Interview: Behind the music of Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous with composer Leo Birenberg
Charlie Brigden | On 23, Jan 2021
It’s time to return to the prehistoric universe of Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous, with the second season of Netflix’s animated series launching this weekend (read our review of the show here).
Set within the same timeline as the Jurassic World film franchise, the show follows a group of six teenagers chosen for a once-in-a-lifetime experience at an adventure camp on the opposite side of the familiar island. But when dinosaurs wreak havoc, the campers are stranded. Unable to reach the outside world, they’ll need to go from strangers to friends to family if they’re going to survive.
Charlie Brigden speaks to Camp Cretaceous (and Cobra Kai) composer Leo Birenberg about how he tackled the music of the first season, including reprising John Williams’ famous themes.
How did you feel when you first got the call to do Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous?
Oh man, it was wild. I got the call from two music executives at DreamWorks, Alex Nixon and Frank Garcia, who I know very well or I knew very well because I just finished another show with them or did about a year before called Kung Fu Panda and the Paws Of Destiny, and I knew this show existed because I had seen something in the trades, and I had no idea why they were calling me, and they were just like “Hey, how are you? So we’ve got this Jurassic World show…” I melted the minute they said that, and they were just like, “You came up when we were talking with our partners over at Universal about it and we want to bring you in for this.” And I was just like gobsmacked, like totally floored, because I’m a huge Jurassic Park fan. I was the three-year-old who was totally obsessed with dinosaurs, knew everything about them, had this encyclopaedia of dinosaurs that I remember vividly that was like, you know, a pretty heavy-duty book for a kid, I had read the thing front to back like a million times, and I find it funny because I’m sure all the information in that is horribly out of date now as our palaeontology records have been updated.
But for me, having seen Jurassic Park when I was a kid and being obsessed with it and the toys and everything and obviously getting into film music and having John Williams as such an inspiration, this was truly a dream come true – that’s not even an exaggeration, it was just wild. What I found out later is actually the reason they had called me in the first place is because when they said my name came up, it’s because they were discussing the score with Michael Giacchino who obviously scored the Jurassic World movies, and Michael and I know each other socially. Film music is a pretty small community, everyone kind of knows everyone to some degree, and Michael had known that I had just done Kung Fu Panda with part of the same team and so I think when they were picking his brain about it. He said, “Oh, well, you guys worked with Leo. Have you thought about him for this? He’d do a great job.” And I found that out later and man, I am extremely indebted to Michael as I have told him because it just felt like a really Hollywood moment – every once in a while when you work in film something happens where you’re just like, “Oh man, this really is Hollywood.” You see that exhilaration of working in the film industry.
“You want it to feel like Jurassic Park…”
Do you feel any intimidation working kind of in the shadow of Giacchino and John Williams?
Um, yeah, a little bit. I wouldn’t say I was too psyched out. Like, at no point did I sit in front of my keyboard and just think “What am I going to do?” because I was very excited to sit down and start writing, but there’s definitely the feeling that well, you know, there are a lot of Jurassic Park fans in the world and there are, you know, a lot of composers who like Jurassic Park music who will probably tune into this show, and I want to make sure I don’t fail all of them, you know. I want to make sure this is as good as it would be if I were sitting down watching it and don’t want to be like, “Oh man, that was okay but I really felt like the composer just kind of like, you know, phoned it in. That was no John Williams.” And so to me thinking about making sure the fans are happy gave me a lot of internal pressure and ultimately drive to pick away at it. I really threw myself into it. And so far it seems like the fans are very happy with the music. I’m constantly getting Instagram messages from random people about the score to Camp Cretaceous, and so it feels great after taking on that challenge and just smashing into it head on that, you know, I think I more or less set out to do what I was hoping.
How did you decide which of the kind of legacy themes to use?
This is a fun topic because they really gave me free rein on when I want to use any original themes from either John Williams or Michael. I mean obviously in the first episode we do it a little more than we do any other time just because you really want to set up that sonic world. If you’re sitting down to watch Camp Cretaceous you want it to feel like Jurassic Park and you want to get jacked when they’re going through the gate so you got to give them a taste of the Island theme. We discussed that stuff in spotting but, ultimately, they pretty much let me decide when I want to use it and how I want to use it. And so there’s a couple themes worth mentioning that I used sparingly throughout and I’m really picky about when I do them because I want it to feel like it’s not just like fan service, it’s really being used to pack the maximum emotional punch that I just wouldn’t be able to give because that theme is already so tied up in the franchise.
