There is a world of interesting instruments, tonalities, colors, and harmonies out there which we can use in our work. Rather than just dropping a duduk on top of some strings, lets explore deeper the techniques and effectiveness of truly integrating these gems within our Western framework. When it’s done right, it’s both exotic and familiar, and extremely effective! $30. Click on the title graphic above to purchase.
Everything You Wanted to Know, but Were Afraid to Ask. During the year, I get asked a lot of fantastic questions which nonetheless aren’t quite worthy of an entire class on their own. They’re one-offs about things like: developing ideas, modulating, runs and flourishes, writing for small groups, negotiating with a difficult director, notation, deliverables… a huge cross-section of topics. I’ve kept them in a special folder all year. Well for this class, we’re going to bring them all out, line them up and knock them down – a potpourri salad bar grab bag of useful, with a lot of gems and surprises. Don’t miss it! $30. Click on the title graphic above to purchase.
In honor of Halloween, this class is about creepy, atonal, disturbing horror effects. Clusters, stabs, effects, and all manner of aleatoric badness. So often, we trigger pre-built effects from a library. Let’s learn what they are, how we can customize them, and how to actually notate this stuff! $30. Click on the title graphic above to purchase.
James Horner’s music had a profound impact on me as a young composer; on a lot of us, I suspect. For all the shots taken at him during his career, he was a master dramatist, thematic composer, and craftsman, and he will be sorely missed. Join me for this in-depth look at his techniques – famous and infamous – as we relish what he’s left us, and how to incorporate some of that into our work so he is sure to live on. $30. Click on the title graphic above to purchase.
The interwoven melodic lines of great counterpoint add depth and dimension to our pieces, and vastly expand our opportunities to create tension, drama, and excitement in our work. But learning to control it can be tricky – when do you use it? How much; how little? When does it in enhance; when does it compete? What is the impact on orchestration and tone? So many questions. You’ll find the answers here as we begin the exploration of this, my personally favorite part of writing music. Don’t miss it! $30. Click on the title graphic above to purchase.
If there’s one thing all the greats have in common, it’s a mastery of the power, color, and drama afforded by great rhythm and masterful use of percussion instruments. Sitting in the percussion section for many years gave me some pretty strong feelings about rhythm, and the use of the multitude of colors back there, and I picked up a lot of great tricks which I now use every day in my writing. In these “epic” times, it’s not always clear what to use, when to use them, and how – beyond a wash of thundering bangs. So in this class, we’ll talk about incorporating strong rhythmic devices into each section, and how to enhance and complement them both subtly and forcefully with the most dynamic section in the room.
$30. Click on the title graphic above to purchase.
By popular demand – Crafting and developing killer themes. We’ll do some genre-specific and emotionally-based theme creation, and then explore ways to modulate, develop, dress up, recycle, and repackage those ideas a ton of ways. Essential skills for any of us – this is the key to connecting with our audiences. Don’t miss it!
$30. Click on the title graphic above to purchase.
This one’s all about moods. Heroic, wistful, ominous, elated, vengeful, bitter, liberated, mysterious – learning how to conjure a specific emotion for our audiences is a key skill. I’ll be covering some of the essential tricks for establishing a mood and discussing how to get from one to another quickly and efficiently. I lean on this skillset every day with every cue. Don’t miss this one!
$30. Click on the title graphic above to purchase.
I’ve watched most of Mike’s classes and have gotten a lot out of all of them. This particular one is a gold mine, I think it would be a valuable resource for any composer.
Thank you Mike, for presenting the fundamentals of creating mood in such an easy to absorb (and always entertaining) manner. I have a short film I need to write for, and now I have the confidence to make it happen.
Let’s face it: a lot of us are writing on virtual instruments for virtual instruments, and while following the traditional rules of orchestration and composition is a fantastic approach, not everything translates; not everything works. In this class, I’ll show you how I handle this unusual beast – what I avoid trying to do virtually, how I approximate certain otherwise-impossible effects. We’ll talk about ways to layer and supplement parts, how to manage a template, combine different sample libraries, and more!
$30. Click on the title graphic above to purchase.
The class was great, very insightful, super helpful, man, I can’t recommend these enough! The amount of true “hands-on” knowledge that is immediately applicable is enormous and on top of that these classes are such a huge motivational boost to keep learning, improving, growing.
I think we should be able to do passable “impressions” of our composing contemporaries. Doing so reveals our understanding (or lack thereof) of the colors and styles we’re surrounded by – which naturally influence our own work! This oft-requested class explores the “essence” of the sounds from composers like James Horner, Alan Silvestri, Thomas Newman, Jerry Goldsmith and others. What makes them sound the way they do? Through harmonic, orchestrational, and structural examples, we reveal their secret recipes and approaches. Lots of “Ah-Ha!” moments guaranteed.
$30. Click on the title graphic above to purchase.
Once again, awesome class!
Writing music is one thing; writing music to picture is another. In this class I’ll be talking about strategies for thematic development within film structure, handling cue entrances/exits and transitions, techniques for orchestration in and around dialog/sound effects, working with temp tracks, and more. Plus I’ll give you some of speed-writing scoring tips for getting scenes cued and mapped out under the gun, as we look at before-and-after examples from several real-world projects.
$30. Click on the title graphic above to purchase.
Fantastic class, Mike! It was very interesting and full of great information. The hours flew by.
…what an incredible class this was, i’ve attended 5 classes now (including the free one’s), and Score 1 was something I Needed exactly yesterday! It completely helped me rework/improve on my existing work for an indie film I am working on.
Here’s where I come down:
I don’t care how “ex” you are, if you spent more than a decade with someone, shared a life with them, married them, have an amazing child with them, and are fortunate enough to be amicably separated, their well-being just can’t ever be completely beyond your concern. How can they ever be totally out of your heart? I dunno; maybe it’s just me. All I know is that from the moment Danica called to tell me she was going to be on Dancing with the Stars I was excited for her, proud of her, and knew she was going to approach it with the same tenacity and integrity she does everything else. Well you can add “grace” and “courage” to that list as well, because she’s dancing through a broken rib right now, and few people will ever know just how brutal that is for her. But I do. I’m hoping she gets the gold more than ever now; it’ll go with her heart. Go get ’em, D.
