Composer J. Ralph admits to being awe-struck when Jeff Orlowski screened his documentary “Chasing Ice." “It was the most astounding, arresting, heartbreaking footage I’d ever seen. They had created the definitive proof of the robbery of the glaciers, and how it’s being completely destroyed at such an alarming rate. It’s the first ever visual proof of climate change.”
Using time-lapse cameras, National Geographic’s James Balog captured this eye-opening look at the melting of our planet’s glaciers. So moved was Ralph by the film that he composed the score and wrote “Before My Time,” which is nominated for Best Song at the Oscars. (Take a look at the music video at the bottom of this post.)
This marks only the third time that a song written for a documentary has contended for an Academy Award. In 1963, composers Riz Ortolani and Nino Oliviero and lyricist Norman Newell lost their bid for "More" from “Mondo Cane” to "Call Me Irresponsible" from "Papa's Delicate Condition" while Melissa Etheridge prevailed for "I Need to Wake Up" from “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006.
Scarlett Johansson croons "Before My Time" and Ralph sings her praises. “I wanted to create something that would distill all these images of the film. I couldn’t think of anyone else to sing the song. We experimented with a number of different keys, because every song I write I want the artist to discover in the studio. I don’t want a performance, I want a discovery. I’m looking for that shift between vulnerability and trepidation; I want to discover confidence, to discover the moment. Once they own the song, then it becomes a performance.”
Violinist Joshua Bell accompanied Johansson, giving the song a much-needed duality. “I wanted something that was fragile and vulnerable, yet confident and hopeful,” Ralph admits. “That’s when I introduced Joshua’s violin. I wanted to leave it to the audience to decide on their outlook of the song and the planet. The song wasn’t meant to be this conclusive thing; it was meant to be a wash of emotions, a kind of hypnotic experience that would allow each person to decide the fate of the song, and how they felt about the images they were seeing.”
Ralph composed the scores for back-to-back Best Documentary winners “Man on Wire” (2008) and “The Cove” (2009). “Every movie I score is about distilling the visual narrative into a musical narrative,” he explains. “So I’m working to sonically tell this story, and hopefully introduce another character to very subtly reinforce the concepts and themes. Many of the documentaries I’ve been fortunate enough to work on are big, epic adventures. It’s always about taking those themes and those adventures and imbuing the score with the truth and the emotion of those stories.”
“Chasing Ice” tells another epic adventure. “You follow James Balog, one of the most famous National Geographic photographers in the history of the magazine, as he discovers the most profound evidence of climate change, the melting of the glaciers,” Ralph elaborates. “He travels across the world, setting up these revolutionary cameras that exist in 40-below temperatures and 200-mile-an-hour winds, and captures the worlds first record of that. He climbs the faces of mountains, he battles the elements, his knees give out from the ungodly temperatures and conditions. He’s out in the most insane elements known to man, sticking cameras of the sides of massive ice craters. The imagery and the scale of this film are just astounding.”