Netflix have brought to our screens their take on Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski’s book about Geralt of Rivia. The story of The Witcher, as many of you may know, has also been made into a successful game so it's only right that we see this completed with an 8-part series which features Superman actor, Henry Cavill, playing Geralt.
Composer magazine asked the co-composers to answer some of our burning questions on how they created the score and go in-depth on all of the instruments that they sampled for the show.
Composer magazine: When did you both begin to collaborate together on soundtracks?
Giona Ostinelli: Years back I was scoring a David Mamet produced movie Two-Bit Waltz, which required an eclectic type of score from bluegrass to electropop with several scenes asking for a virtuosic piano. I do play piano, however, I am no virtuoso. I knew Sonya was a phenomenal composer and a virtuoso concert pianist…
Sonya Belousova: So Giona asked me one day if I was interested in collaborating with him on the score, and I thought, “that sounds like a very curious project, why not!” We both envisioned this as a one-time collaboration, however, it ended up being so creatively fulfilling that from then on, we continued our journey as a team.
CM: When you're in the studio what does your collaborating process entail? Do you both go away separately and come back together to discuss ideas?
G: I think ‘madness’ might be the best word to describe our creative process! Just imagine, my Italian dramatic sensibilities mixed together with Sonya’s Russian persistence and passion. When they clash it creates an explosion!
S: Jokes aside, we work so well together because we come from different music backgrounds. Growing up in Russia, I have been exposed to the wonderful classical music education Russia is so well regarded for. Giona, on the other hand, comes from a band environment. He used to perform with many bands from rock to jazz playing both drums and piano, so his approach is definitely different from mine. Therefore, we’re not trying to compete with each other…
G: Well, secretly we are…
S:…but instead, we compliment each other’s style. For example, Giona might come up with an idea. Then I take this idea, extend it or compliment it with something completely different from what he originally imagined. And vice versa. This leads to new discoveries and approaches we wouldn’t think of otherwise.
When working long hours in the studio, it’s refreshing and creatively so much more beneficial being a team. It keeps the creativity flowing and brings in new and unexpected ideas to the table.
G: You have to be extremely versatile when writing music for film and television. We have this aspect fully covered. It also means spending many hours in the studio. There’s always a lot of music to write and a very little amount of time to do it. We’re always in the studio working together, it’s a very collaborative process.
On top of that, recording is an essential part of our process. We have a lot of instruments here in the studio, which we both play and record. Having the two of us together in the studio is crucial. The downside is, the chocolate runs out much quicker.
When working long hours in the studio, it’s refreshing and creatively so much more beneficial being a team.
CM: As the series is based on the book by Andrzej Sapkowski did you both read it to get any inspiration for any of the character themes? Did the game soundtrack influence any of your ideas?
S: When we start working on any new project, we try not to look for inspiration in other scores and sources, simply because then we don’t feel like we’re creating something new but rather developing the material that already exists. For The Witcher in particular, the inspiration came from the story itself and the endless creative possibilities it presented.
CM: What was your journey like for landing The Witcher score? Were you part of a pitching process?
G: Lauren and the team were familiar with our previous work. We received the scripts for the show and as soon as we read them, we were immediately transported into this unique universe and knew right away we wanted to be a part of it.
CM: How early on in production were you both brought into the fold?
S: Very early on, before the shooting started. Which was perfect because we love starting every new project by writing thematic suites. This gives us a good roadmap on how to structure the thematic material within the arc of a film or show. For example, Geralt of Rivia, which became Geralt’s theme and the main theme of the show, was the very first music suite we wrote back in October 2018.
The other reason why we had to get involved this early in the process was that we had to write and produce songs and dances for the show. So the first stage of our involvement included writing the thematic suites, dances, and songs, for which we collaborated closely with writers Jenny Klein, Declan De Barra, and Haily Hall, and for which I performed all the vocals to cover Jaskier’s parts.
Before settling on the final versions, we wrote between 5 to 7 versions for each song ranging from medieval to contemporary in order to find the right approach. Overall, we wrote over an hour of music before we even started scoring to picture.
G: Once the music was approved, we were able to move on to the next stage, which involved collaborating closely with Joey Batey, who plays Jaskier in the show, and vocal coaching him on the songs. Once the picture editor started assembling the cut, we started scoring to picture.
Hours of new material had to be written, dances had to become more concise in order to follow the pace and the editing style, all the songs that were approved at the demo stage now had to be recorded and finalised. Overall, this was a very elaborate process, which required our involvement for most of the year.
We love starting every new project by writing thematic suites.
CM: What did day one of composing look like? Do you start in the box in a DAW or use your main instruments to begin initial ideas?
G: Obviously, this process is different for every project. If a film requires primarily an electronic score, we would definitely start writing it in the box or play around with synths. Or if it’s a purely orchestral palette like in the case of The Romanoffs, we started writing with just pencil and paper away from our DAW. With The Witcher it was a completely different process because it was both writing and recording at the same time. We actually started with our hurdy-gurdy.
The score for The Witcher is very soloistic and virtuosic in nature, so there is really no way to just mock it up. Therefore, we started merging the writing and recording process together. All the various instruments we have here in our studio become an organic extension of our DAW, we don’t consider recording to be a separate part of the process.
CM: For the soundtrack, you both learned over 60 new instruments. What was your reasoning behind this?
