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How Ruby Gillman Composer Created A Special "Kraken Language" For New DreamWorks Film

Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken is now playing in theaters everywhere.

By Josh Weiss
A split screen header featuring Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken (2023) and Stephanie Economou

"Thrown into the deep end" perfectly describes the sink-or-swim situation composer Stephanie Economou found herself in when DreamWorks offered up the job of composing the music for Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken (now playing in theaters everywhere).

While Economou (ManhuntJupiter's Legacy) previously dipped a toe into the waters of animation via a number of video game projects and a short for Universal/Illumination, she had never taken the plunge with a feature-length animated effort. "This was my first real deep dive into animation, which was equally terrifying and exciting," she confesses to SYFY WIRE over Zoom.

RELATED: Why Ruby Gillman: Teenage Kraken Is a Movie for Everyone - Not Just Mythical Sea Creature Fans

Helmed by Kirk DeMicco (The Croods) and Faryn Pearl (Trolls World Tour), the film centers around Ruby Gillman (Lana Condor), a not-so-average teenager living in the maritime town of Oceanside. In addition to the usual trials and tribulations of adolescence — homework, crushes, prom, etc. — Ruby must also conceal the fact that she and her family are secretly krakens.

All of that changes one day when, acting against the wishes of her strict mother (Toni Collette), our hero ventures into the ocean, meets her grandmother (Jane Fonda), and learns that she is descended from a royal line of underwater warriors sworn to protect the seas from vicious mermaids. Turns out humanity's fear of the dreaded kraken, famously depicted as a tentacled monster wrecking ships and dragging sailors to a watery grave, is completely untrue.

"I really responded to the story — Ruby’s character came across the page. She's such a relatable person, and so are so many of the other [characters]," Economou adds. "The mother relationship, the grandmother relationship. I think there's a lot of generational narrative in there that we can all relate to, which is quite universal."

The composer later adds: "I wanted the music to be really unique and have its own space within the greater picture of animation films. And because there's so much water and being underwater and being near the water, the idea of dream pop came in my head. Dream pop or synth pop, something like that, because a lot of those musical nuggets and ideas really feel like the water to me."

Take a deep breath and dive below for the rest of our interview with Stephanie!

***WARNING! The following contains certain spoilers for the film!***

How is the process of scoring for animation different from live-action?

It's definitely different. I would say it's more akin to the process of scoring for video games ... in the sense that they bring on composers quite early, so the music is helping define the story and shape it along with the visuals ...

I think being really involved in the creative process from the start allowed me to develop these ideas and find the sweet spot for it over a longer period of time. [With] live-action, a composer is brought on at some point in post-production when they are already cutting the film together and have like a good sense of it. Obviously, there are exceptions to that rule all the time. But I would say it was different in that sense and I liked it because that's what I love about working in video game music ... you're part of it from the genesis.

What was Kirk and the rest of the creative team looking for in terms of the music?

What we really jived on was the fact that we wanted this to not sound like a typical animation score. We wanted it to have colors and feel like, 'What is it like to be a teenager? What does Ruby's everyday life feel like? How do we interpolate that into her becoming a giant Kraken and growing in this folklore of Kraken? ...

I was basically like, 'Listen, I want to explore dream pop. I want there to be lots of electric guitars.’ My husband is the main guitarist on the score, which was helpful, just having him next door to experiment with stuff. [We had] tons of electric guitars running through a lot of effects pedals. He has this rubber bridge guitar, which almost sounds like a big ukulele, which also felt a lot like the water. [There were] lots of vocals and this electroacoustic harp player [Emily Hopkins] that also runs stuff through these cool pedal effects.

I brought all of that up early on and they were down to just have me explore and see where it would take me. And where it did take me was when Ruby becomes more of this epic — almost superhero — character, I was bringing in more orchestral influences. I'm a big orchestral composer, so being able to marry the palette of dream pop/synth pop with the big strings and brass and have her have these really wonderful, lush moments was the way of finding the balance there.

Ruby Gillman is surrounded by light

Did you incorporate actual water sounds into the score at all?

I think using all of these effects, where it’s really big reverbs that make it feel [like a] kind of hazy atmosphere or a delay is [what] gives it the sense of bubbles or something like that. It's basically a lot of textural elements coupled with these solo instruments that make it feel like you're immersed in it ... There are certain things that are a little bit more direct and on the nose. For Chelsea, the mermaid character, I wanted her signature to be a conch shell call. So there's conch shells in there, there’s some crazy vocal calls, and she has more of a Pharrell-style pop thing that follows her around [on land].

