Since graduating from USC’s prestigious film scoring program, composer Michael Kramer has worked relentlessly to ensure his place among the top composers in Hollywood. In the last four years, he has had the opportunity to work on projects including Furious 7, Thor: The Dark World, Lego Star Wars: The Freemaker Adventures, and Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu. His current work on the Lego Star Wars television series has garnered him a well-deserved nomination for a Daytime Emmy Award. As someone who works in the world of Lego, it is only fitting that Kramer would compare his work to building a LEGO set, explaining that “anyone who’s grown up with LEGOs knows the thrill of disassembling a set to create something entirely new from the same pieces.” Earlier this week, Kramer took time to chat with Blast about his musical journey, his current projects, and his biggest pressures.
Blast: Since you began your career, you’ve had the opportunity to work on films, television series and video games. Do you have a preference on which type of project you would like to do more of in the future?
Kramer: That’s a great question. One of the things that surprised me about working in television is the fact that you have a really large canvas to work with. Film is my first love but you have limited time to get ideas across and develop them into something else. The really exciting thing about television is because the storylines are bigger and longer, you can develop music in interesting ways that you can’t do in film due to the lack of real estate. The character scheme is different. For example, a character can turn into a villain instead of a hero, which allows you to morph the theme along with the character over the course of the show.
Blast: You have scored for both the Ninjago and Lego Star Wars television programs. Is there something, whether current or from childhood, that attracts you to the world of Lego?
Kramer: I wasn’t necessarily searching for those properties. They came to me. I did grow up with Legos in my life. The funny thing is that when I was a kid, I made stop-motion Lego movies using my dad’s video camera. It feels really good now to be working on them as an adult.
Blast: With shows like Ninjago¸ when you prepare for the next season, do you initially focus more on each individual episode or do you prefer to first establish a general musical theme for the season?
Kramer: I usually start broad and come up with the themes and concepts for the characters before focusing on the specific story arcs for the season. Doing it that way makes it easier to know how the theme is going to progress over the course of the storyline. You don’t want to paint yourself into a storyline before you figure out where you’re headed. It’s about broad strokes and then drilling down to the fine details.
Blast: Ninjago has now released over 60 episodes. Does it ever get challenging to come up with exciting, fresh material after that long?
Kramer: Great question. The great thing about Ninjago is the writers, the Hageman brothers. They are relentless in pushing the envelope with the show, which is a blessing and a curse. Each new season is something totally new and fresh story-wise and the music has to follow it. One season is pirates and another season is ghosts and the music has to keep up with the changing shifts in the story. Luckily, we don’t have to push it on our own. We aren’t bored and if anything, we have to struggle to keep up with their imagination.
Blast: John Williams has made such an incredible impact on the world of Star Wars with his scores. Did you feel any pressure being involved with a Star Wars project when such a rich musical base has already been created?
Kramer: Yeah, I mean it’s daunting to set foot into the world of Star Wars music. John Williams has such a legacy with his incredible melodies. It was scary at first but after a while, you realize they’re just notes and you have to do your best. You have to stay authentic to yourself and then do you best for the world that has already been established. It’s a bit of a dance going back and forth between those two.
Blast: Do you enjoy working in a pre-established world, such as the one surrounding Lego Star Wars, or do you prefer being part of a film or series that is brand-new with no source material or history?
Kramer: They both have unique challenges. With a world already branded like Star Wars, it is a challenge because you have to fit into what’s already come before you. However, I think as a creative person, sometimes having a sandbox of where you can play can be freeing, creatively-speaking. It restricts you focus and forces you to be creative in new ways, which I really enjoy. On the flip side, working on a show like Ninjago, which wasn’t really established before is incredibly fun as well. The door is wide open for you to create a new style and a new sound palate. That is simultaneously really exciting and daunting because the possibilities are endless.
Blast: On the topic of brand-new projects, you recently completed the score for the film Valley of Bones. It looks like a really exciting and thrilling project, with a lot of potential for stimulating musical moments. What was the process like composing for that film and how did you ensure that you created a sound that matched the emotion elicited from the visuals on-screen?
Kramer: I worked with my good friend Corey Wallace and we were co-composers on the project. This particular film was a really fun process. We got into a really interesting brainstorming space at the beginning of the process and tried to come up with sounds that felt really old-world and combine them with things that felt new and fresh. It was an ancient plus modern approach. We tried to find old crusty-sounding shakers that almost were like bones rattling, which was the ancient side of the equation, and pair them with a cool modern distorted synth, which was the most side. The combination of those two things created really interesting new sounding sonic worlds.
Blast: If you could compose for any project in the future, what would it be?
Kramer: It’s hard because Lego Star Wars really is a dream project. I know it sounds cheesy but I feel I have my dream project right now. The chance to work with these themes and characters in the Star Wars universe is a dream.
Be sure to watch the second season of Lego Star Wars: The Freemaker Adventures on Disney XD this summer and the seventh season of Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu when it premieres on May 15.