Accordion, Lots of Accordion: Michael Giacchino’s Approach to Scoring ‘Ratatouille’
by George Karpasitis
The art of cinema – why do we love it so much? Why do many of us spend so many hours of our lives in a dark room in front of a screen, looking at something that is not even real? Is it simply entertainment or is there more to it? Cinema has the power to evoke some of our most intense emotional experiences. A film can warm our hearts; can make us laugh, cry or scare the hell out of us. It can cause feelings of joy, sadness, excitement, grief etc. In fact, a great story told through images and sounds can make us reflect on our own lives.
One such story is the story of ‘Ratatouille’. Through an unexpected character, an ambitious rat named Remy who aspires to someday become a chef, and the motto “Anyone can cook!”, we are reminded to never stop dreaming. The animated adaptation by Disney Pixar Studios is aimed not just towards children. Indeed, its deep meaning can and has touched audiences of all ages. However, a great film could never be complete without great music.
The man behind the score for ‘Ratatouille’ is Italian-American composer Michael Giacchino. I first came across Michael’s music as a teenager playing the video game ‘Medal of Honor’, a score that earned him several awards. The next time he came to my attention was in 2004, with his acclaimed score for the ‘Lost’ television series, for which he used spare pieces of an airplane for percussion! That same year Giacchino’s venture into the world of animated films began. In 2009, the unforgettable score for ‘Up’ earned him an Academy Award.
So, how exactly does he do it?
The story follows Remy, a young rat with a highly developed sense of taste and smell who aspires to become a cook. He lives with his clan in a house in the suburbs of Paris, but is forced to evacuate after being discovered by the owner. During the escape Remy is separated from his family and ends up in the sewers of Paris, underneath Gusteau’s restaurant.
There he witnesses Linguini, the newly hired garbage boy making a mess in the kitchen and ruining a soup. In an attempt to help him Remy enters the kitchen and fixes the soup, only to be caught. The soup is accidentally served and proves to be a huge success. Assuming Linguini as the creator of the soup, the restaurant’s only female chef Colette Tatou convinces their boss Skinner not to fire him.
Meanwhile, Linguini is ordered to kill the rat, but he hesitates. After realizing Remy’s intelligence and love for cooking, he decides to keep him. The two form an unusual friendship and discover a way to communicate; Remy pulls Linguini’s hair to control him like a marionette while hidden under his toque blanche. Colette is assigned to train Linguini and the two fall in love.
Skinner discovers that Linguini is Gusteau’s son and rightful heir of the restaurant. This threatens his plans to create a packaged food franchise using the restaurant’s reputation and so he hides the information. Remy finds the evidence of Linguini’s inheritance and uncovers the truth to him, who subsequently fires Skinner. Remy reunites with his family in their new lair but announces that he cannot stay with them because of his new life.
Anton Ego, France’s top restaurant critic who had previously given Gusteau’s bad reviews, ultimately causing the founder’s death, announces he will be visiting the restaurant the following day. After an argument with Linguini, Remy leads his clan to raid the restaurant. Linguini finds out and furiously kicks them out.
Skinner captures Remy after discovering his skills and plans to use him to create a new line of frozen foods. Remy is freed by his family and returns to the restaurant, only to find Linguini is unable to cook without him. Linguini uncovers the truth to his staff, who, thinking he is insane, decide to quit their job, leaving him abandoned with Anton Ego waiting to be served. Colette decides to return after recalling Gusteau’s quote “Anyone can cook!”.
With the help of the rat clan, the kitchen is kept open. Remy cooks a variation of the peasant dish Ratatouille for Anton, who after tasting it recalls childhood memories and gives the restaurant an excellent review.
Meanwhile the restaurant is closed down by the health inspector for rat infestation, causing Anton to lose his credibility as a critic. He decides to fund a new restaurant called “La ratatouille”, run by Remy, Linguini and Colette. Remy’s clan find their new home in the restaurant’s roof.
