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Interview – Composer Toby Chu Interview, Hitting the Right Note with his Score to Pixar’s Bao

 

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Posted September 13, 2018 by

 
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Composer Toby Chu Interview, Hitting the Right Note with his Score to Pixar’s Bao

There has been a lot of debate surrounding the short film preceding Pixar’s Incredibles 2.  Audiences have been torn about the meaning and general assumptions around the eight minute short following an older Asian Canadian lady and a dumpling who comes to life.  On the surface it looks like a fun loving tale with a surprising twist at the end, but for people in the Asian community it told the story of something much deeper that a lot of them have experienced first hand. Empty-nest syndrome for one and two, for many Asian immigrant parents, they rarely say the words ‘I love you’ to their children. They say ‘I love you’ by taking care of them, by making sure they are well-fed. The end result of this short being an emotional experience that has not been shown many times on the big screen. Emotions that were also heightened by the short’s culturally authentic score by composer Toby Chu. We wanted to dig deeper into this area not also explored, so we talked to Toby more in depth below about working on the heart warming tale.

Composer Toby Chu

Interview:

When you were younger was there a score that made you want to get into the composing world?

When I was growing up, going to the movies was pure magic. That rush before a film starts, the lights going down, the anticipation of being transported to where anything is possible! Back then, if you wanted to see the film again, you’d either have to buy another ticket or wait for a year (or longer) until it became available at the local video store. So, buying the soundtrack was my way of experiencing the film again. I’d sit for hours listening and reimagining the film in my mind. It wasn’t until when I was college, when I took a course on film composition that it clicked – wait, I can compose music and watch movies at the same time? Sign me up!

You scored Baowith a live orchestra. In your opinion what are the benefits to scoring something with a live orchestra as opposed to not? Where did you record this?

My favorite part of the process is getting to work with live musicians. It’s when the music comes to life. In Bao’s case, sixty of the greatest musicians in the world, playing their hearts out is an indescribable sound and feeling. We recorded for two days at Eastwood Scoring Stage at Warner Brothers. A day with the orchestra, and a day adding the Chinese instruments. I also did a lot of recording over the year and half I was working on Bao, a lot of which was used in the final piece.

We read that you connected with Baoon a different level because the short somewhat parallels your own life. Can you explain this?

Growing up in a Chinese immigrant family, my mom would always call me her “Xiǎo bǎo bǎo” (small treasure). She even had this way of hugging me tightly, and saying she wanted to eat me. And like Dumpling (the son of the film’s main character), I also married a blond Caucasian woman. It gives new meaning to the saying that art imitates life!

Toby Chu

How closely did you work with the film’s director Domee Shi? Did she have a very clear vision of how she wanted the score to sound?

Without a doubt! Domee had a clear vision for the story, and I really enjoyed working with her on creating a score to match. Both of us felt a deep and personal connection with the film. I reflected a lot upon my own childhood before I wrote a single note. We worked together, went back and forth for over a year, and molded it like… well, like a dumpling!

How do you generate ideas for movies? I mean, is there a set of rules that you personally follow?

It varies depending on the project and the timeline. I think when you compose music every day, approaching a score in new and different ways keeps things fresh and exciting. In the case for Bao, where I had a lot of time, I did a great deal of research and experimenting – a luxury that is very rare in Hollywood.

In what ways did Baopush you, musically?

One musically challenging aspect of Bao was that many of the traditional Chinese instruments you hear in the film are tuned to play in only certain keys and to play a specific scale. Blending the two took some work. The western side of the music moved to many keys developing and evolving alongside the story. I ended up developing a few custom tunings based on the piece for the guzheng, and we used a large assortment of dizi’s to cover the changing music landscape.

Do you prefer for your music to be in the foreground and take a very active role?

I believe a score first and foremost should support the story. A score can be as effective in the background as if it were in the foreground. It depends on what the film calls for. Both are equally enjoyable to write!

You have scored everything from feature films to long running television shows. Are the projects that span many years the most satisfying for you because you get to develop those themes and motifs? Or can something that’s much more compact be just as satisfying in a different way?

Both are equally satisfying! It’s one of the things I love most about composing for picture – having the opportunity to tell diverse stories in a myriad of genres and musical styles. Although the stories change, I always strive to immerse myself, and there’s a part of me in each and every one.

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