Toby Chu Harmonizes East and West for Pixar

Bryan Parys
September 5, 2018
Bao composer Toby Chu with director Domee Shi and producer Becky Neiman
Toby Chu conducts a film orchestra
Toby Chu (center) with 'Bao' director Domee Shi (right) and producer Becky Neiman (left)
Chu, standing to the left, conducts a studio session for his Pixar score.
Image courtesy of Toby Chu
Image courtesy of Toby Chu

You don’t often hear an erhu in Hollywood film scores. The two-string bowed instrument is used primarily in traditional Chinese music and is usually tuned to function in one key, making it a challenge to incorporate into Western orchestration. But for Toby Chu B.M. ‘99, who scored Bao, the Pixar animated short film featured alongside box office smash The Incredibles 2, getting Eastern and Western music to play well with each other was critical not just to the score, but to the story itself.

Bao tells the story of a Chinese family living in the West, zeroing in on what it’s like for immigrant parents trying to raise children in a way that celebrates and honors their culture without alienating those children from the society they were born into. The seven-minute film contains no dialogue, thus putting a lot of emphasis on Chu’s compositions. Add to that the facts that Chu himself is the son of Chinese immigrants, that he left home to eventually marry a Caucasian woman (of note, composer and Berklee alumna Ivana Lisak), and that he is the first Asian American to score a Pixar film, and you start to understand why bringing in Eastern instruments such as the erhu and the 21-string dulcimer-like guzheng was so important for him. “These instruments have an incredible history,” he says. “I wanted to pay homage to them in a loving way.”

Listen to Chu's score for Pixar's Bao:

A New Era for Telling Multicultural Stories

When Chu first watched Bao he was understandably excited about the prospect of working on a Pixar film. Given just how closely his own story mirrored the one depicted in the film, he also thought, “Wait a minute—did someone spy on my life?” Chu knew the Bao narrative intimately and felt as if he’d been training for this job his whole life, even if he never realized it until that moment. “I wished I’d had a story like this when I was a kid,” he says, commenting on the lack of multicultural storytelling across the popular media of his childhood. “That urge and need to be creative and have people see what I do was also affected by not being represented.”

Preparing for a Hollywood Schedule

Chu's professional training began in earnest when he moved to L.A. and began spending most of his time in studios, learning how to create original music for clients at any time of day. “In L.A., you’re writing all day long,” he says. “You’re up at 3:00 a.m. and need 20 minutes of programmed music by 8:00 a.m.” That work paid off and has found Chu scoring for the likes of Warner Bros., Sony Pictures Animation, NBC, and even electronic music legends Daft Punk (on their score for the film Tron: Legacy).

“The more control you have over your craft, the more free you become.”

—Toby Chu B.M. '99

He says that in college, you typically have more time to spend on projects, and that can often stand in contrast to the professional world. But he remembers one project from his film scoring days at Berklee when a schedule misunderstanding dramatically shortened his time to write a score. He was up late every night for a week, but he cites that experience as preparation for the quickened pace that awaited him after graduation, setting him up for his eventual success. 

Dedication to Craft Brings Artistic Freedom

Ultimately, the harmonic convergence of East and West in Bao's score is a testament to Chu's careful attention to every element of the composition. “The more control you have over your craft, the more free you become,” he says.

And while he didn’t go looking for a project so close to his own narrative, he knows that Bao is a major turning point. “Everything you create changes you,” he says. “It makes you better at what you do. [Bao was a] huge step for me, not just career-wise, but musically and as an artist. It made me more of a wholesome composer.”

Listen to a playlist Chu put together to highlight works that influenced his scoring process: