Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – Saying Goodbye
Saying goodbye is always bittersweet. With this week’s broadcast of the series finale of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., my seven-year journey on the show comes to a close. To commemorate this milestone, I produced a video blog that paints what I hope is an emotional picture of what it felt like to be in the room during the weekly orchestra sessions for this beloved show.
Back in 2013, I started out with ambitions of blogging and vlogging my entire experience. Over the course of a few years, I was gradually reduced to producing at most one or two videos a year. Regardless, during my time as composer for this epic show, my life changed several times over. With this blog, I will look back at just a few of the highlights that stand out in my memory.
The first video blog I ever posted gives an overview of what I was setting out to achieve when I started. Looking back now, I’m amused at how naive I was at the time. Had I realized that I was beginning the first of literally hundreds of episodes, I definitely would have felt even more pressure! Perhaps it’s for the best that I wasn’t thinking that far ahead.
The pressure began to boil over almost immediately, as seen in my vlog “A Day in the Life.” This impromptu video was conceived of and shot in a single afternoon, as a way to blow off steam. With genuine emotional truth lurking behind exaggerated parody, “A Day in the Life” ranks simultaneously among the silliest and most honest videos I’ve ever produced. It absolutely captures what I felt while scoring the first five episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
After a difficult adjustment early on, I eventually hit my stride. Gradually, the pressure to be prepared for weekly symphonic orchestra sessions completely dissipated and stepping up to the podium in front of brilliant players every week settled in to a relaxed experience.
A highlight of the first season for me was creating solo cello compositions for Amy Acker’s character in Episode 119, “The Only Light in the Darkness.” I will always remember recording these pieces with my longtime friend and collaborator Eric Byers, because we had to perfectly match on-camera performances with frame accuracy.
As Season One drew to a close in the spring of 2014, I had a chance to reflect upon the fact that my team and I had produced twenty-two episodes of symphonic orchestral scores in a row. To that date, I had employed occasional orchestras on television, and consistently scored Human Target and The Cape with full orchestras, but neither of those series reached a milestone of even a dozen symphonic sessions. I realized I had never tackled a challenge this big in my life. After 22 in a row on S.H.I.E.L.D., I knew I could use a break. I had no time to rest, however, as Season Two was already looming on the horizon, and my wife was about to give birth to our daughter, Sonatine.
Now a new father, I tackled Season Two with even less sleep than I had Season One. Nevertheless, I took the opportunity to expand the sound of the score. With the new season, I simultaneously explored more aggressive modern synth textures, as well as an even more classic orchestral style for the various 1940’s flashbacks. This balance worked out beautifully, and set the template for much of how the second and third season would play out.
Sonatine’s early childhood was spent immersed in the sounds of S.H.I.E.L.D. Over the years, she grew from an infant literally standing on my podium, to a kid sitting by my side. I will never forget the first time I brought her up to conduct with me!
During Season Two and Three, showrunners Maurissa Tancharoen Whedon and Jed Whedon encouraged me to push further and further into modern film score colors. However, Season Four marked the first of several major creative turning points in my score. With the introduction of Ghost Rider and the nightmarish digital world The Framework in Season Four, we knew it was time to change the sound dramatically. Our symphonic orchestra was always there, forming the emotional core of the score, but new storylines were supported by searing synths that were lifted to the forefront of the mix.
In Season Five, the story blasted off into outer space, and my score followed. The producers gave me creative freedom to push the sound of the score fully into a synth-space-opera-fantasy, exploring colors I grew up with on films such as Heavy Metal, The Black Hole, Blade Runner, Akira and The Terminator. This change was a bold departure, but necessary as the setting and scale of the storytelling had completely changed.
Despite these playful new synth colors, I strove to use the symphonic writing I had established as the foundation of the score. I had written a significant number of recurring character themes by this point, and I felt that these themes helped solidify for fans the vital emotional connection to their favorite characters. Throughout the last few seasons, I constantly strove to balance modern synths and classic orchestra. This balance is epitomized in my score for the massive fifth season finale, “The End.”
Of course, “The End” would not actually be the end. From there, we dove into Season Six, where I memorably got to write a rollickin’ blues theme for Clark Gregg’s new character, Sarge, and even compose a musical theme to be sung by Karolina Wydra’s Izel during her creepy transformations.