I’m directing a series of product commercials for Mattel this year… first up: Hot Wheels. This was a fun shoot in an idyllic neighborhood, where I was going to eventually have to digitally insert some Hot Wheels artwork on the side of the white panel truck we used in the plate. For other parts of the commercial, I had to create an entirely digital Hot Wheels car and the iconic track for an animation, seen below:
The camera was going to be right up on the CG car and track, which required me to give them an extremely high-level of detail and finesse to make sure they looked photoreal in HD. Comparatively speaking, the steadicam live plate of the beautiful Kim Nielsen as the mother, and my rockstar kid actor, Xander Taylor, were a cinch to capture. Brought my little boy on set, too, of course. By the end, he was calling action…
This piece, Crimson Lake, was written as a demo to showcase The Hollywood Sound Timbral Impulse Collection: LASS Edition from Numerical Sound. It uses LA Scoring Strings v2.0 samples, with a touch of harp. For more on these great impulses, click the link above.
For years, I was fortunate to have been asked to write the music for Warner Bros. Pictures’ ShoWest Presentations. These were always grandiose commissions which employed a large orchestra, and required weaving quintessential movie-moods together in pure Hollywood fashion. Often set against a backdrop of some of the most iconic[…]
"The most pretentious thing one can do is quote oneself."Mike Verta
I did this arrangement the day after visiting some friends at ILM who were working on Abrams’ Star Trek. I wondered how they were going to incorporate the original theme into the movie; turns out they didn’t. But I had no idea what the movie was going to be like[…]
I loved the first Iron Man movie. I saw it in the theaters 5 times (I don’t think I’ve done that since Raiders), and it was just sort of on my mind a lot. So it wasn’t particularly surprising that one Saturday afternoon I felt like doing a mash-up between Iron Man and R2-D2 – which I’d already done in CG, of course. What was surprising was that Gizmodo and Reddit posted it and the damn thing went viral – in geek circles, anyway.
I’m still getting Google Alerts about it. What was especially cool was that Iron Man‘s director, Jon Favreau liked it so much it’s been his Twitter avatar ever since.
Anyway, it gets better. Eventually, one of the members of the R2-D2 Builders’ Club, Kevin Pommenville, decided to take my rendering, and actually build it for real.
Do you know how hard these things are to build? And this guy tosses off a build of an Iron Man mash-up version I did in an afternoon, and it’s even cooler than what I came up with. That’s badass. Surreal, and badass.
Anyway, I had done a few other Iron-Man-related things as well. I wanted to make my desktop look like Tony Stark’s, so I decided to recreate the Stark Industries logo myself. As usual, weeks of obsessive analysis ensued.
Along the way, since I was analyzing every reference frame I could so intently, I spotted a couple 1/24th of a second inside jokes about Iron Man‘s Jeff Bridges, who’d famously played the title character in The Big Lebowski. These images flashed by on his character’s computer screen during one sequence:
Ultimately, I did many revisions to ensure the letterforms were just right.
And finally, my desktop wallpaper was done. Looks just like Obadiah Stane’s from the film. Both Danica and I had this as our wallpaper for months.
Eventually, someone asked to use my logo to make Stark Industries T-shirts. Of course, I agreed.
Still wear it.
The first entirely-CG visual effects job I ever got was modeling and rendering the iconic Capitol Records building for an animation which would go at the top of all Capitol DVD releases. It was the job that ultimately led to my relationship with Warner Bros. Pictures, which led to me opening my own post-production company, which would comprise the majority of my creative life for the next 8 years. I didn’t know all that would come of it at the time, but I knew it was a big job; an important job. I knew I really had to do it justice. So to start, I asked for copies of the original 1954 blueprints, so I could assure the digital model was as accurate as could possibly be. I remember vividly the building engineer taking them out of their storage drawers and bundling them up for me; they were just dripping with history, yellowed and wonderful.
I spent hours just looking at them, absorbing every detail, before realizing I didn’t understand most of what I was looking at. Some measurements are pretty straightforward on blueprints – others, not so much; and they reference all sorts of other prints with cross-sections, and details, and histories of changes. I had a crash course in vintage blueprint analysis, but I was so amped up for the gig I didn’t mind.
Before the modeling actually began, I climbed all over the building double-checking measurements, taking reference photos, and capturing textures. On the roof, with an amazing view of Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles, I counted the holes on the tall spire; I noted the spacing between the giant letters, and wondered about the font. Ultimately, it would take weeks of painstaking work and many trips back to the building before I had my digital model complete, which I built in my software of choice at the time, Form-Z.
I did the texturing, animation, and rendering in ElectricImage, and then did sound design, wrote some music, and mixed the piece in Pro Tools.
Back then, making photoreal CG – or anything approaching it – was 1000x more difficult than it is today, but maybe more rewarding for the effort. I can’t imagine how much more realistic this image would look today. Maybe it’s time to dig out the model…
Hot off the bench: My design for a limited-edition Star Wars iPhone case featuring R2-D2 (my CG R2-D2, in fact!). This is one of a series which will be offered at Disney Theme Parks as part of their Star Wars Weekends. It’s not that big a deal; these little start-up companies are super easy to please.
This score was written to accompany the motion simulator ride currently running at Six Flags’ MovieWorld Theme Parks in Madrid and Australia. The score needed to seamlessly integrate the theme from the 1989 film with new themes which I wrote for Joker, Catwoman and Mr. Freeze. Recorded at Todd-AO and engineered by Shawn[…]
Here is the Music Player. You need to installl flash player to show this cool thing!
I was excited to compose the score for Forbidden Warrior – the film embraced a very grandiose and mythical style, visually, so a lush, heavily-thematic score was fitting; and that’s just indulgent fun for any composer. We utilized a large orchestra and recorded on the legendary Todd-AO scoring stage with Academy-Award-Winning engineer Shawn Murphy at the console.
The two tracks featured here give a sense of the score in essence. More previews, and the album itself, are now available on iTunes!
