Hans Zimmer’s Bleeding (Yellow) Fingers: Behind-the-scenes where The Simpsons and Planet Earth II are scored in Los Angeles

It’s a hot afternoon in Los Angeles. The Oscars just passed by a few days earlier. I’ve jumped into an Uber to an address given to me in Santa Monica. Like so many buildings in Los Angeles, I arrive at something of a non-descript location; nothing but a door in front of a building that could be anything from an apartment complex, to an insane asylum.

Something tells me the complex may be something of both, depending on who you ask; a place where relentless creatives work day and night to craft the music we hear on everything from Planet Earth II and The Simpsons to Game of Thrones, Interstellar and Blade Runner 2049.

Indeed, I’d be hard pressed to have expected to walk in the front door and discover a sprawling campus home to five buildings, with around 51 studios, home to a number of companies and composers, with no less than 20 of them for the recently established Bleeding Fingers Custom Music Shop, whose CEO I’m here to meet.

The complex as a whole, sits with Zimmer’s Remote Control Productions, and is apparently referred to affectionately as the “Stanford of Score“. As I learnt from sitting down with co-founder and CEO Russell Emanuel, this is hardly surprising; part of the DNA of this company seems to be giving young composers the opportunity to work on major projects, under the supervision of some of the greats of the craft.

But honestly, I didn’t do my research well enough – while I knew Zimmer was Bleeding Fingers, I didn’t know this was where he actually worked. A fan of his work, being taken through the halls of his studios which has been described as by Hans himself as a 19th century Turkish bordello, was something of a thrill. I’d seen the studios in countless interviews and documentaries which feature the master at work; though it was this short film from Nancy Meyers which had screened just days earlier at the Oscars that sat fresh in my mind.

Needless to say, the Zimmer fan inside me was exploding with excitement; walking past his closed door, I could hear him working away. Sadly that was as close as I’d get to the man, as I was off to meet one of the team’s younger composers.

The team at work on Blue Planet II

Bleeding Fingers was founded by legendary composer Hans Zimmer and his long time business partner Steve Kofsky (who serves as the company’s chairman), alongside Russell Emanuel, who also co-founded the legendary library of production music, Extreme Music in 1997. Remarkable, despite selling the company to Sony ATV in 2008, he remains acting CEO, while also serving as CEO & Chief Creative Officer for Bleeding Fingers, which was set up a little over four years ago.

They describe themselves as “a remarkable next generation composer collective for productions that are sonically brave”, and in just a little more than four years have positioned themselves as the leading scoring company of the industry.

Geoff Foster (engineer, left), Russell Emanuel (Chief Creative Officer, Bleeding Fingers Music, Right). Photographer: Jack Lewis.

Emanuel told me, “We have such an interesting, diverse, collaborative team. We’re very proud of it. We’re only four years in, and it’s a testament to these guys that we can handle projects at this level. We never expected that. We actually set this company up just to do reality TV scores, and we quickly grew out of that. Which we’re thankful of! There’s a few that we still do, and we’re very proud of that… Alaskan Bush People, (History Channel’s) Mountain Men, we’re very proud of and we’ll keep doing as long as they’ll have us. But our dance card is pretty much full for now.”

And filling up a lot of that dance card is the longest running scripted television series of all time; The Simpsons, whose composer Alf Clausen was fired from the show after 27 years on the air in favour of Bleeding Fingers. Even with a name like Zimmer involved, the reasoning, as Emanuel put it, was purely budgetary; after all, Bleeding Fingers was designed to create custom work for “time and budget strapped TV programming”. And indeed, the crew here are working incredibly long days to bring the series to air.

So what’s changed from the Clausen days, beyond the budget? Emanuel explains, “Bleeding Fingers is a collaborative, and there are some young composers that we’re able to accelerate into this space, and give them an opportunity like The Simpsons. We have two composers working on this week’s episode, who are both under 30. But it’s not like we’ve come in and changed the sound of The Simpsons. It’s still Alf’s tone and Danny Elfman’s theme and it definitely remains The Simpsons.”

Composer Austin Fray (Supplied)

At just 25, composer Austin Fray already has an enviable list of credits to his name, working from the Bleeding Fingers studios on shows like American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story (Amazon), Kicking and Screaming (Fox) and Fear Factor (MTV). But no show in his repertoire carries with it the gravitas of The Simpsons, which Fray was working on when Emanuel and I walked into his comfortable studio; a still from a new episode sitting on screen.

“I didn’t actually grow up on The Simpsons,” he said, as I screamed internally, “but I grew up on a lot of other animated series, and a lot of the style and pacing still applies.” He said that working on the series as been a “trial by fire”.

“It’s a very different workflow; there’s a lot of involvement with live players, and unions and studios and all kinds of stuff that was totally new territory to me. And usually (on other series) we work in the “box”, sequencing virtual instruments, which is great technology and sounds amazing, but this show has allowed us to work with real people every single week. So for me it really unhooks my writing from what I can pull off and fool you with, to what these players do, which is just about anything under the sun. Creatively it lets me be way more free and less retrained by the tools that we have. Granted they’re great tools, but you can’t replace the person, their instrument and a microphone.”

