Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
The Track Team is a music and sound design production company co-founded by Jeremy Zuckerman and Benjamin Wynn. They are the talented composers behind the music and sound for the Golden Reel-nominated animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. The Track Team has been on the Avatar project since the very beginning and they are now working on seasons one and two of The Legend of Korra–the sequel to Avatar that premiered online this weekend at KorraNation.com. Beyond Avatar, the Track Team has also written for film, television, commercials, and video games, including for DC Showcase and Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness.
Racebending.com co-founder Marissa Lee was invited to interview The Track Team at Wondercon 2012, before the duo’s presentation of the opening credits of The Legend of Korra at the “Famous TV Theme Music” panel.
RACEBENDING.COM: How did you get started working on Avatar: The Last Airbender?
WYNN: Let’s see…Well, I was good friends with [series co-creator] Bryan Konietzko. And he knew of–you know, I was living with him when I was going to school at CalArts (California Institute of the Arts), where Jeremy [Zuckerman] was as well–that was where the two of us met, and we were working together on a few various things. Bryan and Mike [DiMartino] were in development for the show and when they got greenlit, he basically asked us if we wanted to be involved. We said sure, not knowing what we were doing or what we were getting ourselves into. We were like, “Of course! No problem!”
ZUCKERMAN: We knew it would be an awesome project.
ZUCKERMAN: We could see all the work from stage one. [Bryan] would be like check out this character! Check out this “Aang”! Check out Appa–this is going to be Appa! I think that Appa might have been called something else, maybe? I can’t remember.
WYNN: Well, Katara had a different name.
WYNN: I mean, I am sure some of the stuff in that book [Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Art of the Animated Series was drawn at our kitchen table. I’d be like, “Oh, that’s pretty cool, man.”
ZUCKERMAN: Ben and I would be working in the room one over, and Bryan would be doing something beautiful on–what was that thing, he had this…
WYNN: A light box, an animators light box.
ZUCKERMAN: We were totally immersed in it, which is a great way to start a project. We really understood it, from the ground up.
WYNN: One of the things they talked about early on was a lot of World Music influences. At CalArts, we were just lucky enough to be able to study some of that stuff. And Bryan would come to some of those concerts and really engage with gamelan(an Indonesian music ensemble) music and some West African music. So, I think he just–it was Bryan’s sort of vision that we would do the music and sound and that it would be great.
RACEBENDING: What brought you to using more of a “world music” influence, as opposed to just “traditional” orchestrations?
ZUCKERMAN: Honestly, a lot of it was just Bryan’s vision–or maybe Mike’s–I’m not sure. I remember they took us out to dinner or lunch or something and he said, I want the music to use a lot of these ethnic instruments as opposed to these western sounds, but they don’t have to function traditionally. Because he knew we hadn’t studied tabla (a percussion instrument from India.)
RACEBENDING: That was what I was going to ask.
ZUCKERMAN: So basically like, exploit these sounds as if you were just playing with them, and do whatever you want with them. And at a certain point, pretty early in the process, we realized we were going to have to use western sounds, too. There were just certain things that happened, that story-wise, were so “western,” you know what I mean? And we needed the drama of that orchestra. There’s a certain drama that orchestra brings. Certain emotions. And obviously, we’re more accustomed to the sound of the orchestra and how to get those emotions from it. We wound up making this kind of compromise between the ethnic instrumentation and the western stuff. And out of that naturally, the styles merged.
WYNN: I think partially,too, Bryan–just knowing us intimately knew that we were into computer music, electronic music, sound design and world music. I think that he wanted–I mean, if I can speak for him? I think that he wanted something different for the show. I think that that appealed to him.
RACEBENDING.COM: Did you have to start learning the instruments that you were bringing on? How did you immerse yourself?
WYNN: That’s a good question.
ZUCKERMAN: I took lessons on 琵琶 (pipa, a Chinese lute) and 古箏 (guzheng, a Chinese zither.) I didn’t start that until the second season, though. And that was really great, because until that point we were just using the instruments, as if we were just playing with the sounds. We had some exposure through CalArts but we were by no means masters of these ethnic instruments. Taking formal lessons on the pipa and guzheng really opened up the sounds and deepened things.