There’s a type of emotional weight that only hearing the original Jurassic Park theme will be able to provide and so I tried to try and jump carefully into those moments. Working through, there’s the main theme – I’ve almost never used that in the show. There’s a very prominent moment in the first episode where the kids are on a zip-line over the dinosaurs. It’s the true wonder and majesty of dinosaurs, which is to me what that theme really represents, and so I went all in on it there. And there’s two other spots in the season where I hint at it and one of them is when Darius is talking to his dad at the beginning of Episode 4, and they’re talking about going to Jurassic World together and because that is a memory that is them again talking about how special that experience is going to be, it just felt like that was the perfect emotional moment for it. And then I used it one more time: in the seventh episode, there’s a very long sequence where the kids are on a monorail and it’s kind of a breath in the action. They’ve escaped, you know, almost certain death, like, four times in a row in the last few episodes. It has just been an exhausting tour de force. And finally, they think they’re safe, although then all hell breaks loose again in a really spectacular set piece and there’s about eight minutes of the episode where they’re on this monologue kind of realising that they have nothing in common and they’re probably not going to be friends when they get off the island.
And it’s sort of a sad realisation because the characters, what’s cool about the show is they all start as kind of stereotypes in a lot of ways and as the season evolves every character has a really good arc and I feel like you could get really emotionally attached to all of them. And so this moment of kind of having this revelation is played against this sort of the absurdity of them being on this Jurassic model monorail. There’s like a very hokey narration going on of the monorail narrator as they’re driving through the park, and it’s just a very absurdist moment that is both sad and beautiful. And so again, just the perfect time to use that original Jurassic Park theme on piano and I think it just turned out really, really well. But that’s it. I like the think of this season kind of like a movie. It’s like two and a half hours, a little more. You just watch it down and it’s only those three times that we went to that theme.
The other scenes worth mentioning are where the Indominus Rex shows up a bunch, because the show takes place concurrently with Jurassic World and so I hint at Michael’s material for the Indominus Rex whenever it pops up and that was really fun to do because that dinosaur creation has such a character and forceful presence. And then there is what I call the scene everybody likes, which is the journey to the island theme from the original helicopter ride in the first movie, and we use that when they’re entering the park in the first episode just as a way to get everybody in the zone, and there’s a later sequence where the kids are riding gyrospheres among dinosaurs, and it was kind of a fun moment for me to use that scene and then transition into music of mine, like it kind of goes into it and out of it which is a cool exercise for me, and I think that’s about all I use that one. And then the final one is my favourite: the raptor theme from the original movie that is this really dissonant thing.
“John Williams created this beautiful but dissonant approach… Michael Giacchino really nailed that in the Jurassic World movies”
Yeah, the carnivore theme. It’s so good.
Exactly, and it’s so good and I think this has a lot to do with kind of my philosophy on scoring the show in general is that people think Jurassic Park they think John Williams and they think of those kind of wonder theme and adventure elements of it, but what he did such an incredible job with in the first movie and all the rest of them is, it’s really a monster movie in a lot of ways and he created this beautiful but dissonant approach to that that’s really based in 20th-century orchestral music, which he is just a total master of, and I think Michael Giacchino really nailed that in the Jurassic World movies, like understanding the monster movie element of the score. And so for me, I mean, this show is really high-octane. People get eaten, the kids are constantly in dire straits, and we wanted there to be a lot of jump scares and real stakes to everything.
At no point did we want to think the kids were going to be okay from any threats until they actually are okay, and so throughout the season there’s tons of high-stakes monster music… The raptors are not super-prominent in the first season, but they sort of have a moment in the first two episodes, and it was really fun to use that theme because it’s so kind of haunting and spooky. And so there’s a sequence where the kids think they’re going to the coffee enclosure at the end of the first episode, but they actually end up in the raptor enclosure. And they don’t know that but there’s a very cool camera pan that happens that shows you the danger sign. It’s very classic Jurassic Park and I just put that raptor theme there and then develop it through the next sequence. And I think for the casual fan they might just think, “Oh, he’s boring, what’s on the screen?” But for the people who really know the score I think that is a nice moment to call back some not as familiar material that just works so well.
To me, that theme kind of sums up what Jurassic Park is about and where I kind of separate it from Jaws – they’re both monster movies but it’s much more about man and what he’s doing and the kind of ethical questions behind that
And the fact that it’s the last thing you ever hear in the score at the end of the credits
Yeah, yeah. And it’s hard to imagine the original movie being scored in any other way. It’s so, I mean, John Williams and Steven Spielberg just really aced it on a philosophical level. The music is incredible but it’s the way they chose to score that movie is, I think, what makes it so time-enduring and loved.
“The action music is born out of the emotional themes set up earlier”
So tell me about your themes.
