Music composition is a key part of the movie-going experience, and with the entire industry still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic – composers are feeling the effects. With many sound stages closed indefinitely and an uncertain future of isolation, the life of a film composer has been shaken up in many ways. Though it has stayed relatively consistent in others. In a career where success can mean incessant work, quarantine offers many unique opportunities, especially for an in-demand artist like Pinar Toprak.
Toprak is the composer for a number of well-known franchises and projects, from video games to blockbusters, and even television series. She became a prominent name in the field when signing on to score Captain Marvel in 2018. Toprak became the first female composer of a tentpole superhero blockbuster upon the film’s release. Most recently, her workload has featured Syfy’s Krypton, HBO’s McMillions, DC’s Stargirl, and the female-lead Pixar animated short Purl.
We were lucky enough to have Toprak for an exclusive interview. We reflect on her involvement in what is now deemed as history’s largest cinematic project, the many different genres and mediums of her musical compositions, as well as the challenges posed by the ongoing pandemic. The Turkish born composer has been taking the industry by storm, so any time with her unique industry insight is priceless.
So given the current circumstances of the pandemic at hand, how has your work as a film and TV composer been affected?
PT: Obviously some projects have paused, but my normal day to day life and working between projects resemble quarantine very much. My studio is at my house and that’s where I spend most of my time anyway. So it’s actually been similar, obviously without being able to go out and see people. With most of my days, it’s very similar to how it is normally.
Were you working on any projects that were directly affected and how did you have to adapt your work to this new schedule?
PT: There’s one project in particular, which I can’t mention the name of. It was supposed to go into production at the end of March. I was supposed to start soon after and obviously that’s been postponed. So that’s been the main thing. There’s also another project, it was a film that I was starting on and they were about halfway through a director’s cut until it paused. A lot of projects are definitely in that state, but I also got some new things. Things that maybe I might not have said yes to, but now I can actually do everything in the box. It allowed everyone to be creative in a more creative way if that makes any sense. We’re making it work. It’s also been really great connecting with people and giving back. Talking to people and just showing the studio aspect of things. I’ve been doing a lot of talks with different classes. That aspect of it actually has been really nice.
It’s such an interesting time because the pandemic has affected almost every aspect of everything in some way or another.
PT: On a personal note, even though awful things are happening outside – in my personal world, it’s been a bit of a welcome pause. I’ve been very blessed with work and that’s been great. It’s just been very, very nonstop. I remember in the later part of 2019, I had six projects at the same time. It was just crazy to juggle it all. A lot of the times when I try to pause myself, it’s been difficult because the world is still going around at the same speed. But now, we’re all kind of forced to pause. So it’s been a welcome pause. Hopefully, it doesn’t last too long, but I’m making the best of it.
To move on from the pandemic into a lighter note, what initially drew you to work as a composer for film and media?
PT: I started studying music when I was very young. I was about five, six years old. I went to Istanbul State Conservatory. I always knew that I loved music and I’m very grateful that my parents recognized that when I was quite young. They encouraged and supported me. My father was a huge film lover, in particular Hollywood films and Westerns. So I grew up watching them and being absolutely fascinated by film. Pretty soon after, I started to really hear and pay attention to the music. I was just completely mesmerized by it. At this point, I’m a little kid in the eighties about seven years old. I didn’t really know the concept of soundtracks, that you could actually buy them on their own. So I would take my Walkman near the TV and record it, so I could listen to the cassette later. I remember thinking that it would be so cool if I had a version without all this talking. Then soon after, I realized that you could buy the soundtracks and my world changed.
I loved just writing music for music’s sake, but there’s something about filmmaking – that form of storytelling – that fascinated me even more than just writing music. I’ve always considered myself part of the filmmaking process. The music was my way in so to speak. That was the language I knew – that was my skill set that could be a part of filmmaking. It was really grander than music itself, it was really storytelling. I always say there are two kinds of films in my personal, very humble opinion. There are the kinds of films that make us want to get away from our lives, and there are films that make us look at our lives. I’ve loved both, but the first of the ones that make us want to get away that I loved was Superman. When I first watched the 78 Donner Superman as a kid, it was mesmerizing. It gave me so much hope and I love the music so much. That kind of really started it off for me.