If you haven’t heard by now, former television child-star Danica McKellar (The Wonder Years, The West Wing) grew up, graduated summa-cum-laude from UCLA as a certified math genius and co-authored a physics theorem on two-dimensional magnetism that now bears her name. Click on that link, I dare you. But even more impressive is that she followed up these achievements with a series of New York Times Bestselling math books for middle-school girls, teaching them not just how to do math, but empowering them with the courage, confidence, and self-respect that brings true happiness and success in life.
I have been privileged to be a small part of her amazing contribution: I came up with the titles for her books, and did the jacket artwork for both hardcover and paperback versions. It wasn’t that hard a job to get – I was married to the author. Still in all, I’m proud of what we’ve done, and can’t encourage you strongly enough if you’re the parent of a middle-school girl, know of one, or have ever heard of one, to purchase these life-changing texts soon enough. They don’t just teach math skills; they teach life skills, and they’re changing the ways girls think about themselves – and math – the world over!
Here is the Music Player. You need to installl flash player to show this cool thing!
Last year I was asked to compose the score for a beautiful and touching short documentary entitled, “A Journey with Purpose” which told the tale of a Holocaust survivor who returns to Auschwitz with his grandson to confront his demons, make peace with his memories, and, at long last, say Kaddish – the prayer for the dead – for family and friends long gone.
Here are a few excerpts from the score.
I did several variations on the look and materials which were seen on posters, banners, consumer products, and a host of other projects related to the film. Shortly after completing the project, I was interviewed by SuperHeroHype.com about the process…
Having been a life-long Star Wars fan, I was honored to become part of the official Star Wars universe when asked to create a new CG R2-D2 for Star Wars: The Complete Visual Dictionary. I had previously done one on my own, as a personal project, which I found later was the reason I was considered for the job, initially:
I’d even done a couple of renders of him for the Fourth of July and Halloween.
Now, in truth, Lucasfilm was happy to just use the one I’d already done, but being a card-carrying member of Perfectionists Anonymous, I insisted on re-doing it. I wanted it to be as accurate as possible; after all, this was for Star Wars! – a chance to give back to the universe which had inspired me creatively, so often. Plus, I figured I could swing a trip to Skywalker Ranch out of it, and get a chance to measure and photograph the real R2’s.
And that’s exactly what happened.
Former ILM model maker, and Lucasfilm Archivist Don Bies arranged for me to come up there and spend a few days detailing every square inch of three of the original R2’s.
I took gigabytes’ worth of reference photos, capturing every detail and nuance, which I would use later to build texture maps for my CG version.
After weeks of work, I had finally modeled an entirely new CG R2, and was ready to texture it.
The materials, lighting and scene setup happened in Autodesk’s Maya, and the final renders were done by NextLimit’s Maxwell Render, which I have been proud to be on the testing team for since its earliest days. My first render was a side-by-side comparison with one of the original R2’s I’d photographed.
Next was to compare it to a well-known studio photo from “back in the day.”
When I was finally satisfied, it was time to render final images for the book, and other projects. Here’s a single shot of the final:
Here is the Music Player. You need to installl flash player to show this cool thing!
I was recently commissioned to score a new museum exhibit featuring the amazing accomplishments of NASA during the 20th century called NASA – A Human Adventure. The music would underscore the exhibit narration, as visitors move from gallery to gallery. While it was important for each gallery to have its own style and flavor, I chose to unite all the pieces under a very “Americana” sounding banner, with nods to works of American composers like Aaron Copland, who helped define that sound for all of us. The exhibit features stunning and wonderfully-crafted models built by White Room Artifacts – an elite model shop founded by former ILM model maker Don Bies, who frequently collaborates with the most famous and well-respected model makers in film history – many of the original crew for such pioneering films as Star Wars. Check them out.
Crucial, or bullcrap?
It’s an important part of the process.
Should you be home woodshedding all day, or just jump into the game even if your skill set has a lot of room for improvement?
Long before I was hired to do the CG R2-D2 for Lucasfilm, I was a member of the R2-D2 Builders Club (Of course there’s an R2-D2 Builders Club!). The club is a fantastic resource for blueprints, advice, tutorials; they even go in on part manufacturing runs together to save costs. But fresh from my experience gathering data from the originals in the Archives at Skywalker Ranch, I decided it was time to get my own build together.
Like most builders, I had been collecting parts for years. I had a little “shrine” in the house – a scattering of semi-recognizable aluminum parts in little piles. That’s how it works: to save on money, parts are produced by machine shops whenever they happen to have left over time at the end of jobs, so it can be months (or years!) from the time an order is placed until a part actually shows up, by which time you’ve probably forgotten about ordering in the first place. So it’s a little like Droid Christmas all year-round; packages just randomly show up containing, say, a leg, and you become giddy with excitement for about 10 minutes, until you realize you still have dozens of parts to go, and no idea when they’re arriving.
But, eventually, like me, you’ve got all your parts. This is a little like having your “I’m going to build an R2-D2” bluff called. The actual work of assembly, integration of electronics, painting, etc., is entirely at the builder’s discretion and there are no instructions. Over the years, builders have come to agree on various approaches towards different aspects of a build, but as we’re fond of saying, it isn’t the R2-D2 Kit Assemblers Club; it’s a builder’s club. As a result, no two R2’s are exactly alike. Some are very basic, others frighteningly sophisticated. My goal was simple: I wanted to match the look and feel of the original R2 from 1977’s Star Wars. He never quite looked the same again, and nobody had quite done him justice in a build.
In the end, I spent more than a month in Florida at the shop of my good friend Jon Laymon, who is one of the most talented (and patient) human beings on the planet, and we made it happen. Today, my R2 walks, talks, and generally dominates the room’s attention, even when he’s just sitting in my living room. And, just having him around makes a part of me feel perpetually 5 years old again. It’s a good thing.
An “opening credits” theme for a modern Wonder Woman. Speed-writing exercise for 8/4/11.