WYNN: In the beginning, though, you would play some flutes.
WYNN: And you played guzheng?
ZUCKERMAN: Nah, I got to guzheng in the second season. I played pipa for the first season. Yeah…we knew how to tune them, and that was kind of it.
Brief clip of Jeremy Zuckerman playing the guzheng for the Avatar: The Last Airbender documentary
RACEBENDING.COM: The reason why I asked was because I was really excited–I recognized those instruments, because I have family members who played the pipa and also the 二胡 (erhu, a type of Chinese violin.)
RACEBENDING.COM: I was like, that sounds really familiar, I know it’s not a violin…oh my gosh, I recognize this instrument! That was very exciting for me.
ZUCKERMAN: That’s awesome. It’s cool for us, too.
WYNN: I remember conversations where we were like, “Are people going to be really freaked out if this isn’t used correctly?”
ZUCKERMAN: I remember worrying about offending people.
RACEBENDING.COM: I don’t know that much about the instruments themselves, but I think you had the creative latitude to kind of fuse different styles together.
RACEBENDING.COM: The overall product sounded really good. So, the other thing I noticed–and I think I mentioned this on your Facebook page–was that the Beifong theme song [featured in the episode "The Blind Bandit"] is based after 茉莉花 (Mo Li Hua/Jasmine Flower), which is this old Chinese folk song my mom used to sing to me when I was a kid.
WYNN: Yeah, we remember that message.
ZUCKERMAN: Oh, that was you.
RACEBENDING.COM: So I was just sitting there, watching Avatar and then I was like, “Wait a minute! What is going–?” So, I was wondering, are there any other “easter eggs”? Random folk songs scattered throughout the show or in Korra?
ZUCKERMAN: I think that is the only one, unless something happened subconsciously. But that was something, yeah, that might be worked on. My teacher taught me it.
WYNN: But some stuff just comes out.
ZUCKERMAN: Kung Fu Panda [Legends of Awesomeness], actually, is more traditional in the use of the Chinese instruments. But–Mo Li Hua, was that in Kung Fu Panda or Korra?
RACEBENDING.COM: It was in Avatar.
ZUCKERMAN: That must have been when I first started taking lessons. That was probably one of the first pieces that I learned on the guzheng.
RACEBENDING.COM: What inspired you to use the song?
ZUCKERMAN: Oh god…it was one of the only traditional pieces that I knew! It was when they were having tea, or dinner, at the Beifong estate. They were upscale, and I imagined they were very traditional, and the song is very traditional. The only traditional song I really knew. Slightly modified.
WYNN: A good fit.
ZUCKERMAN: It’s an honest answer. Slightly modified, I hope.
RACEBENDING.COM: It’s gotta be open source by now, it’s like hundreds of years old.
WYNN: Unfortunately, they didn’t have copyrights either…no intellectual property until recently.
ZUCKERMAN: That’s really cool, though.
RACEBENDING.COM: So I was like, that’s totally awesome, I totally recognize that.
ZUCKERMAN: I was hoping someone would hear that and know what it was.
RACEBENDING.COM: So you guys were given–I heard–a big budget for the Avatar finale and that you were able to use a string orchestra?
RACEBENDING.COM: I was wondering if you got a similar budget for Korra?
WYNN: And I don’t know if “big” would be the right word to use.
ZUCKERMAN: Yeah, we made things work on the budget we had. It was okay, it was generous for what it is. TV has a notoriously small budget, especially cable networks…especially animation. So it was very cool that the network gave us more money to do the finale. We are basically using a lot of live instruments for Korra, but it is coming out of our own pockets. It’s a smaller scale, a smaller ensemble–it’s a sextet. And then we have the Chinese instrumentalist, Hong Wang.
ZUCKERMAN: He’s amazing. That guy–he’s like a Chinese orchestra. He plays twenty, thirty instruments. Pretty much anything you can imagine. He plays erhu beautifully. He plays all the wind and string instruments. He plays the matouqin, which is a Mongolian instrument. It’s gorgeous. We haven’t used it much yet, but I am sure we will.