Because there are so many vocals on the score, not only did I record this great vocalist, Ari Mason, to do a lot of the solo vocals, but I also recorded a choir at Abbey Road. Ari and I thought it would be interesting to invent a Kraken language for them to sing. We pulled a lot of influence, studying ... the earliest iterations of when people documented seeing mermaids or the Kraken. The folklore behind it. And so, we pulled from these Old Norse syllables and coupled them with to make this fake language for the Kraken, which was really fun.

Chelsea Van Der Zee holds Ruby Gillman

The town feels like a character in an of itself. In what ways did you tackle it from a musical standpoint?

I tried to make [it] a little bit more grounded and less dreamy. So a lot of that stuff is a little bit more indie pop. There’s still lots of drum kit and guitars and stuff like that. But there was something about that feel, leaning into the indie pop for Oceanside that made it feel more like a John Hughes movie. I love that element of of the film; it has that sort of ‘80s retro vibe without pushing too much stylistically into it.

When people think of mermaids, they think of Disney. This film subverts that image by showing mermaids as malevolent creatures. Was that super freeing for you musically?

That’s one of my favorite parts about this movie, is that it leans into the original myth of what mermaids were, which were terrifying monsters; and that Krakens are the protectors of the sea and not the monsters who are taking over or a threat to humans ... 

The subverting… for me, musically, I wanted to lean into that; lean into the traditional feel or expectation we have for the water. But then using the dream pop and synth pop is a way of being like, ‘No, this is something special, this is something different.’

And the mermaid stuff was really fun to do, because Chelsea [on land] is a more fun, popular girl. And [when the story gets into the] folklore of mermaids and them being the nemeses [the music] is almost like enchantress, literal siren-type of melody for her. I got to play in a lot of those spaces, because the story does that and I think that's one of the more unique things about it.

Chelsea (Annie Murphy) in Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken (2023)

What was the most fun part of the process? What was the most challenging?

I think the most fun was definitely collaborating with musicians on this because there were so many brilliant soloists that I got to work with, one-on-one, throughout the process. I didn't just record them at the end, I was working really actively with the guitarist Jon Monroe, Ari Mason on vocals, and Emily Hopkins, who played electro-acoustic harp.

Jake Baldwin is the one that recorded all the conch shells and the didgeridoo. I recorded this crazy instrument called a bohemian crystal instrument; we stuck the player in a studio for a day just to get these really weird sounds for the Well of Seas. All of that and then going to Abbey Road to record the orchestra and the choir was so gratifying. It's such a dream to be able to experiment and explore these weird friggin’ sounds, and find a place for them in this film, because it's so colorful and unique ...

Kirk, Faryn, and [producer] Kelly [Cooney Ciella] were so supportive in that they kept saying, ‘Keep going! Keep making it less traditional!’ Having that support didn't make it that much of a challenge ... It had its challenges in the sense that it was just a really different score for me. Because I'm new to animation, I was always feeling a little bit out of my comfort zone in some ways.

Grandmamah (Jane Fonda) puts a tentacle around Ruby Gillman (Lana Condor) in Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken (2023)

How would you like to see the music evolve in a potential sequel?

Towards the end of the movie, Ruby becomes the protector of Oceanside and she grows so much as a person. I don't know where I'd like to see the story go, I just know that they would do something great with that. I would love to expand more on [the music]. There are so many different types of ways that you can write music for dream/synth pop, leaning into what I dubbed to be more like 'cinematic dream pop.’ I would love to explore more of that color palette and see where I can take it.

If I can lean more into some dark stuff, if I can just put my own stamp on whatever that style is, I'd love to keep living in this music. I've had such a beautiful time and experience writing this because it's something I've never done before. So if it were to continue, it would be such a joy to just explore more and see what I can accomplish playing with the world that's been created.

Ruby Gillman swims with a whale

**This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken is now playing in theaters everywhere. Click here to net some tickets!

Want more from DreamWorks? Head over to Peacock for Antz, The Prince of Egypt, The Road to El Dorado, Shrek, Shrek 2, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, Madagascar, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Turbo, The Boss Baby, The Penguins of Madagascar, Trolls World Tour, and Puss in Boots: The Last Wish.