Jake Monaco is a composer known for his work in animation. He’s done a variety of work across film and television including Netflix’s “Dumplin” and Amazon’s “The Stinky and Dirty Show”. He spoke to Cultured Vultures about his work as a composer and how he balances working on animation versus films in varying genres. One of Jake’s many talents is using unusual objects to create sounds and music, and it was intriguing to learn some of the objects he’s used to do so. Check out our interview with Jake below as we talk about his musical career that spans across animation, episodic series’, and Pixar short films.
We’d love to hear a little bit about you and how you got into this line of work. What made you decide to be a composer and was it something you always aspired to be?
I actually didn’t really pay too much attention to film scoring or any sort of music when I was a kid. It wasn’t until much later that the interest started taking shape. I started playing guitar in high school and got a band together and we played around a little bit through college. A couple years after we graduated everyone sort of dispersed. I still wanted to pursue some sort of career in music so it was recommended that I check out this program at USC – Scoring for Motion Pictures program. I did and I immediately fell in love and was fortunate enough to get in after applying. I was there from 2006-2007 and following that I started working with a composer by the name of Christophe Beck and was with him for almost eight years. Started out doing mundane day-to-day administrative things which eventually led to bigger things, and that’s where I am now.
Where do you find inspiration from?
It kind of depends. For shows like “Dinotrux” and “The Stinky and Dirty Show”, they are more based on odd percussion, so at the beginning of the process I would rely more on those to see what I would get out of them and that would inspire me as to how to formulate a piece of music. However, with other films such as “Dumplin”, it is more about trying to find out what is actually happening behind the scenes and how you can convey that through whatever instrumentation that might be.
One of your most recent projects, the Netflix film, “Dumplin”, is about a plus-size teenage daughter of a former beauty queen who loves Dolly Parton and her music. What was the unique challenge in composing music for this particular film and genre versus some of the other work you’ve done, such as animation and comedy?
For “Dumplin” specifically, even though I am not a plus-sized teenage girl and never have been one, I can relate to some of the feelings of isolation that she experiences while she is attending high school. I was able to draw a connection there emotionally. I was trying to find something I can relate to because it allows me to get into the same headspace and evoke the same feelings. Once that feeling is locked in, things proceed much easier for telling the rest of the story. One thing I tried to do with each of these, film or TV, is finding a unique sonic identity for that project. Whether that is “The Stinky and Dirty Show” or “Dinotrux”, it’s about finding whatever type of percussion that I specifically haven’t heard before or finding some unique thing to grasp onto.
You’ve done quite a bit of work in children’s animated movies and television shows such as Amazon’s “The Stinky and Dirty Show”, Dreamworks’ “Dinotrux” and Warner Brothers’ Be Cool Scooby Doo. Do you find it easier to compose children’s shows/films versus doing music for adult shows/films?
The hardest part is always the beginning–finding the sound or theme or what makes the project unique. Once that is conquered, the rest is able to be formed by pulling from an established bag of tricks to generate the same emotion for different situations. In that respect, they are very similar. However, as you are commenting musically on what is happening visually, then they are obviously treated very different between a cartoon or a young adult drama. One thing I like to keep in mind is that there are adults watching the preschool schools with their children so I like to make sure I can engage them as well.
We read that you love to use unusual and self-made instruments in your composing. Could you tell us about how you started doing this and the overall process it involves? And what are some of the most unusual items you’ve created?
I was at a recording session for a film I was working on and the guitarist that came in brought in a whole bunch of things that kind of looked very different and unique, in a fashion I had never seen before. Instead of strumming the guitar with fingers, he used pencils and started banging on a couple of the sleeves very lightly which created a very unique texture that I would have never imagined coming from a guitar. And immediately I began opening up to the idea and realized that there are so many different ways to play this instrument. You may not have control over it or it may not be the way it was intended to be played but there is some pretty cool stuff that can be generated from these. The same thing applies to almost anything percussive that you can bang on.
