The Tuneful Tentacles of Sharktopus: Composer Tom Hiel

sharktopusOriginal movies airing on the SyFy Channel (formerly The Sci-Fi Channel) have gained a reputation for being the equivalent of the Roger Corman exploitation movies of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, only with better special effects thanks to the wonders of CGI. SyFy’s seemingly endless parade of killer critters and mega monsters perhaps reached its pinnacle recently with SHARKTOPUS, the sensitive saga of a genetically combined hybrid of octopus and great white shark, which made its debut last September 25th.

Cheerfully embracing its scientific illogic, SHARKTOPUS swamp, scuttled, and tentacle-walked across the seas and shores of sunny Mexico consuming swimmers, sun-bathers, boaters, bungee-jumpers and various other species of eye candy, ruthlessly shedding its origin as a military weapon to munch on the local populace like so much popcorn chicken. Meanwhile, name star Eric Roberts chews up similar amounts of scenery as the hybrid monster’s creator, who harbors his own hidden agenda even while trying to recapture his escaped aquatic Frankenstein. Directed by SyFy Channel alumni Declan O’Brien (ROCK MONSTER, MONSTER ARK, CYCLOPS), the film flaunts the sheer audacity of its titular monster, which was clearly intended to out mega any MegaShark and out size any Giant Octopus previously seen in the cable channel’s oeuvre. Enthusiastically promoted, SHARKTOPUS became the talk of the ‘net for months before the movie actually premiered.

It was somehow poetic that SHARKTOPUS was produced by Roger Corman – the latest of several that he has provided for SyFy. The film revels in its absurdity even while lampooning its own formulaic inconsistency to achieve the sense of undemanding fun Corman is best known for. One aspect of Corman’s films as producer, from 1954’s MONSTER FROM THE OCEAN FLOOR to 2010’s DINOCROC VS. SUPERGATOR and the hundreds in between, have been supportive and effective musical scores that often made up for their film’s lack of story excitement and believable special effect. In many cases, the music provided that extra dynamic that helped audiences forgive discrepancies in the internal logic of their scripts, in deficiencies of performance by their casts, and in the insufficiencies of set design or special effect – all while providing a layer of inexpensive yet effectual musical support that gave these films their needed dimension of emotive expression and excitement.

Quite so, SHARKTOPUS. Like those musical maestros of Corman’s AIP years, Les Baxter and Ronald Stein, who could work wonders with the barest of orchestral and electronic essentials, SHARKTOPUS features a powerful score that gives the film a wonderful sense of gravitas and energizes its drama while adding a good deal of coherency to the story.  The main and end titles surge  with a splendid rock tune written by New York rock band The Cheetah Whores, but it’s the dramatic underscore by composer Tom Hiel that really gave this torrid tale of teeth and tentacles its expressive ebb and flow.

Sharktopus composer

Composer Tom Hiel

Tom Hiel is an award-winning composer best known for his work on the television show, THE PRACTICE (2000-04). He began his career working as an assistant for composers such as Mark Mothersbaugh and Michael Giacchino, while also finding some movies to score on his own. One of the first scores to gain Hiel some notoriety was SWIMMING WITH SHARKS (1994), starring Kevin Spacey (a perhaps ironic counterpoint to his experience sixteen years later when swimming with Sharktopus).

Hiel’s first science fiction score was Erik Fleming’s CYBER BANDITS (1995), although his next foray into the genre came a dozen years later with the made-for-video movie DOOMED (2007), a futuristic story about death row inmates given a chance for freedom by becoming contestants on a SURVIVOR-style reality show on an island full of zombies. “That was just straight ahead pseudo-orchestral music,” Hiel recalled recently. “There were a lot of percussive loops and various atonal figurations you can use to accentuate the horror. Nothing deeper than that.”

As with most of the SyFy Channel film scores, budgets do not accommodate actual orchestras, requiring composers like Hiel to rely on synthesizers and sampled symphonic wave files in order to closely if not perfectly replicate a live orchestral performance on his keyboard. This approach gives films like SHARKTOPUS the dynamic of a full-blown symphonic score without the expense, and also takes advantage of the synthesizer’s ability to create unnerving and unusual musical sounds.

Original reports from SyFy back in February, 2010, suggested that Roger Corman would both direct and produce SHARKTOPUS, but the film went before the cameras with Declan O’Brien at the helm, Corman serving only as producer, along with his wife Julie.

“I never knew about Roger directing it,” Hiel said. “Declan told me there was another guy who was directing or maybe co-directing with Roger, and he quit. That’s when Declan got called in because he had worked with Roger on the CYCLOPS movie; Roger loves that movie and thinks it’s one of his better efforts.” Hiel had scored both of O’Brien’s previous original movies for the SyFy Channel, ROCK MONSTER and CYCLOPS (both 2008), so they already had a successful working relationship that allowed Hiel to launch right into the music for SHARKTOPUS.

Hiel produced a well-crafted fantasy-horror score that gave the CGI-enlivened carcharodon-cephalopod a vivid sense of reality. When the sharktopus first escapes its captivity, the music builds to a rising tide with its central motif, surrounded by tentacular eddies of swirling accentuations.

“SHARKTOPUS is a little more of a straight drama except for the horrific elements when it attacks,” said Hiel. “There are also some straight ahead dramatic themes coming into play as they’re looking for the creature. In a way it’s a low-budget JAWS. I don’t necessarily think the music’s reflecting that; I think there is a throwback to straight-ahead orchestral scoring in this one. Due to the budget, of course, it was all done with electronics.”

Hiel’s SHARKTOPUS score is rooted in a recurring 4-note, rising motif that is heard each time the Sharktopus is threatening or about to attack.

