George Shaw, the composer for the Dreamworks series Abominable and the Invisible City, recently spoke with us about his work on the series, including how the Universal Composers Initiative led him to this project, bringing authentic Chinese music to the Abominable world, and the importance of representation, especially on a project with a dedicated cast and crew of notable Asian Americans.
Abominable and the Invisible City continues the story of the Abominable film’s Yi (Chloe Bennet), Jin (Tenzing Trainor), and Peng (Ethan Loh) as they set out on adventures in their city and beyond in search of magical creatures who need their help.
PH: Hi George, thanks for speaking with me today! Can you give a little insight into your professional background and how you made your way into the production industry?
George Shaw: While a student at USC’s music school, I dove head first into scoring as many student films as I could, even scoring my first feature documentary that would go on to win awards at Slamdance and be shown on cable.
After graduation, I did orchestration work on films like Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles, Ghost Rider, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Meanwhile, I was consistently scoring small indie projects. Eventually, I fell in with several fairly successful Asian American YouTubers in the early 2010s (Wong Fu Productions, Ryan Higa, Kevjumba, Michelle Phan, etc.), and would compose some of their videos that would go on to amass millions of views. It was great to see Asian Americans finally have an avenue to be seen and tell their stories, though it would nearly take two more decades before opportunities would slowly open up for me to compose on Hollywood studio projects.
PH: Can you share some of your past projects and what those experiences were like? How has each of these shaped you into the professional you are today? (Feel free to give specific project examples, if relevant).
George Shaw: Working on many low-pressure projects over the years really taught me how to figure out the entire process as a one-man music team, as opposed to the training I got in school to work on high-level orchestral film projects. I learned to do the job of every position on a composer’s team because I was the entire team. I composed, programmed, orchestrated, recorded, edited, and mixed all of my own scores. While I would rather have people who are better than me do some of those tasks, especially mixing, it does help me understand how I can best collaborate with others and how to be efficient in how the work gets done.
PH: How did you get involved with your latest project Abominable and the Invisible City?
George Shaw: After many years of struggling to find a way to get my foot in the door within Hollywood, I got accepted to the Universal Composers Initiative in 2018. Finally, a diversity initiative in film composing was created to help people like me who needed the right nudge to get in front of decision-makers. I remember my first day of the program, I approached one of the Universal Film Music execs about the Abominable feature film, offering to help in any way with my expertise in Chinese instrumentation and knowing that the film was set in China. It ended up being an orchestral score, so I didn’t end up working on the project, but it was a full circle moment to eventually be invited to audition for the show based on the movie. I brought my unique sense of combining orchestra with Chinese instrumentation and a strong sense of melodic writing to impress them enough to hire me.
PH: How is music an integral part of this story? What was your approach to showcasing that story?
George Shaw: It begins with the characters of Yi, who plays violin, and Everest, who hums to create magic. Every episode gave me opportunities to write the music that they perform to accomplish magical things throughout the series. This required me to get involved with the show very early on in pre-production, working off of animatics, which s basically a storyboard cut together to roughly time out what the length of scenes will be. So after writing those performances, I would record the violin parts with Stephanie Yu, a true virtuoso on the violin, shooting reference footage that would be sent to the animators to match Stephanie’s movements during the performance to Yi’s onscreen performance. I also got to work with the always delightful voice actor Darin De Paul, who voices Everest in crafting his performances to fit the drama of the scenes where Everest hums.
PH: Can you give a bit of insight into your planning and creative processes? Before you start composing, how do you prepare?
George Shaw: There isn’t usually much time to prepare at the start of a project, aside from the years of training, honing your craft, and the practice that comes from scoring to the picture over and over. I’ve almost always had to hit the ground running in order to hit my deadlines. Though on Abominable and the Invisible City, I was lucky to have a little more freedom to develop themes while working on the violin pieces in pre-production, allowing me to craft many of the themes without as much of the stress of having to deliver the final scores right away.
Once I started scoring episodes, I had a huge glossary of themes built already and would add new ones as they became necessary. You do have to learn to be economical with your thematic material, so reusing them in different ways is one strategy to accomplish writing many minutes of music every week.
PH: How is composing music that is essential to character building a unique challenge - and how did you tackle that?
George Shaw: I find that having a great character theme really helps you avoid writer’s block as the show progresses. Once you have your theme, your craft and technique come into use to adapt and alter the music to fit the scenes as well as the arc of the characters. One example of this is Fenghuang’s theme, heard in the first episode when we are introduced to the magical phoenix. It’s a very sweet and timid moment, scored for solo violin, fragile strings, and delicate yangqin (Chinese dulcimer). When we reach the climax of the episode and Fenghuang springs into heroic action, I broadened the rhythm into soaring strings and horns, with swirling winds punctuated by heroic trumpet chords, and suddenly this delicate theme is transformed into a glorious moment.
PH: What types of Chinese instruments did you utilize to introduce authentic Chinese music into this project?
George Shaw: Since the show is set in China and centers on mythical Chinese creatures, I used various traditional Chinese folk instruments such as Yangqin (Chinese dulcimer), Erhu (Chinese violin), Pipa (Chinese lute), Guzheng (Chinese zither), Dizi (Chinese flute), Chinese drums, and even Chinese winds (Bawu and Hulusi that I performed myself), to give the creatures a sense of history and highlight their fantastical and magical nature. The character of Nai Nai also comes with a strong sense of history, that she’s lived through some things, reminding me of how my own grandparents seemed so foreign to me, having grown up in another country a century ago. So it seems fitting to give Nai Nai a theme that featured solo pipa and occasionally Chinese drumming.
PH: What was it like working with so many different genres? What unique challenges and opportunities did that present?
George Shaw: One thing I loved about the many comedic moments in the series was the opportunity to step out of the classical, orchestral, and Chinese fantasy/adventure vibes at the core of the show’s sound to play in a sandbox filled with a variety of contemporary genres. Some might call it a challenge to stretch yourself into many musical styles, but for me, it kept the job fresh and interesting to jump around like that. You will also hear a lot of fun, quirky music featuring marimbas, jangly metallic sounds, drum sets, percussion loops, shakers, guitars, bass, synths, and even a jazzy big band.
PH: Do you have any general rules of thumb for composing that you live by?
George Shaw: Melody is key for me. A great tune can really elevate the experience of a story, and connect the threads of a story. Even better if it’s something memorable that you can hum afterward. So many of my favorite iconic scores work because my brain can latch onto a melody, and I crave hearing it again and again.
PH: Throughout your time in the industry, what have you learned about yourself (both personally and professionally?)
George Shaw: I used to worry about being able to write music fast enough to keep up with the deadlines of scoring TV shows. But after writing nearly wall-to-wall animation music every day for over a year, I’ve found I’m definitely capable, thanks to years of writing experience, streamlining my template, and really learning the shortcuts in my software (thanks to having time to attend some useful webinars in the early days of the pandemic).
I’ve also realized the importance of working on projects that you love. It was grueling working nearly 70 hours a week for a full year, so you may as well focus on pursuing the projects that will keep you inspired and entertained when you reach low points in the process where you otherwise feel overwhelmed, tired, and stressed out.
PH: Do you have any other upcoming projects you're excited to share?
George Shaw: I can’t reveal any details yet, but I’m currently scoring a cinematic video game trailer due out around the Lunar New Year, January of 2023, and will feature a plethora of Asian instruments! I will definitely announce it on my website and social media once it’s released.