Kristopher Carter, Lolita Ritmanis, & Michael McCuistion—Batman: TAS, et al—02/18/05

Between them, Kristopher Carter, Lolita Ritmanis, & Michael McCuistion have racked up 17 Emmy nominations and two wins (among other accolades). Since 1991, they have contributed to every DC animated series since Batman: The Animated Series: Superman, Batman Beyond, Justice League, and Teen Titans. Carter composed the music for Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (as well as the Batman Beyond theme). Ritmanis and McCuistion both have theme credit for Justice League. McCuistion composed the music for Batman & Mr. Freeze: Subzero; Ritmanis scored Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman. The three composers have also done orchestration for major feature films, including X-Files: The Movie, Batman Forever, Batman & Robin, and Lethal Weapon 3 and 4. Collectively, they are Dynamic Music Partners.

Groucho: First of all, I'm curious how the three of you befriended each other and ultimately formed Dynamic Music Partners.

Michael McCuistion: Well, Dynamic Music Partners is a sort of a recent formation of ours, but—

Kristopher Carter: We've been associated for, all of us, ten years, and Mike and Lolita as long as fifteen, I think?

MM: Fifteen years, because we met each other in 1990 on the Batman animated series work with Shirley Walker. That's where Lolita and I met, and then Kris came along later at the end of that series after getting out of college.

(All laugh.)

Lolita Ritmanis: Shirley basically hired us, and—

MM: Yes.

LR: —and mentored us at first, and we were—we, the three of us, kind of survived the whole process—

KC: The intiation rites! (Laughs.)

LR: The initiation, yeah.

MM: She was interviewing lots of composers and going through a lot of people, and some people stayed on, and others kind of went by the wayside, and we kind of, you know, made the cut, I guess you could say.

KC: But the original—the way that we came together—Shirley was given the responsibility to supervise the music for the original animated Batman, and that's how we came together. And as—as much of Hollywood is done with teams right now, we discovered we had a really unique relationship with a kind of a well-oiled machine, you know, that can function in a team environment with television and other kinds of work, so that's how we decided to go ahead and—and, uh—

MM: Formalize.

KC: Yeah, formalize the relationship, and—

MM: Basically, we've been doing this for so long. (Laughs.)

G: What sort of added benefits do you get from that strength in numbers as a group?

LR: Well, we don't really work together, per se. We each have our own individual studio, and we don't write together. So that alone is a big asset. If there's a type of post-production schedule, we can sometimes jump in on an episode, and we're each—we're each writing—generally, we like to each do our own individual episodes, so that we can keep the thematic material that we've developed.

MM: There were times when we had to turn around the shows in very short order, and that's absolutely possible without sacrificing any quality because there's three of us, with three complete studios, and all of us can do all of the things: we are all composers and conductors and orchestrators—there's strength in the numbers based on the schedule.

KC: And in the general, with the tight schedules, we're actually able to spend, in effect, three times as long on each individual show because—

MM: Correct.

KC: While the pace doesn't slow down in terms of the episodes coming out, I can—you know, two shows come through the process before I'm up for my next one, so in that time I can really try to inject a little bit of art into (laughs) you know, into the work that we do.

MM: Right.

 G: Each of you has served as the composer for one direct-to-video Batman feature. Was it happenstance that the schedule worked out that way, or was there some design to kind of share the wealth amongst those who paid their dues?

MM: I—it was kind of both. There seemed to be projects that were kind of appropriate: you know, the right time and who was available at the time. I mean, there was a feeling of, like, "Well, it's your turn now," and—

LR: Yeah. It seemed like it came from Warner Brothers—the decision of kind of whose turn it was to do a particular project.

MM: Right. So it was nice to be able to have it be that way—

G: What are the differences between scoring or orchestrating an episode—a weekly episode—versus a video feature and, beyond that, a live action feature—?

MM: I don't think there's any difference in the approach that we take because, I mean, we consider every episode as if it were a movie. Even if it's a twenty-two minute episode it's—it still has its story arc that's very similar. I think it's just the workload is the biggest thing and maybe just the size of—the scope of the score.

LR: And the story arc in a feature, be it animated or live-action—just the story arc is broader—

MM: Right.