The most unusual thing I made was over the course of a couple of years. I have three large empty bottles of Ketel One Vodka and each one of those I filled up with a different amount of water to create different pitches. I drilled some holes into a piece of wood and turned it upside down which allowed to me create three different sounds–I called them my “Ketel Bells”. Playing them in different ways with different things, like a brush vs. stick, they all generate different sounds. Even manipulating the sounds further once they’re in my computer can create new textures. It’s a lot of experimentation!
How often are you collaborating with other people involved in the project and to what extent?
That is probably one of my favorite things about the job, the collaboration and working with other people. I have my own team that supports me and I love working with them. They have different musical backgrounds than I have so I’m learning new things from them. And then I have the pleasure to work with the director or whoever is on the creative team and help realize a vision. We all get to work together to make the best possible thing, it’s so exciting to me. I’ve had a few projects where I’ve only got one or two notes which is somewhat unsatisfying because I do want some notes. Plus, when someone else gets excited it gets me excited to do more and go big – it’s what I love!
How do you go about creating music that will stand apart from anything you’ve personally worked on as well as what others have done?
Sometimes it comes very quickly and sometimes it takes a very long time to find to the “thing” for whatever project I’m working on. It doesn’t have to be an instrument but could be a very specific melody that I spend a lot of time writing. But once you find the “thing”, the process goes quicker.
We saw you did work on Pixar’s short, “Piper”. Could you tell us about your work on this particular project and how you got involved?
I had met the Head of Music for Disney Animation when I worked with Christophe Beck on “Frozen” and we got along really well. We ended up flying to Norway together to record a very specific female choir that you hear at the beginning of “Frozen”. And I got a call from him about a year and a half later asking if I might be interested in helping out with a Pixar short, just to see it across the finish line. They had hired a composer named Adrian Belew, who is an amazing guitar player, but he had never scored a film before. So some of the logistics required us to work together, and we were both able to bring something to the table and collaborate together on it. Everyone was working towards the same goal and even though Adrian wrote the music he was very excited to welcome me on the team to help realize that. We both learned so much from each other.
What is your typical process like from start to finish when you’re working on a series like “Dinotrux” that has multiple episodes at once?
I was very naive when I first got into television and was thinking that a television show would be easy and quick. But when I walked in there was already a plan for 78 episodes within the course of three years, which is an episode every two weeks. There was no summer off and even with holidays, you’d have to work back to back after taking time off for it. The schedule was very draining to me and I had to learn how to write quick. Typically we would start an episode while two or three other episodes were in progress, so there could be up to 5 episodes being worked on at the same time. It was a challenge I thrived on though!
You worked on Scooby-Doo, which so many of us grew up on. How did you use that nostalgia to create music for “Be Cool Scooby-Doo”?
It was stylistically different and the new take and comedy factor in “Be Cool” was very different than it had been in any other iteration of the series, which I loved. Every episode Daphne had a different thing going on, and it was a quirky thing that I enjoyed on the show. It was great to pull musical inspiration from the original series that had a very jazz feel to it but then also push it into a more modern and contemporary feeling for this show and how to market it against a very specific audience. It was pushed to a slightly younger audience than past iterations of the show, so one of the challenges was how young do you push it while still maintaining a classic brand.
What advice do you have for aspiring composers?
The biggest thing I would suggest is trying to get an internship with an established composer. Mainly because having that in the room experience when you see a director and a producer and a studio executive all having different ideas as to what kind of music should be in a specific spot or entire film for that matter, and being able to manage that and end up appeasing everybody. That is something you can’t really teach and it comes with the job training. So if you’re able to be in the room and absorb some of this, it will benefit you more than trying to learn on your own. This industry is not only based on who you know but it also has a lot to do with your personality and how you interact with the people you meet along the way, and not to overstep your boundaries in terms of too much contact or too needy. You want to be a person people want to call and want to be able to talk to, and they know can trust and rely on you. A lot of it has to do with people skills.
If you could pick one project to work on, past or present, what would it be and why?
I would love to work on a psychological thriller, because I love the edge-of-the-seat drama. I don’t want to be scared but I like to be so wrapped up in the film. So much of it is the acting, but also the music – I get so excited with those types of films so I would love to be a part of one in those in the coming years of my career.
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