Shawn Patterson: The Accidental Cartoon Composer

One does not simply arrive in Hollywood and declare himself the second coming of John Williams. Shawn Patterson discusses his work on The LEGO Movie's infectious theme and maintaining realistic expections in the competitive field of composing for film and television.

Composer and songwriter Shawn Patterson got his start in television on ‘90s series like The Ren & Stimpy Show and The Chipmunks. He has since produced work for Cartoon Network’s Robot Chicken, Titan Maximum, and a slew of other animated series. For The LEGO Movie, Patterson reunited with director Chris McCray to pen “Everything is Awesome,” the pop theme performed by Tegan and Sara featuring The Lonely Planet.

While Patterson has staked his claim to a slice of Hollywood success, it hasn’t been quite the path he envisioned. The aspiring composer was working as a driver for an animation house in Los Angeles, peddling his demos to trailer studios around town, when he was approached by the owner of the company to write a tune for an upcoming project. “I wrote it and it was released internationally, I think, for Alvin and the Chipmunks, if you can believe it. So that was my first exposure into animation. It wasn’t even like I started out and said, ‘I have this passion for cartoons.’ It was, ‘I have a passion for film music and television music.’”

The songwriter now owns the music production company Hamhock Studios and has earned three Annie Award nominations for his work on Robot Chicken and El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera. Get In Media had a chance to speak with Patterson about his experience on The Lego Movie, how he approaches new projects, and navigating a competitive industry.

GIM: How tough is it to make your mark in an industry where there are a handful of big names?

SP: That’s a really good question. I think a lot of young composers, a lot of young musicians, a lot of young songwriters … coming up, think they are at the top of their game. I think when you think you’re at the top of your game, you’re really at the bottom of your game.

I realized pretty quickly that I’m not John Williams. As much as I would like to be, I’m not. So I just sort of let it go and I said I’m going to look for work on any project that strikes me in any way. At the beginning, any project at all. Because any project at all represents a challenge. Even if you hate what it is and you hate the genre. Every single project I’ve taken on with that mindset I’ve grown exponentially from. So I just started taking on any projects.

When I came in the door through animation, I started doing pilots. My first series was actually for Sony in 1995. It was thanks to Billy West from Ren & Stimpy and Howard Stern. I had worked with Billy West for days at a time and he was really a fan of what I was doing and he liked my music. So at one point he took my demos and he dropped them off at a couple of studios and he said, “Hire this guy.” Billy and I had jammed. He and I had played guitar together a little bit. He was just really helpful in passing my stuff around.

So, to answer your question, I didn’t think about it. I think every composer, again, comes out of the gate and goes, “Why aren’t I scoring Star Wars Episode I?” “Why aren’t I doing the next Aliens film?” I think that’s just kind of silly. There are a handful of guys at the top level, and they are represented by even fewer agencies. For any big budget thing that comes through, you’ve got to have a track record. And you don’t get a track record from just coming out of the gate and swinging the bat at the A-list films going, “This is me! This is where I should be!” You’ve got to pull your way through the ranks, I think, and that comes with taking on every project you can.

The Ren & Stimpy Show - Ren Needs Help! [Full Episode] from Ivan Koholo on Vimeo.

GIM: Let’s talk about “Everything is Awesome.” How are you brought into the fold to make this song for The LEGO Movie?

SP: I don’t know if it was a long process. I had been in contact with Phil Lord after Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. I was a huge fan of what he and Chris Miller did with the movie because I had read the books to my kids when they were younger. I said, “I have to get in touch with these guys and I have to work with them.”

Every so often there’s somebody that comes out that, when I see his or her work, automatically something clicks with me. I almost can’t explain it. I don’t want to be superstitious, but there’s the sense that I’m supposed to work with them. It hasn’t happened many times in my life, but whenever I get that feeling with someone whose work I admire, I do not hesitate to act on it. I will hunt them down. I will find their agents, their managers, the producers. I will find them and I will let them know, “Hey, I want to work with you, and here’s what I’ve done.”

If you don’t have a track record, this could seem kind of … scary. But in this professional business, that’s how you network. That’s how I network and that’s how it’s worked for me. I’m confident in what I do, and I’ve got an okay resume at this point, so I just bring it to their attention. I put it in front of them and say, “Hey, do you want to work with me? This would be great. I know I can deliver what you want.”

