At a prestigious university, a young prospect with a whole career ahead of him trains day and night for a specialized skill set. But when he graduates and sets foot into his first gig, suddenly it’s nothing like what he prepared for.
That’s the premise behind Disney Television Animation’s Monsters at Work, – serialized sequel to Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. But for composer Dominic Lewis and I, both conservatory graduates, it hit pretty close to home.
Note: This story contains spoilers for Monsters at Work.
“I got very lucky, I made a lot of cool relationships whilst I was in college, knowing how difficult it is and with both parents being in the business,” said Lewis, “But seeing some of my friends work their tails off for four years and then ask ‘what do we do now?’ and it’s even harder now.”
Of course in Monsters at Work, new graduate Tylor Tuskmon (voiced by Ben Feldman) isn’t trying to enter a symphony orchestra. He prepared his whole life to become a Scarer – collecting the screams of children that power the city Monstropolis. That is, until at the end of the original film, it’s discovered that laughter is far more powerful. So, just as he enters the workforce he’s faced with reshaping himself into a Jokester.
It’s a premise that could be devastating or even terrifying in the hands of the wrong composer, but Lewis was ready to embrace this whimsical world – with the help of his own compositional predecessor Randy Newman, who scored Monsters, Inc.
Lewis described Newman as a “living legend who can do no wrong in my eyes,” saying that taking on a series rather than a film made the project more approachable.
“Randy is one of those composers that, you immediately know it’s him,” he said, pointing out that while the themes and general jazz/big band sound were ready-made, it’s still a unique project. “I’m constantly juggling, trying to tie that to that line.”
Lewis also had to bring himself into the world of jazz, studying harmonies and textures he hadn’t approached in a while. He returned to his Real Book (collection of lead sheets for jazz standards), and listened to Birth Of The Cool.
That small ensemble in the Miles Davis album is key to the charm of Lewis’s score, as viewers approach smaller, more intimate departments of the major corporation that’s such a big part of the series.
But the jazz orchestration that’s sure to become the most iconic of the series doesn’t use instruments at all. When approaching the theme song, Lewis struggled to make it something different that still fit the series. Until, late one night in his studio, he decided to layer his own voice together on every part – creating a jazz a cappella arrangement.
Groups like Pentatonix have kept the pop a cappella style alive and well for a new generation of singers, but this harkens back to the Swingle Singers – if the Swingles were a company choir made out of monsters.
And it’s still a Disney film, so the full orchestra does appear. It sweeps through emotional moments like Tylor Tuskmon’s graduation.
It also brings drama to the action scenes. While Tylor ends up joining the ragtag maintenance team known as MIFT (Monsters, Inc Facilities Team), the score lets us know that this crew is more crucial to the operation than they let on. But, isn’t that true in every facility?
Lewis describes his influences for these orchestral moments as wide-ranging, making the point that when writing for film or tv, it’s important to look beyond other film score composers.
“Whether it’s Randy (Newman) or John Williams, or Alan Sylvestri, or Jerry Goldsmith, whoever it might be, I’m inspired by all of them. But when I’m looking for inspiration I tend to head up to Ravel and Strauss.” He gestured outside of the shot of the video call at his cabinet of scores. “It’s going back to where it all started.”
Lewis is comfortable in the orchestra, having also scored both of the Peter Rabbit films, including last month’s Peter Rabbit 2. He describes his approach for kids’ movies as very aware that they’re not just watched by kids, describing a trap of thinking something is “just” kids’ music.
“I tried to do something for everyone, as the creators are trying to do, whether it’s Peter Rabbit, or DuckTales, or Monsters.”
Lewis’s other recent work was for Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, a far more “grown up” story. But when describing what makes a score fun to work on, he said that the age doesn’t really make a difference. It’s more about the journey that the characters take.
“I really relate to being able to dive into the emotional arc of the characters. And I feel like if the characters are constructed in a way that allows you to do that, then on all levels it’s going to be more successful.” He also pointed out the trap of being tempted to just score the action itself, like an old Bugs Bunny or Tom and Jerry cartoon – a completely different style, fed by very little dialogue. “It’s more about reacting emotionally to what’s happening.” Though it’s still for children, so when things get scary “You can’t scare the pants off of them.”
Disney movies come with a different type of “scary” scene – Tylor is reluctant to truly become a part of MIFT, but he’s still subjected to an initiation. Lewis scored this nearly diegetically, with characters playing objects one could find in the facilities department of a corporate building.
“I had a say in what the characters would be holding in the initiation ceremony,” he said, making sure to point out that he still wasn’t in charge of any animation. “I had some panpipe things, and some sort of corrugated iron [like a thundersheet]… and some dustbin lids I had left over from Peter Rabbit.”
Nobody does an initiation scene like Disney/Pixar (Shark Bait, anyone?).
For all of MIFT’s bumbling and awkwardness, Lewis has a soft spot for its department head Fritz (Henry Winkler). Fritz is determined to bring the reluctant Tylor into his crew.
“I think he has the catchiest theme because I immediately fell in love with him.”
But from the original group of characters he also has an affinity for Sulley (John Goodman), having even been nicknamed Sulley by his little sister when the original movie released in 2001.
Fans can look forward to more of Mike Wazowski’s (Billy Crystal) comedy classes, which so far have been set to music. Episode 2’s song rivals “Make ‘em Laugh” from Singin’ in the Rain when it comes to comedy instruction.
The crew also gets to explore new settings, like a bowling alley, which called on Lewis to fill the jukebox. “I was charged with a bunch of 70s and 80s rock songs.”
But with 8 episodes to go, and a looming power crisis in Monstropolis, more orchestral drama is sure to follow as well.
Monsters at Work is now streaming on Disney+. You can also hear music by Dominic Lewis in The Man in the High Castle, Peter Rabbit 2, and last year’s reboot of DuckTales.