Ahead of the release of Season Four of cult favourite ‘Rick and Morty,’ Lift-Off spoke with the show’s composer, Ryan Elder, about his influences, projects, and creating the wonderfully wacky score for everyones favourite adult animation.
Interview by Lauren Macaree
When did you decide that you wanted to pursue a career in the industry and how did you go about making it a reality?
When I was 5 I started learning the violin, and I had always said I wanted to be a professional violinist (while simultaneously being a professional baseball player, what can I say? I dreamed big.) In high school I discovered that there were people called record producers behind the scenes of my favorite albums making it sound the way it sounded, and that seemed like a pretty sweet job to me. It wasn’t until after college when I was offered an internship at Emoto Music that I even thought about composing for media. So I knew I wanted to work professionally in music starting very young, but it took a long time to figure out how that would look.
Is there a specific film that sparked your interest in the industry? And a specific piece of music or soundtrack that inspired you to be a composer?
I think the first piece of film music that I “noticed” was probably “Way Out There” from Raising Arizona by Carter Burwell. It was the first time I’d heard yodeling and it had such an incredible effect on the film. That soundtrack and that cue in particular really stood out as being something very different.
How do you choose your projects?
Well economic factors aside I generally try to find people who are creating things they love and are excited about. When everyone involved is coming from a place of joy, it shows. That’s one of the things that drew me to Channel 101 where I met Justin and Dan (co-creators of Rick and Morty.) Channel 101 is a monthly pseudo film festival that offers no prize or reward other than audience appreciation. When you meet people working extremely hard for 5 minutes of audience laughter each month you know they’re doing it because they love it. That’s where I learned how to tell if someone is excited about their creations.
You have an extensive list of notable credits for composing, such as Wizards Of Waverly Place, Scorpion, and Good Game, to name a few. Was there something in particular that drew you to any of these projects?
Each of those examples gave me a different reason for being involved. I was lucky enough to be a staff composer at Emoto Music at the time that their owners John Adair and Steve Hampton, got the opportunity to pitch for the Wizards of Waverly Place theme song. They asked me to work on a demo with them and the people at Disney ended up choosing the track that I co-wrote. They liked it so much they based the sound of the show around it so I got to stay involved throughout the show’s run. The composers on Scorpion are Brian Tyler and Tony Morales. Tony and I go way back to when we both worked together at Emoto Music. When he asked me if I wanted to contribute some additional music to the show I jumped at the chance. Lastly, Good Game was being produced by a team of people I’d met through Channel 101. They asked me if I wanted to compose the music and I love working with them and I loved the idea of the show so it was a no-brainer.
Another signifiant credit of course is Rick and Morty. What drew you to this specific project? Where did you draw your inspiration from for composing for this show?
Because of Channel 101 I had a good relationship with Justin and Dan. I had been helping Justin out with music for his animation pitches for several years and of course I’ve always been a huge fan of both of their work. When Justin asked me to score the pilot for Rick and Morty there wasn’t even a question. I trust him and Dan so much to make incredible TV that I would say yes to anything they were kind enough to offer me. A big inspiration for the Rick and Morty score is the film music of Jerry Goldsmith. Specifically his sci-fi scores like Star Trek and Alien.
When coming aboard a project such as Rick and Morty, how does the process generally work? What is the general working relationship and process between a composer and the director?
One of the first things Justin, Dan and I did was talk very generally about how the music should sound. We decided that the score should be extremely filmic and take itself seriously whenever possible. That way the comedy would be heightened by the juxtaposition. For the pilot we tried to find some pre-existing music that captured the vibe we were looking for but lots of scenes were left free of that temporary (or temp) music. The show remains 99.9% “untemped” to this day, meaning I get my working copy of each episode and it has no music of any kind attached to it.
What have been the most challenging and most enjoyable jobs you have worked on?
Of course every job I’ve worked on has had its fair share of enjoyable moments. Rick and Morty remains my most enjoyable job simply due to the fact that it gets such a positive response. I know that every note I write will be heard. That’s always exciting. Another great experience is a show I’ve been working on over the last year or so. Boss Baby: Back in Business for Dreamworks and Netflix. The reason this show has been so fun to work on is because for the first time I’ve gotten to work with a co-composer, Ben Bromfield. Getting to bounce ideas off each other and share the process has been extremely rewarding.
From your personal experience, does it take you any time to adjust to projects that are quite different from each other, or do you simply complete one project, figure out your next approach, and go on from there?
Every project requires at least a few days (if possible) to get prepared for. Determining the sound of the show by building a collection of sounds to utilize is a really important first step and ideally I have time to tinker. I don’t always get that and in that case I have to move directly into composing. Luckily working on advertising music for 17 years has taught me how to change gears extremely quickly.
What would be your dream project to compose for?
This might sound cheesy but Rick and Morty is already my dream project. A smart half-hour comedy that is outrageously funny and allows me to really stretch myself creatively is way more than I could ever reasonably ask for from a project.
What do you think the biggest surprise about the role of a composer would be to an outsider?
How many people are involved in the process of making music for television and movies. Most really successful composers have fairly large teams of people helping them deliver “on time and in tune.” From sound engineers to orchestrators, conductors, assistants and additional music composers, the process of making film and TV music is very much a team effort.
If someone wants to pursue a career as a composer, how would you recommend they go about it?
To me, the best thing you can do is to make the kind of music you want to make as much as possible. Especially at first it’s super important to never expect perfection. Make a different failed piece of music every day for a year and by the end of that year your failures just might pass as successes. Don’t be precious about your music, a successful composer will have thousands of rejected and scrapped pieces of music throughout their career. Keep making music, every day. However, don’t wait until you feel successful to go find people to work with. Get out there and meet the people who are making the media you want to be a part of. Every young aspiring composer now probably watches 15 youtube channels a day that could use original music. Contact those people, be cool and fun to talk to and offer your services. Don’t always expect monetary compensation, remember that compensation comes in many forms. Experience and connections are far more important than money at first.
What would your top three tips for composers be?
To sum up, write as much music as possible, be a fun person to hang out with and stay humble.
If there is one thing you personally think would make the film industry better today, what would it be?
I hate ending on a downer and that’s a sort of a tough question, as a composer I can be very disconnected from the entire industry at times, just holed up in my studio making music and not looking at the industry around me. That being said I think maybe the biggest issue is the extreme work hours for the 99% of people who work behind the scenes. The expectations are very high for everyone in the industry and nothing shows that more than the amount of hours people are expected to work. It’s passed off as “paying your dues” but it can be very unhealthy.
(Any other advice you would like to voice in order to help the next generation of composers? Or what is next for you?)
I’ve got some fun projects cooking at the moment but unfortunately nothing that’s ready to be announced. I’m also anticipating starting on Rick and Morty season 4 at any moment and I can’t wait!
Rick and Morty is available to watch on Netflix, Youtube, and Google Play in the UK, as well as on Adult Swim in selected regions.