For the last few seasons, I began working closely with Jason Akers from my team at Sparks & Shadows. I found he was an excellent composer, an organized leader, and (perhaps most crucially) a massive fan of the show. After spotting sessions with producers, we would walk back to our cars, chatting about the next episode and he would remind me of a cue I wrote back in Season Two that I could reference. He knew the show like an encyclopedia. For Season Seven, I promoted Jason to join me as co-composer for the series. I’m so fortunate that I did, because the creative and logistical challenges of Season Seven would be our greatest yet.
Season Seven felt like a musical gift from the producers. As our heroes travel through time, jumping from decade to decade, Jason and I had the opportunity to write scores in completely distinct styles. We featured 1940’s noire saxophones, 1950’s theremin, 1970’s wah-wah guitar and bongos, and 1980’s synths. This range alone was a huge creative challenge, but we also had to blend all those disparate styles with our pre-established classic orchestra and contemporary electronics, and use all of these colors to keep track of at least a dozen themes.
On paper, the score to Season Seven sounds like it should be a potential mess, but in practice, it worked out beautifully. Changes in the story were reflected by changes in the visuals, music and sound design. Every department used the tools at their disposal to make the audience feel like they were leaping through the decades, intersecting with S.H.I.E.L.D. history and characters in surprising and meaningful ways.
My creative experiences on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had a profound impact on me. Perhaps one of the silliest yet most memorable was the time when Jed Whedon and I wrote a cue together during a spotting session. We were chatting about how a character would be listening to some simple pop music on headphones, and Jed made a joke that he wanted something so simple we could just make it in Apple Garage Band on our phones. Well, that’s exactly what happened! While the rest of the team looked on, I pulled my phone out and worked with Jed to write a song. It took literally five minutes, and I emailed it to the music editor to take it to the dub stage. Of course, from then on, the entire post-production crew always jokingly asked me why I couldn’t just do the entire score so quickly!
(Me and Elizabeth Henstridge at the Season Two finale recording session, Spring 2015.)
Another experience I will never forget actually just happened a few nights ago! I was honored when actress Elizabeth Henstridge invited me to her Zoom livestream commentary for the two-part finale. I joined producers, showrunners, directors, and actors, and we reminisced about making the show during a livestream watched by fans in real time. To my surprise, Elizabeth made the Zoom link public at the end, and suddenly thousands of fans from around the globe attempted to log in at once. The software only allowed a fraction of them to join, but our screens suddenly burst with hundreds of people. As my screen filled with exuberant faces, my speaker overloaded with cries of joy and gratitude. One after the other, fans flooded in, bringing with them an outpouring of love for the show that we had worked so hard to create.
I was struck by the range of ages, ethnicities, and countries. There were fans from every continent. Many of them were teenagers who must have been tiny children when our show started. Perhaps these fans joined us recently in their lives, or perhaps they came of age while watching our characters’ heroic journey. In one tiny square, a fan named Jonah pointed his phone at his piano keyboard, and I could tell from his hand movements he was playing my Main Theme.
During this unprecedented pandemic, I have resigned myself to the fact that I won’t be able to jump up on stage at Comic Con, or perform my music live with a band, anytime soon. In this moment, however, I felt that same electric thrill, made all the more personal because we could see into everyone’s homes. This moment helped me understand that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is something fans have brought into their lives, into their homes. Overwhelmed with emotion, I held back tears as I waved, basking in this heartfelt moment of human connection.
I want to send heartfelt gratitude to all my musicians, creative partners, and members of the S.H.I.E.L.D. family. I will try to thank people here, and I know I will fall embarrassingly short of getting everyone. Thank you to the entire creative team for bringing me on board, especially Maurissa Tancharoen Whedon, Jed Whedon, Joss Whedon, Jeph Loeb, Jeff Bell, Megan Bradner, Chris Cheramie, Lodge Worster, all the brilliant editors, VFX artists, sound designers, sound mixers, and so many more. You invited me to join the S.H.I.E.L.D. family and changed my life. Working with you all has been a joy.
(Jed, Me, and Maurissa in 2014, at the Season One finale recording session.)
A special thanks has to go out to this incredible cast, who always took the time to visit our recording sessions. Clark Gregg, Ming-Na Wen, Chloe Bennet, Elizabeth Henstridge, Ian De Caestecker, Brett Dalton, Jeff Ward, Nick Blood, Maximilian Osinski, my Black Sails brother Zach McGowan, the admiral himself Edward James Olmos, and so many more. Your curiosity and enthusiasm always energized me.
(Comic Con 2013, the day I met Clark. This picture was taken moments before the panel in which I was announced as composer and the crowd would be the first in the world to hear my theme for the show.)
