Atli Örvarsson.

Atli Head Shot B&W

One of your first scoring assignments was for NYPD BLUE, this was a series on TV, how did you become involved on the show?

At the time I was working as an arranger/programmer for Mike Post who was the composer on that show. He had something like 5 or 6 TV series going simultaneously at the time and understandably needed a hand!

How many times do you like to see a project before you begin to write the score and get any ideas about what style of music you will compose or where the music should be placed to best serve the movie?

The challenge here for me is to not jump in too early and just start writing! I tend to get ideas right away and just want to start developing them but I have learned that sometimes it’s better to watch the film a few times and let it all seep in.

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When you are working on a score do you think it is important to firstly establish a core theme so that you can then develop and build the remainder of the score around this or have you a set routine when you work on a movie?

I think it’s of paramount importance to have a strong foundation to build the score on and that tends to be in the form of a theme and typically more than one! But also the overall sound and colour is very important, whether it’s orchestral, electronic, small band or whatever the direction is. Then, along the way, you make various discoveries that add to the gestalt but yes, a strong idea in the beginning is really important.
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You have worked in both TV, video games and on motion pictures, would you say there are any major differences between writing for the big screen as opposed to writing for the television or games?

They are all quite different. The biggest difference between TV and film really is the time you have to write. That inevitably dictates how you write and what you write for. There simply isn’t time in TV to be as thorough as you would be on a film. I have found that video games are mainly different for the reason that most of the music for those isn’t tailored to a specific picture and therefore there’s a bit more freedom. It’s more akin to writing a suite at the beginning of a film score.

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If you think a score needs a particular instrument that is outside the conventional orchestra, how do you locate it and also a musician to play it, or do you maybe opt for the synthetic version of the instrument?

Typically, I will not use a synthetic version of a real solo instrument if I can at all avoid it. There are exceptions when a sample has some sort of a character that gives a specific flavour but usually a big part of the charm of such instruments is the actual performance of a live player. There are some very established specialists that do a wonderful job playing all kinds of things from around the world but I’ve also gone on You tube and found new talents which is always a fun discovery!

When writing a score do you set about it with a particular orchestra/choir in mind?

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Do you have preferences when it comes to recording engineers, studios and orchestras?

Yeah, I think all of us who do this have those preferences. You find the people who you like to work with and who have a similar aesthetic as your own and stick with them! The same goes for studios.

At what age were you first attracted to music and at what stage did you decide that you would like to be involved in the writing of film music?

I can’t really pinpoint when I was first attracted to music but I started to seek out music lessons when I was 5 so it was quite early on. I probably first noticed film music when I saw Star Wars and later it was Ennio Morricone’s work that really cemented my interest in film music.

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Is it difficult at times to relay to an un-musical director what you think the movie needs regarding music?

I think it’s almost always hard to talk about music because experiencing it is such a profoundly personal thing so words can mean completely different things to different people when describing it. I’ve found that it’s always best to let the music to the talking, although a good doze of snake oil maybe required from time to time!

How much time do you normally have to complete work on a score from start to finish, maybe you could use SEASON OF THE WITCH as an example?

There really is no norm when it comes to that and each project is different. SOTW is an interesting example because the film went through different editing phases with different artistic directions which I had to follow. In fact when it was all said and done, one of the producers said to me “you scored the film three times” which is quite close to the truth! Because of this, the post production period was extremely long and I think it took almost a year to finish it all up. Then, on Mortal Instruments: City of Bones I came in very late and had about 7 weeks to do the entire score. So, it’s all over the map really.

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You have worked on the TV series CHICAGO FIRE (30 EPISODES) and LAW AND ORDER LA (18 EPISODES) in series such as this the schedules must be very tight, do you ever re-use music that has been utilised within previous episodes?

I will certainly re-use themes when it’s appropriate and sometimes base a cue on a previous one.
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THE EAGLE is an interesting score, how much research did you do before approaching the score and did you use Scottish musicians on the soundtrack?
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I did quite a bit of research but I really learned on the job on that one from working with both Scottish and Irish musicians. You can read all you want about styles and instruments but it’s really when you start working with them that you grasp what it’s all about!

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HANSEL AND GRETEL is also an interesting movie a really different take on the classic fairy tale; did you have second thoughts about becoming involved with the movie because it was such a different approach to the story?

No, I can’t say that I did. The director, Tommy Wirkola, has a very distinct style and I had no problem with him putting his slant on this story. In fact, I bet the brothers Grimm would have gotten a kick out of it!

