U.S. Composers Talk Scoring Chinese Tentpole 'Animal World' (Q&A)

Part of a growing trend of Hollywood talent heading East, composers Neal Acree and Michael Tuller co-wrote the music for the high-profile Chinese thriller, which co-stars Michael Douglas and will appear on Netflix soon.

Chinese action thriller Animal World, directed by 34-year-old filmmaker Han Yan, won high praise over the summer for the nuanced use of its Hollywood co-star, Michael Douglas.

While past efforts to integrate a major U.S. actor into a Chinese blockbuster have often felt awkward, Douglas was cast perfectly to type as the film's mysterious, icy villain. The film also has been noted for its considerable below-the-line participation from overseas, part of a growing trend of veteran Hollywood talent heading East to participate in the Chinese film boom.

To achieve its many fantastical elements, Animal World employed visual effects supervisor Jim Rygiel (The Lord of the Rings, Godzilla) and an army of VFX professionals from Weta Digital and Australia's Rising Sun Pictures. The film's Chinese producers also turned to Los Angeles for the creation of Animal World's propulsive and richly dynamic score.

BAFTA-nominated composer Neal Acree was brought on board for his orchestral work and extensive background in scoring high-profile Chinese video games, while Michael Tuller, a studio musician with Nine Inch Nails and a contributor to the acclaimed scores for The Social Network and Mr Robot, was recruited for his inventive use of synths.

Based on the hit Japanese manga Ultimate Survivor Kaiji, Animal World follows a listless but imaginative Chinese teen (played by local heartthrob Li Yi Feng) who's lured into playing a dangerous game of chance in the hopes of clearing his family's debts. Released in July, the film earned $75 million at the Chinese box office. Dubbed China's version of The Hunger Games meets The Matrix, Animal World was later acquired by Netflix, which is expected to release the film over its platform in the coming months.

At an Animal World screening hosted by the Society of Composers and Lyricists in Los Angeles last week, Tuller and Acree discussed their unique experiences collaborating on the big-budget Chinese film. They were joined by Animal World's music supervisor Fei Yu (Let the Bullets Fly, Go Away Mr Tumour and Disney's Born in China), an alum of Beijing powerhouse studio China Film Group and one of the leading independent music supervisors in the Chinese film industry today.

Moderator: Fei, why did you and the director decide to hire two composers from overseas? What did you feel they would each bring to the project?

Yu: It was an interesting process because I worked on this project from the very beginning when the director was first deciding that he wanted to adapt this manga from Japan. Not much later he handed me a completed script and said "I want some big orchestral music for this," and I had the budget and flexibility to go wherever I needed to get it. I knew Neil for over five years by that point because we had worked on Chinese video games. Those projects had a big orchestral sound, and I knew Neil could do that very well, so I brought him on board. But once the film was shot and I was working with the director on the temp music, he was also picking some pop music and chose some pieces like Nine Inch Nails. So at that time I started talking with our agent and thought we should reach out to Michael too, because I was aware of his ability to bring a really unique electronic sound. So we decided to bring both of them onto the project.

Neal and Michael, what was it like for the two of you to jump into this Chinese project together despite the fact that you had never worked together, nor even met?

Acree: Going into it we trusted Fei and her judgment, that she knew what the project needed and our individual skills and sensibilities. It is kind of awkward at first to go into a situation when you're used to doing things a certain way and meeting someone for the first time who maybe has their own processes. But I was actually really excited to work with Michael. I love Nine Inch Nails and the idea of working with someone with his recording background was very exciting. We had coffee before we got started on the film and we hit it off right away. It's become like working with a long lost brother.

Tuller: It was very natural, actually. It turned out that we had a lot of the same sensibilities, so it just sort of worked out.

Acree: You would think that I did the orchestral stuff and Michael did all of the electronics, considering our backgrounds. But what was interesting is that we ended up switching roles quite a bit because we both like doing a lot of different things. That made it really fun to play against the things we're usually known for.

What kind of instruction did you get from the director going in, and were there any creative touchstones that you turned to as you were getting started?

Tuller: I tend to think of film composing as a close collaboration with the director and music supervisor. Some directors will have almost no notes and others will have loads. In this case, he had a lot of ideas and some very specific sounds he wanted. He's a drummer and he loves big open drum sounds and he wanted some thrashing guitar noises — so that was an emphasis. There was quite a variety of styles and tones that he wanted to see from cue to cue.

Yu: Most of the time in China, directors don't like composers to deviate from the temp music. They want the composer to do exactly what their temp music is doing. This is the third Han Yan movie I've worked on though, and the one thing he's really specific about is the rhythm — beyond that part, he's really open to our composers' new ideas, which is very refreshing. He's very creative and collaborative.

Acree: There was such a variety of genres in the temp that gave us the freedom to try out a range of things.

What was the process of working on a Chinese film like for you? Were there things you had to think about adjusting in your process to make the music suit Chinese tastes? 

Acree: One of the interesting things going in that Fei talked to us about is how horror movies don't necessarily do well at the Chinese box office. So even if there are a lot of really intense moments in the film, with grotesque CGI monsters and stuff, we were kind of reminded that they want this movie to be fun and kind of like a comic book movie, so nothing too horror movie-esque. There were a few times where we had to remind ourselves to dial things back a little bit because of what we were told about the Chinese audiences' tolerance for these things. So that's an interesting element to add to the process — thinking, if I make this cue too scary, maybe all of China is not going to like this movie.

Tuller: Yeah, that was something we were always trying to be cognizant of (laughs).

On a practical level, what was it like working across the language and culture barriers?

Tuller: Well, thank god for Fei. The language barrier wasn't much of an issue because we had Fei working alongside us at every stage, and she's fully bilingual and was able to grasp and transmit any of the abstract things that the director might have said about what he wanted in the music. She did a really amazing job of relaying his notes.

Acree: We were never actually in the same room as the director until we went to China for the premiere after the film was already done. But we always knew what his intentions were because of how regularly Fei was relaying us notes. We had 87 minutes of music and two composers working in tandem getting constant picture updates and notes from China, so organizationally it was a big challenge. At first we were all emailing back and forth but then we started doing group text messaging. Fei and her assistant were back in China and Michael and I were, of course, here in L.A., so we were often getting texts at 4 a.m. saying they needed revisions right now. It became an almost around-the-clock job.

Tuller: That was definitely one of the benefits of having two composers. I would text saying I'm going to sleep from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m., but Neil will be available. After I wake up, he's going to need to rest so I'll take over for the next six hours.

Yu: I'm really glad there were two composers working on it. When one would sleep the other one could still work. It was a really crazy tech schedule at the end. Many projects are like that, but the time difference can make it more difficult. Having both of them be so flexible was really helpful.

Were there any other surprises in the process?

Acree: The love theme that plays three times, I ended up doing three versions of that. I was trying to get a really simple, humm-able melody — something really specific. The version I liked best, I realized after I sent it off that it sounded very similar to the theme from Rocky. It was close enough that I was worried it might present a problem — like legally — if they decided to go with it. But then they came back to me and said, we really like it, but it sounds a lot like a really famous Chinese folk song, so I don't think we can use it. So I was like, well, there's something strange going on with this universal tune, but at least I don't have to worry about the Rocky people coming after me.