How ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Composer Simon Franglen Honored the Late James Horner

TheWrap magazine: “There’s no reason that a reef tribe would have the same sound (as a jungle tribe),” the composer says


This interview with “Avatar: The Way of Water” composer Simon Franglen first appeared in a special section of the Below-the-Line issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Composer Simon Franglen had worked on the first “Avatar” on what he called “the non-orchestral side: the glowing textures, the synthetic stuff, the rhythms.” So when his close friend and original “Avatar” composer James Horner died in a plane crash in 2015, Lightstorm asked Franglen to write music for the Disney theme park attraction Pandora—The World of Avatar. He then began work on “The Way of Water” by coming up with a Na’vi-language song to fit a line at the beginning of the script: “Neytiri sings the song cord.”

“The idea is that you have a string of beads and you trace the history of your family almost like a rosary as you sing,” the British composer said. Cameron liked what he heard, Zoe Saldaña sang it flawlessly in front of the entire crew, and before long Franglen was hired to write the film’s score.

Immediately, he and Cameron agreed that certain Horner musical themes from the first movie should be retained, both to honor the late composer and to create the idea of an Avatar canon. But with the action moving from the jungles of Pandora to the seaside, they also knew that a different approach was needed. “There’s no reason that a reef tribe would have the same sound,” he said, “because they have different materials to work with.”

Franglen discarded what he called “the glowing gamelan textures” he’d written for forest scenes in the first film and moved to bamboo instruments and wooden percussion. He also began working with Pacific Islander singers in Wellington, utilizing voices that were softer and had a Polynesian texture. “We also built a three-dimensional array of high, delicate percussion instruments to capture the idea of this glistening light coming through the water,” he said. “That became a recurring texture throughout the film.”

His other work included a heavy theme for the bad guys based on low brass and electronic drums, although the heart of his score came in more emotional cues. “At several places in the film, there is no dialogue and only minimal sound effects because we’re underwater, and the emotion of the scene has to be carried by the music,” he said. “The story of the family is so important that I would almost say that this is a smaller film than Avatar.” He grinned. “I don’t mean that in a disparaging way—this is still Pandora, it’s still a Jim Cameron film. But my biggest challenge was making sure that I was emotionally connecting with the characters.”

Read more from the Below-the-Line issue here.

TheWrap magazine below the line issue cover
Avatar The Way of Water magazine cover Below the Line issue