When Stefan L. Smith joined Batman: The Doom That Came to Gotham as the film’s lead composer, he knew that this was his chance to put his stamp on the musical legacy of the Dark Knight. Few composers have had the privilege to craft scores for Batman in his live action and animated adventures.

Shirley Walker became an industry trailblazer through her Emmy-Award-winning scores for Batman: The Animated Series and Batman Beyond, pulling elements from Danny Elfman’s Grammy winning score for DC’s 1989 blockbuster film starring Michael Keaton.

Since the 1990s, Batman has been musically interpreted by the likes of Elliot Goldenthal, James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer, Michael Giacchino, and now Smith.

As a young composer and musician, Smith always counted these legends among his influences. But he also recognized the unique opportunity afforded to him to expand the sound of Gotham via Batman: The Doom That Came to Gotham.

Smith is one of the first Black composers to work on a Batman film, a distinction he does not take lightly. “I think we can all say more with our projects when we bring in new faces, voices, creators and perspectives,” says Smith. “We should all strive to have a 360 view of the world, which will allow us to tell stories that reflect us as a whole in society.”

Batman: The Doom That Came to Gotham (available on Digital, 4K, and Blu-Ray) is unique in its 1920s setting and fantastical undertones. Smith’s background in concert music came in handy, providing him with an entire arsenal of compositional techniques which could accentuate the superhero animation’s high-octane action.

“Sometimes I assign specific instruments to characters, and I also love to quote melodies such as the plainchant “Dies Irae”. I used this melody as a motif frequently to convey the carnal nature of the supernatural elements of the film.”

Smith maintains an active professional performance career, specifically as the principal violinist with some of America’s most prestigious orchestras. Smith been featured as a musician on-screen during the 94th Academy Awards, ABC’s Modern Family, and Jimmy Kimmel Live!

Smith spoke to Awards Focus about his place in the pantheon of Batman composers, as well as his evolving career and work in live performances. ******

Awards Focus: There are many unique challenges that come with the privilege of scoring the Dark Knight in Batman: The Doom that Came to Gotham. How do you establish the musical identity of this world of Gotham that has been established with so many scores previously, while making it unique and personal to your vision?

Stefan L. Smith: I always create a playlist that captures the mood of the project I’m currently working on. With Batman: Doom, I knew that I needed to create material that felt familiar to the audience so that they could easily connect. What we normally consider to be the “Batman Sound” was composed by the likes of Danny Elfman, Shirley Walker, Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. While we are all familiar with these iconic Batman themes, I found myself being drawn to the dark world that Elliot Goldenthal created for his score to Batman Forever. It really captured the brutish, majestic and dark qualities I was looking for in regard to inspiration for my score. From sound design to a heavy orchestral palette, I found myself being drawn to his score the most.

From my initial playlist inspiration, I then go to the piano and my sketch pad to create themes that highlight each character. Coming from a concert music background, I tend to use compositional techniques to come up with additional melodic material as well as themes and variations that I could then use as leitmotifs throughout the score. Sometimes I assign specific instruments to characters, and I also love to quote melodies such as the plainchant “Dies Irae”. I used this melody as a motif frequently to convey the carnal nature of the supernatural elements of the film. Once the building blocks are in place, the score begins to write itself.

AF: The action sequences in this film are spectacular, and really tap into the period setting of the film. With the sound design that comes with action scenes, how do you balance that with score and find harmony?

Smith: Action scenes are always like a ballet. Both music and sound design have to have balance, and our job, as composers, becomes a bit more technical. 

There are action scenes in the film where I chose to use a Mickey Mouse approach (hitting major beats within the scene to accent the actions on screen, like “Grendon and Friends” or “Ready the Explosives.”

I also found it fitting to score the overall tone of the scene without necessarily hitting every single beat presented, specifically with “Summoning Fate” and “Requiem for Gotham.”

I think the key to writing good action music is establishing the overall tone, mapping out the major beats, and figuring out the best tempo for using sustains and rhythm to chase the picture to provide tension and release.

