"Sirens" Songs: musical inspiration October 30, 2015 18:26

From Jess: 

My husband and co-author, Chris, has worked in the animation industry for almost thirty years. He helped shape modern Disney classics like "Beauty and the Beast," "The Lion King," and "Mulan," and he co-wrote/co-directed and lent his style (and his voice!) to "Lilo & Stitch." At DreamWorks, his current studio, Chris co-wrote and co-directed the first "How to Train Your Dragon" film as well as "The Croods." He's always worked in story, whether that means storyboarding (which he still does today even in his role as director) or writing, and, if you ask him what one of the most important tools is in filmmaking, he'll tell you that it's music.

"Music does the heavy lifting," Chris says, and he went into his first project as director planning for that. When it was time to talk about budgets and music for "Lilo & Stitch," Chris wanted to hire one of his favorite composers, Alan Silvestri (known for scoring "Back to the Future," "Forrest Gump," and "The Avengers," among many, many other films), and Chris told his producers that the score for the film was of paramount importance. Even though they were going to be making "Lilo & Stitch" for a budget, he made an agreement with the studio that whatever the best score in the world would cost, they could carve that off the overall budget and he'd make the movie for whatever was left over. Alan delivered a score for "Lilo & Stitch" that was rousing, moving, and emotional. Not only that, but Alan directly affected the story. And Chris learned a lesson that he would never forget.

In the early planning stages of the music for the film, Alan would view the story reels with Chris and co-director Dean DeBlois, and they would discuss the placement and vibe they were considering from moment to moment. After covering most of the film, Alan surprised Chris with a question. "There's one thing I think I missed," Alan remarked. "I didn't catch the moment when Stitch turns from bad to good."

"The question caught us off guard," Chris says today. "Even though the entire film was based on the idea that a villain would be redeemed rather than killed off, as they usually did in Disney movies, we had left that pivotal moment off the screen. We explained to Alan that of all the moments in the movie we'd written, we just couldn't find a way to land that one. It was too subtle, too delicate. We'd both taken runs at it and whenever we'd tried to verbalize it, we'd failed. It was always too awkward, or too vague. So in the end we'd just left it to happen off-screen. We just couldn't find a way to do it.

"And that's when everything for me changed. Alan looked at us and simply said, 'Put it on screen, and I'll do it.'

"Boom. A light went on. Up till that moment, I'd thought of music as something to sweeten what was already there. But Alan reminded me that music was much, much more than that. It was a tool of storytelling. In fact, I've come to think of a score as the closest thing to real magic there is. It is at once a wing and a throttle. It raises or turns your emotions and either propels you forward or holds you entranced and still. It can be a jolt or a kiss. It wakes up your heart. It is powerful. It is unassailable."

Chris goes on: "So the most important moment in the film was carried by Alan. And it was perfect. From that time on I would build homes for music within my films. Quiet zones where the characters would shut up and music would do the talking. A perfect example of that would be the sequence in which Hiccup befriends Toothless in 'How to Train Your Dragon' (scored by John Powell), or the moment in the treetop when the Croods see the stars for the first time in 'The Croods' (like 'Lilo & Stitch,' scored by Alan Silvestri).

"It's the thing I most look forward to when I write and storyboard," Chris says.

Long before there's a scene on screen -- or, in the case of "Rescue Sirens: The Search for the Atavist," if you're penning a book rather than a screenplay -- having the right music playing when you're writing a scene can make the difference between smooth sailing and tearing your hair out. But, just like Chris and I have different writing styles (he's a gardener; I'm an architect), we also have our individual preferences when it comes to the music we put on while we write.

While Chris likes to listen primarily to movie scores, my go-to music for writing is the background music in video games. The first video game music that I fell in love with was Spencer Nilsen's instrumental work for Sega's first two "Ecco the Dolphin" games (and some of Tim Follin's score on "Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future" for the Dreamcast), and that haunting, dreamy ocean sound was the perfect background for writing much of "Rescue Sirens: The Search for the Atavist."

The thing I like best about video game music is that (with the exception of cinematics, which are more--well, cinematic!) it's pleasantly repetitive by design; a video game's score has to be something that you can listen to over and over and over again when your character keeps dying (or is that just me?), and it also has to add a mood and an atmosphere without calling so much attention to the music that it distracts you from playing the game. It helps put me in the right mindset without getting in the way. Film scores, by contrast, are written to complement specific actions on the screen, which is awesome when you're watching the movie -- a passive activity -- but, for me, not so awesome when I'm trying to write and the music accompanying that surprise explosion scene takes me right out of what I was doing. Many people, like Chris, aren't bothered by that, and can even listen to songs with lyrics while they write, but, for yours truly, video game music is the way to go.

In addition to the "Ecco the Dolphin" scores, I also listened to a lot of music from two other ocean-themed game series: Nintendo/Arika's "Endless Ocean" and its sequel "Endless Ocean: Blue World," and "Aquanaut's Holiday: Hidden Memories," composed by Hideki Sakamoto. When you're writing about mermaids, it helps to have appropriate music playing!

But I had other game soundtracks on rotation, too -- games that had little or nothing to do with water. Greg Edmonson's "Uncharted: Drake's Fortune," "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves," and "Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception" albums are all fun, adventurous instrumentals... 