What was it like working with Tommy Wirkola, did he have a great deal of involvement with the scoring process or was he happy to let you work undisturbed?

I’d say Tommy had just the right amount of involvement. He certainly had quite a bit of input but was also very respectful of my process and gave me plenty of freedom to experiment.

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HANSEL AND GRETEL contains a lot of strong themes and also a lot of action music do you think it is important to have themes for the central characters or the characters that feature highly in a movie?


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Staying with HANSEL AND GRETEL there are some really nice rocky sounding guitar riffs in some of the cues, I understand that you once were a member of a rock band, what bands, composers or individual performers do you think have influenced you in the way you compose or even in the way that you approach scoring a movie?

Oh, there are so many. I’d probably start with my two mentors Mike Post and Hans Zimmer but long before that I was being influenced by Pink Floyd, Ravel, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Trevor Horn, Ennio Morricone, John Williams, Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Queen, Bill Evans, Miles Davis…. the list goes on!

Do you ever perform on any of your film scores?

I have that experience for the first time earlier this year when a suite from the score for the Czech movie Colette was performed with a live orchestra at the Nordic Film Music Awards in Finland. It was such great fun that I can’t wait for the next opportunity!

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Have you ever come up against a brick wall when scoring a movie, and really had no ideas at all, if so how do you get around this, is it a case of leaving the work and doing something else?

I must say that I have and probably the strongest on my first big studio picture assignment, Vantage Point. In that case I really just powered through and didn’t sleep much for about 2-3 months but I think now I’d probably do the opposite and step away and trust that the creative process will take care of itself.


We spoke a little while ago when you had scored MORTAL INSTRUMENTS – CITY OF BONES will you be working on any more of the movies in the series?

Should there be more of these I certainly would love to be invited back but I think that’s very much up in the air at the moment.

What is your opinion of the increased use of samples and electronics within film scores?

I think it’s a very natural progression which goes hand in hand with the evolution of popular music and probably society as a whole. Technology is everywhere in our lives and why wouldn’t it be a part of film music as well? Having said that, I personally love live music performed by live people and will always gravitate towards that.

At what stage of the production do you like to become involved, is it helpful to have a script or is it better to wait until the movie is in its rough cut stage?

I think the earlier the better, especially if you’re working with someone you have a good understanding with. This way the script, the music, the film, the acting etc. can all help to inform each other and create a more holistic work.

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In your opinion how does contemporary film music compare with the music for films from the Golden and Silver age?

I think it’s very hard to compare those eras with ours. The times change and so does culture and people’s taste. I love a lot of the music from these times but most of it wouldn’t play very well within the context of modern film making and I think it’s important to remember that film music is exactly that, music made for films! That’s not to say it shouldn’t be interesting and well executed but it’s not music for music’s sake but a part of the film and therefore needs to work within the current framework of film making.

Do you ever involve yourself with any of the compact disc releases of your scores, by this I mean do you compile the tracks and select the music that will represent the score?

I’m rather obsessive when it comes to that! I think I’ve driven a few of my assistants, engineers and record company people crazy doing these. I actually think it would be great to get about a year’s break from the music before assembling a CD release because you need some distance to be able to make an objective assessment of your own work.

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Going back to SEASON OF THE WITCH, this sounds very grand and epic in places, what size orchestra did you use for the score and where did you record it?

It actually wasn’t a very large ensemble as I remember, probably about 40 string and 10 brass players for the most part. Towards the end of the third phase of that score we added a choir as well but it wasn’t as big as you might think but a part of the reason it’s sounds big is because it was recorded in two of the greatest halls in the world for such purposes, Abbey Road and Air Studios in London.

Temp tracks are in use a lot nowadays, do you think it is sometimes a distracting practice to install a temp track, and what happens if the director decides he loves the temp track so much he maybe wants you to replicate it as near as possible?

Temp tracks can work both ways. If there’s strong temp love going on it can be detrimental but on the other hand the temp track can eliminate a lot of possibilities and thereby make the scoring process a bit more focused. At the end of the day, complaining about a temp track is much like complaining about the weather. They’re pretty much always present nowadays and not much you can do to change them unless, you start writing early enough that your suites and ideas become the temp track and then you’re really ahead of the game!

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What are you working on at the moment?

I’m currently doing two TV series ( Chicago Fire and Chicago PD) and two movies, one is an Icelandic film called Rams and it’s a very personal project for me as it was largely shot on the farm where my mother grew up! The other one is American and I can’t really talk about just yet…!