How Claude Monet inspired Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack for Blue Planet II

The Blue Planet II music was recorded with the help of a "tidal orchestra" to create the feel of vast oceans and underwater habitats

Blue Planet II Landscape

What do oil paintings of water lilies in a French garden pond have to do with dolphins and walruses and the vast expanse of the open ocean? What connects Impressionist painter Claude Monet with David Attenborough’s landmark nature series Blue Planet II?

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The answer: music.

The score for Blue Planet II is in the hands of Hans Zimmer and music production company Bleeding Fingers; their composers have already earned an Emmy nomination for Planet Earth II.

Guiding them on this underwater voyage is music producer Russell Emanuel – and he has revealed the unusual inspiration behind the soundtrack.

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“Hans likes to come to every big project and do something original and different, and there were lots of discussions at the start of the project and we spent a month or so banging our heads together,” the producer and president of Bleeding Fingers tells RadioTimes.com. “He was very gung-ho to come up with a sound that encompassed the ocean, and that was really our challenge.”

He adds: “Essentially we were inspired by the paintings of the impressionists, specifically Monet.”

But how does a painting translate from image to sound?

“It’s these small brushstrokes,” Emanuel explains. “If you look at their pointillism technique, and specifically Monet’s water drawings, it’s tiny, tiny brushstrokes.

“When you get up close it looks abstract, and when you walk away you see the entire picture. And we thought that that was a very interesting concept. So what would that sound like if applied to an orchestra?”

Bleeding Fingers engineer Geoff Foster & president Russell Emanuel
Bleeding Fingers engineer Geoff Foster & president Russell Emanuel (Jack Lewis)

Pointillism is a painting technique where tiny dots of colour are used to form an image – so the composers decided to build up tiny bursts of music into one huge soundscape.

Emanuel tells us: “The concept was, no long bowing. If you imagine, when you look at an orchestra and you see them playing these long sweeping notes that make up a lot of the symphonic elements – what we decided to do was have a try at this concept where everyone was doing short plucks and tiny bows.

“Essentially, the conductor’s instruction for the orchestra was: ‘If the guy next to you is playing, you don’t.’ Every section is playing smaller pluck-strings, bows, and then it kind of weaves this ebb and flow and creates a motion.”

Emanuel and his team dreamed up something called the “tidal orchestra” (which, disappointingly, doesn’t mean a bunch of musicians who wash up on the beach every few hours before vanishing back to the depths).

The tidal orchestra is the thread running through the whole series, linking vastly different habitats. It’s already there in (ocean) bloom, the Radiohead and Hans Zimmer musical collaboration we hear in The Prequel.

“It’s ever-present,” Emanuel promises. “I think our job is to sonically weave it all together and make it work as one thing, but at the same time each episode has its own personality.”

Zimmer and the team at Bleeding Fingers have been working at the music for a whole year. When they first saw the footage it was arranged loosely into “stories”, but over the year it was edited and refined as the music came into being, and now it’s all ready to go.

They can’t wait for us to see it – and hear it.

“It really is a privilege,” Emanuel says. “It’s so easy to take the glory, but these pictures are so astoundingly beautiful.

“It’s a matter of just kind of watching and taking in, and making sure that you let the picture breathe. It’s very easy to overscore something like this.”

Blue Planet II episode one

He explains: “Historically there is a culture as a composer; I heard it referred to as the ‘Tom and Jerry approach’, where you’re hitting every visual cue. You’re hitting everything on the nose with an effect or a string run or something.

“But for something so important to the viewers, we have to let the emotion come from the pictures. I think our goal is to not score on the nose, and essentially to be a second viewer.

“As a musician you want to sit next to the viewer and be taken on the ride with them.”

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Blue Planet II launches on Sunday 29th October on BBC1