The Score: Bruno Coulais and the Musical Magic of Coraline

Bruno Coulais’ score for Henry Selick’s 3D-animated film, CORALINE,  is an enchanting enactment for orchestra and choir, which brings to wonderful life the magical environment and story concocted by the brilliant author Neil Gaiman. The music features a perfectly appropriate blending of unusual instruments (mechanical piano, electric bass guitar, jazzy flutes, what sounds like a child’s xylophone, squeaks and squeals and all manner of bells and percussion oddities) with both adult and children’s choirs and a pervasively eloquent harp which is liberally spread throughout the length and breadth of the movie. The inclusion of a cute if very short song by the band They Might Be Giants fits nicely within the overall sensibility of Coulais’ music. This is a wondrous score, melodically intriguing, instrumentally engaging, and completely intoxicating.

Coulais, 55, was trained in classical music in Paris but gravitated toward film music through the suggestion of several acquaintances. He was asked to compose music to a documentary film by director François Reichenbach in 1977, but his first foray into feature films was in Sébastien Grall’s film, LA FEMME SECRÈTE, released in 1986. He had scored more than fifty films and television works when his music for the 1996 documentary film, MICROCOSMOS, brought him to international attention. His ability to provide music of eloquent grace and beauty for this new breed of artistic documentary with limited narration was further solidified with WINGED MIGRATION (2001), GENESIS (2004), and THE WHITE PLANET (2006).

Bruno Coulais has been equally adept in scoring dramatic subjects, such as 2001’s horror-fantasy, BELPHÉGOR – PHANTOM OF THE LOUVRE (2001), VIDOCQ (2001), and SECRET AGENTS (2004). His nearly 150 film scores to date have covered nearly every genre and embraced all manner of musical styles. Known for his use of ethnic instrumentation and human voice, Coulais is among the new breed of French composers – Alexandre Desplat, Armand Amar, Philippe Rombi among them – providing notably expressive work in contemporary cinema.

One of the first things to be noticed about a Bruno Coulais score is that one barely resembles another. From the energetic drama of VIDOCQ with its malevolent darkness and twisted chambers of sonority to the haunting ethnic melodies of the adventure drama HIMALAYA (1999) or the eloquent classical choir work that gave such poignancy to LES CHORISTES (2004, THE CHORUS, which earned him his third César Award), Coulais relishes films that allow him to become as varied as possible.

In CORALINE, director Henry Selick’s impressionistically animated interpretation of Neil Gaiman’s short story,  an adventurous but lonely girl named Coraline (“Not,” she reminds everyone, “Caroline”) finds a mirror world that turns out to be a strangely idealized version of her own, but one whose sinister secrets soon keep her from returning home. It was Selick’s style of animation (ala his work on THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS and JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH) and the way in which the film was shot that gave Coulais his initial inspiration for the kind of music the film would need, rather that its nuances of story and fantasy.

“At first, I don’t attach myself to the narrative because I think music must be another character of the film,” he said. “I’m sensitive to the light, to the mood, and everything that you cannot see directly.”

Coulais devised his enchanting instrumental design according to Selick’s visual interpretation of the story, which gave the strange alternate world of Coraline’s home and its button-eyed denizens a menacing clarity.

“While watching the pictures of CORALINE, I was struck by the extraordinary pictorial invention as well as the different stratum of the film: the routine/the fantasy, the epic side/the dark side, the fear, etc. and I agreed with Henry Selick, that we must use a wide musical range in order to realize all these diversities,” Coulais said. “The challenge was to make emerge a musical unit in spite of these different stylistic [elements] and I believe that the themes have played this part.”

Once he had established the musical design of CORALINE, Coulais developed the score to coincide with Coraline’s journey, her descent into the darkness of the world beyond the bricked up wall inside the drawing room door (where her button-eyed Other Mother has entrapped her), her heroic attempts to escape from that world and save her real parents, and her ultimate redemption and triumph.

“Once I wrote the main music themes of the film, I tried to work in a chronological order so I could respect the film progress,” he said. “I needed to start from a realistic, routine mood and then go into a fantastic mood, becoming more and more frightening. It was important to make the music evolve with the story. The first themes, like the one illustrating Coraline’s first visit in the house, seem peaceful in order to make the character’s world more realistic. But then the bizarreness and the anxiety take over. Some funny and absurd bits join the music. But even from the beginning there are some musical touches that make us understand we’re not in a completely realistic film.”

Coulais composed and recorded his score in France while communicating with Selick in Hollywood. Selick had used his music from WINGED MIGRATION and MICROCOSMOS as temporary music while building his final edit of CORALINE; although Selick didn’t expect Coulais to mirror those scores in his original compositions for CORALINE, this temp track gave the composer a kind of referential shorthand that let him know the type of music Selick had in mind for his film.

“Despise the distance and the language barrier, I’ve rarely felt so close to a director,” Coulais said. “Henry explained what he was expecting from the music for each sequence. Once the demo was done, I sent him an mp3 file to listen to. He gave me his first impressions and then, later on, his final remarks once the music was edited in by [film editor] Christopher Murrie.”

Bruno Coulais (Photo Credit: Hotspot)

Bruno Coulais (Photo Credit: Hotspot)

For Coulais, the most challenging aspect of scoring CORALINE was keeping pace with its shifting tone and supporting its sense of mystery and menace – and doing so with music that conveyed both mysterioso and emotional expressions. “There are two sequences which for me, were extremely important,” said Coulais. “The first sequence is the mice Marching Band on which I tried to write a score where the density and the scale were that of the mice, using all kind of instruments like toys, Chinese instruments, child’s brass and child’s piano, but also instruments of a traditional Marching Band. The second and the most important is for me the sequence between Coraline and the Other Mother where I intended, in spite of the malevolency of the Other Mother, to bring a certain emotional level to the scene.”

Like much of Coulais’ film music, his CORALINE score sounds like nothing else he has written, embodying a musical character and style all of its own. Coulais believes this is possible due to the wide range of films he has been able to score, and the willingness of directors not to impose certain strictures upon him.

“A kind of schizophrenia exists because sometimes a composer gravitates to the idea of being at the service of the film; sometimes he inclines to write the most personal music as possible,” Coulais said. “However, some movies allow the composer to be as free as possible in the writing of the music score. I am of course unable to define my style, but I can say that I am attracted to strangeness, and to the hybrid mixing of human voices and instruments. Although, I do also like to work with homogeneous instrumentation, like a string quartet.”

About the Author

Randall Larson

Randall Larson contributed “The Score” column to Cinefantastique magazine from 1983 to 1999. The author of Musique Fantastique, A Survey of Film Music in the Fantastic Cinema (1984) and Music from the House of Hammer (1996), Larson also published CinemaScore: The Film Music Journal during the 1980s. He currently writes a bi-weekly film music column for buysoundtrax.com, reviews horror soundtrack CDs for Cemetery Dance magazine, writes for Music from the Movies and Film Music magazines, and writes soundtrack CD liner note books.

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