WYNN: He is like a folk music dictionary.
RACEBENDING.COM: You mentioned the matouqin, a Mongolian instrument. I was wondering if you tied instruments into various worlds or storylines? Like, is the Fire Nation more percussion?
ZUCKERMAN: It’s more aesthetics in the instrumentation. And the reason being, we didn’t want to portray any negative characteristics, or any characteristics, to any specific culture. You know what I mean? Talk about “racebending”! So, that’s why, like, you know, Zuko had the duduk (an Armenian woodwind instrument), but there was also Chinese percussion.
WYNN: And the Firebenders have brass.
ZUCKERMAN: Western, big heavy brass. I think they also had a Tibetan instrument. Really low.
RACEBENDING.COM: So…what is a tsungi horn? Is it a real instrument?
ZUCKERMAN: That was something we had to make up. It’s a fictional instrument. It’s the performance of a duduk that needed to sound brass-like, as well, because it is a reed instrument but also kind of brassy. It kind of looks like a tuba and an oboe.
WYNN: This is where our computer education came in handy. We took this process called convolution and we basically took the characteristics of a trombone bell and imposed it onto the duduk. So it’s reedy, but also brassy.
ZUCKERMAN: So it sort of sounded like it was coming out of a tuba, or trombone. Really, any brass instrument.
RACEBENDING.COM: Are you also doing the foley work for Korra?
RACEBENDING.COM: Has there been any significant differences in how the sound design for Korra works versus for Avatar?
WYNN: Yeah, there has. First of all, it’s many years later and we have just sort of gotten better, I hope. So I think it’s a bit more sophisticated and detailed. But also, in the series we’re doing more scenes where there is less music during heavy action and sound design moments so the sound design is sort of playing the role for the excitement for the scene. It’s a different way to go, normally we would have both. If it was a very action packed, climactic scene, we would have very action-y music. We’re trying to go the other route where the music is providing the emotion and the sound design is carrying the action.
RACEBENDING.COM: Is that because Korra is set more in modern times?
WYNN: Because it is set more in modern times, the sounds are sort of different. They are a lot more industrial and I guess almost sort of steampunk-ish because it seems like it is somewhere between the Twenties and the Fifties, or something like that. So there are more and there will be a lot more steampowered engines and things like that.
WYNN: But I don’t think that is the reason that we are going this route. I think when it works it is sort of a bit “cleaner” because things don’t compete with each other. Sometimes, it is hard to make sound impactful when there are very heavy drums going the whole time. It’s just kind of a different style. Something we are just kind of trying out.
ZUCKERMAN: We are playing with it. It can be really emotionally intense, too. It feels a lot more psychological.
ZUCKERMAN: Almost more believable.
WYNN: It’s like the music is providing what is in somebody’s head.
ZUCKERMAN: And when it’s even gone entirely, there are couple of action scenes where there is no music and just sound design and the darkness of it is really intense.
WYNN: There are times when that can feel more real.
ZUCKERMAN: Which makes it kind of scary.
RACEBENDING.COM: We have a minute left, so I was just going to ask: What’s the deal with the Avatar soundtrack?
ZUCKERMAN: We were close!
RACEBENDING.COM: There’s thousands of signatures on that petition!
WYNN: I know, I know.
ZUCKERMAN: I really do think it is going to happen.
WYNN: I do, too.
ZUCKERMAN: We need to be on it, Bryan and Mike and everyone else needs to be on it…we’re all so busy now with Korra, it’s like…we need to get back on that train.
WYNN: But I think there have been a couple of good– a few key things have happened recently.
RACEBENDING.COM: The release of the sound pack from Korra Nation?
WYNN: And the fact that Nickelodeon is really promoting Korra in terms of like, behind the scenes, giving away music, the fan club, production art, tumblrs…all of that stuff is really good for momentum.
The Legend of Korra premieres on Nickelodeon on April 14th at 11am.
Racebending.com would like to thank Jeremy Zuckerman, Benjamin Wynn, Chandler Poling, and White Bear PR for the opportunity to interview The Track Team!