“Many times I was able to build that motif for a while as the attacks became imminent. When the Sharktopus did attack, I tended to use rising chromatic stabs over brass chords (alternating from lower brass to horns and trumpets) and heavy percussion loops. Also I used glissando effects and sampled sounds (a garden rake across metal) to accentuate the horrific elements of the attacks. After the attacks or when the action was slow, but where I wanted the audience to think Sharktopus might be around, I used this electronic pulsing loop that really adds another sonic dimension of creepiness for me.”

Sharktopus Bryony Shearmur

"I always score it straight," says Hiel of working on low-budget sci-fi.

That pulsing synth loop in SHARKTOPUS becomes Hiel’s JAWS ostinato, a recurring measure that adds a strident undercurrent of menace as the story plays out. That loop was actually created for a demo score Hiel had written in 2002 when he was being considered for the TV series, WITHOUT A TRACE. The studio wound up going with a different composer, so Hiel held onto his demo music until he found a suitable project for it, parts of which gave SHARKTOPUS much of its powerful propellant.

Hiel also provided a vivid action melody in the horns, punctuated by a string and wind ostinato on top, along with a driving percussion beat to push the action when Eric Roberts’ and his crew try to recapture the creature. For Roberts’ character himself, Hiel used a repetitive motif in the lower strings and brass along with another percussive loop which emphasized his own relentless pursuit of his own ends – inevitably Roberts’ theme and that for the Sharktopus merge, enhanced by electric guitars, as the two have their final encounter at a yacht harbor.

All of these elements come together nicely and give SHARKTOPUS a rich musical backdrop, not to mention an added production value for its otherwise simplistic story and scope. In addition, SHARKTOPUS’ vigorous orchestral sound belies the fact that its score is wholly electronic. Nowadays, virtual music libraries, which can be licensed or purchased, give composers the sonic sensibilities of renowned symphony orchestras at their fingertips and, though not conveying the true fidelity of acoustic performance, nevertheless provide a fairly persuasive approximation of symphonic sound. With SHARKTOPUS, Hiel took advantage of his experience in helping Mark Mothersbaugh and Marco Beltrami compile temporary mock-ups of their scores for director approval.

“These mock-ups have to sound very realistic, and I learned how to do that when I worked for them,” said Hiel. For SHARKTOPUS, he used a combination of sound elements from the East West Platinum sample library, the Vienna Symphonic Library, some music he’d inherited from Beltrami associate Buck Sanders, and original electronic material he’d created himself to give the score a sense of originality.

“For the melodic strings I used an old Roland string sample,” said Hiel. “It was made for the Roland 760 and I still use it for the long string sections.”

The process of composing a movie score for computerized music files – versus having an orchestra full of real players performing at a recording session – creates a different kind of challenge for composers like Hiel.

“You have to be more inclusive in your composing,” Hiel said. “When you know you’re going out to an orchestra and you know you’re going to orchestrate it yourself or you have an orchestrator do it for you, a lot of times when you’re in the writing process you can just say, ‘Oh, make sure to double the cello lines with bassoons’ or ‘double this with whatever,’ but when you’re actually doing this type of thing with samples you have to go back over and synth-orchestrate as you go, as it were – adding to the cello lines some French horns or bassoon, just things you do when you’re orchestrating to make it sound as thick as possible. You really have to be more in tune with that. I also add electronics – for SHARKTOPUS I was given free reign, thankfully, and so some of those pulsing electronic pads come in and they add so much.”

Sharktopus - watch out!Hiel said his biggest challenge in scoring SHARKTOPUS was simply  getting the right feel for each of the creature’s attacks.

“It’s easy to be heavy handed,” he said. “Each attack tended to be different enough where you couldn’t cut-and-paste the same motifs. Sometimes you needed a building progression – I would use that chromatic ostinato thing – it’s in the dive sequence, for example, where the strings would play in clusters, and that goes on for a while sometimes, where he’s dragging the body off. But that ended up being fairly challenging, just finding the right tone for each attack.”

Hiel’s scores have thus far remained in the low-budget realm – although, with the rise of computer graphic imagery and computerized music, low-budget movies look and sound a lot better these days.

“I think the stigma has come from low-budget music for low-budget films that has traditionally sounded hysterically bad,” said Hiel. “I think it’s come a long way from that now. Now, you can write music and record music even at a low-budget level that sounds pretty believable and big-budgeted. That’s the goal, anyway. It’s a little tricky to make it sound like the real thing. Half the battle is just to make the synthesizers sound the same as what you’re going to be doing orchestrally. We all have tricks of the trade that have been in play for awhile now.”

Putting those tricks to play when a film is clearly less than stellar provides its own challenge, although composers like Hiel give each assignment their best effort.

“I always score it straight and just try to pump it up,” said Hiel. “In SHARKTOPUS, for example, sometimes the monster was bigger than life, other times it looked more the size of a normal shark, so there were some size and spacial issues going on. But I didn’t score those scenes any differently – it’s just a big monster and he’s trying to attack. I just tried to make it as believable as possible. There’s a scene where Eric Roberts dies, and that whole scene takes forever. But I got a little chance to do my thing there, and I just scored it straight.”

Hiel recognizes the part that music can play in making even the lowest-budgeted movie expressive and involving, and especially in enhancing films of science fiction and fantasy.

“Music plays a huge role in helping the audience with their suspension of disbelief in these movies,” he said. “In ROCK MONSTER, it’s the big, fantastical music that really accentuates the whole storytelling aspect of the movie. There’s definitely more music in these films – I had something like seventy minutes of score in SHARKTOPUS; CYCLOPS was wall-to-wall. I think music plays a strong role in film in general, but it’s really going to accentuate science fiction and fantasy. It has to be carefully crafted, though. The wrong music, or cheap music, can lessen the whole experience.”

For more information on Tom Hiel, see: www.tomhiel.com

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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