Much of this project was scoring the film as if the music carried the story, as I primarily wrote from edits without sound design. This is why the score is active in general, as the director (Sam Liu) is very musically driven. So in a sense, I had to imagine the sound design being there using verbal cues of where it would be within the film, but much of it was on me to establish the tone of the scene. I had to create my own sound design within the score to enhance the major hits and once the additional sound design was added, we then tweaked the music to support the scenes as needed.

AF: What is one of your other favorite moments from the Batman film?

Smith: My favorite moments are where the orchestra gets to lead the charge! The last third of the film is where I feel the score really gets to open up and sing. From “Summoning Fate” to the “End Credits Suite” (linked below), it’s basically one continuous cue. I just love how I was allowed to really let out all of the stops in the music. We really wanted to lean on an intense sound, and this section of the score tests the limits for sure! 

AF: Getting to score a Batman film is certainly a groundbreaking moment for any composer’s career, but being the first Black composer to score Batman is a great signal to up and coming composers that the opportunity to do these fantastic projects in within reach. How do you feel Hollywood is opening doors for new voices?

Smith: I think Hollywood is beginning to shift a bit more into the perspective of allowing new artists to share their talents. It’s an exciting time and I think more studios are now becoming aware now… I think we can all say more with our projects when we bring in new faces, voices, creators and perspectives. We should all strive to have a 360 view of the world, which will allow us to tell stories that reflect us as a whole in society. Those are the best types of teams to work on! 

I’m extremely grateful for being able to musically contribute to Batman, and am also grateful for meeting Sam Liu and the teams at Warner Bros and DC Animation.

AF: You also recently scored and wrote songs for Super Why’s Comic Book Adventures. How does the songwriting process differ from scoring?

Smith: When writing music for a children’s show, there’s a lot that goes into the planning of the curriculum. I think this part of songwriting makes it even more of a challenge. You have to make sure that the music, rhythm and lyrics are simple, yet hip enough so that kids would actually want to sing to it. 

Our director, Geri Bertolo, was such a blast to work with! He was all about the 70s funk cop show sound and I was totally on board with it! Our goal was to create songs that made you want to dance, but also introduced the children to all types of musical tropes, while learning. 

There were 20 short episodes to score, and each one had its own song. The first part of the musical process was writing and producing the songs, recording the vocals, and delivering the final songs to the animators so that they could animate the songs. In Animation, songwriting usually precedes scoring, as the songs are needed ahead of time so that the animators can sync the songs to the working edit.

My task was then to weave the score perfectly into the songs, which is also the fun part of scoring musical based material. It’s almost like a puzzle you have to put together backwards. I’m always up for the challenge, so it was a blast working with Geri on this, along with 9 Story Media, Brown Bag Films, and PBS Kids!

AF: Is there a favorite song you wrote for this project?

Smith: I really had a lot of fun writing the “Sound out the Letters” song for Episode 8. It’s a fun scene where “Power Paige” and “Super Why” are trying to fix words that “The Shuffler” has scrambled. I think the song and vibe make an interesting pair with the visual to provide something new in children’s music. Pairing Full Orchestra with Big Band is always a fun vibe to write, so I had a lot of fun writing this song and cue!

AF: What would be your dream franchise or existing IP to score or write songs for?

Smith: I grew up in the early 90s and was a huge fan of Star Wars and Jurassic Park, among many other famous IPs. The scores of John Williams, James Horner and Howard Shore heavily influenced me as an orchestral musician and composer. I have always been a huge fan of film scores that allow composers to test all of their abilities in one project!

I would say Star Wars, Jurassic Park, The Chronicles of Narnia, and most of the current Universal and Disney productions have always piqued my interest. There is always a demand for highly involved music in their productions, and that’s the type of music I love to write!

AF: Where can fans connect with you online?
Smith: I’m on instagram and twitter as @violanation. For additional social links and the like, the linktree is great for staying up to date: https://linktr.ee/StefanLSmith