SciFi Japan Interview

2

Interview: MEGA MONSTER BATTLE: ULTRA GALAXY Composer Mike Verta

Author: Steve Ryfle
Official Movie Site: Mega Monster Battle: Ultra Galaxy
Special Thanks to Jim M. Ballard

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.