Child’s Play

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Chucky, the demented doll and horror icon with the devilish little face, peered out at me from a torn VHS cover at my local video store and haunted my dreams as a kid. Now, thirty years later, I found a surprising opportunity to contribute to his cinematic legacy, by scoring director Lars Klevberg’s imaginative new spin on the classic, Child’s Play. This film gave me the chance to assemble a unique “toy orchestra,” use my own voice to create a “kids choir,” and collaborate closely with legendary actor Mark Hamill, who sang my tune for the film, “The Buddi Song.” Child’s Play opened theatrically this week, and my soundtrack album is available now!

When I first watched the new film in an early cut, I was shocked by its sophisticated and surprisingly emotional storytelling. Stripped of the original film’s supernatural voodoo origins, this version of Child’s Play drew from contemporary fears of cloud-based computing, automation, loss of privacy, corporate irresponsibility, and the risks of smart-home convenience. The film drips with tonal references to many of my favorite 1980s films, incorporating Verhoeven’s satirical humor, Spielberg’s childhood wonder, and Kubrick’s existential dread – equal parts horror, science fiction, thriller, and classic Amblin-style childhood adventure. With these influences in mind, I dove into creating a musical voice for this new vision of the classic tale.

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THE TOY ORCHESTRA

Inspired by Chucky’s toy store origins, I challenged myself to compose the score solely with toys and handheld instruments, completely avoiding traditional orchestra. My first move was to sneak into my four-year-old daughter’s playroom and “borrow” toys that made interesting sounds: her toy pianos, chromatic desk bells, pull-string xylophones, action figures with clicking joints, necklaces, rattles, slinkies, a ukulele, and a plastic guitar.

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At first, she didn’t notice anything missing, but the next day she came out to my studio, saw all her toys, and insisted I return them immediately! Thus began a daily routine that continued for six weeks – I would sneak her toys out to my studio after she went to sleep, and set them back in her room before she got home from preschool.

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To expand the film’s musical palette, I reached out to three friends. I made a trip to the downtown Los Angeles workshop of my friend Curtis Berak, a master hurdy gurdy builder. From him, I borrowed four hurdy gurdies, the oldest of which dates back over three hundred years! From Doug Lacy, renowned accordion player who has performed with everyone from Paul McCartney to Oingo Boingo, I borrowed eight accordions with a variety of colors, shapes, and sounds.

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From Steve Bartek, a brilliant composer, orchestrator, legendary Oingo Boingo guitarist, and longtime friend, I borrowed a half dozen toy pianos, an odd erhu with a built-in cone amplifier, a Vietnamese đàn bầu, autoharps, and a variety of pocket analog synthesizers.

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Perhaps my most surprising discovery in Steve’s studio was the otamatone, a strange little ribbon controller synthesizer with a cute puppet face. The face features a mouth that opens and closes to create a signature “wah! wah!” sound, evoking an old babydoll from the 1950s saying “Mama! Mama!” I would frequently layer these sounds into “otamatone choirs,” that added an eerie, off-kilter sense of distorted innocence.

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I assembled this vast collection of musical oddities into my studio, combined with my own personal stash of hurdy gurdies, accordions, melodicas, and kazoos, and dubbed the ensemble my “toy orchestra.”  Some of the toy instruments featured most often in the score include…

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… toy pianos…

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… chromatic desk bells…

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… pull string xylophones…

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… a variety of toy percussion including a spring drum, log drum, and a clicky ratchet toy.

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Some of the more legitimate instruments featured include hurdy gurdies…

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… accordions …

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… kalimba, ukuleles, harmonica…

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… and a small handheld analog synthesizer called a stylophone, played by running a stylus across a simple metallic keyboard.

