Roc Chen is not just a music composer; he is a major creative force in film, television, and video games in China. He has written scores for over 200 projects, both in China and around the world, including many with Jackie Chan and recently Dreamworks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016). Chen’s point of view is unique, often blending Eastern and Western musical styles.
Screen Prism caught up with Roc via email from his studio to get some insight on his process and talk about one of his most recent high-profile projects, working with Danny Elfman for the Alice In Wonderland maze at Disneyland Shanghai.
Screen Prism: Tell us a little about your musical education and background. What instrument or instruments did you begin with and how did you start composing your own music?
Roc Chen: I started playing classical piano—Mozart, Chopin, etc.—when I was a kid. The first time I sat in front of a piano I liked to keep the sustain pedal down for a long period while playing various tones from low to high on the keyboards and just hear the reverberations of these different, colorful notes. It was a great experience, and I always got in trouble for it. I guess that’s when I decided to start composing music. The music I played on the piano was quite colorful, just like film music scores.
How did you get involved in composing for films? Were you always a big movie fan?
I’ve always been a big fan of the movies and movie music. You should have seen the astonished expression on my face when I watched Disney’s Fantasia (1940) for the first time. Later on, I joined rock and roll bands and played in a large orchestra, though I spent most of my time composing video game music during my time in college. I always tried to do video game music in a way similar to film music. Luckily, my music got the attention of a few young film directors and producers, and they eventually started hiring me for their films.
My first film music gig came from a director who really liked the theme music from the video game “Luvinia Online” which was performed by musicians from the National Orchestra of China. In that music, he liked the way I combined both East and West elements together. He asked me to go to Beijing and finish the film score with him. That’s how I started my first cinema feature film.
When you start a new film project, what is the first thing you do? Is it different for live action vs. animation?
It’s always a different journey with each film, but mostly I start with either reading the script or watching the rough cut of the film. For animation, it is a little different as I usually start work with just storyboards. One lucky thing that I have going for me is that I can come up with musical ideas very fast. Normally when I see the script or watch the rough cut of the film for the first time, I’ll already have an idea or a musical theme, and then I’ll show it to the director. Sometimes we’ll use just that. Sometimes we’ll keep revising it and polishing it until it is perfect. Sometimes he’ll hate it, but that’s okay! I come up with things very quickly so I can do something else pretty quickly. I rarely run into the situation of banging my head against the wall.
You are known for blending Eastern and Western influences in your music. Do you think about that when you are composing or is it just natural for you?
This is a great question! No matter where I go, East or West, my music will always depend on the style and needs of the film. I was born in a Chinese family, but since my father and mother are both English teachers, I grew up in an English-speaking atmosphere. I come from China, a country in the East while being trained with music theory and skills from the West. My natural experiences come into play. I use my skill and knowledge to go purely Eastern or purely Western or combine the best parts of both. But I don’t like trying to define my personality on the basis of East or West. I’m just a person on earth, like many other people.
Roc Chen/Kung Fu Panda 3
Let’s talk about Disneyland and Alice in Wonderland. Did you approach that project any differently knowing how many people were going to experience your music on a daily basis?
It is, of course, very different. No matter it’s a film, or a video game, or a TV series, or a Disneyland project; it’s always my goal to use music to help the project from different ways. Like for video games, it’s more about interaction; the way music interacts with the player. For an animated film, it’s about humor, action, and many other elements. The Alice project is even more different as I’m working with the legendary composer Danny Elfman. Danny is the composer of the film Alice in Wonderland (2010), and he wrote a new piece for the Alice maze attraction in Disneyland based on the theme from the film while I was his advisor.
We approached the project a little differently knowing we wanted the tourists to hear music being sung in Chinese at the attraction. So we had a meeting with a beautiful lady from Disney who did the Chinese lyrics. We changed some notes to fit the Chinese lyrics and to make sure it sounds cool in Mandarin. Finally, we recorded choirs with my friends, who are top choir singers in Beijing, remotely from Los Angeles. I think this is probably the first time LA was able to connect with Chinese choir musicians via live remote recording. It was quite successful. Make sure you experience it when you go to Shanghai Disneyland!
One last question. What are some of your favorite film scores?
Bernhard Herman’s Psycho (1960). John Williams’ various scores. Max Steiner’s Gone With The Wind (1939). Hans Zimmer’s The Lion King (1994). Danny Elfman’s Alice In Wonderland. All of these great film music masters and their scores are the power that’s driven me and keep me moving forward.