Michael Giacchino was born 10th October 1967 in Riverside Township, New Jersey, and grew up in nearby Edgewater Park. He started venturing into films at the age of ten, creating stop motion animations on his brother’s pool table. He found the most enjoyable part of the process was putting music to the pictures.
He studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York where he received a major in film production and a minor in history. At the same time, he took an unpaid internship at Universal Pictures as well as working at a department store to pay the rent. He graduated in 1990 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts and began studying music at the Lincoln Center’s Juilliard School.
He worked day jobs at the publicity offices for Universal and Disney, and two years later, moved to Disney Studios in Burbank. As well as working in their feature film publicity department, he took night classes in music at UCLA. His work at Disney meant interacting with various people from the film industry. Realizing that producers hired composers, he figured out that if he became a producer he could effectively hire himself, and he later started producing – and composing – for Disney Interactive.
In 1997, newly formed DreamWorks Interactive asked him to score their video game adaptation of The Lost World: Jurassic Park. By complete fluke, it became the first PlayStation game to have a live orchestral score, when producer Steven Spielberg asked when Michael’s demo music would be recorded live. Michael continued writing for video games and became well known for his ‘Medal Of Honor’ scores.
In 2001, he received an email complimenting his music and asking if he would be interested in working for TV. That email was from J.J. Abrams, who was starting production on ‘Alias’. Michael took the job, and has since worked on nearly every one of Abrams’ projects, including ‘Lost’, ‘Mission: Impossible III’, ‘Super 8’, ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’. Michael also frequently works with Brad Bird – scoring ‘The Incredibles’, ‘Ratatouille’ and ‘Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol’, and Matt Reeves – writing an overture for ‘Cloverfield’, and scoring ‘Let Me In’ and ‘Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes’. Working with director Pete Docter on ‘Up’ landed Michael two Grammys, a Golden Globe, a Bafta and an Oscar. However while ‘Up’ received the most critical acclaim, ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Star Trek Into Darkness have proven to be his most popular scores. Michael is currently taking them “on tour”, and they have been performed live to picture around the world, including at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
As well as writing music for films, TV, games, and even theme park rides, Michael is also an advisory board member of Education Through Music Los Angeles – an organization that promotes the integration of music into the curricula of disadvantaged schools. (AllMusic 2015)
After a successful collaboration on the animated film ‘The Incredibles’ (2004), director Brad Bird puts his trust once again with Michael Giacchino to create the score.
According to the director: “Michael is more like an actor in the sense that he takes on a different character with every movie,” says Bird. “He’s very much of the mindset that each movie should have its own sound.” (Burlingame 2010)
“One of the reasons I picked Michael was that he had tremendous range and he had a whole bunch of different sounds on his palette. I also knew I wanted Michael to do it because I had had such a great experience with him on ‘The Incredibles’. (Ratatouille – Behind The Music With Michael Giacchino 2015)
Indeed, Michael’s training in film school helps him understand stories and characters at a deeper level, often giving directors advice. The themes created for the main characters in ‘Ratatouille’ are explored in Use of Themes. Additionally, he really knows how to work the orchestra, as we will see in Orchestration.
In ‘Ratatouille’ there are approximately 85 minutes of music out of the 112 minutes of total running time. Having a big amount of music is common in modern animation scores, but gives the composer a great challenge to face: how can you keep the score interesting while at the same time retaining a unified sound personality?
Leitmotif is a compositional technique frequently found in Richard Wagner’s operas, where recurring melodies are associated with a person, object or emotion. This helps the audience draw relationships among characters and events, thus providing better flow and cohesion.
Like many film composers, Giacchino has adopted this technique. He likes to work thematically, using themes to represent the characters, so as you listen to the soundtrack you can follow along what’s happening in the story. 3 themes have been identified in the ‘Ratatouille’ score: a rat theme, a main theme that represents Remy’s inner world and a Linguini/buddy theme.