I set them up around my room as if they were, indeed, an orchestra, with similar instruments placed in sections with their peers. The hurdy gurdies were my string section, so I put them all in one area. The toy pianos would form my primary theme for Chucky, so I set them up in a stacked “pipe organ” formation where I could play them all at once. Accordions were here, percussion toys were there. The room appeared to be in cluttered chaos, but there was a system in my mind. Cooper Fuqua, from my tech team, set up a series of microphones and mixers in preset locations so I could hop from setup to setup quickly and record as efficiently as possible. However, I could not have foreseen that another musical color would move to the forefront of the score, my own voice.

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I had imagined a choir of little girls singing creepy chorales using “La” syllables. For my first demos, I simply sang the vocal parts myself, up at the top range of my falsetto. I meticulously stacked upwards of thirty vocal passes to create the “choir” effect, using slightly different vocal techniques to create the illusion of distinct singers. My performances were intended to be a placeholder, to be replaced by a real children’s choir. As I worked on the score, however, everyone I collaborated with responded positively to my vocals, especially director Lars Klevberg, who encouraged me to place them into more and more of the film’s iconic moments.

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Still, I was unconvinced my own vocals could anchor this score. Early on, I hired female session singers to sing and replace my performances on a few cues. Naturally, they sounded stronger and more distinctly female, but the truth was undeniable – my falsetto vocals simply sounded better for this score! As I wrote more of the film, Lars kept asking for more “kids choir,” and I was happy to oblige. Towards the end of our collaboration, he asked me how I was able to turn around these choral recordings so quickly, and I finally admitted to him that the “kids choir” had actually been me alone the whole time!

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One way to ensure creative growth is to change the process of writing music. It’s difficult to sit at my keyboard, as I do every day, and create something “new.” However, with a different instrument in my hand, with my body in a new position, hunched over a hurdy gurdy, or holding an accordion, or reaching into an upright piano to scrape the strings, my imagination behaves differently. Writing a score in which I perform and sing the vast majority of the performances myself became a very different process than my normal one, where I sequence orchestral ideas with samples and synthesizers. I was creatively energized by the bizarre palette of sounds at my disposal, and my imagination wandered off into new and unexpected directions.

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Though I was inspired, I failed to fully anticipate the amount of time I would spend recording each instrument over and over. Recording the vocals was an especially demanding challenge. Singing, recording, editing, and mixing the necessary two dozen vocal layers for even a brief, twenty second  musical passage required up to three hours. Fearing I might never finish the movie on time, I trained myself to work faster, but no matter what I tried, I simply could never write Child’s Play as fast as I could a traditional orchestral score.

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As if that were not challenging enough, I had just switched sequencing software in the middle of all of this! After using Digital Performer for twenty years, I switched to Cubase when I composed Rim of the World late last year. That film was conceived entirely in MIDI before orchestral sessions in Vienna, so it gave me no experience recording audio in the software. I had literally never recorded audio in Cubase before I tackled Child’s Play, a score built almost exclusively from audio I recorded myself. I was learning how to track, edit, and mix live audio in this new software as I simultaneously composed the score, and performed every instrument myself! By the time I realized how far I had thrown myself into the deep end of the pool, it was too late to swim back. Fortunately, I was having fun, so I enjoyed every sleepless moment.

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While I set out with the goal of performing the vast majority of the score myself, certain moments required a musical performance beyond my capacity, particularly scenes supporting the relationship between Andy and Chucky. For these moments, I brought in a small string quintet, formed mostly from my favorite ensemble, the Calder Quartet along with bassist Pete Griffin, and I added intimate ukulele solos from guitarist Andrew Synowiec. While the variety of weird colors I brought with my own performances gave the score its personality, the vulnerable and emotional performances by these professional instrumentalists gave the music its soul.

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The film’s most epic and cinematic moments required an even bigger sound, so I brought in the Chorus of the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. This ensemble of nearly fifty singers is woven throughout the film, providing a sense of scale that my toy instruments and string quintet could not achieve alone. On occasion, I used the sopranos and altos to create airy, emotional passages (such as the concluding moments of “Andy at Bat” on the soundtrack). In other moments, I leaned on the basses and tenors to provide ominous textures, as heard in “Theme from Child’s Play,” where the Prague choral men chant aggressive attacks on the downbeats, straight out of a classic Ennio Morricone western.