Nostradamus brings you some predictions…
Two weeks ago, our first child was born – a baby boy. Nearly every morning since, I’ve been holding him, asleep on my chest, as the sun rises majestically over the mountain tops – welcoming not only each new day, but for him, a lifetime of adventures ahead… Speed-writing exercise[…]
Last week, 16 year-old Abby Sunderland set sail with youthful optimism on her continuing quest to circumnavigate the globe, only to have her ship destroyed by stormy seas in the Indian Ocean. Did the plucky little sailor live to tell the tale? Speed-writing exercise for 6/12-13/10.
For slightly more modern warfare. Speed-writing exercise for 6/10/10.
A patriotic adventure piece, heavy on the Horner. Sorry, “horns.” Speed-writing exercise for 6/09/10.
…and, really, who doesn’t? This short “cue” was written to test a new virtual template, and utilizes a few classic themes/motifs/flourishes from the films. Thanks – and apologies – to JW. Say what you will about The Man, it’s harder to crib his hang than you’d think.
Bought a new sample library: Stormdrum 2; decided to give it a test run. Speed-writing exercise for 4/2/10.
Beware the seductive charms of this bullfighting Latin lover! Speed-writing exercise for the morning of 3/14/10.
Interview: MEGA MONSTER BATTLE: ULTRA GALAXY Composer Mike Verta
Ultraman Belial, the first evil Ultraman from M78. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Japan. © Mega Monster Battle ULTRA GALAXY Film Partners
Author: Steve Ryfle
Official Movie Site: Mega Monster Battle: Ultra Galaxy
Special Thanks to Jim M. Ballard
Mike Verta, soundtrack composer for MEGA
MONSTER BATTLE: ULTRA GALAXY. Photo
courtesy of Mike Verta.
A SciFi JAPAN EXCLUSIVE
Tsuburaya Productions is touting their latest special effects extravanganza, MEGA MONSTER BATTLE: ULTRA GALAXY (Daikaiju Battoru Urutora Ginga Densetsu The Movie, 2009), as a rebirth for both the company and it’s long-running Ultraman franchise. The producers of the movie wanted a dramatic, Hollywood-style score to complement the updated visuals so they turned to an American composer, Mike Verta.
Mike Verta knew he wanted to make movie music after seeing the original STAR WARS at age five. He moved to Los Angeles in 1990 to become a film composer, but soon expanded into visual effects work as well. He established his own post-production company and has provided music, FX, sound design, and editorial work on a wide range of productions.
Mike has produced music and graphics for several Warner Bros. presentations at industry events such as ShoWest and Toy Fair, and also created the 3D Superman ‘S’ logo for Bryan Singer’s SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006). He has written and performed music for a number of commercials and trailers, an award-winning campaign for Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, the Sci-Fi Channel movie HEATSTROKE (2008), the BATMAN: THE SIMULATOR RIDE at Six Flags’ MovieWorld Theme Parks, and two Lifetime Movie Network INSPECTOR MOM movies (2006-07) starring his wife, WONDER YEARS and THE WEST WING actress Danica McKellar. He has continued his lifelong interest in STAR WARS by creating a CG rendering of Artoo-Detoo for the book Star Wars Complete Visual Dictionary. For additional information on Mike’s work and career, visit his official site Mike Verta dot com.
MEGA MONSTER BATTLE: ULTRA GALAXY is Mike’s first soundtrack for a Japanese theatrical feature film. He recently spoke with SciFi Japan’s Steve Ryfle about his work on the film, his approach to movie music, and his crash course introduction to 40+ years of Ultraman history…
SPOILER WARNING: This article contains plot details for a new movie.
Cover for the MEGA MONSTER BATTLE: ULTRA GALAXY Original
Soundtrack CD, now available from Sony Music Japan. Photo courtesy
of Mike Verta. © Mega Monster Battle ULTRA GALAXY Film Partners
Steve Ryfle: How did you get the job of scoring MEGA MONSTER BATTLE: ULTRA GALAXY?
Mike Verta: I was hired by the producer, Junya Okabe. They were looking for a sound they felt they couldn’t get in Japan, and they needed to get an American composer. They chose me because I’d worked with the producer many years ago, 12 or 13 years ago. I had done a trilogy of films called DARK SOLDIER D (1998) for him. He was actually one of my first scoring clients for features. I had done those films for him, but hadn’t done anything for him since. It’s kind of funny but I thought he’d been upset with my work, which was why I never heard from him.
But as it turned out, a few months ago I just got a random e-mail from him, and he said, “actually I’ve just been looking for something that was big enough, because otherwise I thought you wouldn’t agree to do it.” In the meantime he had become vice president of Tsuburaya, and when this project came up his first thought was to attach me to the movie.
Steve Ryfle: You’ve previously worked on other Japanese productions, as well.
Mike Verta: There was the D trilogy that I did the music and sound design and mix for, and I did the sound design and mix for the American re-dub of COWBOY BEBOP (1999), and then there was a series called SOL BIANCA: THE LEGACY (1999) that I did American mixes for. Those three projects all happened back to back… So it looked like I was going to be doing a lot of work with Japanese production companies, but I ended up doing more American studio stuff.
Following the defeat of the Ultramen, Ultraman Mebius turns to Rei and the
ZAP SPACY crew for assistance. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Japan. © Mega
Monster Battle ULTRA GALAXY Film Partners
Steve Ryfle: Do you have any personal affinity for this genre?
Mike Verta: No. You know, we saw a little bit of it on Saturday mornings when we were growing up, but I was never into the culture. I never read comic books, or had any knowledge of anime. I’ve just had really good luck. The first anime series I worked on was COWBOY BEBOP, and I absolutely loved it. It was one of those jobs where, even though I had work to do and deadlines to meet, I wanted to find out what was happening next. It was tremendously inspiring and fun. I became a fan of that series immediately.
The first martial arts film that I ever did sound design and music for was Koichi Sakamato’s WICKED GAME (2002), that he’d done with his stunt team, which is world-renowned; they’re unbelievable, which is why he’s gone on to do the POWER RANGERS, why he’s doing ULTRAMAN now, and why he gets asked to do fight coordination stuff, because they’re cutting edge. So in my first forays into these genres, I’ve been really fortunate to be associated with tremendous projects. So now my first live-action thing is ULTRAMAN. I just seem to have very good luck.
