‘Lightyear’ Composer Michael Giacchino on Storytelling Through Music

A movie score is one of the emotional hooks that draws audiences into that world. Whether the film is a sci-fi thriller or romantic comedy, it’s the kind of music that connects you with what’s going on within the frame. But for Lightyear composter Michael Giacchino, the score is much more than an assembly of notes that makes a movie sound good. It’s also something that tells a story.

The Nerds of Color joined their fellow journalists for the Lightyear virtual press conference where the Academy Award-winning composer talked about his history with film, the genesis of the Lightyear score, and more.

It’s pretty clear that Giacchino grew up on a steady diet of sci-fi films the way he talks about them. But its what he did to relive those moments that tells us how much of a film lover he is. “These are the movies I grew up on. I pretty much was raised on them. I ate them wholeheartedly as a kid growing up and one of the things I used to do was sneak a small tape recorder into the movie theaters when I was a kid and I would record the movie audio, and it would have the audience respond all of that on it. And I would listen to it,” Giacchino said. “I hate there was no VHS when I was growing up, there was nothing, there was no Internet, nothing. The only way for me to sort of experience that movie.”

TUNNEL VISION – In Disney and Pixar’s “Lightyear,” Buzz Lightyear (voice of Chris Evans) and his commander and friend, Alisha Hawthorne (voice of Uzo Aduba), are marooned on a hostile planet. While Buzz has tunnel vision when it comes to fixing their situation, Alisha opts to live her life regardless of the planet she’s on, advancing her career, falling in love and building a family. Directed by Angus MacLane (co-director “Finding Dory”) and produced by Galyn Susman (“Toy Story That Time Forgot”), the sci-fi action-adventure opens in U.S. theaters on June 17, 2022. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

So, Giacchino’s low-tech solution was to record them to relive that experience. It was a technique that would later help him become the composer that he is now. “Every night, I would play them under my pillow,” he said. “Because I loved to listen how the sound worked in these movies, and how music work with sound effects and dialogue and all of that.”

Of course, now Giacchino is one of the greatest composers of our time, weaving in emotion and storytelling into everyone of his pieces. That is no different with Lightyear, which like his previous films, has a message embedded into his work. “I just love this, this idea of embracing your fear, and using it as a tool to move forward and progress yourself. You know, and not to let it paralyze you, and not to let it take over. Because, you know, in this world, it’s easy to do that,” he said. “It’s a big message that the movie pushes out into the universe is embrace your fear and use it as an ally, to push you forward. Fear is something that’s never going to be absent from your life. And the sooner you sort of take it in and use it to your advantage, the better off you’ll be. And that’s one of my favorite things about the movie.

“But I would say our creative partnership extends beyond even the music for it. Michael’s an insane filmmaker, and I didn’t know how, how formidable he was with the music, which I can add nothing to as a former self, a second chair clarinet, but to see this guy’s movies at like, 10 he was doing these full-on opuses,” Lightyear director Angus MacLane added. “So to have him as a creative partner with showing the movie as it went along. And his notes are really key to so to have that kind of partnership, both as another director and as an amazing composer is a dream come true.”

MAKING SPACE – In Disney and Pixar’s “Lightyear,” Buzz Lightyear (voice of Chris Evans) and Alisha Hawthorne (voice of Uzo Aduba)—his long-time commander, fellow Space Ranger and trusted friend—are marooned on a hostile planet. Directed by Angus MacLane (co-director “Finding Dory”) and produced by Galyn Susman (“Toy Story That Time Forgot”), the sci-fi action-adventure opens in U.S. theaters on June 17, 2022. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

And Giacchino recognized that Lightyear had to be more than just a sci-fi film with music that sounded cool. It had to be something with a strong emotional and character work. So, rather than take influence from Buzz Lightyear themes from the Toy Story films, he started from scratch. “It couldn’t be related to anything that has already been done. Because this was a new world we were opening up. It always starts with just the emotions and the character,” he said.

Giacchino’s conversations with MacLane helped find the emotional tones that the film needed to tell Buzz Lightyear’s heroic journey. “We talked about the character and what’s going on with this person and what is happening. And we talked about this idea of loss and loneliness and all of these things,” he said. “These are the conversations that sort of that will spark whatever I do first. It’s important for me to understand what’s at the heart of this story for me to actually write something. It’s not about just sitting down and going, this will be nice space music. It’s really about like, what feels like the emotions that these people are going through. That’s what I want to get at.”

So Giacchino’s genesis of a score starts by looking at the saddest part of the film. It’s these somber moments help best express that emotion and convey what these characters are feeling. “I’m always looking for what’s the saddest moment. In the story, I always ask, like, what’s the saddest thing that happens in this in this movie? And it’s really, because I feel like those low points in a person’s life are imprinted on you. You remember those? And if we can, we can tap into that emotion,” he said. “That’s the truth of what we’re trying to do. The other stuff is so much fun. And all of this splash of it is great, but the truth of it is, what’s happening inside the people. So that’s what I’m always looking for first.”

DREAM TEAM – In Disney and Pixar’s “Lightyear,” Buzz (voice of Chris Evans) reluctantly teams up with a group of ambitious recruits known as the Junior Zap Patrol following the arrival of a mysterious alien ship. Taika Waititi, Dale Soules and Keke Palmer lend their voices to the Junior Zap Patrol’s Mo Morrison, Darby Steel and Izzy Hawthorne, respectively. Directed by Angus MacLane (co-director “Finding Dory”) and produced by Galyn Susman (“Toy Story That Time Forgot”), the sci-fi action-adventure opens in U.S. theaters on June 17, 2022. © 2021 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Lightyear opens in theaters on June 17, 2022.

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