There’s a few of them. The most prominent one, I just sort of call it the Camp Theme, which I tried to keep in the palette of the main Jurassic Park theme in that it’s a big, soaring melody. You hear it in the first episode. Actually, you hear it first when Darius wins his ticket to camp when he wins the video game. There’s kind of this push-in shot that hints at the theme and then you hear it again when they get to the actual camp. And then the other time it gets really established is in the next episode when they go to the genetics lab for the first time because they wander into there and they go to this lab on a tour and it’s kind of like a really glorious scientific moment to see in the inner workings of the park. So those were like my expository moments to set up that theme, and then once it’s set up I just use it all throughout, you know. I’ve kind of got what I would call a more action version of it too that’s in a slightly different tonality that makes it a little less soaring and beautiful and a little more driving. So that’s one.
And the other very prominent relationship established in the show is with this incredibly cute baby dinosaur, Bumpy, who, you know, everyone who’s watched the show just wants a Bumpy stuffed animal, which is adorable and great, but what is really important narratively about Bumpy is one of the kids, Ben, who’s a sheltered scaredy-cat, really attaches himself to Bumpy. Ben has one of the strongest arcs through the season with this really climactic moment of overcoming his fear of everything. And so he holds Bumpy right after she hatches in the lab and I set up this really simple theme that kind of sounds, I don’t know, there’s a lot of… what I try to do when I’m writing the original material is not do something that sounds like something from the original movie, but sort of deconstructs the types of music that are recorded in the original movie and write something that is mine – they have the same point of inspiration but it isn’t actually inspired by that music.
And so there’s a lot of music I love in the original that is like harp and very gentle and there’s a sleepy, beautiful quality to it, a meandering quality to some of the, you know, interacting-with-dinosaurs stuff and so I tried to write something that had that similar feel while being original. At first I called it the Bumpy Hatching Theme but it really became the Ben Theme because by Episode 7, when Ben has this really big moment, we’ve really heard this theme a few times and there he’s on top of the train and you get to hear it in a totally transformed way that was really exciting for me. That is the most satisfying part of scoring a project like this is sort of planting your seeds early and then using that material when you’re writing a big, climactic set piece later. It’s not just any old action music, it’s like action music that is born out of the emotional themes you set up earlier, and I think it really subconsciously packs a punch for the audience and makes those themes feel so much more satisfying. I think that’s just one of the most important parts of the job in a lot of ways.
And then, you know, through the season there’s a bunch of one-off stuff that gets me really excited. Episode 6 has a couple of them – Mosasaurus when they’re in the lagoon, I mean, that’s like a monster movie cue right there and they’re stalked by this swimming monster and there’s this very fun tuba theme and it feels very Jurassic Park without really being inspired by anything specific. It’s just, you know, this prehistoric sound that scares me even when I’m watching it. And before that, there’s probably my favourite theme from the whole season: the kids are in this bioluminescent cave and they find these bioluminescent dinosaurs that Dr Wu has created. And again, I tried to find what inspired John Williams here. There’s a lot of music in the original movie that really reminds me of Debussy, real impressionist music. And so I said like, “Oh cool, this feels like a great time for me to do the Leo impressionist music version of that.” I just wrote something that I thought was really fun and was very colourful and modal in the way that early 20th-century, late 19th-century French impressionist music is. And the visuals in the scene are so spectacular that it was just a lot of fun to do.
With so many main characters, did you think a lot about colour more than theme around the characters?
Yeah, I realised pretty early that there’s just no way to have a theme for every character, and there’s also no way to have a theme for every dinosaur because it would just bog it down. I think it would start to feel silly to have the Triceratops theme and the Stegosaurus theme and the T-Rex theme and the… you got to, I think going back to the kind of tradition of the original, they’re scoring the feeling that we all have interacting with dinosaurs, they’re not scoring this is the Stegosaurus now, cha-cha-cha. But I mean, I had to pick and choose where I felt like something was important. I mentioned all those ones, but I didn’t mention that Darius is kind of the main character, especially in Season 1’s arc. You get a kind of backstory of him and his dad. A lot of the interactions with the other campers you see through his eyes and the theme for Darius is right at the beginning in the first episode when he is alone in his room sleeping and it’s showing you his love of dinosaurs, and I get to reinforce it with a flashback to him talking about his dad.
And so the Darius music ended up, in addition to the camp scene, becoming kind of like yes, it’s for Darius, but in the moments where Darius is kind of bringing the kids together and inspiring them, that’s the theme I go for. And I think it’s a lot, I don’t know, slicker than having a theme for Brooklyn and a theme for Yaz and a theme for Sammy. Instead, there are some themes that get hinted at with every character as they’re sort of interacting with the environment, but they’re not really so much themes for the characters. There’s this kind of reveal about a competing genetics company but it’s not for the character it relates to because, you know, if we get down the line where that company fits in prominently, I think it’s more important to have them have a theme than one of the kids… In terms of how to plant those flags, I think you got to stick with the larger-than-life ideas and then the characters exist in that universe you’ve made.
Other than the Carnivore theme, were there any more Easter eggs you put in there?
