Composer Interview: Michael Picton (MARVEL Live!, Flash Gordon, Mutt & Stuff)

Michael Picton falls into a relatively rare niche of media composers, in that besides working on film and TV, he spends just as much time creating the music of circus shows and large theatrical spectacles. His work punctuates acts like Cirque Mechanics Ringling Bros., and can be experienced in the Marvel Universe LIVE! shows that bring the comic book characters to life with flare. Picton‘s music has also pulsed through television screens in Syfy Channel‘s Flash Gordon series among others, and is currently paired with the epitome of cute that is Nick Jr’s Mutt & Stuff.

Let’s start at the very beginning … a very good place to start. How does your story play out, from first being enchanted by music to working on TV, film, and live shows? And who are the most vital supporting characters in your tale so far?

My first memory of being impressed by music was the opening moments of the first Star Wars movie, which I saw at an age when I could barely understand what was going on. I think I had only just begun piano lessons at that time, but I loved the movie so much that repeated viewing imprinted that music in my mind. That score was a gateway for me into the world of orchestral music. As a teen, I became more interested in pop and electronic music, and paid attention to TV music, picking up the Hill Street Blues theme, trying to program a DX7 synthesizer to make Jan Hammer’s drum sounds from the beginning of the Miami Vice theme. These parallel interests in orchestral and electronic music continue in everything I write now.

I studied music at McGill University in Montreal and then began trying to work my way into writing film music any way I could; I had no idea. Eventually I assisted a few composers in Montreal, one of whom was Benoit Jutras who scored some of Cirque du Soleil’s best shows, and that relationship led me into the circus world, including an 18 month tour as a keyboard player in the cast of CdS’s Quidam. After that tour, I moved to the States and eventually won the Turner Classic Movies Young Film Composer Competition, which afforded me an entry into the LA film world. Since then, I’ve been leading simultaneous careers in circus music and film/TV music.

Most vital supporting characters? Definitely my parents, who encouraged my musical ambitions, when a more sane child would have gone into computer programming or physics.

It is not often that we get to hear from composers who write for the circus! What can you tell us about your process, from first considering a project such as Cirque Mechanics’ Pedal Punk, to the final performance of a show?

Speaking specifically about a show like Pedal Punk, it usually starts with meetings and discussions with the show’s director, in this case Chris Lashua,  to understand the style and content of the show. At this point, I’ll usually make some playlists of material I think might define the musical style of the show, and will get suggestions, both from him and from the performers, regarding music they like, and – in the case of performers – what music they feel fits their acts and their style. It’s important, especially in smaller shows with a lot of solo numbers, that the music reflects the artists’ personalities so it can amplify their stage persona. Then, we go through a series of developments and revisions as I write the music, usually trading video and sound files so the artists can work their choreography to my music, and I can then alter it to fit the structure of the acts they are creating. With pre-recorded circus music, you set up the main events –  the big tricks or changes in the routine – to be reflected in important musical moments, and sometimes break the music into sections that can be triggered moments, where the music needs to wait for the performers. That kind of thing can be more flexible when you have the luxury of a live band, like in the Ringling Bros. shows I score, that can move from section to section on a conductor’s cue, with a live drummer hitting tricks with percussive accents on the fly. On a show like Pedal Punk, without a live band, once it is recorded and mixed, the music is broken down into cues triggered by the stage manager using Qlab on a laptop computer.

Likewise, composing for a live action-packed theatrical show such as Marvel Universe LIVE is a unique endeavour among media composers. Would you consider that an extension to your skills as a composer for circus shows, or an entirely different kettle of fish?

It’s really a combination of my skills as a circus composer and a film/TV composer: I get to use the styles and sounds of epic film and trailer music in the context of a live show.

If you were asked to score an upcoming Marvel movie, how would your approach to the film compare with your approach to Marvel Universe LIVE, given your particular interactions and familiarity with the characters and the canon?