...while Jeremy Soule's score for "The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion" is some of my favorite music of all time, period. Soule isn't called "the John Williams of video game music" for nothing, and his work on "Oblivion" is by turns stirring, delicate, and bittersweet -- but always beautiful.

The most recent addition to my "Rescue Sirens" writing playlist is the soundtrack to a video game that I've never actually played: Devolver Digital's "Hotline Miami." Since "Rescue Sirens" is set in Miami Beach, I thought I'd give this album a shot even though I knew nothing about the game, and I'm really glad I did.

Much of "Hotline Miami"'s electronic music is leisurely and lazy, chill, ambient, relaxing but never, never boring; it's like eighties synth music was chopped up in a wood chipper and then put back together again in a way that's a bit... off. It is, to me, a sound that defies easy explanation, but I love it and I listened to it like crazy while writing the last chapters of the book.

There are various artists who contributed to "Hotline Miami"'s twenty-two track album; my favorites are probably Sun Araw, who performed "Horse Steppin'" and "Deep Cover," and Jasper Byrne, who did "Hotline" and (wait for it...) "Miami," but the whole album is enjoyable. If you're curious, you can listen to the soundtrack in its weird, wonderful entirety on Devolver Digital's SoundCloud account.

Now that Chris and I are working on the next "Rescue Sirens" story, it's time to sift through our respective music collections and make our playlists, which is always fun; maybe we'll even find some new favorites!

If you write, or draw, or sew, or do anything else creative, what do you like to have on in the background?

"Rescue Sirens"' Common Mermaid Myths September 7, 2015 22:07

From Jess: 

Long before the novel "Rescue Sirens: The Search for the Atavist" was so much as outlined, I started developing the property by writing a lengthy reference document that laid out our mermaids' unique mythology, evolution and physiology, habitats, society, and their culture and traditions. I knew I wanted the "Rescue Sirens" series to take place within a fully-realized world, even though I hadn't nailed down the first book yet, and I loved all the thought I could put into building that world within this supplemental volume. I also knew it would come in handy when Chris and I started writing the first novel!

I wrote the document from the point of view of a modern mermaid researcher (who somehow knows waaayy too much) living within the world of "Rescue Sirens." It was important to me to distinguish "Rescue Sirens" from all the wonderful mermaid stories (books, movies, TV shows, etc.) that had preceded it, and the "Common Mermaid Myths" page of the reference document had a little good-natured fun with well-established versions of mermaid tales that we all know and love. "Rescue Sirens" plays by different rules than many mermaid properties, and this was an entertaining way for me to define them! I hope you enjoy this peek behind-the-scenes into my super-secret notebook.



Over the centuries, mermaids have inspired countless myths and legends. Some contain elements of truth, but a number of them are entirely false or based on misunderstandings. Here are just a handful:

Do mermaids lure sailors to their deaths?

Quite the opposite! As covered in the mermaids' own human creation myth (see "Human Origins"), mermaids are sworn to protect humans. They're responsible for saving sailors, not luring them to their deaths. Where the confusion lies is in the term "siren," which has, over the years, come to be synonymous with "mermaid," but originally referred to Greek creatures that were half woman, half bird. According to Homer, two Sirens lived on an island in the western sea between Aeaea and the rocks of Scylla, singing so sweetly that enchanted sailors piloted their ships into the rocks or even leapt overboard and drowned. The hero Odysseus saved himself and his crew by blocking their ears with wax and lashing himself to the mast to keep from steering the ship into the rocks when they sailed past the singing Sirens. Somehow, mermaids ended up with both the name "siren" and the undeserved bad reputation.

Do mermaids automatically transform into their tails when they get wet?

No. Despite popular media depicting mermaids on shore as existing at the mercy of water, unable to control changing from legs back to a tail if they fall in a swimming pool or get sprayed at a car wash, a conscious mermaid's transformation is entirely up to her. (See "Evolution & Physiology.") Any claim to the contrary is--well, just fantasy!

Can mermaids control the weather?

For seafaring humans, storms are a serious consideration, and many an ancient sailor would swear to you that a mermaid could call up a tempest or calm a hurricane depending on her mood. In reality, while they can sense a storm coming due to atmospheric changes that humans are unaware of, mermaids have no more control over the weather than any other marine species. That hasn't stopped some mermaids throughout history (such as Thessalonike of Macedon, an Atavist (see "Evolution & Physiology") and half-sister to Alexander the Great) from taking advantage of their very basic weather predicting abilities to give humans the impression that they were "causing" an oncoming squall if they were displeased. Mermaids have even incorporated this myth into their vernacular: a mermaid might be described as "summoning a storm" when she's particularly angry.

Aren't "mermaids" actually just manatees that lonely sailors mistook for women?

Although manatees (and their Australian relatives the dugongs) are classified as belonging to the scientific order Sirenia in an obvious nod to mermaids, they bear no relation to them, nor were these elephantine marine mammals the "real" source of past mermaid sightings. Even after being at sea for months, a sailor can definitely tell the difference between a manatee and a mermaid! Mermaids claim the ones who came up with that story are the manatees themselves -- but, as preposterous as the concept may be, it serves as effective cover to help keep the existence of mermaids a secret in today's world.