Hear from Andries Smit himself, about his process in writing for Chicken Licken’s #BigJohn TVC

Scoring Chicken Licken’s Wakanda: A composer’s journey through life, death and man-tears. Going down to the root of fabric, space and time to reach the meaning behind the burger.

By Andries Smit, Composer

The first time I saw the rough cut for Chicken Licken’s ad, I was over the moon. It’s been a quiet year on the narrative front and I was starved – keen and ready to jump on anything with a story. Then I saw this thing. It looked like a rough cut of Marvel’s Black Panther, with a burger… I was foaming at the mouth. We HAD to win this – I had to win this!

Time went by very slowly, and then briefing day was upon us. All the composers were assembled, from the interns and juniors to the seniors, all of us sitting around the table listening eagerly and intently to Greg Gray talking from a small laptop. We all took notes, or did we? I can’t remember. The brief was pretty clear: score this like a big Marvel Hollywood blockbuster, with some African influences. Keep the reference temp score in mind, but don’t get sued.

Everyone was buzzing, it was just so damn cool. We’ve not seen an ad like this in South Africa – not that I know of. And so with the briefing done, and our internal game plan laid out, we all went eagerly into our creative holes to start composing, or stare endlessly at a blank screen not knowing wtf to do. That’s how most projects start.

With the initial shock, imposter syndrome and mind fog out of the way, I started by getting my template ready. Sourcing African sounds and instruments: Talking drums, mbiras, rattles, shakers, vocals, flutes, hits, anything remotely African sounding and cool. As well as importing the “cinematic/Hollywood blockbuster” instruments – strings long, strings shorts, brass long, brass shorts, choirs, mega percussion hits, synthesizers, stuff I know I probably won’t use, the list goes on.

Once that was all sorted it was finally time to compose! The time has finally come to put that first note down and compose something spectacularly narrative-ish again! Well, cue the brain fog, imposter syndrome and shock. This is all pretty normal though, but with a hard deadline looming, terror rears its ugly head and you’re forced to just push through and write the most stupid shit ever. That stupid shit eventually turns into something presentable, that evolves into something awesome – or something shit that you just throw away. It depends.

Thankfully, it reached a “presentable stage” fairly early on and I could just digest/ingest the feedback from the team and comments from James like, “its not big enough, just add in some double bass, you’re a metal drummer aren’t you? That brass fanfare… I’ve heard it before, don’t get sued! Where’s the goosies, I’m not feeling any goosies” Each composer in the studio played to their strengths to bring something interesting and unique to the table and to give variation to the pitches. You don’t want to send out five tracks that sound exactly the same. With the internal revisions done, tracks collated, mixed, and striped to picture, everything was neatly packaged and sent off to the agency.

This time, time passed remarkably quickly and after five days or so, we got the good news. We won. I won!! Hurray! It’s a great feeling when you win a pitch. The imposter syndrome actually goes away for a while. You feel like you’re an actual grown up who knows what he’s doing in life and actively contributes to the PCS machine – helping salaries get paid, you know? But then the real hard work begins. The first review session gets scheduled with the agency where the track gets discussed and torn apart – what they like, what they hate, what needs to change, where the direction was misunderstood, and so on.

This can be quite daunting and stressful, but much like in film, working closely with a director, rewriting cues, discarding cues, and making adjustments to timing, melody, mood, etc., is always done to serve the film, elevate the story, and in turn, elevate the music. And with Greg Gray at the helm, this was exactly that.

That being said, the first review was pretty brutal. There were a lot of voices in the room – a lot of cooks in the pot, whatever the expression. Everyone has a bit of input on this and that, which can leave you feeling very overwhelmed and thinking: Why the hell did they choose the track if they hate it so much? But, you just always need to reaffirm that not everyone speaks “music”, and everyone has their own way of getting their thoughts out.

Your job is to take that feedback and interpret it in a musical way. That’s also a skill by itself, because damn, do I get it wrong. I muted a lot of things that they didn’t want muted and I rewrote a whole part they were actually happy with. All easily corrected though, so no harm done. I think we had a total of three to four revisions, and most of them were luckily pretty straightforward.

The tricky parts were mostly the comedic bits. Where to pause, where to hit, where to accentuate. The other was certain timings that you just had to hit, that originally wasn’t planned in your tempo layout. Change the tempo in the middle of your piece and everything after that moves out of sync with picture. Luckily I could move things a bit more freely, as there were no plans, time and budget to use live orchestra, so nothing had to be prepped for live musicians – meaning I didn’t necessarily have to stick to a tempo.

The whole process took a couple of weeks, some man-tears and a lot of fun. Everyone was happy and – as far as I know – proud of the work that went out into the world. We’ve been very fortunate to work on amazing projects here at Pressure Cooker, and this one was right up there. Excited and terrified for the next one.