Writing Music for Television: Jacob Shea on BBC’s “Seven Worlds, One Planet” and more
Jacob Shea is a BAFTA- and Emmy-nominated composer known for his contributions to nature documentaries such as BBC’s “Planet Earth II,” “Blue Planet II,” and most recently “Seven Worlds, One Planet.” His rich symphonic scores blend samples from nature and incorporate a diverse mixture of instrumentation which, together, bring the cinematic worlds to life.
Jacob has also collaborated significantly on blockbuster features like Inception, Transformers, and Pirates of the Caribbean. In our interview below, he discusses his compositional process, sound design, documentaries, and the role of artists in our changing world where, increasingly, community is key.
“Art, specifically music, by its nature is representative because it’s not overtly making an argument for change. It has a much better chance of reaching a diverse audience and revealing a truth that’s not politicized or polarizing.” — Jacob Shea
Andrew Cheek: Could you describe the nature of your work in a few words?
Jacob Shea: I have the amazing job of creating music to reinforce the way in which a director (or showrunner) wants to tell a story. In the case of nature documentaries, it’s the way in which the director wants to relate a scene that was organically captured while filming on location.
Andrew: What is your composition process like when interfacing between media? How does inspiration from the subject matter, such as a penguin or arctic vista, influence your sound and instrumentation? Do you ever work with sampling?
Jacob: I think instrumentation is half of the job when finding what fits a particular scene or episode [maybe even more]. Thanks to recorded music and sampling, the available pallet of sound in a modern musical composition is limitless. I often receive raw audio from production — growls, snarls, whale songs, for instance. This gives me the unique opportunity to integrate live sounds into the score and soundscape.
Andrew: You’ve contributed musically to blockbuster films like Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean, as well as to numerous BBC documentaries. What are some of the similarities and differences you’ve noticed across genres?
Jacob: The major difference is Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean are pure fiction. The job of the actors, cinematographers, and musicians is to manufacture a convincing emotional experience for the viewer. However, with nature documentaries, it is almost the inverse. It’s about being in step musically with the very real drama that is unfolding.
Andrew: And what’s unique about scoring a nature documentary?
Jacob: I think the music is much more upfront in nature documentaries. I’ve been very fortunate to write music that accompanies the very sonorous and characterful narration of Sir David Attenborough. Aside from his masterful narration, the music is very much at the center of the experience.
Andrew: How do you think art exists as an agent of change in the world?
Jacob: Art, specifically music, by its nature is representative because it’s not overtly making an argument for change. It has a much better chance of reaching a diverse audience and revealing a truth that’s not politicized or polarizing. I was moved to see “Blue Planet II” have such an effect on conservation and legislation in Great Britain.
Andrew: One of your more recent projects, a BBC series “Seven Worlds, One Planet,” celebrates the diversity of life on all seven continents by looking at ecosystems in the natural and human worlds, with an especial focus on animals. I was looking online and the website said that filming took over 1700 days, spanned 41 countries, and involved over 1500 people! Could you talk a little about your experiences working on that project?
Jacob: There were so many people working tirelessly on this project. It was a huge undertaking and I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to make the score as vibrant and interesting as the material it was supporting. The directors and producers wanted each episode/continent to have its own flavor but they also wanted to avoid making a caricature of a region by relying on indigenous instruments.
So I relied quite a lot on sound design as a way of differentiating between continents. A lot of the sounds in the Asia episode were processed using comb filtering and resonators to create a consistent flavor. By contrast, I’d use tape delays with detuned repeats into shimmering reverbs for the vast expanses of Antarctica.
Andrew: What is something you’ve learned from years of working on nature documentaries that’s really stuck with you?
Jacob: It never ceases to amaze me how vibrant the world is around us. It’s so easy to forget how many living things we share this planet with. At this point, we know more about the surface of our moon than the floor of our ocean. We share the world with these animals and it’s crazy to me how little we know about them. Sounds from nature are also some of the most inspiring and unique I’ve ever heard. For instance, I used the sound of a swarm of mayflies from the Europe episode for some of the heavier sequences in that episode and they wouldn’t have been anywhere near as unnerving without them.
Andrew: How have you continued to work and compose during the coronavirus pandemic?
Jacob: Luckily, my family and I moved houses just before the shutdown and the new spot has allowed me to work from home. I’m very much enjoying the commute!
Andrew: Are you working on any new projects at the moment, for cinema or on your own?
Jacob: I’m working on quite a few new projects that I’m excited about. Because of the pandemic, the release dates are up in the air at the moment. I’m thankfully very busy and look forward to sharing them in the future.