Mike in Japan, being interviewed for a behind the scenes video for next year’s
DVD and Blu-ray release of MEGA MONSTER BATTLE: ULTRA GALAXY. Photo
courtesy of Mike Verta.
Steve Ryfle: Did you ever see the original ULTRAMAN series on television?
Mike Verta: I’d probably seen a few seconds of it, so when they said ULTRAMAN, I had a picture of it in my head but I did not know anything about it. And I did not understand how popular, and what an iconographic part of Japanese society Ultraman was until after I’d been hired for this job. As they sent me 40 years of ULTRAMAN, I suddenly realized, “This is huge!”
Steve Ryfle: How much freedom did you have in writing the score? Were you instructed to write in a certain style?
Mike Verta: This is a very important question. Koichi was hired to direct the movie because as a director, he is an almost ideal bridge between our two cultures. He’s fully Americanized, but he’s a native Japanese person. So what they wanted to do with this new movie is they wanted to have somebody Japanese directing it, who would keep it Japanese at its core, keep just those things that make cultural sense intact. But they wanted to elevate it in terms of production and in terms of that Hollywood component. So, because he’s worked here in the states so much, it was going to have more of a western edit to it, and they felt very strongly that it needed an American score. A lot of times, Japanese composers will do an approximation of that, to use their term, “big Hollywood sound,” but it’s not legit. Vice-versa, when Americans try to copy a Japanese project it’s never quite right because they’re never quite in the vibe.
So they wanted me to do what I do, and that was what the producers told me at our first meeting, at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. They flew in and offered me the project, because, “We want you to do what you do.” That was Koichi’s feeling as well. The only thing they were absolutely clear about was, “Don’t try to write Japanese music; don’t try to write eastern music. That’s not what we want. We want that Hollywood sound.” So I was creatively in my comfort zone, which is good because the rest of the project—being in Japanese, being that it was material that I hadn’t grown up with, being that there were covered faces and I couldn’t see facial expressions and the whole thing was green screen—those things would prove to be very challenging to work with. So the fact that, at least musically and dramatically, I could count on my normal sensibilities was really important and helpful during the process.
Steve Ryfle: Even with this freedom, were you asked to listen to the music from past Ultraman iterations?
Mike Verta: I asked to listen to the music. They asked, “What do you want?” And I said, “I want the TV shows, and I want the movies, and I want to hear the musical legacy. I want to hear what’s been done before.” Because I knew immediately that, with a series with that much history, there are going to be characters that are going to make appearances in this movie, and however much we were going to make references or nods to them, or play their themes, it had to be informed by a knowledge of what it was. If there was something very distinctive in the music that I felt Ultraman simply couldn’t survive without, I would want to know that, and be able to incorporate that.
But that’s not what I found. I found that the music was largely western at its core, with eastern influences. That’s really how I’d describe the music. The original ULTRAMAN theme, it’s got tones of the BATMAN television show. When I listened to it, I thought, “What we’re doing here isn’t going to be radically different or much of a departure. It’s just going to be a little more romantic-era, orchestral than they’ve done to this point. A little bigger, a little more epic than they’ve done to this point.” That’s what they were looking for.
Watching a lot of these TV series, the theme songs would be pop songs and overall the tenor of the shows tended to be very light. Koichi was very, very clear that the tone for this movie was going to be more adult. It was going to be darker; everything was going to be taken more seriously. Even though it would still be for kids, it was definitely going to have a more adult sensibility to it. So musically we weren’t going to be going down the road of pop songs; that just wasn’t going to fit this film at all.
Mike in Japan with Ultra Seven, Ultraman Belial, Ultraman Zero, Ultraman King
and Ultraman! Photo courtesy of Mike Verta.
Steve Ryfle: In your score, do you quote any of the original Ultra themes?
Mike Verta: I do. I quote the original ULTRAMAN theme, and I quote the ULTRA SEVEN theme. MEBIUS gets a quote as well, and a couple of other little things that are buried deep in there that people will or will not notice. Certainly that was a discussion we had: We’re bringing all these Ultramen back. Should it be that every time we see them, we hear their theme? Well, that would become comical. It would lose its effectiveness. So there are a few key dramatic moments in the movie where you have to give Ultraman his theme, otherwise you’re missing the thrill button; it’s right there. I saved it for those moments where it’s going to be most effective and exciting. The rest of the time, you know, all the Ultramen are working together cooperatively, so there’s a cooperative Ultraman theme, which is as much the new character, Zero’s theme, as anybody’s. So, I built a new set of motifs for the film, with peppered quotations where appropriate.
With 100 monsters, weaving 100 themes together just wouldn’t make sense musically. There would be no core, unifying concept. I think a lot of times in the TV show, there’s the monster and there’s the character and they’re going to fight, and that’s the point. So let’s have their themes, let’s have them fight, and everybody’s going to walk away, and that’s fine. In this movie, the monsters and characters, and all their legacy, are wrapped up in a very compelling story, and the arc of that story is what drives the music. It’s not simply, “Here comes the monster, and here comes Mebius to fight him.” It’s that the particular fight between these two characters carries with it this dramatic moment. That’s more of what drives the music rather than simply, “Here’s a new character, time for a new theme.” There had to be a dramatic musical throughline to carry the whole story together. In that way, certainly the music is going to be different.
This film is very different than what’s come before. There hasn’t been an ULTRAMAN film that looks like this; in fact I don’t know if there’s any film in the genre that looks like this. The production design has gone way up and the dramatic approach is very different. I think it hits exactly the right notes, where the core is totally intact but it’s doing something that just isn’t going back to the well in the same way.
Key promotional art for MEGA MONSTER BATTLE: ULTRA GALAXY. Photo
courtesy of Warner Bros. Japan. © Mega Monster Battle ULTRA GALAXY
Steve Ryfle: In Japanese productions, the schedule can be notoriously short compared to Hollywood films. How much time did you have to do your work?
