A direct-to-video CGI film based off a toyline: it sounds expendable, meant to only remain in our 10-year-old minds just long enough to encourage us to buy the sets. But the excitement that erupted not so long ago when Nathan Furst finally pledged to release his 14-year-old score to Bionicle: Mask of Light is a testament both to how marked an effect it had in bringing the Technic characters to life on-screen and how strongly the score is able to stand on its own merits.
In the time before time (or, 2003), Lego’s Bionicle toy line was raking in some decent cash – enough that a fully-animated film could be produced. The project was undertaken by Creative Capers Entertainment, who had been negotiating with Lego the possibility of creating a Bionicle film ever since the toys began selling like hot cakes in ‘01. This direct-to-video movie was titled BIONICLE: MASK OF LIGHT, and it sported an all-new adventure featuring familiar characters and enemies. Fans were excited, Lego was excited, and Creative Capers was excited to see how this small-screen outing for the Toa would turn out.
One day, Nathan Furst went to the dentist, presumably for a teeth-related appointment. It happened that the dentist’s brother was Timothy Borquez, a Creative Capers re-recording mixer who was seeking a composer for the project. When Furst learned of this, phone calls were exchanged, a demo (featuring an early sketch of a theme) was passed along to higher-ups, and a month or two later, he had the job. It was new ground for the young composer; he had never written a sprawling orchestral score before, and now he had considerable freedom in interpreting how Bionicle should sound: there was no concrete spotting session, nor did he even receive a script; all he was armed with were a general knowledge of the lore and the pieces of animation which were periodically sent to him as they were finished. “I loved working on those films,” Furst later recalled. “For me, it’s some of the best work I’ve ever done.” The aforementioned creative liberty likely contributes to his fond memories, as it gave him the chance to cut loose and put his own original, pure ideas against the video – no genre to rigidly stick to, no temp track to be wary of (presumably). As such, the score covers a lot of ground, musically. “… it's almost wall-to-wall,” Furst once spoke of the score’s length. “I think it's a seventy-five minute film, and there's sixty-four minutes of music… and they're long cues, or songs, or whatever you want to call it… some single pieces of music in this film, especially the end, with the final confrontation, that's a ten minute piece of music, which is relatively long. It's a single piece of music that goes for a little over ten minutes.”
Whereas the Bionicle line previously had largely techno-oriented music provided by Paul Hardcastle for the “Power Pack” and Justin Luchter for the famous Templar productions (Mata Nui Online Game I and II, as well as the various animations), the sound Furst provides for the film is primarily a mix of orchestral and tribal flavors. “If everything were to be played by live players,” Furst said, “the recording studio would be an airplane hanger [sic]… it's no doubt a hundred piece orchestra. And then, after a hundred piece orchestra, there's specialized instruments throughout. The score features heavily things like Chinese temple flutes, and different sort of native… drums, you know, big, thick, animal-skin drums, lots of whistle effects, chanting…” Indeed, Furst provides heavy doses of ethnic percussion throughout, particularly driving forth action: this can range from encouraging brutality in battle to retaining that uplifting resolve to continue the journey (e.g., Takua having a change of heart and escaping Onu-Koro). Furst makes particularly extensive use of percussion in the standout “Koli Tournament” cue, about which the sequence itself was edited; here the tribal/ethnic vibe is in full force, with a trilling commencing the match. The style (and sequence) is called back to in Makuta’s lair (“A Simple Game of Koli”). Additionally, Tahu’s brashness is so outrageous that he earns his own instrument: a fierce electric guitar, heard both when he and Takua surf the lava in the film’s opening act, and later on when he challenges the Rahkshi in Onu-Koro. All of these ideas blend together surprisingly well; the scale of the adventure certainly warrants the large orchestra, but never does it dwarf or supplant the special tone which that tribal flavor brings with its percussion, woodwinds, and special vocals. Harp glissandos are plentiful, plinking with tenderness and mystery regularly.
