Chasing Ice, out now, is a film that’s hard to forget. (The trailer is below.) This documentary follows National Geographic photographer James Balog on his mission to document the melting of the world’s glaciers. While Balog’s images (and the ones captured by director Jeff Orlowsk) are stunning and thought-provoking, there’s one unseen element adds to the film’s magic: the music.
One of the biggest moments on the soundtrack is the song that accompanies the documentary’s conclusion, “Before My Time,” which features Scarlett Johansson on vocals (listen at bottom). And while we’ve been fond of it since we first saw the movie, the rest of the world seems to be catching on; composer J.Ralph has been nominated for an Academy Award this year for Best Original Song.
Composed by J. Ralph, who has made music for the documentaries Man on Wire, The Cove and Hell and Back, Chasing Ice‘s score manages to convey the power and fragility of nature—and to measure up to the jarring scenes that the film shows off.
We checked in with the Oscar-nominated composer to find out more about his work and how he’s preparing for the Feb. 24 Academy Awards ceremony.
How did you find out you were nominated for the Oscar and what was your initial reaction?
I couldn’t believe it. I was completely stunned. My fiancée was screaming. The phones started ringing. I couldn’t even figure out who to call or how to make my fingers dial the phone! To hear my name included as a nominee along with all the others and as part of that long history… It was just beyond belief!
How are you preparing for the awards show?
I don’t really make plans. That’s how the interesting stuff starts happening.
What do you normally do on Oscars night?
We always watch with friends at our house. I had to tell them that this year I couldn’t make it.
If you do take home the statuette, where will you keep it?
I’ll have to get back to you on that one.
Scoring movies must require a very specific skill set. How did you get involved?
I’ve always been interested in creating soundscapes and work that has a hypnotic, cinematic scale. Film was a natural progression. Growing up with movies, they were a bigger influence than any band. It was inevitable.
But how did you break in?
I scored a movie called Lucky Number Slevin, which was the first movie I had done. One thing led to another.
How did you get involved with Chasing Ice?
I had done the music for The Cove, and Chasing Ice has the same producer, so when she was starting on the film she reached out to me. I always want to work on the stuff she’s doing. Plus, the director of The Cove was friends with James Balog, the photographer and the subject of Chasing Ice. When I first saw the images, they were undeniable and some of the most spectacular, haunting photos of Earth and of our influence on the planet I’d ever seen. It was really something special to be involved in.
Where does your work start on a film? Do you sit down and write when there’s completed version for you to watch?
I’m self-taught and have no training; I don’t know how to read or write music. I almost exclusively respond on an instinctual level to images and to the subject matter of the film. So, when someone gives me footage, I can walk over to a piano or guitar and start to play things that come out of the images.
For this film, what were you seeing that inspired the sounds?
This film tells such an epic tale of what’s happening with the planet, and the images are so arresting that you’re just consumed by them. I wanted to make something that had a propulsive undercurrent of consistent erosion and movement of the ice. There’s also a very peculiar, twisted underbelly to it. I was trying to create something that telegraphs urgency.
How did the song “Before My Time,” written by you and sung by Scarlett Johansson, come about?
It’s a mind-blowing film and I wanted to make a song for the end of the movie so people could absorb what they just took in and meditate on how they feel. Scarlett’s a world-class singer. I’m only interested in working with vocalists who have a direct connection to their emotional core and their tones and phrasing and soul—immeasurably more than just a normal singer. When I mix the vocals, they are at least 50% of the space of the track. The vocalist needs to take up most of the track, leaving the rest for the music, in this case a duet with [violinist] Joshua Bell. It’s equal parts majesty and fragility. The song commands your attention and won’t let go.