Now you’ve gone to work on a massive variety of projects. From big blockbusters to video games, and even animated shorts. How does your process change from project to project?
PT: The process of composition itself is pretty similar. Again, there’s a certain mood or something that we want to achieve. That part is the same. The specifics in terms of how we deliver things, that changes. For example, on a video game there are cinematics that you write in a very similar fashion to scoring a film or any shots seen already. But then I also have to think about gameplay. So that the music fits you right into layers that can either get bigger or smaller depending on the gameplay, or something loopable. It’s just a different way of thinking from a technical point of view.
With TV writing, again, the processes itself is very similar. But now you’re thinking more along the lines of – okay, if a TV show spans over 13 episodes, you have 13 episodes to tell a story. You have a longer arc to really build that character with the themes and sounds. Films themselves, it’s really various there as well. You don’t treat a more intimate film the same way you would treat a Marvel film. Then again, story and emotions go hand in hand. The goal is to capture emotion and what’s not said on the screen – the subconscious of the story.
What was your experience working on Fortnite? As the game developed, your music very much helped to shape it.
PT: Thanks! That was one of the most pleasant surprises of my career. I had no idea how huge, I mean maybe the developers knew, but I personally had no idea how huge the game was going to become. We started in any kind of humble way, just doing pieces of the game. They actually sent me some codes to play. I played to get a sense of how the game was going to be and it was just crazy how huge it got. It was truly one of the biggest surprises.
Another one of your big projects, Captain Marvel – your work has instantly become inseparable from the character. What were your influences while writing her music and theme?
PT: With her, it was a big responsibility to come up with a theme for a new character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I took that responsibility very seriously and I thought quite a bit about it. For me, what was really important was capturing the humanity in her. Because she is a hybrid after all. I wanted to capture her character in a theme that’s soaring and powerful, but that can also be vulnerable. I really feel like that vulnerability, the humanity in her character is what ultimately reinforces her powers. The powers on their own, they’re great. But what drives the powers and how you use them – that’s the humanity in her and what makes her so incredible.
That’s what I tried to do thematically and hopefully something that’s recognizable from the very beginning. Throughout the course of the score, I tried to really separate the themes I wrote for the Kree and the Skrulls. They go through an arc – who we think are the good guys become the bad guys and vice versa. Figuring out something that could go in either direction was important as well as coming up with a film takes place in the 1990s. There were moments where I really embraced the 90’s sound which was really, really fun. When we go to Hala at the beginning and later parts, I wanted to make sure there was a distinct sound for that as well. So I did a lot of synth programming and created different sounds for different settings.
What was it like to see your music referenced in what is now the highest-grossing movie of all time?
PT: Oh, that was incredible. I mean, it still is incredible. Just a while ago was the one year anniversary of the release of Endgame. The Marvel Universe is very secretive. Just because I worked on Captain Marvel doesn’t mean I knew what was going on in Endgame. Every project is super secretive. I had a feeling that they would probably use the theme somewhere, but I didn’t know. I actually went to a theater and watched it as soon as the film came out with everybody else. I was just sitting in the theater and in the beginning when there’s Iron Man [in the Benatar] and I started hearing it, I was like, “Wait a second, I recognize that!” Then later on when she shows up and everything, it’s just like… I can’t even describe the feeling.
Also Alan Silvestri, the composer of Endgame, is one of my most favorite composers of all time. So just from that point of view, this is a composer that I really admire and appreciate. Several years ago, I would have been perfectly happy with him knowing who I am. To know that he actually incorporated my theme into his score? It’s just a huge honor as a fellow composer.
We’re interested to know about the rights when writing for the MCU. Does that mean anyone else in the MCU can use or reference your music or do they have to work something out with you prior?
PT: Marvel basically owns all the rights to it. So they can do whatever they want with it.
The MCU has such a rich musical catalog. To what degree is there an outside influence on what you wrote to fit inside that universe? Did you mostly drive your decisions or was there any other input from creatives?