Additionally, Furst sports an understanding and appreciation of the golden age of scoring, wherein leitmotifs and “mickey-mousing” were two common tools a composer might use to immerse audiences. The ‘sandpit’ sequence that starts off the film is a fantastic way to witness both in action. A nascent version of Mata Nui’s theme creeps in on brass as Turaga Vakama’s voice booms overhead; a pithy harp descends; and then lofty strings play the theme unabashed for us. Note also how the strings seem to ascend while playing, indicating the Great Spirit’s celestial nature; but when pieces of his being (or rather, the idol) split off and fall to the earth, those fives notes seems to descend. That is mickey-mousing: using music to very subtly accentuate the on-screen action via “movement” of the instrument’s sound. It is very telling of Furst’s disposition as a composer that he would score in this fashion at a time when Hans Zimmer and his Media Ventures team were already gaining popularity for their relentlessly explosive and unambiguous sound. Now, having gently established Mata Nui’s motif, Makuta’s theme slams into the soundscape. There is no warning, no anticipation: the moment Makuta’s stone arrives, Furst abandons caution and forces Makuta’s theme down our ears. Whereas Mata Nui’s theme feels as though it has naturally been effected, Makuta’s is harsh and uninvited. Small details like this very much affect the audience’s interpretation of Mata Nui and Makuta respectively, both of whom have relatively minor presences in the film compared to the Matoran, Toa, and Rahkshi. First impressions are important! (An additional note: in track 9 ["Toa Lewa Helps"], what famous Elmer Bernstein theme can you pick out? It plays for only a moment, but it's a fun little Easter egg inserted by Furst! )
Motifs I can discern:
Mata Nui (introduced track 1): a collected, stately piece evoking the benevolence of the Great Spirit. Although Mata Nui himself does not appear in the film, his presence is indelibly felt in the film via this theme. Often the theme is heard when matters of the Mask of Light are discussed, giving that object a quasi-religious quality.
Makuta (introduced track 1): heartless, towering, and monstrous material that is sometimes accompanied by disturbing whispers (note that the slightest hint of Tahu’s changed nature is signaled via this at the end of track 8).
Main titles / Toa Nuva (introduced track 1): First appearing during the main titles, this soaring theme often underscores heroics. When the Toa are introduced at the Koli match to a cheering crowd, this theme is used to harken back to and alert new viewers of the Toa’s previous deeds.
Safe and sound (introduced track 2): a jaunty ditty that underscores happy relief when a character is revealed to be all right. It additionally makes an appearance when we turn our attention to Takua and Jaller in Le-Wahi.
Matoran (introduced track 3): A happy but almost bittersweet melody that usually is featured whenever conflict has been resolved, or the Matoran seem to flourish. I find its use in track 7 particularly heartwarming.
Rahkshi (introduced track 6): A halting, uneven theme on brass that seems a bit derived from Makuta’s.
In ways of criticism, I can give little. If there is one part of the score that I can say I do not enjoy, it is the infrequent ‘gee-whiz’ sounds in track 1 while Jaller is looking around for Takua (and a little bit in track 5’s pizzicatos). That material seems corny and out of place, and perhaps even trite. As far as the overall sound itself, Furst’s ability for taking samples and making them sound like the real thing are quite stupendous (particularly considering the technology was in its infancy back then); nevertheless Scott Cochran's mix feels rather clogged and crowded. The soundtrack was billed as ‘remastered’, though I have no idea what that means exactly; if Furst has given details as to what he has done to the sound then I am ignorant of them. It’s not a big deal at all, but I wonder what a talented audio engineer might be able to do to draw out additional clarity or give a feeling of added spaciousness to the score.
Despite the nature of the film it underscores, Furst’s music is rich, well-orchestrated, and ripe with all sorts of little moments to discover and love. He gives close attention to continuity and makes effort to let his music tell a story. It is not hard to see why Furst so much enjoys the work he did on these films and the pride is well-earned. Whether you have a paucity of experience with orchestral music or you're well-familiar with the genre, there's a lot of fine material to be heard. The score is diverse, competently structured, and sports a simply riveting main theme, and is in a lovely style which I think has fallen a little out of use today. And most importantly - it's FUN to listen to!
The soundtrack can be purchased at iTunes and Amazon; 7digital offers a lossless option.
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