Mike Verta: I was hired in May or June. This was the fastest I’ve ever, ever, ever worked by far. And that’s true for everybody on the production, as far as I could tell. I wrote 84 minutes of music for this film. Generally that’s a 10-week job, but I did it in five weeks. I have never worked so quickly, ever in my life. But it was really challenging and fun. When you have to work that quickly you have no time to second-guess your instincts. That can really help you focus, because you have to get that music out. Your first idea is probably right, and that schedule compels you to run with it. So it’s exhilarating and inspiring, but I don’t think I could do more than a couple of these projects in a year. Basically I didn’t sleep for five weeks. [laughs]
Steve Ryfle: What materials were you given to work with?
Mike Verta: I was given storyboards, concept drawings, and an early version of the script, which would change. When I first started, I didn’t know what to do. Everybody was wearing helmets. I couldn’t see their faces. When I write music, I listen to every word; I watch the characters’ eyes and listen to the tone of their voices. All of those things tell me how to write the music. In this case, they had helmets on, their eyes were glowing, I couldn’t understand anything they said, the script was old and outdated, and the characters were sitting in a green box the entire time—I had no idea where they were. It was really an abstract environment and very difficult to get anything done.
But as soon as they started adding backgrounds—every Friday they would send me a new cut of the film with more of the backgrounds added in. And every day I would call Koichi, multiple times, in Japan and I would say, “What’s happening here? What is this person saying?” And I would ask him, right down to the word, “What’s the word when he says so-and-so. I need to know what’s happening at that exact moment.” So we were on the phone constantly, and between those conversations and the updated scripts, and every Friday seeing more and more of the film—”Oh, they’re on an ice planet!”—the film started to take shape and it got easier and easier to write.
That’s unheard of, for a company to update with visual effects shots every week. I’ve never seen that before. And by the end of the project, I was working with a locked picture, with all the effects in it, and I made my final adjustments. That’s an unheard-of luxury. So even though it started out really difficult and abstract, it was an ideal circumstance by the end.
The classic Ultraman foe Gomora, now a heroic monster controlled by ZAP
SPACY crew member Rei. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Japan © Mega
Monster Battle ULTRA GALAXY Film Partners
Steve Ryfle: By the time the picture was locked, how much tweaking did you need to finalize your score, and how much time did you have to do it?
Mike Verta: Just a couple of days, because we’d had such informative and deep discussions as we went along. Those things at the end were like, “Oh, the monster actually shot a laser there—I thought he was just screaming!” Sometimes the monster would open his mouth and I thought it was a roar. Of course, I’ll write different music depending on what’s anticipated to be in the mix with it, from a sound design standpoint. Sometimes I’m staying out of the frequency range or volume range that I know is going to interfere. It’s not until the very end that they put in the laser beams and that sort of thing, so there were a few things where I thought, “I’m going to be stepping all over that laser beam, so let’s change the music here a little bit.”
Also, at the very end of the movie, the ex-prime minister’s [Junichiro Koizumi] voice was added, and the voice actor who had done it on the temp track was completely different; he had nowhere near the same quality of voice as the actor in the final version. So I had to change the orchestration around the prime minister’s voice a little bit just because of the nature of the way he speaks. I think that was the last thing I did, was to adjust the music underneath the Ultraman King as he speaks.
Steve Ryfle: What was the most difficult scene to score?
Mike Verta: Wow. I don’t know if it counts as a scene. It’s the main title theme that accompanies the opening credits sequence. That was the hardest thing for me to find in the movie, which is typical. It’s also Ultraman Zero’s theme. For a long time, the middle of the picture and the end of the picture I had locked down, because there’s a lot of drama in there that I understood. But when Zero finally becomes the hero, which was going to be the main title for the movie, that eluded me for the bulk of the process.
It was just somewhere in that last little quarter that I found the tone that was going to match Zero, because Zero’s almost a bit of an antihero. You look at those eyes, and they’re slanted down a little bit; he’s a little angry looking. In the movie, without giving away too much, his motivations are not purely light and heroic. He needed a powerful theme and it took a while to find it. So the last scene that I wrote is the first scene of the movie. It was at that point I thought, “OK, I know what’s coming and I know how dramatic this is going to get, and we can’t burn people out too early. But we also need to set up what this movie is really going to be all about.” So the main title is the second to last thing I wrote. The movie opens with a scene, and that opening scene was the last thing I wrote, because at that point I knew what to warm people up with, and how not to give too much away, but also how to set up what was coming for the next 90 minutes.
Steve Ryfle: Are there any advantages to writing the score out-of-sequence?
Mike Verta: I approach a film score like a symphony. A lot of times film scores tend to be individual cues that serve the needs of their scenes, but taken all together they don’t describe a complete, interwoven musical story. That’s very important to me; I think it’s the hallmark of a good score.
In this film, a 90-minute film with 84 minutes of music, there are very few breaks without music, so it is like these long symphonic movements that follow and tell the story. And because there are these long movements, it is easier if you can do it sequentially because that way it’s just like telling a story; it’s very difficult to tell a story from the middle first. I tried to begin by writing that opening scene—I wrote a version of it, but not a note of it stayed because by the time I got into the parts of the film that I knew were going to stay, it no longer made any sense. I had written the first five minutes of the film and kept one minute of it by the time I was finished. That’s the nature of the beast. In context, I can’t imagine having done it any other way.
Mike Verta composed the theme for the newest Ultra hero, Ultraman
Zero. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Japan © Mega Monster Battle
ULTRA GALAXY Film Partners
Steve Ryfle: Where did you find inspiration to write the kind of music that’s required for a giant-monster movie?
Mike Verta: My process is as much an empathetic and sympathetic, emotional place as any actor would have to go in order to realize a character. Turning something abstract like emotion into something tangible like music is a unique process in and of itself; I don’t know exactly how it works, but I know when it works because we all respond to music in some common ways to some degree. We all know what heartstring-pulling music is, and what adrenaline-pumping music is. The question becomes, “What does this scene need?” And usually for me, I attempt to internalize the emotions of the characters that are speaking in an empathetic way. That’s my first process.