S: The best part of scoring The Witcher is the constant stream of unlimited creative opportunities this unique universe provides. We wrote and produced songs, folk tunes, dances, and score, collaborated with virtuoso soloists and phenomenal artists, recorded unique historical instruments, many of which were crafted specifically for The Witcher, as well as personally performed and recorded over 60 instruments in order to create over 8 hours of an exciting original soundtrack.
The Witcher universe is so vast and diverse with creatures like elves, dwarves, dragons, humans or monsters such as kikimora, striga, bruxa, among many others, that this universe deserved a proper representation in the music. Furthermore, the more instruments you are able to play, the more particular creative ideas you can develop, many of which would be impossible to achieve just by using samples.
Recording is an essential part of our process. We have a lot of instruments here in the studio, which we both play and record.
CM: Some of the instruments were custom made for the show could you share in detail what these were and what sound you wanted to achieve?
G: Some of the instruments featured prominently on The Witcher soundtrack are: hurdy-gurdy, violin, oboe, duduk, lute, renaissance mandolin, baroque guitars, theorbo, psaltery, dulcimers, harmoniums, harp, ethnic woodwinds (cane flutes, penny whistles, recorders, Native American flutes, bansuri), shruti box, tagelharpa, erhu, toy pianos, jaw harp, rainstick, berimbau, a variety of percussion and drums from orchestral to ethnic (gongs, frame drums, bodhrans, djembe, talking drums, orchestral toms, snare), contrabass, and…a metallic trash can!
Many of these instruments were crafted specifically for The Witcher and came to us from all over the world. We even had a custom made tun-able berimbau crafted for us, which we used quite a lot throughout the score. Our goal was to use these instruments sometimes in their most traditional manner and other times with a much more contemporary approach.
S: For example, we recorded a lot of hurdy-gurdy, a medieval instrument that was widely popular in medieval Europe accompanying dances, or shawm, which is a medieval equivalent to our modern oboe.
Whenever there’s a ball in Cintra, we made sure to use an appropriate ensemble featuring hurdy-gurdy, shawm, recorders, lute, baroque guitar, mandolin, theorbo, psaltery and a variety of medieval percussion and drums with the appropriate writing and performance rules applied.
On the other hand, hurdy-gurdy is prominently featured in episode 3 during Geralt’s epic battle with Striga and Yennefer’s dramatic transformation sequence. In this particular case, we wanted the hurdy-gurdy to sound much more contemporary, and therefore we applied various effects and distortions to it to achieve that particular sound quality we were looking for.
We went through this modernisation process with almost every historical instrument whenever a scene was asking for it.
G: Beyond that, we had fantastic soloists joining our musical family for The Witcher soundtrack. We had phenomenal violin virtuoso Lindsay Deutsch performing all the violin and fiddle solos. Lindsay’s talent is remarkable, and we’re honoured to have her magical violin on this soundtrack.
S: We collaborated closely with Declan De Barra, who is not only a writer on the show but a unique musician and singer. Our fruitful collaboration resulted in three original songs we wrote and produced for the show featuring Declan’s vocals: The Song of The White Wolf for season finale, The Last Rose of Cintra for episode 5 and The End’s Beginning for episode 1. Declan also provided some very special vocal sauce for the rest of the score.
G: We collaborated with Rodion Belousov, who performed all the oboe and duduk solos on the soundtrack. In fact, it is Rodion’s oboe that plays Yennefer’s theme throughout the season in its various ever-changing forms and shapes, as well as his duduk that captured the spirit of the Golden Dragon in episode 6 and the Djinn in episode 5.
S: We recorded lute, renaissance mandolin, 4-course guitar, 5-course guitar, theorbo and other medieval plucked strings instruments in London with Arngeir Hauksson, an incredible musician who we were so lucky to meet there.
G: We also had Burak Besir, a brilliant flutist, recording virtuosic flute solos for us, including the fan-favourite penny whistle solo in They’re Alive.
S: And, of course, we worked closely with Joey Batey, who plays Jaskier in the show, for whom we wrote and produced four songs: Toss A Coin To Your Witcher for episode 2, Her Sweet Kiss for episode 6, The Fishmonger’s Daughter for episode 4 and You Think You’re Safe for episode 2.
CM: How long did you have to write each episode? And how many hours of music did you write in total?
S: There are 8 episodes in season one, one hour of music per episode, so 8 hours of music. 3-4 weeks was the luxury of the first two episodes, after that it was closer to 1.5-2 weeks per episode. And yes, even with a tight schedule like this, we continued delivering 1 hour of live-recorded score per episode, including recording soloists and ensembles for each episode, as well as personally performing and recording 60+ instruments here in our studio.
G: The timeframe we had for each episode was quite different. It was between 3-4 weeks for the initial episodes, which included writing, recording, mixing and delivering 1 hour of complex thematic epic orchestral material, as well as arranging, producing, recording, mixing and delivering 7 songs.
CM: As the season has different directors for some episodes what was that process like? Once you established the soundscape did you just need to adjust certain elements in scenes, for example?
S: The Witcher is a very thematic score. Due to its great length and complexity, it was very important for us to establish a strong thematic material that would develop throughout the arc of the season. However, every episode centres around a new adventure our characters embark on, therefore every episode required a particular soundscape appropriate for the spirit and tone of the episode.
None of the material could be reprised in its original form but had to be freshly written for each episode.
G: In general, when working on either a film or a show, we don’t like the practice of simply reusing the material as is. We really enjoy developing the thematic material throughout. True, this is more work, however it’s a much more rewarding experience for the audience at the end of it.