In the recording studio with film composer Hans Zimmer

The Oscar-winner behind the Pirates of the Caribbean, Dark Knight and Kung Fu Panda 3 soundtracks hates repeating himself but does a lot of sequels...

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“Let’s go again.”

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Air Studios in North London feels like a school hall on Saturday. Gym mats are piled up in the balconies of the former church, the wind section is in cardigans and, for the moment, they’re alone in the hall recording their section of the soundtrack. In the centre of the room, on the floor, a microphone dangles down into an empty water cooler bottle. For atmosphere, presumably.

“And…”

An eruption. The music sweeps from Appalachian Spring to the stabbing rhythm of Psycho. Then, just as it gets started, it stops.

They go again. And again. They play it again. And again. And again. The same 15 seconds, the same sweep. And again. And again. And…

“Why repeat things?”

Someone makes a mistake and it all breaks down into giggles, a one-man band falling down the stairs.

“Hang on a second.”

At the front is not Hans Zimmer – the Oscar Winning composer of everything from Pirates of the Caribbean to the Dark Knight – but another conductor. Standing in the middle of the church, he talks to an unseen voice via a radio mic. Zimmer is back there somewhere, but for the moment he’s left his team in charge of the booth.

One of the musicians returns to his paperback, propped open under his chair.

“Why repeat things that have been done? You need to keep doing new things. It’s vital.”

This is Zimmer’s third Kung Fu Panda movie.

“Sometimes I think my life is sequels.”

Behind the musicians, behind a pane of mirrored glass, is the control room, a mix of high technology and plush orange furniture. It looks like NASA, if NASA was based in California and run by the Eagles; the Starship Enterprise meets Boogie Nights.

The musicians take a break while the booth reviews against the film footage. The sudden stop is to sell a joke – Jack Black’s panda storms into a building then falls over – and it’s clear which versions work and which don’t, even if you’re tone deaf. They may sound the same, but some make you laugh, others don’t. Somehow, changes have crept in through the repetition.

“Sometimes I think my life is sequels. But I’m not complaining. You do something different every time to stay interested. You need to keep doing new things.”

Say the name Hans Zimmer to most movie buffs and they’ll respond with a noise: the ‘bwaah’ from Inception that was imitated in almost every movie trailer for years afterwards. Mention the ‘bwaah’ to Hans Zimmer and he gets a little annoyed.

“There was a story reason for that sound. Why would I repeat it?”

Let’s try something different.

“You mean down at seven?”

“Yes.”

“Just the pit?”

“No, all of it.”

Go again: crescendo at bar six, down at seven.

Hmm, go again.

Again.

Outside in the café, a mother is comforting a sensitive child. “Sometimes music has to be sad, and when you play it it’s sad, but that doesn’t mean you have to be sad.”

“The idea is sound, but it’s just a lot of noise.” 

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“Let’s go again.”