I love Transformers lore. Sure, The purpose of Transformers, specifically, is to sell toys. However, over the years some pretty interesting mythology has been written about these robots in disguise. The franchise thrives on the little moments outside of the ideologies and conflict. Like Ratchet and Bumblebee searching out Energon, Impactor’s dedication to Ratchet and his cause, Megatron’s relationship with Ultra Magnus, or Megs and Optimus’ regrets over their revolution turning into infighting. War can facilitate these relationships, but I think the best stories with this franchise focuses on them against the backdrop of the war. Transformers: War for Cybertron – Siege carries on tradition for the old school fans and should welcome new ones.
Arguably, the score is one of the most important elements of a feature. The sound design and individual compositions are not just the music. It’s what gives a project feeling, emotion and context. I got a chance to send some questions to award winning composer Alexander Bornstein about composing the score to Transformers: War for Cybertron – Siege.
Dagobot: Take us back to the beginning, what was the score that lit the fuse for you at a young age?
Alexander Bornstein: I shouldn’t have seen it so young, but I think it’s Basil Poledouris’ Robocop score. Very early on, I loved that music could so clearly identify a character to me. That theme is so anthemic and powerful. The soundtrack was impossible to find back then, so I’d record it off of the TV on an audio cassette. Back to the Future is the other cornerstone, and WAY more appropriate for a kid!
What did you get out of watching and listening to film and television as a kid?
It has served a lot of purposes for me. Escapism, expanding my imagination, cultivating a sense of taste, etc. Film music as a genre for me is as close to my heart as Rock or Jazz is to others, so there’s a tremendous emotional outlet it’s given to me as well.
In reference to Transformers projects in the past, what are the challenges of honoring an earlier work whilst maintaining your own musical voice?
Working on any franchise with an established fanbase is a unique challenge. You want to honor the legacy that they’ve created by establishing the longevity of something like ‘Transformers’ but also make sure you’re not just doing a retread of what’s already been done. I think I leaned more into a different approach rather than try to emulate something like the Robert Walsh/Johnny Douglas or Vince DiCola scores. There are electronics which hearken back to DiCola’s work, but ultimately I wouldn’t call it an homage. Given the tone of the series, F.J [DeSanto, series showrunner] and I felt like this was the most authentic way to honor the franchise.
Okay, I’m going to play a little word association. I’m going to mention a character’s name and I want you to tell me the first thing that comes to mind about them:
What did your early musical experiment on Transformers: War For Cybertron look like?
I spent the earliest days trying to find a clear, direct theme for the Autobots. Once I found a melody I liked, the sound palette took some time to settle into. At first it was a little too orchestral, then too electronic. Adding some solo instruments like cello on the top of the mix helped me find the right balance. I recorded an amazing cellist named Ro Rowan, who added so much great musicality to the themes. Bryan Winslow also does a great job with some guitar and a custom instrument he has called a Microcello.
Could you describe the core set of instruments heard in your score?
I think it’s strings and synthesizers. There’s brass as well, but it tends to be textural except for some of the more epic, cinematic moments.
How long does it take you to score a project?
It really depends on the individual project. ‘Transformers’ has been a luxury compared to some gigs. On War for Cybertron, sometimes I’d have almost a month to score an episode. To contrast, I’ve been given some films with about 10-14 days to get everything delivered. As a composer for Film/TV I’ve had to be very flexible in terms of meeting all kinds of varying schedules.
How did you figure out the tone of the show, and the kind of music that would suit it?
A lot of figuring that out came from discussions with F.J. He’s been such a great collaborator in terms of being able to try lots of things while not ever losing our way creatively. Knowing what you do and do not want makes my life infinitely easier, even with things that get thrown out. Our creative shorthand by now is very relaxed and even in the beginning we definitely clicked and it allowed me to figure out the tone of the show.
How much do you go back and re-work your own stuff during the writing process?
So much. I will always do a general sketch of a cue, then go back dozens of times adding/removing layers, counterlines, etc. and smoothing out the MIDI programming. Programming (basically arranging/mixing the musical intent of your samples) is part and parcel of the composition process now so I spend most of my time really tweaking all of that until I simply have to let the cue go.
How closely do you work with the writer/director/studio when coming up with the music?
Very closely. We have a server setup for this show and every cue gets reviewed multiple times by F.J. via Quicktime. Then, it all gets put into the full length episode and we’ll sometimes revisit scenes along the way. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, F.J. and [supervising producer] Matt Murray would come to the recording sessions to offer insights too.
Does your music sometimes influence the development of a project?
Typically, no. Even on this show where I was writing themes before the animation was ready, the style and look had been established for the show. However, I was told that they were playing some of the themes for the voice actors at one point which is pretty cool!
Do you have a conventional working environment or do you hum tunes while you go through your day to day and then build a coherent melody and harmony around it?
I’ve experienced both scenarios. Sometimes I’ll be walking my dog and an idea will pop into my head fully formed, and others it’s more of a conventional sculpting process. I love how music has a duality of being both an art and craft. The moments of true inspiration are more tied to the artistic side, but there are more craft based moments where you have to rely on training, experience, and established skill to get the job done. When you’ve honed that and allow for the moments of inspiration to come as well, I think that makes an artist particularly capable of great work. One doesn’t require the other though! That’s just been my experience.
What are you most proud of with Transformers: Was For Cybertron? Why do you think the series (Transformers) has resonated to the degree it has?
I’m very proud of the final episode of Siege. I think a lot of the themes really come to their full fruition in this episode and the story is at such a wonderful fever pitch of intensity. I really hope fans enjoy the series and know that everyone involved has a connection to the franchise and wanted it to be amazing. I think the franchise works because the characters are such great examples of the classic good vs. evil archetype. Even in G1 which was aimed at younger kids, it gets you thinking about what it means to have your own set of beliefs, how far you’d go to stand up for them, and the types of personalities you like. For instance, I can’t say I’d be friends with Starscream, but Wheeljack seems cool. When you add cars and machines that turn into towering robots, I feel like you can’t really go wrong
Transformers: War for Cybertron Trilogy – Siege is now streaming on Netflix