LR: So the music—you know, the music cues sometimes are longer, and they take more time. The whole thematic material has more time to develop. You don't have to get it all in in, you know, twenty-two minutes—

MM: It's not like "Viewer, go here, go there, rrrrdddrrrrddrr, twenty minutes, you're done." You can actually stretch out, and scenes—the pacing of the scenes are longer, so the music can breathe a little more, in a longer-form picture, but as far as how we would approach the musical material, I mean, I—we're scoring these things as if they were all movies, so—

KC: It's not like we say, "Time to put on the feature hat," you know (Laughs).

G: Right, right, right. I guess I was thinking more in terms of: are there luxuries associated with doing a feature-length project in terms of budget and time, or is it basically the same feel of kind of a rush to get it out, or a tension?

MM: It depends on the project, I think.

LR: And it's changed over the years with editing becoming so—it's so instantaneous that things can be changed up to the last minute. And I started out more in the orchestration field, and when I would orchestrate—on the first couple features I worked on—the composer had more time, so there would, in essence, maybe just be a hand: maybe one or two orchestrators helping the composer out. Nowadays, a composer's faced with having to write an hour's worth of music in two weeks, so then you have to hire a bigger team of people to help.

G: So each of you has contributed to, seemingly, each of the DC animated series over the years. Going back—this is a broad question, but going back to the 1992 Batman, what sort of directives, if any, did each series put forward in terms of its style? If that makes sense.

MM: Well, I think there was a certain environment that each series had visually, and certainly stylistically there was the whole art deco, "dark deco" thing that was happening with Batman, and then Superman came along, which was much brighter and lighter, and there was—the color palette was totally different, and the idea of Superman was totally different than the idea of Batman, so—we were basically following along the styles that Shirley Walker had established when we were hired to work with her on the Batman series, so we were slipping into something that was already existing there, and it's only recently that we've been able to—

KC: Inject our own personality into it.

MM: Right. Right.

KC: Yeah.

G: And for Batman Beyond, specifically, you had the task of the theme song for the show.

KC: Well, it wasn't really presented that way, you know. It—all of us had to more or less put the producers fears to rest that we weren't just refined composers, that all of us, no matter [that we] were mild-mannered and nicely dressed that we could still really tear it down! (All laugh.) And all of us contributed to a demonstration piece to the producers that we were capable of doing that kind of music, and this one in particular that I had created they decided it would be the theme. It was just the one that they felt would be good for that. But it wasn't so much that I set out to—

G: You weren't commissioned.

KC: Yeah. I mean, later on, the themes Lolita and Michael have created—they were in circumstances where they were actually setting out to do the theme in the first place.

LR: But that's the trick: don't give a producer music to listen to if you're not prepared to let him use it in whatever aspect—

MM: (Laughs.) That's right!

LR: —Bruce Timm just fell in love with that piece. It was just a great—it's a great piece that Kris wrote.

MM: Yeah. Ultimately just—well, we were just set. "This is going to be the theme." Which worked out great.

G: Was it difficult to make that shift from the Shirley Walker style? It's just a very different style for Batman Beyond.

KC: No. I think that's what's surprised a lot of people was that we have a really broad palette to work with, and the neat thing about every DC show we've done is that we've been able to dig into a different part of that palette. And for us, as composers, just to be able to express in a different language, it's—it's really refreshing.

MM: Especially when you're doing a weekly series. You know, when you have 52 episodes or something, it's really nice to be able to go in a different direction and do some—explore something in depth—a different tonality—a different color.

G: Right. Take me through the process of scoring one of these stories. What material do you begin to work from, and what's your schedule like from then to the final mix, typically?

LR: Schedule. Well, uh, show comes back from the anime, comes back from Korea, and they edit it. Then we get what's called a first Avid cut. It's pretty much the final version; y'know, they make some tweaks to it afterwards, but—. We have a meeting with our producer, whether it's—on Teen Titans, it's Glen Murakami; on Justice League Unlimited, it's Bruce Timm. We sit down and we discuss—we spot the project. We figure out where the music will be and what the role of the music is, and it's very different. I mean, with Teen Titans we have one kind of relationship with Glen, and with Bruce, on Justice League, it's different, so it's kind of, y'know. Bruce is more hands-on, and Glen kind of gives us a little bit more leeway to try new things.

