Behind the Music of Ferdinand with Batu Sener, Film Scoring Alumnus

Mike Keefe-Feldman
December 15, 2017
Batu Sener B.M. '12; photo by Raphaël Brochard
Batu Sener B.M. '12, an alumnus of Berklee’s film scoring program, discusses his work on the new film <i>Ferdinand</i>, based on the popular children’s book.
Image by Raphaël Brochard

After graduating from Berklee with a film scoring major, Batu Sener B.M. '12 has worked closely with his mentor, Oscar-nominated composer John Powell, on a number of films, including Pan, Jason Bourne, and now Ferdinand, an animated feature film directed by Carlos Saldanha and adapted from the classic children's book by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson, which opened in theaters today. Ferdinand weaves the tale of a kindhearted bull who is mistaken as a dangerous beast after being stung by a bee; he then leads a ragtag team on an adventure while seeking to get back to his family.

Sener has score producer, soundtrack producer, and composition ("additional music and arrangements by") credits on the film, and he recently took the time to discuss his work on the film and his career experiences to date. The following is an edited and abridged presentation of that conversation.

The warm score to Ferdinand builds on the Hollywood orchestral sound by drawing on everything from pasodoble, flamenco, and waltz to rockabilly surf and Latin polyrhythms, among other elements. Was this one of the most expansive sonic palettes you've worked with to date?

"Absolutely. Mainly inspired by Spanish flavors, this score is—by far—my favorite project that I was fortunate enough to be a part of."

Watch a preview for Ferdinand:

What emotions or message in the Ferdinand story were you and John Powell seeking to convey in the score?

"That was a bit tricky. The audience is a bit on the younger side. But there's something very meaningful about a bull not wanting to fight and that aspect of the story speaks to everyone at any age. Especially with the current state of the world, this message is very important."

Does the age group of the intended audience influence your decisions as a composer, or is it all about the story, regardless of intended audience?

"It is about the story; it always is. In film music, regardless of intended audience, as composers and storytellers, we have to supplement the story the best way we can. But every now and then, there are some decisions you end up making to ensure that the younger audience is guided through the story, as it were. This is a fine line, though. I, as the composer, know what's about to happen in the film and I have to make sure I'm never ahead of the story with the music I write."

I understand you first decided to pursue film scoring when you saw Pixar's WALL-E. What about the WALL-E score spoke to you on such a deep level?

"The filmmaking is so powerful that there's not much need for dialogue and the music becomes even more of a crucial part of the storytelling. The score's elegance and precision throughout the movie, the language that [composer Thomas] Newman built over this not-too-distant future world, and his aim to master the art of storytelling through music—really, it's hard to put into words what something as abstract as music makes you feel at a given time. But surely, I was a different person at the end of WALL-E."

What is one of the most important things you have learned in working with John Powell?

"Surely, it was how to read the picture. John is one of the most brilliant composers doing this job and one of the sweetest persons I’ve ever met. I will always be endlessly grateful for his trust in me. He is a brilliant storyteller."

I gather that you always begin composing with piano, then add orchestrations from there. Can you tell us more about your process?

"After that, I start trying orchestral ideas to see what colors and what orchestration techniques work better with the scene. That’s ‘horizontal writing.’ There are a lot of times that you have to fully execute the music — sometimes a bar at a time — to see if it’s going to work or not, hence ‘vertical writing.’ It’s also about how much time you have. There are times you have to finish a two-minute cue in a few hours before the meeting with the director."

"Also, I execute ideas away from the picture just to prove that the tune is strong and versatile. Now that I have a proof of concept, I look around the picture to see where it could fit it. Sometimes it does fit and you sort of rearrange it. Sometimes it just doesn’t work and you do a new arrangement of it, or write something new."

"Go ask a friend to unplug every cable in a film scoring lab for you. Then try to put it together until you get sound out of the speakers. It's one way to learn!"—Batu Sener B.M. '12

With so many sounds in those libraries, how much time do you allow yourself for experimentation and how do you know when to say "I’m done"?

"You don’t say 'I’m done.' You just let go of it because the time ran out. The key is to have a very strong and stable template. You make sure every possible sound for your palette is ready for you."

What advice would you give to Berklee film scoring students who aspire to a composition career in Hollywood?

"Competence. It's one thing to wish to do something. It's another to actually do it. You have to continue studying and learning. If you're not studying 19th and 20th century music and scores—if you're not listening to something new—you're not going to be able to expand your horizon. As a graduate of the film scoring major, you must always remember that no one will be hiring you for your composition chops right away. I didn't get to write a single note for John for a whole year. As a composer in this day and age, if you can't follow an audio signal flow, you should start being able to do that. Go ask a friend to unplug every cable in a film scoring lab for you. Then try to put it together until you get sound out of the speakers. It's one way to learn!"