A quick trip to the ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ scoring stage hits all the right notes

This past Saturday night, I took my youngest son Allen to a birthday party thrown by one of the regular listeners of our podcast.  I’ve gotten to know the guy a bit on Twitter, and we have a number of mutual friends.  The party is now cemented in the memory of Allen as a highlight of his life because Brian, the host, is a collector of old stand-up arcade video games, and he had at least 30 of them turned on and ready to play.  We spent the first half-hour or so trying them all out, and Allen played “Burger Time,” “Tempest,” “Q*Bert,” and that great old school “Star Wars” game before he finally settled on his new favorite thing in the world, four player “Gauntlet.”

While kids may not know some of the characters from the ’80s video games immediately, I have a feeling “Wreck-It Ralph” is going to play to gamers of every age equally well.  It seems to have been carefully constructed to not only illustrate the various ways gaming has evolved over the years, but to also work on a story level that doesn’t require you to have any direct knowledge of games to understand what it is that Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) wants from his life.

On an afternoon not long before I left for the Toronto Film Festival, I was asked if I wanted to drive down to Sony, where Rich Moore was supervising a scoring session for his movie.  I love watching an orchestra at work on a film, and it’s one of the steps in the process that we rarely get to observe as reporters.  In this case, I was able to watch Henry Jackman as he fine tuned a few minutes worth of film that appeared to come from late in act two or early in act three, and my first impression of what he was up to is one of a very demanding professional who truly loves what he does.

Over the course of about an hour sitting and watching him work, I saw Jackman record the same few measures of music as many as ten or twelve times, depending on what it was he was trying to accomplish.  Jackman has been coming on strong as a feature composer for a while now, a graduate of the Hans Zimmer factory, and his work on films like “Monsters Vs. Aliens,” “Kick-Ass,” “X-Men: First Class,” and especially “Puss In Boots” has been solid.  He hasn’t had that great original film yet, though, where he could break out and do his own thing and really sign the film, and I’m hoping for his sake that “Wreck-It Ralph” has finally given him that opportunity.

Within the film, there are several different video game worlds represented, and Jackman’s not the only composer working on the film.  Skrillex, for example, wrote the in-game music for “Hero’s Duty,” a sort of “Halo” style war game, and there will be a version remixed by Noisia that will be on the soundtrack album.  Japanese pop group AKB48 handled the theme song for “Sugar Rush,” a cart racing game that is nothing but cute.  In addition, there is a theme song for the film by Owl City called “When Can I See You Again?” and, in what be one of the most elaborate in-jokes in the film, another song for the closing credits called “Wreck-It, Wreck-It Ralph” that was written and performed by Buckner & Garcia, best known for the ’80s novelty hit “Pac-Man Fever.”  That is seriously digging deep into the world of video game music, and I have to admit, I’m dying to hear what they came up with.

Jackman handled the actual scoring of the film, though, and even from the few minutes worth of movie I saw him working on, it’s obvious that Jackman scores the emotional through-lines of a scene, working in big motifs and broad strokes.  I saw two key emotional beats, one between Wreck-It Ralph and Vanellope Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), and the other between Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer) and Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), and in both cases, Jackman’s music added some big emotional underlining to what I was seeing.

As I expected, you don’t really have time to sit down to talk to a composer during a scoring session because everyone in that orchestra is being paid very, very well, and there’s no time to waste.  I did have a chance to talk to Rich Moore, though, and we talked about how much different scenes felt to him with the score finally in place, and how that last step in the process is such an exciting one for a director.  It’s when the film finally comes into full focus, and especially in animation, that is a long time coming.  We talked a bit about the specific scene we were watching, which seems like a pretty big spoiler in terms of the way two characters end up in the film, and how important it was for Jackman to play the emotional beat straight even though it’s sort of an absurd image.  We also talked about the way Jackman’s score had to shift tone and style throughout the film because of the different worlds the story takes place in.  While Jackman never exactly writes in an orchestral 8-bit mode, he is trying to capture some of the flavor of that for the inside of the “Wreck-It Ralph” game, while then opening up to a fuller orchestral feel for the film itself.  Juggling that many different sonic styles for one film might seem like a challenge, but Moore said it actually seemed to be giving Jackman room to play.

It’s hard to get a sense of how a process works from the few moments I was there, but I was impressed by just how much fine-tuning Jackman did from take to take, and how specific his ear was.  To most people, every one of the takes would have sounded fine, but to him, it was a matter of knowing exactly what feeling he wanted to evoke and pushing the orchestra until he heard that specific take.  That attention to detail is what distinguishes someone’s work, and Jackman struck me as a guy who is still just warming up and defining his voice, with “Wreck-It Ralph” serving as an important step on that journey.

“Wreck-It Ralph” opens in theaters November 2, 2012.