Mychael and Jeff Danna (‘Onward’ composers): ‘We lost our father when we were teenagers’ [EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW]

“This experience was rare for us,” reveals Jeff Danna about composing the music for “Onward” with his brother Mychael Danna. He continues, “You’re often tasked with being inside of people. But you usually don’t see animated elf inversions of your life at various stages.” The brother duo joined us recently for an exclusive webchat (watch the video above).

“Onward” is Pixar’s 22nd animated feature. It tells the story of two elven brothers, Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt), on a quest to find a phoenix gem. The gem has the power to reconnect them with their deceased father. Mychael explains, “We lost our father when we were teenagers. And this is the story of losing your father and having your brother as the person you live the rest of your life with.”

He confesses, “That’s really exciting but also a little bit frightening. As a composer you are often trying to find a way into the story. This is stuff we don’t want to think about and had successfully buried for decades. Things that we never talk about among ourselves. We were going to have to pull out some real emotional moments. Things we hadn’t talked about or faced. And do this therapy on stage with an orchestra, to tell each other musically.”

The film mixes folk and orchestral elements to build the characters’ journey. It also brings in rock elements. Jeff explains, “Barley, the older brother, has this spray painted air-brushed van. It was like the van we saw all the time growing up. He has these mixed tapes he plays in it. That was a lot of fun for us. It tapped into the hard rock/fantasy rock thing that was all around us in the 70s where we grew up outside Toronto. I’m picking up an old guitar. The whole thing was a throwback. Right away we were in our element scoring these young guys in the film. Right from the beginning it was weirdly autobiographical.”

In scoring the film, Jeff says, “we often try to mix the orchestra with something that’s kinda different.  To give any film it’s own world. Ian goes from this small character who is unsure of himself to heroic. We could track that with the size of our score and instrumentation of it. We dug into the bag of folky guitars and such, I have a collection of those. We came up for a tune for him and instrumentation to give it a folky guitarfish sound. As we went through the film, we added more and more to a sizable orchestra.”

This builds to the climatic scene in the film where the brothers are able to complete their quest. Mycheal divulges that, “it was the scene we were shying away from writing. It kind of went back and forth between us. It’s weirdly symbolic. That’s what that scene is about: that the brothers have each other. You have each other to help get through difficultly. And that’s literally how we scored that scene.”

Jeff reflects, “It was a reminder of things you knew and didn’t really pay attention to. It’s the two of you.” Mychael adds, “You tend to be overwhelmed by the tragedy of a loss. That makes you put the whole thing aside and not want to think about it. This film did make me look at the positive part of it. My brother and I have been working together. Working on a Pixar movie together! We’ve made something really good out of something tragic for us.”

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