This ‘thief’ like theme is in a minor key and fast tempo, which gives it a ‘sneaky’ character. The melody is carried by the bassoon, which characteristically has a ‘dark’ sound. All these elements reflect Remy’s unwanted rat life. This theme and variations of it can be heard in scenes where Remy is hiding or stealing from humans. It can be first heard in“This Is Me” where Remy is describing his life, as soon as he says: “I’m a rat”. During this sequence the theme is interchanged with a half-tempo ‘majorised’ version, which is associated to Remy’s boredom. In “Taste This” a variation of the theme can be heard where Remy and Emile are in Granny’s kitchen looking for saffron. In “Wall Rat” the variation of the theme is very prevalent while Remy is climbing up the walls of the house. In “Heist To See You” the theme plays while the rat clan infest Gusteau’s kitchen.
Linguini’s character is clumsy, like a circus act. He shares a theme with Remy, a buddy theme that only really plays when they are together. This theme first appears in “The Pact”, where Linguini takes Remy to his Paris apartment for the first time. The theme is particularly prevalent in “Test Drive”. This is where Remy is practicing how to control Linguini’s actions. It can also be heard in “First Day”. Here Linguini realizes that Remy hasn’t run away but instead was in the kitchen preparing breakfast. In “Dinner Rush” a variation of the theme plays while Remy gives his fellow rats kitchen orders.
This is a technique associated with the work of composer Carl Stalling. While working at Walt Disney, Stalling composed from bar sheets, a notated blueprint of the music, dialogue and animation timing that enabled precise synchronization to action. (Coyle 2010) Stalling’s scores have no emotional arc; instead they carefully complement and convey whatever joke is being perpetrated at a given moment in the narrative. (Goldmark 2005) In contrast, Giacchino creates emotional arcs in ‘Ratatouille’ through the use of themes, as examined earlier in this article. There are however moments in the film where the influence of Stalling and other legends of early cartoon music such as Max Steiner (Warner Bros.) and Scott Bradley (MGM) is undeniable. In this section, examples of ‘mickey-mousing’ in ‘Ratatouille’ are identified:
- a) Remy avoids the mousetrap. In “Wall Rat” Remy comes across a mousetrap and squeezes past it while climbing up the walls of the house. A flute frullato is perfectly synced with Remy’s action.
- b) In “Big Break”, Remy accidentally free falls into the kitchen sink. While he is falling, chromatic descending notes can be heard on the piano and clarinet, mimicking the sound of a dropping bomb.
- c) In the same sequence, Remy is about to escape the kitchen but turns his head to look at the soup. The strings play an upward glissando following the movement of his head.
- d) Later on in the sequence, Remy climbs a spoon to reach the soup pot. While he is climbing a xylophone playing fast ascending notes can be heard.
- e) At the beginning of “Discovered”, Remy is caught fixing the soup by Linguini. A glockenspiel can be heard as he drops the final ingredient.
- f) It is worth noting that throughout the film, music stops with the opening/closing of doors.
MUSIC AND FOOD
It is certainly true that music and food have a lot in common. Director Brad Bird wanted Giacchino to express with music the taste of food, while the film would have tried to do such a thing via images. Their joined efforts are particularly evident in two scenes. First, in “This Is Me” Remy explores the combined taste of cheese and strawberry. The music accompanies stylized shapes that appear on a dark background, trying to translate the tastes in sound and color. (Lugt 2009) The same concept is used in “Old And New Friends” , in the scene where Remy tries to make his brother Emile aware of the various combinations between tastes.
