’s talk about Once Upon Studio, which is the new animated short for Disney’s 100th anniversary.  This is probably one of my favorite Disney projects of all time. Can you tell us a little bit about it and how you became involved in working on the score?

Yeah. I’m really glad to hear that. I think it’s a beautiful project too. This all came completely out of the blue. I’ve been sort of known as this arranger orchestrator for my whole career. I started writing music when I was 12 and at 16, I saw the first Star Wars film and at that point, I knew I wanted to be a film composer, but I had gotten down the road and I really never had that opportunity and honestly about 10 years ago, I thought it was never going to happen.  But completely out of the blue, about a year and a half ago, I got called by Disney asking me if I wanted to be involved in both Once Upon A Studio and Wish as the composer and I was completely blown away because I thought this was just a dream that I never thought was going to happen and to actually have the opportunity occur was beyond belief honestly.  I really can’t say anything more, Michelle, than that it just was a complete, unexpected joy that just fell from the sky and so, that was how my involvement began and that’s how I found out.

What I love about this short is seeing all of our favorite characters and it’s funny but also kind of emotional.  How do you approach something like this as a composer to translate these moments into music?

Well, Once Upon Studio was a particularly challenging project just structurally, musically, and compositionally, because you have 4 seconds in one character’s land, and then you have to turn around and you have 8 seconds in some other world and so there was a lot of back and forth and it was really the epitome of traditional Disney, animated composition work which was what I found to be the biggest joy of it.  Since I’ve worked with them for so long, I had a collection of all the old scores.

I had the original score for Snow White, or I have a copy of the original score for Pinocchio or for Peter Pan.  So when I first got the job,  I immediately went back and started studying those scores again, then kind of glean what I could out of what orchestrationally was done for instance and what the melodic tendencies were.  So when I was writing for it, I really just had this blast of getting to let the inner Disney nerd in me come out and write in the style of so many classic composers who come before me and laid the foundation for where we and I am are today.

You’ve worked on 11 of the 63 Disney animated films but Wish was kind of a milestone for you. Can you tell us about that and what that was like for you?

Absolutely, Wish again was just this amazing opportunity that I never dreamed was going to happen and fell out of the sky.  Once I got over the shock of being hired for the job, it was kind of the realization of, oh, wow, so now I actually have to figure out how I’m gonna do it.

But, I’ve been around so long that I knew all the steps that had to be done, but it was now a matter of being on my own to actually do them. I spent the first 8 months of my involvement on the project working on the songs.  I was the song arranger and orchestrator. These amazing songs were composed by Julia Michaels and Ben Rice and so the beginning of it was really a matter of just spending time with them and getting to know each other because we’d never worked with each other before and, it’s fair to say, they’re a little younger than me, so part of the joy and challenge was to get to know where they were coming from musically and then to figure out what I could bring to their songs and make them maybe a little more cinematic. I was still lucky that since I knew I was going to be composing the score, I could kind of direct how I  was dealing with the songs in a way that would also meld seamlessly with the score.   My goal was really to make an overarching flow to getting in and out of the songs to make it feel like the whole film was one cohesive piece.

I worked on the songs for 8 months and then we finished with those and then I slipped over to writing and composing the score and I had about 6 weeks to compose 68 minutes of music roughly for the score which was a little intimidating just because that’s a lot of music.  Every day I had to kind of knock out so much music just to make sure I was going to stay on schedule, but again, I had the benefit of having worked on the songs for so long and I really knew what the film was about by that point.  I wasn’t having to learn things. I already knew where I was and where I wanted to head. 

So really then it was just a matter of every 10 days or so I’d play music for the directors and they’d make their notes and I was fortunate they weren’t too major.  I had a few little tweaks I had to make here and there and then we got to the point of work of recording the orchestra and in a nutshell that was my experience.

How did you come up with the overall sound for Wish and decide what instruments you were going to use? What’s that process like?

Well, when I was first engaged at the very beginning of the film,  I had a discussion with the filmmakers about what the goals were of where is the film taking place and what era is it taking place.  One of the things that was very obvious was that Rosas is a kingdom on an island out in the middle of the Mediterranean somewhere and people have come to this kingdom from all over the region. So, you have people that have come from Spain and I knew I needed to use Spanish-sounding instruments to some degree.

So I used a lot of flamenco nylon string guitar with a real prevalent thread that I used as an instrument throughout the entire score.  I also used a cajon which is used as a percussion instrument in flamenco music very frequently.  I also wanted to use North African elements as well, so I used an Oud, which is a guitar like instrument and I used Darbukas and I used reeds.  I used percussion instruments that were very emblematic of North Africa.  

I had this lovely opportunity to build this meld of a unique kind of grouping of all those sounds but I also wanted to delineate the era a little bit too.  So I found that using an Oboe d’amore which is kind of a renaissance oboe gave a little different sound than if I would have just used a traditional oboe or English horn and so I was always looking for these kinds of instruments that could give a sense of time in place and then wrap it all in a traditional classic cinematic Disney orchestra which is I suppose, one of my specialties, one might say.

What’s the most challenging aspect for you as a composer?

I have to say the hardest thing is the first thing and that’s when it’s a blank slate. I really think that the biggest challenge is finding the themes that work for the characters, especially in a film like this, being kind of a classic film, I was writing more of a light motif kind of thing where most characters have an identifiable theme or sound.  So really it’s finding those themes at the beginning.

I think probably about the first 3 weeks was the most challenging and panic induing… coming up with these themes that were going to be memorable, meaningful, and emotional.  But once those were established and the directors liked what I was doing, then it was a matter of fitting those themes into the scene specific film moments and then the panic started to ebb a little bit.

What’s next for you?  Can you tell us any other upcoming projects you’re working on?

I kind of cleared my schedule when I got this opportunity. Typically in my career, I’ve had 4 or 5 projects going on at the same time which is, as you might imagine, they’re all typically quite different. I just didn’t want to have any of that at all so I turned down quite a few jobs in this last year working on this but one film that I’ve been working on for about 4 years that will now pick up again is the live-action version of Snow White. 

I’ve been involved in arranging and orchestrating and co-producing all the songs for that for a long time.  So with the strike and such and the pandemic, there have been some delays that were induced because of that.  But I’ll be moving back into that at some point down the road. At this point, it’s kind of a blank slate honestly for the first time in 15 years and I hope I have some other opportunities as a composer and who knows if that’ll happen or not but I’m just incredibly thankful to have had the opportunity to have had the chance to be a composer on my own 2 legs and on such a beautiful film. Wish was such a joyful project and Once Upon A Studio was as well.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Many thanks to David for sharing his time with us.

Be sure to check out “Once Upon A Studio” which is streaming now on Disney+ and “Wish” which arrives in theaters on November 22nd.

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