Learning Center: Lost Composer Michael Giacchino

By 
Chris Fitzgerald
January 4, 2012
Students interact with Giacchino.
Photo by Kat Taub

So many people crammed into the Media Lab to see Michael Giacchino that he called it "Occupy Berklee." The Oscar-winning composer for UpStar TrekThe IncrediblesLost, and more visited the college from the Warner Brothers Studio in Los Angeles via Skype for a late-semester Learning Center forum, thanks to Alexander Arntzen and Juan Carlos Enriquez of Berklee's Film Scoring Network.

Giacchino is a renaissance man. A film buff in the complete sense, he grew up digesting cinema: making movies; taking classes in acting, editing, cinematography, and film history; and also composing. This helps him immensely when working with directors. He speaks their language—that of story-telling—and never discusses music in the sense of melody, harmony, instrumentation, etc.

Giacchino sticks to his principles. He only takes on projects that he finds interesting, only works with people that he likes, and keeps a 40-hour work week with evenings and weekends clear (as much as he can at least). He says, "I won't work with people who I think are jerks, or who don't appreciate the people around them. I will only work with people who absolutely love making movies and telling stories, and usually those people are very nice people." As a result, Giacchino doesn't get writer's block. He doesn't have to manufacture emotions that don't exist, and he usually can't wait to start composing.

There are two parts of his persona. In one, he says, "I'm the kind of person that is dumb enough to just say, 'OK, I'll try it. I haven't done it before, but what's the worst that could happen?'"—as he did when he conducted an orchestra for the first time at the Henry Mancini Institute: Tribute to American Film Music in 2005. The contrasting persona is ultra-prepared for everything. When asked how he reconciles this, he simply says, "It's very educational to fail"—the important thing is believe in yourself. Cliché or not, he had to learn it for himself. He recounts that he was always at odds with bullies at school, and the solution was to make his own place, impenetrable to them. "I'm going to do things that they can't possibly do. I'm going to make this movie. I'm going to do stop-motion animation. These guys can't do that. They're that dumb. Their world is beating up other people. My world is making things. I would bring in the movies and show them to the class, and they would be fascinated by it, and it changed the dynamic of how I got treated."

Giacchino values a unique score. "My grandfather was a tailor, and he used to make suits for people, and he was so proud that they would fit only that one person perfectly. It took me years to realize this, but I'm really doing what he did." His hope is that the themes he writes will be synonymous with the films he created them for.

Composing for Lost, he had the rare luxury of working with a live, 40-person orchestra every week. He recounts how one studio executive urged him to write jungle themes, with flutes and other woodwinds, and he wanted no part of it, because that's what everyone would expect. Instead he went with an unusual mix of percussion, harp, strings, and a trombone section. For Lost viewers, that trombone sound is immediately identifiable to the series. Giacchino wanted colors that were at times scary, at times emotional, and very out of place on a tropical island. 

Star Trek is the film that actually did cause him writer's block. He grew up watching the show, loved the music, and felt an enormous responsibility to write music his boyhood self would have loved. Once he finally set aside the iconic history of the show, that it was in space, an action film, etc., he was left with a story about friendship and was again able to focus on story-telling.

On composing for Up, he recounts the emotionally gripping opening, which he first saw in storyboard format. He says it was emotional even then, and the theme that everyone will lose someone, and having to cope with that, is relatable to all.

Watch video of the event at the Learning Center's site.