To evoke the culture in which the story takes place, the composer not only used elements of Parisian music, but also hired a French singer to sing on one of the tracks. The film opens with the sound of the accordion, an instrument associated with the French capital since the mid-19th century. The instrument is used extensively throughout the score. Seconds after the opening, the French national anthem plays in all its glory and we are immediately transported to Paris. The influence of virtuoso guitarist and gypsy jazz pioneer Django Reinhardt is also evident, especially in“Homecoming”. Here, Remy’s reunion with his family and clan is celebrated with a party, while a rat band consisting of guitar, accordion, bass and drums plays ‘Rhythm Changes’ with the guitar leading, in the style of Django. For the vocals on the song ‘Le Festin’, which can be heard in “Up & Down”, Giacchino had a list of pop singers to choose from none of whom were satisfying. After Google searching “French female singer” he stumbled upon Paris born singer/songwriter Camille and immediately new she would be perfect. The song is sung in typical Parigot street singing style. (Ratatouille – Behind The Music With Michael Giacchino 2015)
Michael Giacchino has acknowledged Henry Mancini as a huge influence. (Ross 2010) Perhaps this is most obvious in the score for ‘The Incredibles’, which borrows elements from the TV series ‘Peter Gunn’ which Mancini wrote the main theme for. However, Mancini’s influence can also be heard in ‘Ratatouille’.
The most beautiful scene in ‘Ratatouille’ where Remy climbs to the roof of Gusteau’s restaurant and sees Paris under the moonlight. The main theme that can be heard here bears resemblance to the piece “Moon River” by Henry Mancini from the classic film ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ (1961). Rhythmically they are both waltzes and there is a similarity in the melodic shape. Orchestration-wise, in both pieces the high strings can be heard carrying the main melody.
An assumption is made here that “Moon River” was used as temp track for this scene, or at least served as a source of inspiration.
Giacchino’s mastery lies in his understanding of characters, creating themes that perfectly capture their personalities. Without these themes the film would have lacked the emotional arcs that differentiate modern animation scores from early cartoon music.
Giacchino orchestrates his music almost entirely by himself. It is obvious that he really enjoys working the orchestra, often writing virtuoso parts, like the flute solo in “Wallrat”. Every instrument has its moment of glory in the ‘Ratatouille’ score, but one of the most prominent has to be the accordion. Understandably so, as it so closely associated with the French capital where the story takes place.
This study would have been a lot more complete if an interview with the music editor, or better yet the composer himself, was included. As this was not possible at this time, we can only make assumptions regarding certain aspects of the scoring process.
I hope this article inspires the reader to go see ‘Ratatouille’ paying special attention to the music and how it compliments the story.
About George Karpasitis:
His most recent credits include music programming, orchestration and additional music for films such as Miracles From Heaven (starring Jennifer Garner), 93 Days (starring Danny Glover) and Albion: The Enchanted Stallion (starring Jennifer Morrison). He is currently assisting film composer George Kallis as well as preparing arrangements of classic film music for the LA Virtuosi Orchestra, led by Maestro Carlo Ponti. For more info please visit www.gkarpasitis.com.
AllMusic,. 2015. ‘Michael Giacchino | Biography | Allmusic’. Accessed May 05, 2015. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/michael-giacchino-mn0000887990/biography.
Burlingame, Jon. 2010. ‘Michael Giacchino: Driven By Stories’. Variety. Accessed April 10, 2015. http://variety.com/2010/digital/news/michael-giacchino-driven-by-stories- 1118025204/.
Coyle, Rebecca. 2010. Drawn To Sound. London: Equinox Pub.
Goldmark, Daniel. 2005. Tunes For ‘Toons. Berkeley: University of California Press.
IMDb,. 2015. ‘Ratatouille (2007) – Synopsis’. Accessed May 05, 2015. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0382932/synopsis?ref_=tt_stry_pl.
Lugt, Peter. 2009. ‘An Interview With Michael Giacchino’. Twitchfilm. Accessed April 10, 2015. http://twitchfilm.com/2009/08/an-interview-with-michael-giacchino.html.
Ratatouille – Behind The Music With Michael Giacchino. 2015. Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2WQdR7Ti-o.
Ross, Alex. 2010. ‘The Spooky Fill – The man behind the avant-garde sounds of Lost’. The New Yorker. Accessed May 05, 2015. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/05/17/the-spooky-fill
Squelch.com.au,. 2015. ‘Creative Thinking With Sound And Textures – Listening Structures’. Accessed May 05, 2015. http://www.squelch.com.au/creativethinking/struct.html.