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THEMES OF CHILD’S PLAY

Regardless of how interesting a film score sounds, it lives or dies based on the memorability of its themes. With two primary characters, Chucky and Andy, I centered the score on two themes, each with a corresponding supportive ostinato.

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Andy’s story is at the center of the film. He’s a lonely kid who has moved with his mother to a new neighborhood and yearns to make friends. I wanted to give his music a childlike sensibility, a warmth and depth that would stand in contrast to the toy pianos I associate with Chucky. For this, I created a repeating cascade of notes performed on a kalimba that I call the Andy Ostinato.

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The kalimba, or thumb piano, originates from African traditional music and produces a surprisingly rich tone. It is childlike, and yet, emotional. Atop the kalimba ostinato, I set Andy’s main melody, the Andy Theme.

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For most scenes, I played Andy’s Theme on the old upright piano in my studio. (This piano is actually the screen-used piano from “Someone to Watch Over Me,” a pivotal episode of Battlestar Galactica. After several years, and a generous donation from my dear friend, producer Todd Sharp, the piano found a home in my studio, and Child’s Play marks its first use in a score!)

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The Andy Ostinato and Andy Theme are featured most prominently on the soundtrack album in “Karen and Andy,” “A New Friend,” and “Friends Until the End.”

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The score’s most crucial theme, however, belongs to Chucky. Like Andy’s Theme, Chucky’s Theme is built from two components, an ostinato and a melody. The Chucky Ostinato is a creepy, simple pattern always performed on the toy pianos. Even if Chucky is not onscreen, the audience knows Chucky is up to something sinister when this playfully ominous riff sneaks in!

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I supported the Chucky Ostinato with percussive beats played by striking the palms of my hands against open autoharp strings. Autoharp strings ring for a long time, in contrast to the toy pianos’ instant, thudding attacks. The two sounds complement one another because of their wildly different decay times, forming a single eerie color that permeates the film.

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In order to produce more physical space to play the strings with my hands, I removed the instrument’s dampening mechanism and, unfortunately, utterly destroyed one of Steve Bartek’s autoharps in the process! I apologized profusely, ordered him a new one, then went back to work!

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THE BUDDI SONG

The most important piece of music in the film is a melody that works in two forms, serving as Chucky’s Theme in the narrative underscore, and as “The Buddi Song,” a source cue that exists within the fictional world of the story. From my first day on the film, it was always my wildest dream that the melody of “The Buddi Song” might also serve as the Chucky Theme within the score. In order to do that, I would have to compose a melody recognizable in two wildly different arrangements: an upbeat and pleasant song for a children’s toy, as well as a twisted and sinister character theme.

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Within the instrumental underscore, this melody gives the The Chucky Theme the capacity to be purely innocent (“A Surprise for Andy“), rich and emotional (“A New Friend“), mysterious (“Birth of Chucky“), creepy (“Bad Influence“), playfully sinister (“Convergence at Zed Mart“), or bombastically sadistic (“Chucky’s Trap“).

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Nearly every instrument at my disposal performs a variation of this melody at some point in the film. The emotional string quintet quotations early in the film signal that Chucky and Andy are bonding. The wailing hurdy gurdy and accordion versions during the film’s kills support Chucky’s growing bloodlust. My screaming vocals at the film’s insane climax signal his transformation into a killer!

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As a piece of source music, “The Buddi Song,” transcends the score and lives within the story itself. In the world of the film, Chucky is a Buddi Doll, an AI enabled toy that comes pre-programmed to sing “The Buddi Song.” Chucky sings it in a number of scenes, to an increasingly creepy effect. I was thrilled for the opportunity to compose “The Buddi Song,” and then to collaborate closely with actor Mark Hamill, whose nuanced vocal performances would bring Chucky to life.

I collaborated with co-lyricist and screenwriter Tyler Burton Smith to compose the lyrics.