This might sound strange coming from a composer who has to work so regularly in the digital space, however given he’s working next door to one of the greatest composers of all time, it’s of little surprise he has a similar desire to use sounds of the real world to compose his pieces; not unlike Zimmer himself.

Emanuel doubled down on the praise of the session musicians who take part on The Simpsons score, saying, “we are really spoilt here; we get to work with the best session players in the world. You can put anything in front of them and they’ll play it. You can even turn it upside down!” But don’t give him any ideas.

He went on to reflect about taking on one of the most iconic franchises of all time, “You get the call that you’re all of a sudden going to be scoring The Simpsons, and there’s an enormous, massive freak out. It’s like someone giving you the Crown Jewels, you want to be respectful, there’s a deep history in that show. Alf (Clausen) did an incredible job of creating the sound for that show, and it’s incredibly complex to dive in and understand all that, and then trying to be embraced by a team that’s been together for thirty years, they’re a tight knit group, and not unsurprisingly met us coming on board with a bit of trepidation. But it’s been great, we’ve just completed our 15th episode. We get one week to score each show, from the spotting session on the Friday all the way through to recording live players on the following Friday. And I’m not sure there are that many shows that do that anymore, but it’s been fantastic.”

He may be CEO, but Russell is also a producer himself, and was in part responsible for bringing Zimmer and Radiohead together for their recent Blue Planet II contribution. Blue Planet II followed on from the hugely successful Planet Earth II, which is enjoying a symphonic tour of Australia with Eric Bana later this month, which itself follows on from the ten years of touring that the first Planet Earth has enjoyed. Russell served as score producer for Planet Earth II as well, and reflected on his time working on both documentaries.

“Those projects are ambitious in the amount of music, with seven hours of music and quite an involved theme, so a lot of production and a lot of interaction with composers, and as Hans is involved I’m kind of the middle man really. And then obviously take all the glory. There’s all the teams, the composers, the supporting teams and Hans, and all of that has to come together. And when you throw in Radiohead now and then, there’s a fourth bunch.”

Unlike The Simpsons, whose episodes are composed in a week, they have about nine months to compose the seven hours of music for the series, but Russell says while that might seem like a long time, it’s just a drop in the ocean compared to the five plus years the team spends filming the series. And he admits that even for his team, adept to quick turnarounds, “nine months never seems like enough.”

As for the next phase of the lifespan of the score, “there certainly seems to be an appetite” for the live symphonic performances of the Planet scores, Russell explains. “We didn’t expect it by the way. When we started there was no talk of touring. That was another surprise that was dropped on our laps. You’ve then got to format that seven hours of music into a 90 minute live show, which comes with its own set of challenges.”

Those who were lucky enough to see Hans Zimmer tour Australia last year may remember that he didn’t screen scenes from his films while performing its music; of course Planet Earth II will be a very different experience, but I asked Russell about why Zimmer chose to keep the images out of the performance.

“Hans intentionally didn’t show the films, because he wanted the audience to focus on the music and the band. And I think that was the right move, because there have been so many of these “play along to the movie” performances, in which you’re essentially watching the movie, and I think the goal for Zimmer was to really zero the audience in on the score. It was very successful, and I think he was surprised… and certainly no one expected him to play both weekends at Coachella, that was kind of amazing. But having him involved in a natural history score, or two now (Blue Planet II and Planet Earth II) has been really incredible.”

“I think we were all kind of unexpectedly blown away by the success of Planet Earth, and the even bigger success of Blue Planet, and it’s been an incredible ride. And subsequently we seem to be the go to for natural history documentaries… we’ve got Big Cats, Savage Kingdom, Pereguins for the BBC, Big Beasts for Sky TV, and now we’ve just finished composing A Symphony for the Planet for Nat Geo, which was a collaboration with X-Ambassadors, which is going to go live on Earth Day (April 22nd).”

As we continued to tour the studios, poking our heads into rooms where their composers were scoring TV shows and films, in rooms surrounded by some of the most state-of-the-art technology you’ll find anywhere, Russell really summed up my own feelings about the visit to Bleeding Fingers, “there’s nothing like this place… once you’ve come here, it’s really hard to leave. There’s no collaborative space quite as interesting as this that I’ve ever seen. There’s always something different happening; there’s never a dull moment.”

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The Simpsons airs in Australia on 7Mate. The live score from Planet Earth II, meanwhile, will tour Australia from later this month. Dates are below:

27 April: Perth Arena with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra

29 April: Plenary, Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre with the Melbourne Pops
Orchestra

1 May: Brisbane Entertainment Centre with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra

4 May: International Convention Centre, Sydney with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra

Thanks to Bleeding Fingers Studios for inviting us along to their Santa Monica studios. For more details about Bleeding Fingers Studios and all the amazing music they create, head to https://www.bleedingfingersmusic.com/