Simon Franglen’s three-hour score for “Avatar: The Way of Water” — a massive, complex work involving orchestras, choirs and world-music soloists from around the world — is the end product of five years of work.
London-born Franglen, who is currently on the Oscar shortlist for both the score and song for James Cameron’s wildly popular sequel, was a close friend and colleague of James Horner, who was killed in a plane crash in 2015.
It was Franglen, an electronic-music expert who also worked on Horner’s Oscar-winning “Titanic,” who came up with many of the magical sounds for Pandora’s Forest in the first film, released in 2009. “Pandora: The World of Avatar,” which opened at Walt Disney World in 2017.
Horner planned to make “Avatar” sequels for Cameron until 2013, and the new film contains occasional references to Horner’s original “Avatar” themes, but most of the music is original. “What Jim wanted was a more thematic score than ‘Avatar 1,'” he says. “So we defined some key themes that he wanted. He wanted action music to change direction, a more muscular approach, more drive and less orchestral filigree.”
Franglen was ready for this, his longest and most challenging assignment, after working on dozens of films assisting other composers and occasionally scoring the score himself over the past 30 years. He won a Grammy for producing Celine Dion’s “Titanic” and was Golden Globe-nominated for co-writing the “Avatar” song “ICU” with Horner and Cook Harrell.
Cameron insisted that Franglen read four “Avatar” sequel scripts before starting the music that would be part of the on-screen performance. So the song “Songcord” sung by Zoe Saldaña as Neytiri was the first thing the composer wrote, in early 2018, before shooting began. “I wrote pages and pages of songs,” he says, in the Na’vi language invented for the first film.
“Basically he sings about family births,” he explains. “The concept is ‘Songcord’ for every person in your family.” What begins as a sense of “hope and wonder” will eventually turn into a musical of tragedy and family loss as the film’s story unfolds.
Meanwhile, throughout 2018 and 2019, Franglen was regularly visiting the set in Manhattan Beach, California, writing and supervising the on-screen “source” music that Cameron needed for both “Avatar” sequels, which were being shot simultaneously.
Then in 2020, Cameron asked Franglen to record some of his new themes with an orchestra, about 25 minutes, most of which wound up in the final film. Once the assignment was officially his, Franglen moved his studio to New Zealand to collaborate more closely with Cameron while editing between 2021 and 2022.
He wrote themes for the family, for the people of Metkaina Reef that they join after fleeing their home, for the whale-like Tulkun creatures, for the young Kiris, for the bad-guy RDA characters and their leader Quaritch, and more.
And while he used a 100-piece Los Angeles orchestra as the basis for much of the score, his experiments with vocal and choral sounds and the unusual instruments he used for Pandora’s exotic and otherworldly sounds are even more interesting.
For Tulkun, he visited whale researchers at UCLA, listened to whale songs, and eventually came up with music for brass and cello, and later high female voice, to give a poignancy to the relationship between the outcast Tulkun Payakan and Jack’s son Loak. .
The choral sounds are a combination of the 16-voice London-based choir Tenebrae, a 40-voice ensemble from Los Angeles, soloists (mostly female) from both London and LA, and singers from the South Pacific and New Zealand. “I found some wonderful singers from Vanuatu and the Cook Islands and Maori in New Zealand,” Franglen reported.
He noted that many of the underwater scenes have no dialogue and few sound effects, allowing the music to make a stronger contribution. “Jim loved the idea of a voice connected to the ocean. He loved the almost lyrical quality of these cues. He would remix these things and ask me to turn up the choir,” he says.
They often sing in Na’vi “to give it more character,” he adds. A variety of wooden flutes, including the long Slovakian fujara flute, were used for some of the battle scenes involving Quaritch.
Towards the end of the scoring process, Franglen reached out to The Weeknd to collaborate on the end-title song, “Nothing’s Lost (You Give Me Strength)”, which combines elements of Franglen’s score with songs by The Weeknd and additional elements by Swedish House Mafia. That song is on the Oscar shortlist for a possible nomination.
Franklen said he has already started work on “Avatar 3.”