MM: I think he's more rushed (All laugh).

LR: So we spot the project, and generally from about—from that date, I would say the average is two to three weeks for final delivery.

MM: Right.

LR: So at that point, between when we spot it and when we have final delivery—meaning when it has to be on the mix stage, the dub stage, comes together with the sound effects and dialogue, that's that final delivery—and in between, we go back to the producer and play them what we've written, and they love every single note, and we never have to change anything (All laugh).

MM: And you can quote us on that (All laugh).

LR: That's the best case scenario. As you can imagine, we have revisions, and then that's—it's our job to deal with those, and then we have our recording sessions, and mix.

MM: Right.

LR: And then [we're] out.

MM: Recording, mixing, and then we—

KC: And then we fit, like, sleeping in.

LR: Yeah.

MM: That's after—

 LR: Oh, and also—and if there are—if, you know, if there are live musicians, the parts would have to be copied. It depends on what the project is. So there's still—there's that time before the recording session where we still have loose ends to tie up, like parts—

MM: So it's like there's the initial meeting, and there's this period of time that we have to be creative and do our writing, and then there's a production window where we have to do our recording, and do the mixing, and create the elements for the stage, and then make sure we have the music on the stage at the right time to be married with all the different sound effects, and then foley, and all the different parts. When we're working, when we do the spotting session, it's only the dialogue. And that's all we have. There are no sound effects or any of—there's no other audio that we have other than just the actors and their voices and the picture.

KC: And on something that's an action show, it's quite—I think for a new person to just watch this work tape, it's almost kind of disconcerting because there's just this tremendous explosion or something, and you just see it. You don't hear it. But you have to know that—

MM: It's gonna be there! (Laughs.)

KC: And it's gonna be loud! And I think one of the things that we've done is—and we write the music with that in mind—we have to imagine what the sound effects are going to be. And sometimes we'll even use the final sound effects to be, like, a punctuation, like the music will build up to this moment, and then it won't have the final bang because the big bang is going to be on the mixed version. So if you listen to the music by itself—it's kind of like "Well, where's the end of it?" But we have to look at it as the whole product; the whole sound, you know?

LR: It's really important for us to—at our spotting session—to have as much communication as we can with our producer. Bruce has such a vision for his projects. And if we can be on the same page, if we can zero in—hopefully we're both having good days and we're communicative. And if we walk away with having a strong sense of what he wants, generally it turns out better, you know.

MM: It does.

LR: For everybody.

MM: Absolutely.

G: Who among composers do each of you admire, or of whom are you jealous? (All laugh.)

MM: Bach? (All laugh.)

G: Good answer. (All laugh.).

KC: Well, I think with us being film composers, I think a lot of people would assume that perhaps—that the answer would be another film composer, but I think all of us draw inspiration from the broader palette of music. I mean, just so much is out there—

MM: Yeah, I think actually a lot of film composers do too. If you would ask any of the classic guys, the classical composers, I mean they're going back to the last century or the century before and, you know, where the chops are. That's all—that's where it's all at, so—

LR: But we still have our favorites, too.

MM: Popular music, too, though. I mean, a lot of stuff going on in popular music is not—I like a lot of the old guys, the dead guys, composers like Bernard Hermann and Alex North, Waxman, those guys. Because, I mean, they kind of set it all up for us. They really sort of created that tradition of film music as art.

LR: I'm kind of a Morricone, Morricone—major Morricone fan. I love Ennio Morricone. And John Williams can do very little wrong for me.

MM: Absolutely. I agree. (Chuckles.)

LR: I think he's such a master. Of my contemporaries, who's so wonderful and famous is Thomas Newman. That whole family. (Laughs.) It's pretty amazing.

MM: Say Newman.

KC: Newman. Say no more. (All laugh.)

G: Lolita, your score for Mystery of the Batwoman is again kind of strikingly different from some of the other scores, but it's obviously very suited to the piece. How did you arrive at that approach? And did you meet with any resistance to that, since it was so different?

