Once again, we welcome Rohan Long to the blog for a guest post. Rohan is a zoology teaching guy at University of Melbourne. You can find him on Twitter @zoologyrohan and listen to his new musical project, Bronzewing, at bronzewing.bandcamp.com. You may recall his post last year almost a year ago, reviewing Crichton's The Lost World. This time, Rohan came to us with the idea of discussing the music of 1999's seminal CG documentary Walking with Dinosaurs, and we happily accepted the offer.
When you start to unpack it, Walking With Dinosaurs is a strange beast; a fictional animated series earnestly presenting itself as a nature documentary. The series’ aesthetic cues are drawn foremost from the BBC school of classic documentaries – and with good reason; if the creators strayed too far from the genre as it’s traditionally presented, the spell would be broken, and the audience may well ask itself why Kenneth Branagh is playing Attenborough over a bunch of puppets and primitive CGI. Unsurprisingly, the first incarnation of the show, released in 1999, was also aesthetically and musically influenced by cultural juggernaut Jurassic Park which was released six years earlier.
When it comes to establishing the feel of a real nature documentary, the soundtrack must surely be one of the most crucial elements. The score by Benjamin Bartlett draws from similar stylistic touchstones to the show’s visual aesthetic – a little John Williams here, a touch of Edward William’s 1979 score to Life On Earth there. It must have been an interesting brief for a composer as most importantly, the soundtrack was required to sound like a nature documentary soundtrack. As with the overall look of the show, if the soundtrack didn’t fit the established expectations of what a nature documentary should sound like, the illusion of authenticity would be shattered. So in a sense, this soundtrack can be thought of as a work of pastiche.
I bought the soundtrack CD in the early 2000s but didn’t actually listen to it until much later. Let me set the scene: I was working on a dinosaur dig with which I have a long association and was relaxing at the end of a very hard day. For the second time in as many days I had been working “in the hole” – manually extracting big chunks of rock from the fossil layer with sledge hammers and chisels so the rest of the crew could break them down, looking for fossils. That night, a combination of very strenuous work and a couple of quality Australian lagers had brought about an almost zen-like state of calm stillness in me. The crew was watching the WWD episode that features the dinosaurs from our site (because of course that’s what you’d do after looking for dinosaur fossils all day). I’d seen this episode quite a few times by this point, but this time something clicked. The music cut through to my receptive mind and I appreciated it for the first time.
The music that first captivated me that evening was from the episode Spirits of the Ice Forest about the polar dinosaurs of south-eastern Australia with which I have a warm familiarity. The main motif comprises a sweeping middle-eastern section which then gives way to some icy, atmospheric textures. The follow-on track Antarctic Spring develops this theme and the incorporation of some delay-affected tuned percussion makes it sound a bit modern and cool.
I think Bartlett is using a stereotypically middle-eastern sounding scale on these pieces as musical shorthand to symbolise a generic “other” – you know, because Australia is weird because it’s different to the northern hemisphere! Perhaps it would have made more sense for these themes to have incorporated elements of our actual indigenous music. It’s kind of lazy and very Eurocentric, but I enjoy the music on its own merits so I mostly forgive Bartlett for this.
One thing Bartlett does very well is huge, affecting pieces that make full use of the orchestra. Islands of Green for example, uses slow-building swells of strings interspersed with steady, rhythmic bass notes and a shimmering celesta to illustrate the hardships of marine reptiles in the late Jurassic. Cruel Sea from the same episode is more stripped back but has a similar feel, this time with strings, orchestral harp and brass forming a slow, melancholy waltz. These pieces work very well as standalone songs, as opposed to tracks like say, Torosaurus Locks Horns or Canyon Of Terror which are purely dramatic tension delivery devices.
I think Bartlett does a great job on this unique project, but there are weak spots. On the Time Of The Titans episode he seems to be trying to emulate the feel of William’s themes for Jurassic Park and like Williams, lapses into obvious grandiosity and unnecessary whimsy when scoring the sauropod scenes. Minor complaints aside, the soundtrack works as a very listenable album of music in addition to scoring the series very effectively.
You might notice that the first track mentions in parentheses that it is narrated by Kenneth Branagh. Happily (or disappointingly, depending on your view), Branagh only appears on that first track, the rest is unspoiled by narration. Mind you, although I think that track clashes somewhat with the rest of the album, I’ve got to admit that it does make a great opener for mix CDs – *orchestra swell* Imagine you can travel back in time, to a time long before man...
Postscript: If you’re interested in this music or soundtrack composition in general, have a read of this in-depth interview from 2000 with Bartlett on the process of composing and recording the music for WWD.