That’s probably my big one. There is a funny cue, it’s not really an Easter egg, but there’s this fun sequence where they’re kind of sneaking around to get on this monorail and it’s not really an Easter egg but my thought was, “Oh, I want to do the not too on-the-nose Dennis Steals the Embryo from the original soundtrack.” It has a very stealth vibe to it. And, you know, that has it own flavour with some very old-school synthesisers and doing this bass line. And I didn’t quite, you know, I didn’t go that whole way. Maybe at some point there will be something that allows for that, but I was just trying to do this kind of jungle stealth marimba thing and that was pretty fun. I wouldn’t quite call it an Easter egg, but those are the types of small inspirations I try to look for to make it all feel like one universe.
“It’s like an amazing sandbox to play in.”
Do you know if there’s going to be a soundtrack release?
I hope so. It’s been talked about, but it’s an ongoing conversation. I hope we can do one, especially because to me it very much plays down just like a film score – I just kind of edited together that playlist to make it feel like it’s just the next Jurassic, and I think what’s cool about it is that the season plays down that way, so I really want to share it with, yeah, the world in that way.
You’ve also done the third season of Cobra Kai?
I’m extremely excited with how Cobra Kai has just exploded recently. It really is the pop culture zeitgeist right now, which is exciting to kind of share the storytelling and the music on that level with the entire world. And Season 3 is so epic. It is so cinematic. The music, Zach and I had so much fun doing it. It really expands the universe of the show. When we talk about that franchise we like to talk about it like it’s Star Wars. It’s incredibly interconnected web of characters that bring all this emotional baggage and Mr Miyagi is such a larger-than-life Jedi-like figure in pop culture, and so as the seasons go on, you know, that show has a talent that we’ve worked really hard to pull together of heavy 1980s influences, synthwave influencse, classic rock influences mixed with sweeping orchestra and Japanese influences, and every season we just try to push the envelope further in the cinematicness of it.
I think it has a parallel with Jurassic Park considering the original themes and the Bill Conti themes…
Yeah, it’s interesting that I’ve had kind of a couple of go rounds now with this inheriting of really big intellectual property like Jurassic Park, The Karate Kid, and Kung-Fu Panda And The Paws of Destiny. All of those had established universes and established themes. In Kung Fu Panda I didn’t really use any themes, but there’s just kind of like a vibe to it. It was at least a launching point for that show and it’s interesting, it’s fun, I like doing it. You know, I don’t take it lightly, I feel very honoured to get brought into something that people take really seriously and beloved. You don’t want to be the guy to screw up Jurassic Park. That would be catastrophic to my self-worth. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. So it’s really fun but it also, in a lot of ways I actually find these jobs really freeing because you have this universe… it’s like an amazing sandbox to play in. And what I find is everyone who’s working on the show, you know, Cobra Kai, Jurassic, they’re really passionate about the sandbox and so everyone, it’s like a high level of creative collaboration and enthusiasm for new ideas because you almost don’t have to worry: the structure of the house is already there so then you can just do whatever you want as long as it’s a good idea. And so if it were an original franchise there might be more scrutiny of individual ideas to make sure you’re branding it correctly. But in this case I actually kind of have this sandbox. It’s really fun to play in no matter what the franchise is.
Are you a fan of Star Wars in a similar way?
Yeah, yeah, I’m a big, big Star Wars fan, big time. I love all those movies. I’m actually a really big fan of the prequels which I know is a controversial opinion.
I am too.
Revenge of the Sith especially. For Episode 1, the score is freaking… I think the scores in the prequels is unbelievable. I think in some ways it was the height of John Williams’ mastery over the material. There is just some absolutely incredible stuff in there and I just think it narratively and, I don’t know, you can probably get a vibe from this conversation that I’m really into big universe building, and obviously Star Wars is the cinematic universe of cinematic universes. It wrote the book on cinematic universes and I think, not to go on a weird prequel tangent, but what I like about those movies is that it felt like a really natural extension of the universe. Forget any story beats or anything else about it. Just as a world-building exercise, I find it very exciting, and I think that’s part of the reason why the scores are so awesome. Composers are a major part of expanding the universe.
There’s The Mandalorian and an Obi-Wan Kenobi show and all this kind of thing. Which characters out of Star Wars would you want to score a series about?
Oh man. I used to joke that maybe by the time they made Yoda II that would maybe be down the list. But if I had to pick, I have a dream Star Wars movie that I want to be made that is just Obi-Wan Kenobi out in the desert for 30 years in between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope just like, what is he doing? I can almost see it as a Darren Aronofsky film. Something just nuts, like Obi-Wan alone in the desert living with the weight of his decisions, and seeing in which ways does he maintain connection with, you know, the character web that exists that we know he was so plugged into and then which ways, does he kind of have… I think there are a lot of questions to be answered about what he did with his time there. That is what I want to score. But hey, Yoda II. I’m always available for Yoda II.
Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.