How Shark Week's 'Fin of Fury' composer creates suspense without horror

MICHAEL-GATT.jpg

Image Credit: Discovery

Shark Week concluded Saturday, and while, like in years past, this year’s 13 specials were all highly visual, music was equally integral. There’s essentially nothing but silence underwater, where much of the filming and action takes place, but musically, the specials are at the behest of the composers.

Michael Gatt, composer for Air Jaws: Fin of Fury, seized the opportunity. “What I love about Shark Week is that it’s a blank canvas,” Gatt says. “The sharks are actually quite dynamic as characters. They can be terrifying, but they’re also incredibly majestic, beautiful animals. Musically, we get to inform that emotion.”

Fin of Fury follows shark filmmaker Jeff Kurr in his two-year search to find a particular great white shark, Colossus. Kurr filmed the shark about three years ago in South Africa, and had not seen the mega-predator since. Using Colossus’ unique dorsal fin, which acts like a fingerprint, as a lead, Kurr and his team set out to prove the top predator still exists.

Gatt began with lots of talks with Kurr to get a sense for the story. “That’s really what we’re trying to support here,” Gatt says. Next, he watched the footage, explaining that he derives a lot of inspiration from picture, and tooled around with myriad instruments. The key to Fin of Fury was ultimately an obscure string instrument: the GuitarViol. Gatt created a progression using the GuitarViol, which became the motif for Colossus.

With the GuitarViol as the foundation, Gatt played with instruments, adding and detracting elements, as he moved forward. “For me, music is a little bit like Jenga,” Gatt says. “You stack a bunch of things on top of each other and then you start pulling things out to reveal it.” With the efforts of a 40-piece orchestra, Gatt created something ominous and suspenseful.

Suspense, however, borders terror. Striking a balance between the two can be tricky when your subjects are huge, powerful, menacing-looking predators. But Gatt was scoring for a global mission to find a particular shark, not a story about villainy. Again, it comes back to supporting the story, and this story is not one of horror.

“From a creative standpoint, I try to approach it from the majesty of the animal,” Gatt says. “The danger that’s coming across in the music is more of the adrenaline that’s happening. There’s no doubt that what these guys are doing is absolutely life-threatening, dangerous stuff, but if you take it too far it almost becomes camp or horror, so I just use my ears and see if it’s getting that emotion going.”

In discussing music and sharks, one work in particular comes to mind: John Williams’ Jaws theme. “John Williams is absolutely, just an incredible talent,” Gatt says. “I think we have him to thank for this connection that people have between sharks and music.”

Gatt left an Easter egg, a small homage to Williams, within Fin of Fury. The tribute, 10 seconds or so of violins that grow in pace and volume, speaks to an interesting dichotomy. Jaws villainizes sharks and treats them as man-eaters—many attribute their fear of sharks to Jaws. In contrast, Fin of Fury is about discovery, learning. Still, the tribute being short, almost undetectable unless you know where to look, Gatt thinks there’s no harm done. “That’s where I can sit comfortably with it,” Gatt says, explaining that again, like with horror and suspense, it’s a matter of balance.

Arguably, Gatt’s most interesting musical moment is when the team finally rediscovers Colossus: The gargantuan great white shark breaches out of the water, its distinguished fin exposed, indicating that after an exhaustive, two-year search, the team has finally found the shark they’ve been looking for.

The result is something a bit slower-paced and sweeping. Utilizing huge strings and brass, the moment is emotional, matching the ecstasy and relief as the search finally concludes. “As a composer, it’s a dream to score for that kind of stuff,” Gatt says. “You get to slow the tempo way down, and just take it in. Most of the time, I’m here to really support the story, but in shows like this, there are times that I get to kind of take the stage with the shark, no voiceover, just music going.”

Moments like these, of course, are rare, narratively and musically. Still, it keeps one wanting for next year’s sights and, especially, sounds. As fans count down the days until Shark Week 2015, they can look forward to future great white breaches and hope for another encounter with Colossus. But, a new development: Their wait may now be set to the sound of the GuitarViol.

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