PT: It’s a very, very collaborative process. That I think is one of the best things about Marvel. At the beginning of the project, I wrote suites – which is kind of the way I start a project. Over the last few years, that’s been my way. It’s great because it allows us to hear the overall sound, colors, and palette that we’re going to use. I wrote three suites: for Captain Marvel, the Kree, and the Skrulls. I remember our first meeting with everybody – Kevin, the directors, and everybody. It’s a very intimidating feeling. You’re in their room and it’s the first time everybody’s going to hear it. But that meeting went beautifully.
From there I started writing the scenes as I was given them. It’s just such a back and forth collaborative process. Everybody hears everyone’s opinions and it’s always about, “Okay, this may be good, but how can we make it better?” That’s one of the things that even transcended into my life beyond Marvel films. I look at everything now with, “Okay, this is good, but how can I make this better?” In every aspect of my life. I love that philosophy. Obviously, Marvel is incredibly successful and that sort of thinking has a huge effect.
To veer away from Captain Marvel, let’s talk about Purl, which we’re huge fans of. It was part of Pixar’s SparkShorts program, in which animators were only given 6 months to create a short. To much surprise, you utilized jazz music for this project. What was it like to work in a completely different genre of music?
PT: I loved that. It was such a welcome change. I love jazz. I’ve studied it and I listen to jazz actually more than I listen to most things in my day to day life. But it’s not often that you get to write a score that’s all big band. There’s a bit of a supply-demand situation and it doesn’t happen that often. But with this one, they completely embraced it. So I was like, “Okay, I’m going to go all out” and it was wonderful.
To be honest, all the sessions were great. We did this at Capitol, which is obviously incredibly, historically rich in terms of music and whoever has recorded there. When you have these amazing musicians, anything they play is wonderful when they all get together. These are all the top musicians in LA. In this case, it just sounded like we were all jamming. It was so great. Everything else is written out for the most part. I know the music. But the whole experience of just having these amazing musicians and everybody just was just smiling the whole day. You can’t not smile when you’re in that kind of mood.
It must be like what most refer to as choosing a favorite child, but what has been your favorite project so far?
PT: I’ve had different favorites for different reasons. Sometimes it’s the people. It’s great when it’s a combination of everything. Most recently I loved working with Geoff Johns, who is the creator and showrunner of Stargirl. I’ve been a huge fan of his work, and I love comics. When he reached out to me a little after Captain Marvel was released, he had very kind things to say about my score. He asked me if I would be interested in scoring Stargirl. I was shocked because I was a fan of his, so I was like, “You don’t even need to ask. Of course it’s going to be yes”.
We met and just really hit it off. Just the way he works and the way he runs the entire thing – his passion is infectious and everybody in the team feels it. It was one of the most pleasant experiences of my life and TV can be pretty hectic because we have a lot of music to cover. The scheduling can be hectic, but the creative, open canvas he allowed me was really, really wonderful.
Is there a dream project that you would like to land one day that combines all of those different aspects?
PT: If you told me two years ago that I would be scoring a Marvel film, I wouldn’t have been able to imagine it. But I have a lot of dreams. I have a lot of goals. I also have a bit of ADD. So that means that I love being able to do different things. It’s not a dream project, more of a dream career. My dream career is filled with variety and like I was saying, these two different types of films. I want to be part of the ones that really make you want to escape and just be transported into a different world and mindset. Then I also love the projects that are meaningful and more intimate. There’s a reason why those stories are being told. I would like to do more of those as well. It’s not a dream project – my whole life is the project and within it, I would love to do all kinds of different things.
Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like to make our audience aware of?
PT: I would say Stargirl because that’s currently airing. I scored McMillions which is also available to stream on HBO. That was also a really fun project to work on, a crazy story. I’ve also written the new theme for Epcot at Disney world, which is a huge, huge honor. Epcot has always had a very special place in my heart. I performed the theme, we premiered it at D23 last year in August. Obviously with everything that’s going on, some things have been put on hold, but when the world goes back to normal and things open back up – that’s something that’s going to be implemented in the park. Hopefully in the near future.