And my second process is I imagine myself sitting in that theater seat, eating popcorn. What do I want to be feeling? Do I want to be surprised? Do I want to know what’s happening or off-guard, not knowing what’s happening? So it’s this back-and-forth emotional modeling of both the characters on screen and the audience members. When I feel I know emotionally what’s actually happening there, then the process of turning that into music—well, that’s what I do. But unless I know how everyone is supposed to feel, I can’t write a note. How would I know which notes to choose? It could be anything. It’s an emotionally exhausting process for me.
My wife is an actress, and she and I have talked about how our processes are identical, at least in this regard. And similarly fatiguing. After 17 hours of being a citizen running around in a collapsing city, you’re tired. [laughs] I can’t score intense scenes back to back because I can’t deal with it. I have to sometimes give myself a break. What’s happening in this scene? “They’re discussing where to land the ship—OK, I can deal with that.” But in a movie where 100 monsters are attacking and cities are collapsing and the world’s been plunged into ice—if you want to maintain the proper level emotional commitment, you have to take it in chunks, because it’s a lot to handle. But, the result is that first 20 minutes of the film, that first act, when it finally comes to a close the audience is going to take its first breath. It’s a very powerful experience, and that’s what we’ve crafted. The film holds these really high levels of emotional involvement with these much-desperately needed breaks from it. It’s a very satisfying ride in that regard.
Mike’s soundtrack includes references to Ultra music from the past,
including the original themes for Ultraman and Ultra Seven. Photo
courtesy of Warner Bros. Japan © Mega Monster BattleULTRA GALAXY
Steve Ryfle: How and where was the score recorded?
Mike Verta: This score was produced virtually. We didn’t use live musicians this time. It was a budgetary concern. Having done mostly live stuff in my career, I don’t know if I could have logistically pulled off 84 minutes of this size orchestra on paper and recorded it. It would have taken a week to record that. I mean, I was still writing on the day we were mixing the score.
So it was produced virtually. The virtual orchestra is something I’ve been doing my whole life. And just to make sure it worked out, I brought in Shawn Murphy [JURASSIC PARK, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN] to mix it. He’s one of the finest score mixers anywhere in the world, Academy Award winning, and he definitely helped the score to sound dramatic and convincing.
Steve Ryfle: What sort of a setup do you have in your studio?
Mike Verta: I just have a giant array of Mac computers, a ProTools system, and Gigastudio PC’s that are just loaded with samples. I had to use everything I have in order to get this score done because the kind of orchestral music I write tends to use the whole palette. I like a lot of instrumentation, a lot of colors. Technically, it was this giant rig that I had to build for the movie. But by the time it was set up, there was nothing I wanted to reach for that I didn’t have.
I performed every part. Three flutes, two oboes, three clarinets, all the brass—I had to perform every part by hand. All the string parts. An 84-minute score with typically 90-something people’s worth of parts. And you have to perform a virtual oboe like a real oboe—it’s got to have expression. Often it would be the case where it’d be five o’clock in the morning, and I’d been up for 20-something hours, and I was trying to perform the most delicate passage, and I’m just fighting fatigue. It was a singularly unique experience.
Alien Shaplay, one of a multitude of villains who return to challenge
the Ultraman brothers in MEGA MONSTER BATTLE: ULTRA GALAXY.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Japan. © Mega Monster Battle ULTRA
GALAXY Film Partners
Steve Ryfle: Did you consider bringing in other musicians to help you complete the project?
Mike Verta: What would take more time—getting another musician here, and writing out their parts, or doing it myself? There was not that kind of time. There are a lot of things in the score that are not just first instincts, they’re first performances. I would clean them up if they were not quite right, but it was this Zen-like practice of on-the-fly orchestration. But that’s where I lean on 30 years of training and orchestration study to save me. I don’t have to think for a second, “Should this be doubled on trombones?” I know exactly what it should be, so it’s just a matter of playing it. If not for that, there’s no way it would have happened.
At the end, when the score was completed and ready for mixing, we had this big, 96-track session which I put onto a hard drive and we mixed it at James Newton Howard’s [composer for KING KONG and THE DARK KNIGHT] place. Shawn just pulled up the whole session on a ProTools rig over there and mixed it in 5.1. Then we FTP’d the 5.1 mix stems to Japan that night, and they dropped them into the film. We did the same thing when we did the stereo mixdown for the soundtrack—we bounced down the stereo mixes, FTP’d them to Japan, and Sony mastered them and produced the CD.
Steve Ryfle: As you’ve said, Ultraman is an icon with a rich history and a fan base that’s steeped in that history. How do you expect the new film, and your music, to be received?
Mike Verta: That was right in the forefront of my mind. When the original Ultraman [Susumu Kurobe as Hayata] and the original Ultra Seven actor [Koji Moritsugu as Dan Moroboshi] are in the movie, the gravitas that their presence needed to be treated with definitely weighed on my mind, because the fans are going to go nuts when they see these guys. As I was trying to connect to that, I thought about STAR TREK, another 40-year-old franchise. If they’d gotten Shatner and Nimoy to come back, people would’ve gone nuts. That’s one thing this film does very well. It keeps its historic core together and it brings back these guys, not just in cute little cameos but they’re central to the film. The film takes a new approach but it’s respectful to the past. I tried to take that same approach with the score. I’m excited to see it with an audience and hear everyone’s reaction.
Mike Verta Talks Superman’s Shield
Recently SHH! brought you the EXCLUSIVE on the Superman Returns ‘shield’ from Warner Bros. and fans went crazy for it! The Hype managed to track down one of the talented artists behind the shieldâ€™s 3D look, MIKE VERTA. We asked Mike a few questions via the ‘inter-web’ about his work on the Man of Steel’s upcoming return to film, as well his adventures in Hollywood as a visual effects man and his brush with the caped crusader.
SHH!: Mike, welcome to the HYPE – What is your background, how did you get started in the FX business?
Mike Verta: Well, I started out purely as a film and television composer, and visual effects was just a hobby. But shortly after I came out to Los Angeles in 1990, some opportunities came up to do visual effects professionally, and suddenly I had a second career. Eventually I opened my own post-production company, where I’ve been able to write music, do visual effects, sound design, editing, and serve as a director on a wide variety of projects for the studios, going on 12 years now.
SHH!: What got you interested in doing what you do?
