Acclaimed composer Alexandre Desplat talks about the challenges of covering a wide range of moods in his score for Rise of the Guardians. By Katherine Krueger.

To say composer Alexandre Desplat has had a busy year is an understatement. The four-time Academy Award nominee scored Rise of the Guardians, Zero Dark Thirty, Argo, Rust and Bone and Moonrise Kingdom (among others) for delivery in 2012 — all projects that have won awards attention.

But even the famously prolific composer experienced some firsts while working on DreamWorks Animation’s Rise of the Guardians. Working on a 3D animated film posed unique challenges compared with his live action projects, including the sheer volume of composing. The score took a full three months to write and record with the London Symphony Orchestra.

“I’ve never written an hour and a half of score for an animation movie before, [especially] with so much variety of energy and sounds and emotions,” says Desplat.

The composer says he signed on to the project after seeing early stage 3D visuals for the film and being particularly drawn to the aesthetic of the Sandman, a character who is tasked with guarding children’s dreams from the evil Pitch. The piece inspired Desplat to make the Sandman’s theme a centrepiece for the score, a theme that would eventually evolve into the original song Still Dream, which is performed by renowned soprano Renée Fleming.

Desplat also said that the process of writing the Rise of the Guardians score was influenced by intensive collaboration with director Peter Ramsey, the producers and other key members of the production. The group would meet every two or three days in Desplat’s Los Angeles studio to discuss and offer their feedback on his progress — a level of teamwork the composer was not accustomed to.

“This groupthink was very new for me because usually I work very closely with one director and the producers come around once in a while,” he reflects. “But they’ve been living with the movie for so long, they were the beating heart of the film. So I had to be able to understand every detail, every nuance of the film.”

In the score, the composer’s attention to detail traces character development while striking moods ranging from joy to despair — which allowed Desplat significant room to invent and explore the characters. “When a movie like this one comes toward you, it’s a blessing for a composer because you can use all your craft and be challenging yourself with so many types of emotions musically and it is very, very exciting.”

With the sense of wonder and joy at the Christmas season serving as a cornerstone to the film, Desplat began work on themes for each of the Guardians: the Easter Bunny (voiced by Hugh Jackman), Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) and Jack Frost (Chris Pine), but hit a roadblock when it came to North, a reimagined vision of Santa Claus, voiced by Alec Baldwin. He finally decided to make North the only character without a distinct theme because the character’s traits, coupled with Baldwin’s strong performance, “[left] no room for music”.

He also says even in the midst of an exceptionally busy year, he prefers to focus all of his energy and concentration on one project at a time, rather than juggling work for multiple films at once.

The score’s instrumentation — such as the cimbaloms on the sleigh launch pieces and saxophones during the Easter sequence — is another result of Desplat’s “picky” attention to detail. Because the music, with horns and trumpets blaring on a fight sequence followed immediately by a soft harp melody, required a wide virtuoso orchestra, the London Symphony was the obvious choice for Desplat.

As for upcoming plans, Desplat shows no sign of slowing down: he has already signed on for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, George Clooney’s new project The Monuments Men and Roman Polanski’s next feature Venus in Fur, among others.

“The goal is always to write good music for good movies and, as long as I can do that, I’m happy,” he says.