I was in touch with Phil, we were going back and forth, and I was going to send him some music. This was about the time when they were in prep for 21 Jump Street, I believe. I don’t know what happened. They had a dialogue with Mark Mothersbaugh and because he had done Cloudy, I think it was sort of a no-brainer that they went with him. I had worked with director Chris McKay on season five of Robot Chicken. That was the first season I did with him. Actually, I did a season on Adult Swim called Titan Maximum. Chris McKay was the director on that for a season prior. So I had done two seasons of work with Chris McKay. He’s one of my favorite directors in the entire world because of how strong his vision is, but he also allows for a tremendous amount of creative leeway. If he trusts you, then you’re golden.

So Chris called me one day out of the blue. I knew he was going over to LEGO. He finished a season on Robot and he said, “I’m going to work on the LEGO film,” and I said, “That’s amazing!” I didn’t hear from him for a little while, and then I get a call from him. “Hey, there’s this special need for a song within the movie that has to be kind of custom tailored to this movie because we can’t find it anywhere else.” So I went down to Animal Logic where they had a really rough cut. This was really early on, probably two years ago. We sat down, we talked about it, we talked about not only the message of the song, but what the mood needed to be and why. I left and I started working on it and that’s how it got underway.

GIM: During that process, then, how much of a collaboration do you have with the directors as far as the final product of the song?

SP: I had a very wide palette based on Chris’ very broad input as to the direction they wanted it to go. I really do believe that McKay trusts me enough, because of our working together, that he knows when he starts describing something I catch on to what he means. [I was given] very broad terms like “poppy,” “fun,” “upbeat,” “catchy with a strong hook.” And then we talked lyrically, where we discussed Emmet’s perspective and his view of life and fitting in and being a team player and how that’s really all that matters.

After I did a first or second pass, Chris heard it and I know he loved it right away. I think he might have given me a couple more lyrical suggestions. I had a singer come over, Sammy Allen, and then I rapped a section, and they loved it. They cut it into the film. I know Chris and Phil saw it at that point and they came back at me with a couple of really minimal lyrical suggestions for the rap. My rap was originally catering to a slightly older demographic. I was looking at Emmet as and adult, not a child, so I was poking fun at a lot of things.

If you hear the final version in the film, some additional lyricist added a couple things. They changed the structure and added some new lyrics to it, but it really just took things that I had written that were kind of specific, like riding scooters, blowing kazoos, taking pictures of your cat… It was all really boring, vanilla lifestyle items and these guys just said, “You know what’s awesome? Everything is awesome.” A piece of string. Things like that. It became less … not focused, but more generic in terms of including everything. But that was really the starting process. I was given a ton of creative leeway, and I took it.

GIM: How different is songwriting in this instance from scoring something like Robot Chicken or Titan Maximum?

SP: Well, it’s really a different animal. When I’m just scoring, sometimes they just have some temp music cut in that’s kind of a loose suggestion. Like, “Oh, this kind of style.” It may be an action piece that we’ve heard from the ‘90s or some familiar action film. They may want that kind of sound, but it’s not like they’re super-specific. It’s sort of, “Okay, use this as a guide.”

When it comes down to songs, they often have one of the writers write the lyrics. Sometimes it’s a parody of an existing song, and then that becomes sort of mechanical, because I basically have to assess the original song and know what to do to make it make my parody version not only legal, but make it sound pleasing. That it doesn’t just sound like a bad, ham-fisted knockoff; that it sounds like it’s fine on its own. It’s different, but it still evokes the original feeling. So they’re really wildly different animals. It always depends.

Not just Robot Chicken, but really any show that I may be scoring or writing songs on, it depends on the director. Like I’ve done a lot of songs for MAD, and I’ve worked very closely with Kevin Shinick, who is the producer on that show and Kevin writes the lyrics. He writes brilliant lyrics! Kevin and I work great together, too, and there’s a degree of trust where he sometimes wants the parody to be really close because it’s a parody moment, but then I’m given leeway to stretch a little bit here and there. It’s always far more fun to do something that’s not parody, in my opinion, as a writer, both of score and of song.