(The 201 scoring session, Fall 2014. L-R: Austin Nichols, Me, Chloe Bennet, Nick Blood)
(Catching up with Ming-Na Wen at the series wrap party, July 2019)
My eternal gratitude goes out to Dawn Soler for her tireless support. She and her entire team at ABC Music were the foundation for all of this, providing logistical support that allowed me to focus on creative concerns. Her efforts made it possible for us to record a symphonic orchestra well over a hundred times.
(Me and producer, soon to be director, Chris Cheramie at a Season Two session in 2015.)
(The final day of the mix, in October 2019. The day the show was finally completed.)
I owe a shout out to my dear friend Daniel Colman, who did the stunning sound design work. The end of S.H.I.E.L.D. surprisingly marks the end of a 17-year run where the two of us consistently had a project together in the works. (I look forward to the day when we can once again set orchestra fanfares against jet engines, my friend.)
(Me and Chris Lennertz at Comic Con 2013, photobombed by the brilliant John Debney!)
Thank you to Chris Lennertz for letting me quote his amazing “Theme from Agent Carter” in the second season.
I want to thank everyone who helped make this experience possible, starting with my co-composer for the final season Jason Akers. You had my back from the moment you started interning at Sparks & Shadows, and your passion for this show and these characters always inspired me, even as exhaustion kicked in for all of us.
(At the recording session for the series finale, October 2019. L-R: Peter Rotter, Etienne Monsaingeon, Jonathan Beard, Henri Wilkinson, Ed Trybek, Me, Jason Akers, Sam Ewing, Omer Ben-Zvi, Jesse Hartov)
I also want to thank everyone at Sparks and Shadows, past and present, especially Sam Ewing, Omer Ben-Zvi, Jesse Hartov, Etienne Monsaingeon, Marisa Gunzenhauser, Michi Engesser, Joanna Pane, Brian Claeys, Michael Beach, David Matics, Angelina Park, Qin Yu, Kaiyun Wong, Melissa Axel, Jonathan Ortega, Jon Chau, Jessica Huber, Steve Kaplan and Ryan Sanchez. I would also like to commend my entire music prep team, especially Ed Trybek, Henri Wilkinson, Jonathan Beard and Andy Harris. (The end of S.H.I.E.L.D. concludes a solid decade of us collaborating on a weekly series with a symphonic orchestra!) I’d also like to send a huge shout out to Kevin Porter and Alec Siegel for shooting and editing all this content over the years.
Thank you to the people behind the scenes making this all work, especially Richard Kraft, Laura Engel, Joe Augustine, Jeff Gillman, Sarah Kovacs, and Jeff Jernigan.
This music would never soar the way it does without the brilliant musicians I was so fortunate to work with. I would list you all, but it would break the internet. Nevertheless, you all have my gratitude. Special thanks go out to Peter Rotter and his entire team, concertmaster Julie Gigante, the late Katia Popov, Steve Erdody, Jenni Olson, Chris Bleth, Steve Bartek, Mike Valerio, Paul Cartwright, Eric Byers, Andrew Bulbrook, Ben Jacobson, Jonathan Moerschel, Laura Brenes, Geri Rotella, Alex Iles, JoAnn Turovsky, Paul Cartwright, Doug Tornquist, Ayana Haviv, Jeremy Zuckerman, Ira Ingber, Pete Griffin, Joe Travers, Andrew Synowiec, and so many more. I also want to thank the crews of the Eastwood Stage at WB, Barbra Streisand Scoring Stage at Sony, the Newman Scoring Stage at FOX, and The Bridge Recording.
Thank you to all my friends and family for being there for me. A huge shout is owed to my wife Raya Yarbrough for not only sticking by me during this tumultuous and occasionally stressful time, but also for singing all the exotic and creepy “Alien Theme” cues. I’m sending love to Sonatine, who grew up on the podium for this show. (I hope you and your friends binge-watch this one day.)
Lastly, I would like to thank the fans for following us on this epic journey. We made this show for you! For the last seven years, I’ve always felt like both a fan and a creator, because I always knew secrets fans didn’t know. I had read upcoming scripts, I had scored upcoming episodes. For seven straight years, I always knew something the fans didn’t know. Now, that era is over. For the rest of my life, I can just be a fan with the rest of you. Now, we all know everything there is to know about the fate of our favorite S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, and we have our mutual love of the show in common. Thank you for watching, and for listening.