“The Buddi Song”
You are my buddy until the end
More than a buddy
You’re my best friend
I love you more than
You will ever know
I will never let you go

I am your buddy until the end
More than a buddy
I’m your best friend
When you feel lonely
And you start to cry
I am always by your side

We are best buddies until the end
More than just buddies
We are best friends
Don’t ever leave me
Please don’t say goodbye
I’ll be yours ‘til the day that I die

I strove to write a lyrically honest and emotionally genuine song. Chucky really does want to be Andy’s friend as the film begins and his motivations are clear, even as he becomes increasingly dangerous. With this in mind, I recorded a demo of “The Buddi Song,” in which I sang the lead vocals myself, and sent it to Lars and the producers. Their response was effusive! Once we had our “Buddi Song,” there remained only one more question: could Mark Hamill sing it?

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To answer this question, I attended several of Mark’s ADR voice recording sessions. Though Mark is not a trained singer, he nevertheless dove enthusiastically into the vocals. I didn’t make his job easy here – the tune spans more than an octave and offers several tricky chromatic changes. Mark worked hard, rehearsed the song on his own, and brought professionalism and inspiration to every recording session.

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My sessions with Mark were relatively early in his experience on the film, so he was still dialing in Chucky’s voice. I was similarly in the preliminary stages of scoring, grasping for the tonal boundaries of the film’s musical language. As Mark sang, he seemed to find the extreme moods of Chucky’s voice, ranging from pleasant to sadistic. Mark’s vocals then encouraged me to push the music further to match. As a result, the score influenced the voice-over performance, and the voice-over performance influenced the score! Part of the fun of working with Mark was in each of us discovering deeper layers of meaning in our work. Collaborating with him was an unexpected joy, and one of the highlights of working on Child’s Play.

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As I drove home from my final recording session with Mark, an idea kept nagging at me. Even though we had only recorded a complete version of “The Buddi Song” as a warmup exercise, I thought it would be worth expanding into a standalone song. When I got home, I went into my studio, pulled in Mark’s vocal tracks, and began a new arrangement of “The Buddi Song” inspired by his vocal performance.

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My new spin on the material was completely stripped of all horror genre signifiers. In fact, it was downright joyous, featuring an upbeat groove more reminiscent of Sesame Street than Child’s Play, with a Nilsson-inspired rhythm section groove and playful backing vocals. When I was done, I had a completely new interpretation of the song. I sent it to Lars and the producers just to brighten their Thursday evening, and then went back to working on the remainder of the score, putting “The Buddi Song” out of my mind.

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Unbeknownst to me, the track I created circulated around the various filmmakers, and everyone loved it. Ultimately, my fun arrangement of “The Buddi Song” landed in the most prized location a song can have in a film – the main title credits sequence! Their idea of putting this upbeat song at the end of the film just worked, underlining the film’s satirical tone perfectly. Placing a song based on the score’s primary theme at the end of a film is a classic Hollywood trick, dating back to films from the 1960s. As a concept, it oddly fell out of favor after its Titanic peak in the late 1990s. “The Buddi Song” in Child’s Play marks the second time in a month that a major motion picture has concluded with a crazy song I produced that is related to that film’s underscore (following my cover of Blue Öyster Cult’s “Godzilla” featured in the title credits of Godzilla: King of the Monsters).

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I stretched “The Buddi Song” into a third form when I used it as the foundation for Kaslan Corporation informercial music (“Kaslan Theme”). The track begins with the official Kaslan Logo music, heard at the top of the film, right after the production logos. I strove to write a fictional logo cue so obnoxious and cheesy that audiences would immediately understand that Kaslan is not a real company. From there, I ran “The Buddi Song” through the filter of cheesy late-night-informercial corporate advertising music. (I was trying channeling the musical influence of Tim and Eric with this one!)

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CHILD’S PLAY SOUNDTRACK ALBUM

CHLD01After several months of meticulous and painstaking work, I am thrilled that Child’s Play is out in theaters, and that the score is available in all digital formats, as well as forthcoming CD from Sparks & Shadows and vinyl from Waxwork Records.