LR: Actually, it was Alan Burnett and Curt Geda that both wanted to have me play on the word "mystery" and be kind of "What's behind the veil: who is Batwoman?" And that was—we decided that that would be done best through kind of a—well, I think Jon Burlingame actually used the word "film noir" kind of feeling, of just the mystery of it. I mean—the piece itself—the whole film—there are a lot of action scenes that are just straight-ahead action scenes, but when we get to the quieter moments or kind of the dark, shadowy moments, definitely some jazz influence in there, and it was great to do it that way. It's just I enjoyed having that support from them. And Alan especially, I think—when I came in with the main title, he just—it was like "Hey, I hit the nail on the head for him." We hadn't even actually discussed the fact that it would be such a slow piece, but he really liked the cinematic kind of feel of it

G: Do you have favorite characters among the DC roster to score for? Do you get excited when a certain character falls in your lap?

KC: (Sheepishly) Yeah. (All laugh.)

MM: Oh, ho ho ho ho ho. Tell us, Kris!

KC: Come back to me.

MM: Come back to you? I don't know. Not particularly, I guess. I mean, for me, it's more the scenes. It's like some—one of these characters will do something really, really great, and just really, just like, oh yeah, it reminds me of what's good for 'em, you know? And that is fun for me because I like heroic kind of music that's really uplifting and "yeah!" kind of music. And so it's not really even specific. Although I tend to be the "theme" guy. I tend to like have all these weird little motifs that I carry through from like twelve years ago from some show I did way back in Batman and then bring it forward again, so—. But not specific characters, I guess. What about you, do you have any one in particular?

LR: There are just certain characters I feel I more intimately know. I feel when—you know, any time Batman is there. His presence is so intense, and he's so angst-ridden, really, that that always gives me an inspiration. On the newer shows—well, I'd say like on Justice League Unlimited, just the whole Hawkgirl/Green Lantern thing. That was always kind of a cool thing. Y'know, get those moments, get things to play with. Kris?

MM: Who's your favorite—who's your favorite character?

KC: Ra-ven.

MM: Raven! She's your gal. Okay.

LR: Oh yes, from Teen Titans. I see.

KC: No, but it's funny because all of us—we're all such fans of the show. I mean, I know at least when I watch the show—especially when it's a really good episode—it's like, I just get so involved in it, and then it's like, "Oh! I got to write music to it, too (All laugh.) But when it's a really good storyline, I just—I really like writing for my favorite characters. I definitely like Raven. I like Hawkgirl a lot, too.

MM: Me, too.

LR: I like Starfire.

KC: On Teen Titans. Um—(exhales). I mean, again, in Teen Titans, I would really like writing for Cyborg, the character. He's—I really—he always seems to have interesting things to write about, musically.

MM: I kind of can do Beast Boy, but I don't know what to make of that. (All laugh.)

G: It's like a Rorschach test?

MM: Exactly!

KC: Which superhero does this inkblot look like? (All laugh.)

G: Okay, so last question is: can each of you tell me your perspective, how you view the enduring character of Batman, and how you've attempted to translate that view into musical terms over the years.

MM: That's a deep question.

KC: Wow.

MM: Enduring character of Batman.

LR: Um, symbolically, he represents them all to me somehow. He's kind of like—I mean, for some people, it's Superman; for me, it's Batman. When I think about our journey, Batman is somewhere always there in my mind, so—. Just through the various incarnations: his apprentice, Batman Beyond, you know, Batman Beyond—that was a different—having a chance to depart on that, but for the most part, just kind of the dark, epic timelessness of Batman has been what has sustained this journey, I believe.

MM: To me, he represents, I think, the link between ordinary people and superheroes because he's the only member of the Justice League that I know of who's human, and somehow he's able to operate in both worlds. He's able to be one of us, and he's able to be one of them, and there's something about that that makes it all seem possible somehow. And it makes it believable somehow and very attractive in like: not-so-fantastical that it might not be able to happen someday, and that brings kind of a reality to it that I think is—for me, makes it really meaningful, more meaningful than just some fantasy thing, you know what I mean? This character is more real somehow than the others.

G: Yeah. Almost vaguely attainable, somehow.

MM: Yes! Vaguely attainable. That's—yeah, and in that it way, it's sort of that carrot that's dangling, you know.

KC: I—I can't think of one. I mean, those were both such good points. (Chuckles.)

G: Well, thank you very much. This was terrific. I'm glad that you could make time for me to do this.

MM: No, I mean, it's our pleasure—

KC: Thanks, Peter.