Mike Verta: STAR WARS. It was the first film I ever saw – I was 5 years old – and I quite literally came out of the theater knowing I wanted to write music for the movies for a living. A few months later I began taking piano lessons. The visual effects stuff definitely came later, but it satisfies my inner geek in ways music can’t. I remember my first CG projects were all Star Wars ships just flying around in the computer; I thought that was so cool. Come to think of it, a lot of my personal CG projects are STILL Star Wars ships flying around.
SHH!: You were recently asked by Warner Bros. to work on the shield for SUPERMAN RETURNS, how did that come about?
Mike Verta: The job had fallen to Warner Bros.’ internal art department to produce some logos, and since I’ve done so much freelance stuff for them over the years, they called and asked if I could do it up in 3D. They knew the logo was going to be shiny metal of some sort, and that would’ve been difficult to draw by hand, so they opted to have me produce it in CG, with accurate reflective properties and lighting.
SHH!: What sort of input did Warner Bros & Bryan Singer have on the design of the ‘S’ shield?
Mike Verta: I didn’t design the ‘S’ – that was done by Bryan Singer and film’s production design department. I was responsible for translating it into 3D. WB sent me a jpeg of the costume torso and asked me to produce several variations on the look of the material.
SHH!: How did you create the SR shield in 3D?
Mike Verta: I began by modeling it in 3D in a package called Rhino – it was a pretty rough model, but enough for me to begin the texture and lighting work on it in Maya, while a friend of mine, Bill Tromans took the geometry to the next level. Because it was going to have reflections all over the surface, we treated it like an auto body, which meant the surfaces had to be absolutely precise in curvature continuity. It was extremely difficult, but it came out beautifully.
SHH!: What was your reaction when it was officially released?
Mike Verta: I hadn’t heard it was going to be released! I was reading posts on another board and someone posted this huge screenshot of the logo and I just about freaked. See, the work was produced under the strictest security, obviously, and I was liable for that sort of thing, so I called up WB in a panic… but of course they were completely calm on the other end of the phone saying, “Oh yeah, we released it…” but it was a rough few minutes there.
SHH!: You’ve worked on a lot of Hollywood projects over the years, what have been your most satisfying and challenging?
Mike Verta: Well, musically, I’d have to say it’s a toss-up between Batman â€“ The Simulator Ride, and the first full-length film score I did with a live orchestra. The Batman ride was challenging because the bar had been set high, and I was required to quote the 1989 theme, (by Danny Elfman) while still composing original music around it that blended seamlessly. The film I did Forbidden Warrior – it was an epic martial-arts fantasy – required me to write 89 minutes of music in just over 6 weeks… and I was working with the same orchestra John Williams uses, with the same engineer, so I really felt a lot of pressure to do it right. Visually, the teaser trailer I did for the first Scooby-Doo movie stands out in my mind. (a spoof of the Batman) It had to be produced very quickly, and it was just me and one other guy. He would be modeling geometry in one room, while I was running back and forth between two workstations animating, editing, compositing, and working on the sound design. But I think the final product came out pretty cool… The one thing that makes all the projects I’ve worked on especially challenging is the schedule. You have to produce A-quality work on command, almost instantaneously. You learn to be fast, to develop solid first instincts, and not to let the pressure of insane deadlines get to you. Those are absolutely crucial skills to have if you want to survive in the industry. Plus, you’re competing with top-notch people in every field, so obviously you need to have your craft together.
SHH!: How does it feel that the work you did on the Superman Returns shield will now be part of the Superman mythos?
Mike Verta: Well, whether you’re a fan or not (I am), Superman is truly an American icon, so I’m very proud to be a part of it. And I’m also a fan of Bryan Singer’s work, so that’s a great pleasure as well.
SHH!: How many different designs did you do for the ‘S’ shield?
Mike Verta: I didnâ€™t design the shield logo. I did several chrome versions, a glass version, 2 red and yellow metal versions,(one with a shiny surface and one with a more “satin” finish), 2 plastic-looking ones, and a black metal version. Those were sent to Warner Bros. for some additional paint work by Jon Sparrman before being presented to Bryan.
SHH!: Now that the Superman Returns suit has gone public what are your thoughts on the final costume?
Mike Verta: Well, I’d seen a close-up of the torso already, and I thought the material that it’s made of looked really cool, sort of like rubber dodge-balls do, with diamond-shaped indentations on it. And the shield itself has what looks like little mini “S” shaped indentations in it… very nice. Of course I could tell the color palette was different right away, and I remember thinking there’s a lot more to this Superman than just another guy in a blue suit. You have to remember that no element of a film is an island. The costume is part of the character, who’s part of the story, that’s part of the drama, and all those elements work together in very specific ways. There were some very careful decisions made about how the costume would appear, and I can’t wait to see how it all works together.
SHH!: You not only create elaborate visual effects, you are also an accomplished musician. How does music differ from visual effects?
Mike Verta: In my mind, they come from two different places, but they are essentially the same, both require composition and balance, and creative vision; both are effective in telling a dramatic story. When you work visually, you have a palette of colors to choose from; in music, you have a palette of notes and instruments to choose from. I’ve been amazed at how much I learn about music from doing visual effects, and vice-versa. They’re very similar. Perhaps that’s why the combination of music and visuals has made film such a lasting and powerful dramatic medium…
SHH!: You mentioned the BATMAN theme park ride, what was that like and what did you do?
Mike Verta: I not only wrote the music for the ride, I also did the sound design and the surround mix, which meant flying to Canada and Australia and spending 8 hours a day for 2 weeks bouncing around in simulator cabins. I won’t forget that anytime soon, I can assure you. Creatively, it’s Batman, so there was a lot of pressure to represent the legacy well, and some unusual creative challenges, like writing in the style of Elfman’s 1989 score while still creating original music and themes for the characters. But nothing beats standing in front of a 95-piece orchestra of the finest musicians on Earth and hearing your own music being played…
SHH!: One Star Wars fan to another, who shot first Han or Greedo?
Mike Verta: For the answer to these and other riveting questions, check out my site at: StarWarsLegacy.com. But for the record, Han not only shot first, but he shot Greedo in the balls.