That would really depend on the movie, and that really comes down to the fact that a Marvel film will be more specific than a sprawling show like Marvel Universe LIVE!, which encompasses as many iconic Marvel characters as possible. That specificity would allow the style and emotions of the music to be more closely tied to the action and emotional journey of a specific character or team. Marvel Universe Live needs to be a bit of everything to everybody, and that’s part of its fun too: the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to characters and locations and battles.

What challenges would you consider unique to the medium of theatre and circus shows, as opposed to those encountered through TV and film?

I find that theatre and circus projects require me to think like a director more than film and TV projects. When I’m working on a film or a TV show, I get to react to the action and images in front of me. In a theatre or circus show, I very often have to create the action in my imagination, based on the script and discussions with the director, and score to that imaginary vision, because the show wouldn’t have been created or rehearsed yet. I also find that with the large arena live shows, I have to take care to write music that is simple, bold, and direct; some fine subtleties of orchestration that would carry an emotion in a quiet theatre might simply not register in a sports arena filled with people.

Your work not only spans multiple mediums such as theatre shows, circus shows, film, television, and adverts, but also spans projects aimed at a wide spectrum of viewers – from Mutt & Stuff for pre-schoolers to the twisted Bates Motel (definitely not for pre-schoolers). What does it take to be able to do so, in your experience?

First, it takes an openness to music in general, an appreciation of the craft of music in any style on its own terms – country music, hip hop, Serbian brass band music, whatever. Second, it just takes a lot of living and listening, so that there’s a brew of sounds and styles in your imagination to draw on. Pay attention to the cartoon scores of Carl Stalling, pay attention to the music of Ligeti, pay attention to Taylor Swift’s latest hit, and also imagine how all those things might intersect in your music.

How much can you tell us about your work on Nick Jr’s Mutt & Stuff? It looks incredibly adorable!

Well, it’s on the air now so check it out! It’s a Sid and Marty Krofft production, so it has the lineage of HR Pufnstuf, Lidsville, Land of the Lost, etc, and that bright colorful fun Krofft style.  It also has Cesar Millan, the dog whisperer and his son Calvin. It’s hilarious – it has an educational side, teaching kids how to be responsible dog owners, but it also has a dose of the wacky Sid and Marty Krofft style with wisecracking cat puppets, a talking fire hydrant, and real dogs driving cars. There are some Monty-Python-esque stop motion animations in a few episodes that crack me up. And the dogs are indeed adorable. I have two dogs myself and they are big fans.

We musicians and composers love our toys! So what are your favourite toys to work with in your studio?

My top favorite musical toy is my Steinway Model L, I named her Lily after my late grandmother. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get a lot of play on either Marvel or Mutt & Stuff, but when I am doing piano-oriented music, it is my absolute favorite. Apart from that, on the tech side, recently really liking the UAD Apollo Twin for my mobile rig; I love having access to those effects in real time on the mic preamps. Software-wise, the Sample Modeling series of instruments have proven really useful for the kind of writing I need to do on Mutt & Stuff.

Is there anything in your studio that has nothing to do with making music, but you couldn’t imagine not being there?

That would have to be my two dogs, Bartok and Rusty. They love to hang out under the desk while I work, and I do feel their absence when I work out of my dog-less LA studio.

Even when we’re working on fun projects, we’re still working hard for long hours. What do you do to have fun, and how do you maintain a balanced life?

Tricky question, since I’m not really leading a balanced life at the moment, being mid-season on a TV series. I’ll have to get back to you on that when the season is done!


Many thanks to CW3PR for their role in making this interview happen. More about Michael Picton can be found on his website.

Written by: Meena Shamaly

Meena Shamaly is a composer, artist, multi-instrumentalist and performance poet based in Melbourne, Australia. His music covers a wide range of styles and sensibilities and often intersects with his poetry. He is part of international production house EON Sounds, working on various film, TV, video game, and production library projects.

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