1. The Buddi Song (feat. Mark Hamill)
2. Theme from Child’s Play (feat. Mark Hamill)
3. Birth of Chucky
4. Karen and Andy
5. A Surprise for Andy
6. A New Friend
7. Tickle Time
8. Bad Influence
9. Taking Down the Lights
10. The Watermelon Man
11. Deactivating Chucky
12. In the Basement
13. The New Doll
14. Kaslan Car
15. Andy at Bat
16. Convergence at Zed Mart
17. Zed Mart Massacre
18. Chucky’s Trap
19. Friends Until the End
20. Kaslan Theme
21. Child’s Play Theme (1988) [Bonus Track]

The soundtrack album concludes with a special track I created solely for the album, “Child’s Play Theme (1988) [Bonus Track].” Before I put away all my musical toys, I wanted to put my own spin on Joe Renzetti’s classic theme from the 1988 film Child’s Play. I was curious to hear what his music would sound like performed by my strange toy orchestra.

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I moved Renzetti’s synth bells to my toy pianos, his bass synths to my upright piano, his synth strings to my hurdy gurdies, and I transferred his beautiful synth vocal lines to my own voice, painstakingly singing and layering the lines for hours. I produced this bonus track as an homage to the memorable theme Renzetti created thirty years ago, and to express my personal gratitude to Don Mancini for the franchise he created. As a fan of the series myself, I made this track for fans.

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My version of the Renzetti theme was the final cue I produced before it was time to retire the toy orchestra for good. As I layered in wailing melodic hurdy gurdy lines, I lost track of how high I had tuned the instrument: to the breaking point. During the final take, I bent the melody string upward for a triumphant vibrato and it snapped! This was the instrument’s original string, one that had survived four years of intense performances on Black Sails. Perhaps fittingly, it broke recording the final track in the final cue for Child’s Play. I took a moment to collect myself and decided my work on the film was now done. The take where my string breaks can be heard in the final mix.

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I am grateful to everyone on the team for inviting me to journey with them in the making of Child’s Play. I would like to thank director Lars Klevberg for his inspiring creative leadership, as well as Seth Grahame-SmithDavid KatzenbergAaron Schmidt, and everyone at KatzSmith Productions, Orion Pictures, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, especially Lori Silfen and Mandy Mamlet in the music department. Thanks are due also to co-lyricist Tyler Burton Smith, picture editor Tom Elkins, my mixer and co-producer Jason LaRocca, music editor Michael Baber, lead orchestrators Edward Trybek, Henri Wilkinson, and Jonathan Beard, instrumental contractor Peter Rotter, Prague choral contractor James Fitzpatrick, album mastering engineer Patricia Sullivan, and my tireless and dedicated support team at Sparks & Shadows, especially Joe Augustine, Cooper Fuqua, Jesse Hartov, Marisa Gunzenhauser, Alec Siegel, Angelina Park, Bailey Gordon, as well as everyone at Kraft-Engel Management, especially Jeff Jernigan, Richard Kraft, and Laura Engel.

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FRIENDS UNTIL THE END

With Child’s Play opening to overall positive reviews and solid box office, it also marks another personal milestone for me. Five years ago, I shifted my focus to pursue scoring theatrical feature films. This weekend, I have two films (Child’s Play and Godzilla: King of the Monsters) in the top ten box office performers in the country!

When I was a kid, sneaking up to that creepy VHS box art featuring Chucky’s menacing eyes, I never would have imagined this character would one day inspire me to explore new avenues of musical expression. I could never have guessed Chucky would eventually inspire me to write a song for one of my favorite actors and childhood heroes, Mark Hamill. Composing Child’s Play was one of the most invigorating and inspiring chapters of my recent creative life. I hope my plinking toy pianos, creepy falsetto vocals, whining hurdy gurdies, and wheezing accordions will help terrify the next generation of Child’s Play fans.

Your Friend Until the End,
-Bear