GIM: Everyone has their own technique, their own method of finding inspiration. How is it that you go about finding the vibe of a piece in order to properly score it?

SP: I’m not sure! I don’t really know! I’ve been on projects that I’ve taken because I needed the money and it was a job, and in those moments what I’ve tried to do is, if it’s possible, and sometimes it’s really hard, is to find the joy in the simplest component of what I may be writing or producing.

If the scene calls for two people that were in love to reunite, and there was something that I got to write for strings or woodwinds and it felt very uplifting. That one moment of a decent execution, both of writing and of orchestration. If I can get that one little moment, it’s interesting because suddenly the pay doesn’t matter, the project itself doesn’t matter. It’s that one particular moment, and I’m reminded of why I love doing this. That is at the heart, I think, of what I do. I’m not going to say that every project doesn’t require some mechanical elbow grease and sitting down and going, “I can’t even feel what I have to write for this,” but you somehow find the ability, whether it’s through the musical training that I’ve had, or just chucking caution to the wind and saying, “I’m just going to go for it.” A lot of times, things that I’ve done where I suddenly decide that I didn’t give a care about, people hear it back and they say, “This was our favorite part of the episode or movie or scene.” I’m like, wow, I wouldn’t have thought that, because I just didn’t give a shit when I wrote the music! It doesn’t happen very often but it certainly has, and I’ve certainly gotten that reaction.

Other times, there have been pieces that I’ve labored over, things that I’ve worked on for a day and a half for one 30-second moment and it gets thrown out and they didn’t feel it at all. So you never really know! As far as inspiration, creating has always been something I do and I do easily, and if I didn’t do this, I would have found some other medium to be working in, whether it would have been painting, architecture, I don’t know what.

GIM: Let me ask you one more question. Are networking and connections more important in the long run than the talent itself?

SP: Great question. Somebody once made a comment about Charlie Parker, the bebop saxophonist, and they said something like, “I would rather work with a second-rate Charlie Parker that shows up on time than a first-rate Charlie Parker that comes in late and drunk or he’s on heroin or he misses the date or he can’t execute what he’s here for.” I don’t know if that’s relative.

Networking in this business is pretty critical. It is a collaborative process, and somebody has to have absolute confidence in your personality and your tenacity and your creative abilities that you can look them in the eye and you can have a conversation with them about creative content. They must feel that you get it. I’ve known a lot of musicians in my life. Many of them far more talented than me, and they don’t work at all. There is a huge degree of being able to sit down with confidence and discuss anything with anyone.

I mean, just yesterday, I was meeting with the top-level executives at Warner Brothers. To a lot of people, that’s intimidating. When you walk in, you have to know how to carry yourself. You can’t walk in like Krusty the Clown juggling bowling balls going, “Heeeey! Party’s here!” And then by the same token you can’t walk in sheepish, withdrawn, not making eye contact and not being confident in what you are, who you are, and what you have to offer.

Somebody who is a creative genius at doing this, if that person cannot comfortably communicate with the director, they’re probably not going to work. Somebody who is not a creative genius, but is highly skilled and highly articulate and sensitive to what a director or producer wants, that person is probably going to work.

As far as getting jobs, and getting jobs is getting harder and harder, I’ve been turned down in the past couple of years for more projects than I can even tell you. Ironically, I’ve even been turned down for things like LEGO direct-to-DVD. It just passed me over. And other things like that that were direct-to-DVD projects that weren’t very high profile that passed me over and went with somebody arguably less skilled. And I don’t know why, it’s just funny, because you never really know. I have pretty decent networking skills and a lot of people know who I am because of what I’ve done, but still that doesn’t even matter sometimes. Some of the major studios that I’ve worked at still don’t hire me and they still put me through the audition process. 

Even after this long in the business, you have to develop not only networking skills, but a pretty thick skin to rejection. You have to understand that there are a lot of factors involved. Producers have friends that have a composer. Somebody else may have a different sound or different style that just touches somebody in the right way and they go, “That’s the guy.” Sometimes it’s just luck! Sometimes it’s not being in the right place at the right time. Other times it is knowing somebody. So it’s a bizarre world of networking versus talent and how that all irons out.

Here’s Shawn performing “Everything is Awesome” for a group of Warner Bros. employees:

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