SDCC is the place for premieres, and just moments before The debut of the latest DC Animation release of Batman and Harley Quinn, I got a chance to interview Michael McCuistion. Michael makes up one third of the musical writing team Dynamic Music Partners. Along with Lolita Ritmanis and Kristopher Carter, the trio has collectively earned 28 Emmy Award nominations and began their careers composing music for Batman:the Animated Series, Superman the Animated Series and Batman Beyond. Today, Michael is taking so time out before we attend the highly anticipated premiere, so we can sit down to chat superheroes, inspirations, and musical Batman.
Michael tells me that he was here last year for premier of The Killing Joke, and covers the talking point every single cast member gave me in the press room, “Thank goodness this film came along this year, because Killing Joke was so intense and I was kind of wondering when Bruce Timm asked me, Lolita Ritmanis, and Kris Carter, I was so hoping it would be different. After you’ve done Killing Joke, how do you do anything more after that? But thankfully, it’s just like 180 degrees in the opposite direction. It’s really fun, and very irreverent, and totally off the wall, and because of that it was fantastic!”
Like some of you, I was very curious about the processes involved in the music side of the animation industry, and I wondered what they look at while composing — a rough cut, or the finished movie?
“What we usually get is an edited picture that has only the voice acting on it and no sound effects,” Michael tells me. “So, It it is pretty much the final edit, sometimes little trims are made here or there, but not often. By the time it gets to us, we are at the very end of the process. What we are working with is a picture. It may need some retakes, maybe there are some visual things they are going to correct, or maybe they’re going to add a line or something. It’s very much complete visually, and the voice acting is pretty close to where they want it to be. So that’s it. So our inspiration really is the performance of the actors along with what we see visually, and then the extremely important collaboration we have with the Producer and the Director, in this case Bruce Timm and Sam Liu. That’s pretty much what makes it happen, that’s where we start.”
I ask him to expand a little on the time frame of the process, and how fast he and his partners have, from start to finish, to work to finish a project like this.
“On Batman and Harley Quinn I think it was about 6-8 weeks that we had to do this from the time when we first got the picture to the time that we deliver the score. We have maybe 2 weeks per act, and there are 3 acts. They’re about 20 some odd minutes long, so that’s about the pace. It’s a good pace because there’s 3 of us working together. So it gives us a chance to have a lot of collaboration, and in this case we really needed that with Bruce. It was a very different project for him, and it’s his story of course, and it was a very different project for us because we are still in a similar universe to Batman: the Animated Series, which we started doing so many years ago together, and this one has so many more comedic elements in it. We really wanted to find the sweet spot between drama and comedy, so we needed that [level of] collaboration on this one, that was really important.
Moving onto musical inspirations, I asked who or what made the passionate musical composer want to score animation for a living. He tells me he was a classical kid, that listened he to classical music a lot, and that he was not that into comics — until one fateful night he happened upon a movie that changed his life forever.
“I saw the film Superman The Movie at our drive-in theater, because I’m from a very tiny town in Missouri. Wonderful little town, but very small. We had a drive-in theater, and they were showing Superman, the Richard Donner Superman, and when I saw that film, that music was so captivating. I mean, I hear this music and I’m like ‘Who? Where did this come from? Oh my God. Who is this?’ So it was really kind of John Williams that inspired me to write and perform music. From that point on I was sort of captivated with it. So I ended up going the legit route and getting a degree in music composition and then coming out here, ( California) to study with other composers.”
“Interestingly enough, my first gig ever was Batman:the Animated Series. Shirley Walker had heard some music that I had written and she had called me and asked me if I wanted to work on her show, and I had never written anything else professionally, I had written other things, you know, just for demos, and I orchestrated before, but I had never written anything as a professional film composer. She called me for that and that was my first gig. So I mean, Wow, out of the gate I was so fortunate.”
What?? The Holy Grail of animation jobs kind of just fell into his lap?
“I knew I was fortunate, because it was Batman, right?,” McCuistion confirms. “So it’s pretty close to Superman. I didn’t know, nobody knew, what that show was going to be.”
Michael wasn’t even really a superhero fan growing up, he tells me. “We didn’t have all the superhero movies out. There were series that were out there, were kind of fun and sort of aimed at kids, but didn’t really have the story depth and the character depth that you see nowadays. Kids today are so lucky, they get to delve into their favorite superhero. Just jump into the pool and just swim around. Back then it was sort of, ‘Well I sort of like Aquaman because he does that thing cool thing with the dolphins.’ But that was about it.”
“I like Superman because he can fly.” Michael’s voice is rising ever so slightly, and I see a glint of that young boy in his eyes. “But when that movie came along, all of a sudden, it all came to life for me, and that kind of started my love for superheroes I guess you could say.”
As it turns out Michael had a lot to say about Batman himself. “Look, I’m Just grateful to be part of the character, and the lore, and the history, and the legacy,” he says. “Because Batman was around long before I’ve been around, he’s gonna be around long after I’m gone. And so just to play whatever part historically, in his story, it’s just an honor, really. I’m completely in awe of the whole thing and and I’m just grateful to be a part of it. And, I want to do it justice. The main thing the 3 of us (Dynamic Music Partners) are always thinking about is that we want to honor this character and honor his legacy, and really just do it proud.”
As a huge fan of Batman:the Brave and the Bold I was curious about the episode ‘Mayhem of the Music Meister’, the first all-musical episode of Batman ever. How does something like that even get made?
“We were working with producer James Tucker on that and out of the blue one day he’s just like, ‘I want to do a musical,'” Michael explains. “And we were just like-” YEAH! Let’s do a musical” Nobody had ever done a Batman musical before. A few projects had tried, like on Broadway and stuff but never went anywhere. Nobody had really ever done it right, so we were just like, YEAH, let’s do it.”
“We only had 3 months to do it. To write the songs and make it happen and everything. It was really just James saying ‘I want to do this’ and none us really knowing how much work it was going to be. So James and Michael Jelenic (writer of the episode) wrote the lyrics, then the 3 of us took different songs and worked with them, and you know, we just made it happen. We were standing in one of our studios, just singing songs with a piano background, bouncing ideas off each other, and we really kind of willed into being. Normally with a musical you would spend at least a year developing songs and trying things out. This one is compressed into a ridiculously short amount of time. We were so interested and so passionate about it, that we just sort of willed it into being.”
But what about everyone’s favorite King of the Sea and series breakout character, Aquaman, and the theme song to his sitcom. The Currys of Atlantis? How did this nostalgic tribute come into being?
“Well I only know James had come to us and said ‘Oh there is this Phyliss Diller thing that I love’, it was a TV show she had, (the Pruitts of Southhampton, worth a look) it had this theme that was fantastic and wonderful. So he played it for us,” Michael explains. “I happen to be a huge fan of Lawrence Welk so I think I’m gonna do just a totally legit Lawrence Welk version arrangement of this song. What could be more hilarious than Aquaman singing in his grand style over the preciousness of a Lawrence Welk accompaniment?”
So there you have it. Small town hero, comes to the big city to find success. Michael is a genuinely nice guy, and eager to talk about his work on Batman and Harley. Not because he has to be part of the marketing leviathan that is SDCC, but because he is really passionate about the work. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, you can start by checking out this Batman & Harley Quinn Soundtrack Preview.
You can reach out and say thanks to Michael for the songs on Twitter at Dynamic Music Partners.
By Bleeding Cool contributor Jimmy Leszczynski.
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