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INTERVIEW | Composer Andrew Lockington Talks About Writing The Music For The Netflix Blockbuster Atlas

By Anya Wassenberg on June 12, 2024

L-R: Composer Andrew Lockington (Photo: Gage Skidmore/cropped/CC by SA 3.0); Promotional image for Atlas (Courtesy of Netflix)
L-R: Composer Andrew Lockington (Photo: Gage Skidmore/cropped/CC by SA 3.0); Promotional image for Atlas (Courtesy of Netflix)

Canadian composer Andrew Lockington has written the scores to dozens of films and TV projects. The latest of these is Atlas, currently streaming on Netflix.

Nearly three weeks after its release, Atlas is still in the top ten movies on Netflix Canada, a pretty remarkable feat in the fickle world of streaming. The sci-fi adventure stars Jennifer Lopez as a counterterrorism analyst in a world where artificial intelligence has rebelled against humanity, with Canadian Simu Liu in the role of the hostile AI. There are action sequences, but also emotional scenes where Lopez’ titular character learns to deal with her past, and her conflicted feelings about AI.

For a composer, in other words, there is a lot of emotional ground to cover.

We spoke to Andrew about Atlas, and working as a composer in the streaming era.

Composer Andrew Lockington (Photo: Farah Aviva)
Composer Andrew Lockington (Photo: Farah Aviva)

Andrew Lockington: The Interview

A native of Burlington, Ontario, Lockington’s more prominent credits includes Journey to the Center of the Earth with Brendan Fraser in 2008, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (2013), and two features with director Brad Peyton, who also helms Atlas, and with Dwayne Johnson in the starring role, San Andreas (2015) and Rampage (2018). Atlas is the 8th collaboration between Peyton and Lockington. He’s also frequently worked with Taylor Sheridan, responsible for Mayor of Kingstown, and an upcoming series on Paramount+, LANDMAN.

“In high school I had the same dream of being a rock star that so many people do,” he says of his musical roots.

At the age of 15, he was proficient as a keyboard player, and joined a professional working rock band on tour, a gig he kept up while completing high school. He enrolled at Wilfrid Laurier University, but says he quit about one credit short of graduating with a degree in composition.

The rest, as they say, is history.

While the action movies tend to feature prominently in his CV, his credits are diverse in terms of subject matter.

“To be honest, my favourite moments in these movies are the emotional moments,” he says.

There is also a value to the parts of the film where there is no musical score. It allows room for the emotional impact of the music. “You need to use the moments in between to make the audience feel.”

He describes working with Donald Sutherland on a film several years ago as a particularly rewarding experience. “I got to know him pretty well,” he says. Sutherland filled several roles in the making of the film, and he says the two talked about filmmaking, and the relationship between acting and the musical score. “He had a much more optimistic view of it than I did,” he says.

As he observed, Sutherland’s process went into minute detail, including the idea of leaving room for the music to expand on the emotion of the scene.

“It’s the beginnings and the ends in cues that can be the most impactful,” he says.

Working with films that are designed entirely for streaming, rather than a theatrical release, changes the approach. “They succumb to the impatience of the audience,” Andrew says. In previous eras, as he points out, filmmakers didn’t have to worry so much about losing their audience almost from the start.

“It’s probably to blame for the pacing of media these days.”

Scoring for Atlas

Atlas uses music in sections, with others unaccompanied. The music comes in when action or strong emotions are at play. Lockington uses a variety of techniques, with an underpinning of orchestral music to the score.

The story is set in a dysfunctional, if technologically advanced, future. “That score in particular, the go-to,” he says. “[…] the assumption is to get AI to write the score.” But, as he describes it, the opposite is actually true. “There’s so much technology on screen, and so many special effects, they needed a human element.”

Since the film deals with heady themes like the nature of humanity and spirituality, Lockington felt that unconventional methods were called for, and traveled to both Japan and the UK in search of sounds. Among other sites, he recorded in an abandoned subways station.

“The Japan portions was two trips,” he says. “They hadn’t even filmed yet.”

The film talks about the convergence of technology and spirituality, but as he describes it, the filmmakers wanted the spirituality to have an organic, rather than institutional, feel. Japan was the director’s suggestion, a place where both of those elements co-exist.

“We took a trip there, and thought, wouldn’t it be amazing to record all these sounds?” A second trip saw them recording diverse sounds, from monks chanting in temples to the squeal of bullet trains. “I was doing this all over for weeks.”

Those sounds are processed and then added to orchestral sounds. The result is ethereal and compelling.

“[Recording in] The Underground was an idea that I had years ago,” he says. It results in a very long reverb sound. “The echoes can do funny things..” He used the closed Aldwych Station in London, UK for the recording, and noticed that the sounds traveled back and forth in irregular patterns according to where he was along the passage. It led to a plan.

“Wouldn’t it be interesting to get a bunch of woodwinds in there and play a series of short staccato notes?”

He’s thankful that the producers and Netflix were willing to go along for the adventure.

In the emotional parts, the score is often quite subtle, something you really hear only if you concentrate.

Preteen boy soprano Malakai Bayoh sings in parts of the score, recorded in a church owned by Sir George Martin. “You can just imaging that single beautiful boy soprano’s voice,” he says. “Where you record something has such an impact on how it sounds.” It affects the emotional quality of the music, as he describes it.

Without giving too much away to anyone who hasn’t seen the film, there is an especially poignant moment at the end of the film for Lopez’ character.

“Scoring that scene, I learned very early on what I’d do,” he says. It reprises a theme that evokes a character. The challenges became how to devise ways, much earlier in the story, to set up that theme so the audience would respond to it with recognition and emotion. One of those techniques involved using the first three notes of the theme as the beeps that would sound whenever AI is activated in the film.

“It’s not part of the score,” he explains, “it’s in the sound effects. But, when you hear it in the score, you pick it up automatically.”

Themes add to the narrative flow of the story. “As a composer, you have to find clever ways of teaching it to your audience without them feeling like they’ve heard it before.”

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