The documentary film Born in China, a Dis- neynature collaboration with the Shang- hai Media Group, captures the journey of three animal families—snow leopards,
monkeys and pandas—who live in the majestic wilds of that country. The plum assignment of scoring the filmmakers’ epic footage fell to Emmy Award-win- ning composer Barnaby Taylor.
A UK native, Taylor spent his early years in New York; the contract his father, singer/songwriter Allan Taylor, signed with Universal brought the family to the U.S. Taylor studied piano from an early age. He felt he lacked the chops to set out on a performing career, but he loved to tinker with ideas and his passion for nature films would ultimately intertwine with his musical creativity.
“I have a deep love for the natural world, and growing up I was addicted to [TV series such as] The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau and David Atten- borough’s Life on Earth,” says Taylor.
Barnaby Taylor composed orchestral music for
Disneynature’s epic film.
Taylor landed jobs in the BBC’s production department and for Icon Films, located in Bristol, England. While doing research and production, he came into contact with composers who were scoring these projects. Eventually, his talent and those contacts helped him to snare composing assignments for a number of natural history films, including Frozen Planet: On Thin Ice, which won a Music and Sound Award (MASA).
“I suppose I’ve become known for scores that capture a place or a culture. I do a lot of research and love working with local instrumentalists and performers,” Taylor says. “I’ve recorded in places such as Bangladesh [for the BBC film Tiger Hounds] and Kenya [for the series The Great Rift].”
Taylor became fascinated with Chinese music in 2009, when he was tapped to score the film Wild China, which won a News & Documentary Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in a Craft: Music and Sound. A long- standing relationship with producers Phil Chapman and Brian Leith, who also worked on Wild China, led to Taylor’s introduction to filmmaker Lu Chuan. After submitting a reel to Disney the composer was awarded the job of scoring Born in China.
Now back in the UK, Taylor says that the process of communicating with creative and production personnel sprinkled across the globe pre- sented some problems on Born In China. “It was pretty intense, working across so many time zones,” he says. “I would wake up to comments and feedback from China, work on the issues that were raised, and get my work ready in time for the start of the workday in Burbank!
“I find music speaks across language barriers, and it was good to find our groove with the animal characters. There’s always a scramble to get everything ready for the recording sessions but these went very well, and I’ve had great feedback.”
Taylor records his orchestral scores in large facili- ties—preferably, Abbey Road—but maintains his own project studio as well. Like many other film compos- ers he uses a workstation that combines Pro Tools as a recording platform with Logic serving as a front end. He favors a pair of Adam A77X speakers controlled by an SPL 2381, and his favorite plug-ins include products from Waves, Softube, Kontakt and PSP. The piece of outboard gear he leans on most heavily is his Manley Stereo Variable Mu limiter/compressor.
Although Taylor employs orchestrators to flesh out his scores, he says that handing over his work to an arranger is the among the last of the many steps he takes on the journey to produce a score. “For me, the work begins long before I involve an orchestrator,” he says. “I do a lot of research, and a lot of listening. I get the script early, way ahead of the edit, and spend time reading and walking over to the piano and writing down or recording ideas on my phone. In the vast majority of cases, these first ideas make it into the score, or—worst-case scenario—stop me from going down a dead end!”
On Born in China, Taylor worked with orchestrator Alastair King. Using a combination of sample libraries that include material from Vienna Symphonic Library, Spitfire and others, he prepared mockups. When the mockups were approved by the director, Taylor would send MIDI files, MP3s and notes to King.
Taylor’s finished orchestral score for Born in China is whimsical, emotional, and grand, with Chinese influences and musical moments of tension. And now the composer is moving on to two Netflix projects that relate directly to Born in China: Ghost of the Mountains and Expedition China. He’s also working on a world music library album for Red Bull, and one rather unusual project. “Toward the end of the year,” Taylor says. “I’ll be scoring a David Attenbor- ough film about… eggs.”