Barnaby Taylor is an Emmy-award winning TV and film composer who created the score for Disneynature’s Born in China. We had a few moments to talk with Mr. Taylor about his career, the film, and Disney’s nature film legacy.
LaughingPlace: For those that might not be familiar, you have quite the background in scoring nature films. Can you talk a little bit about your career? Give us sort of a Barnaby Taylor 101.
Barnaby Taylor: I grew up in a very musical house. My father is a musician. He’s a singer-songwriter. I was always surrounded by music as a kid growing up. I never really thought about being a musician. I was always more interested in nature. I dreamed of becoming a marine biologist. At that time growing up, I was absolutely obsessed with the films like Jacques Cousteau and David Attenborough. Also, some of the early Disney films, which were nature films. That was really my interest.
When I went to study at college, I actually studied zoology. I didn’t study music. I did piano lessons. That was my main instrument. It still is my main instrument together with some guitar and other things. Really, for me, it was just a fascination with the natural world. That was the path I began on. I studied zoology. I began to specialize in some different areas.
Then, this need to write music crept up on me. I began working in production making natural history films for the BBC and also for an indie company in Bristol, which is where most natural history films tend to be made, TV anyway. This desire to make music, but not really knowing how to do it and in what kind of genre, just took hold. I knew for a fact that I didn’t want to go on stage. I didn’t want to be a performer because I’d seen that life. I’d grown up in that life. I also knew that I wanted to write music.
I was working on a BBC series as a researcher. I came across a composer who was writing music at the time called Nick Hooper, who now writes music for the Harry Potter films and had also scored Disneynature films as well. I just, number one, thought that his music was great, but also suddenly realized that there was this world of music for nature films and for television in general. I thought, well, this is for me. It was definitely one of those light bulb moments when you just suddenly realize what you want to do with your life.
It took me about two or three years to make that move during which time I scored pretty much any film I could get my hands on. I would do student films. I would do low-budge indie films. Bit-by-bit I built up a portfolio. I built up a show reel. I built up a reputation for always working with good musicians and keeping the quality very high. Eventually, I just made that break. There used to be a strand on the BBC called Wildlife On One, which were very, very, high-end half-hour nature films. They don’t make them anymore, sadly, but they were a great place to learn about scoring. Then I moved on to longer, hour-long, programs. Then I moved on to six-part one-hour series.
I suppose the important thing with relation to Born in China is I scored a series called Wild China in 2007 at the BBC for Chinese television. That just had a really big effect on my career because it won the best music Emmy. It exposed me to people who liked it. One of those people was Lu Chuan. Years later, when Lu Chuan was approached by Disney and Brian Leith Productions in Bristol and they talked about using me as a composer, he was already familiar with what I do. That’s a short summary of how I got to Born in China.
LaughingPlace: As a composer, how do you have a separate theme for the three different, very diverse, stories while still making it feel like it’s one whole film?
Barnaby Taylor: I think that there’s a few different ways of doing that. We explored lots of different ideas at the beginning of the series. One way is to have a unifying melody. Another way is to have different instrumentation. Another way is to have the same instrumentation but different themes, different melodic themes. In this instance, we went more towards the former. We had pallets of sound that would work for the different animals.
For the panda, we had some traditional Chinese instruments like guzheng, which is a kind of zither-type instrument. Really, with the panda, the instructions I had from Lu Chuan was to make it pure love, in his words. He just kept saying this story is pure love. It’s about a mother and child. You have to dissolve in the warmth of this incredible love story.
With the snow leopard, we used some of the same melodic themes, but the music had a harder edge. There’s a lot more jeopardy and sadness and risk and danger in the snow leopard story. On top of that, the landscape was very extreme. We used a cello. We also used an Erhu, which is a kind of single-stringed Chinese fiddle, which has a very mournful sound. We would move between Erhu and cello to emphasize the aloneness of our snow leopard character.
With the gold monkey, the gold monkeys are the most mischievous and naughty and chaotic animals in the story. Also, because of the part of China that they live in, I really drew on Peking opera sounds. Lots of crazy crashing symbols and traditional Peking opera instrumentation. There’s some tango rhythms there.
\With the Chiru, the antelope that lives up on the high plains, it was really more about the style of scoring. We used a kind of Mongolian fiddle. Some people call it horsehead fiddle, which has a mournful plaintive sound. Also, just making sure that the orchestral scoring for that part of the world was quite simple and broad. I think one thing about the film is the landscapes are so extreme. They look alien at times.
LaughingPlace: As a fan of nature films growing up, and with Disney having that long history from the true-life adventure films since Walt’s time, does it have any impact to you personally of working on a nature film that has the Disney name in front of it?
Barnaby Taylor: Absolutely. I think just being associated with Disney just makes you feel incredibly proud. It has that incredibly broad family appeal. I just can’t think of anyone else who has the reach and has the instant access. At the screening in New York yesterday … No, it was on Saturday. We had Jane Goodall there. Woody Allen showed up. Such a strange mix of people drawn towards this film and drawn towards Disney. I think, for me as someone who cares deeply about the natural world and also as a musician, you’ve got this slam dunk of Disney really do put their money where their mouth is on these Disneynature films.
They invest heavily in conservation and research projects. I think the first weekend or week, a large portion of the profits will go towards conservation projects. If that weren’t the case, you wouldn’t have people like Jane Goodall being a part of the publicity and being a part of the promotion of these films. She’s a woman of incredible integrity and commands a lot of respect. I think the fact that she is so heavily involved with these films and cares so deeply about these Disney films, almost says it all about how I feel about being involved with Disney as well.
Born in China is in theaters now.