Pinar Toprak on scoring Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora: "It's a musical Lego situation”

If you can be sure about anything about Turkish-American Emmy-nominated composer, conductor and performer Pinar Toprak, it’s that she’s gonna shoot her shot. Moving to L.A. aged 17 after being told a Turkish woman would never make it as a film composer, (and speaking very limited English at the time), she soon manoeuvred herself into a job at Hans Zimmer’s offices with the sole aim of working with him, quickly becoming his protégé.

Fast forward to present day and Toprak is known for her work on everything from writing and producing music for Christina Aguilera’s 2019 Xperience Live Show in Las Vegas, conducting Billie Eilish's performance of No Time To Die at the 2022 Oscars ceremony, to scoring Captain Marvel to Fortnite – the latter two projects which incidentally make her the first female composer to score both a film and video game with gross revenues of over $1 billion and $5 billion, respectively. Her most recent projects are no less diverse: new Netflix body-swap film Family Switch and the open world game Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora.

With a diverse and rich portfolio that also includes Justice League and DC’s Stargirl, Toprak has proven herself as a force to be reckoned with in the world of film, television and gaming composition. Although it’s not just superhero blockbusters that she aligns herself with. In new Netflix film, Family Switch, a family descends into chaos days before Christmas when a rare cosmic event causes the parents to swap bodies with their teenage kids. The film stars The Hangover’s Ed Helms and in a return to body-swap form, Jennifer Garner.

“There is a little bit of a homage to 13 Going on 30,” acknowledges Toprak with a smile from her home in L.A. “[Body-swap movies] are always really fun, and what really attracted me to the project is director, McG. I've been a huge fan of his and to get the chance to work with him was an absolute blast. He treats music so well. He's so knowledgeable and we had a lot of laughs.”

Comedy is always the trickiest to write because timing is everything.

Toprak is no stranger to scoring comedies either, most recently lending her composing talents to the Jennifer Lopez-starring Shotgun Wedding and The Lost City starring Sandra Bullock, Channing Tatum and Daniel Radcliffe. In the name of research, Toprak consumes a lot of content.

“I do watch a lot of films and a lot of TV shows, because first and foremost, I'm a fan, and I like to know what's out there when I'm working on a project,” she explains. “However, I try not to listen to other things that are in that vein. I don't want to be influenced by them and I want to create my own thing. So I do listen, but I try not to get close to it while I'm writing.”

In terms of her approach to the family comedy film, Toprak explains that the initial idea for the music stemmed from a collaboration of ideas between herself and the director, who had a specific Tim Burton classic in mind:

“He did have an idea about an almost Edward Scissorhands-ish opening mystery, with the choir and that kind of vibe,” she reveals. “He was pretty clear on it and he wanted it to be a timeless story: orchestral and what we would hope to hear from these sorts of films. But within it, there are so many other different cues that we've done. There's a nod to Mission Impossible,” she points out. 

“For me, comedy is really fun to write. It's always the trickiest to write because timing is everything,” she points out. “You have to decide where you have music, or where to take it out – you don't want to step on any jokes – so it's always tricky to find that right balance, which I enjoy a lot. I'm a huge comedy fan in general. I love laughing and trying to figure out, ‘Okay, if I move this a little bit this way, that's when you get the laugh’, so it's fun to play around with.”

On whether she has a favourite cue or scene to score, she’s wary of spoilers for anyone that hasn’t got around to watching Family Switch yet. She names the Griffith Observatory scenes as some of the most enjoyable. “The very last cue is very special to me. The opening as well. There's so many moments,” she says, torn. “We had a lot of fun with it. There's a scene with Ed Helms conducting – I won't ruin it – but we worked on a little thing there as well. It was really great.”

There is a little bit of a homage to 13 Going on 30.

On the gaming front, Toprak had scored the wildly popular Fortnite before, but admits that Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora was a different beast. It is a first-person, action-adventure game set in the open world of the never-before-seen Western Frontier of Pandora in which the player is taken to Frontier, joining other Na’vi clans to protect Pandora from the formidable forces of the RDA.

“It’s very different to Fortnite,” she nods, “because when I scored it, nobody knew the games! That was in the beginning. Most of my childhood, I was one of those nerdy kids that was either playing my music or playing video games,” she recalls of her early interest in gaming. 

“I had a Commodore 64 and an Amiga! Now, I have two teenage boys, and they were obviously smaller at the time, and they're video game players. I said, ‘I'm gonna start working on this game’. They gave me some codes for you guys to play with and check it out’. They didn't care at all because they thought, ‘Oh, it's just a game that my mum is working on’ – they thought it wouldn’t be cool. 

"We genuinely had no idea how big Fortnite was going to become. It wasn't a known IP. Because of that, we had a lot of fun with it. But with Avatar, there's an established IP and we had to respect certain things within it. Then we were fortunate enough to be able to expand beyond it. Knowing that there's already a fan base associated with Avatar and that we had to do it justice was important.”

Toprak was already a fan of the Avatar films, so there was no need for an epic binge watch to refresh her memory on all things Pandora before she got started.

“I've been a huge Avatar fan," she enthuses. “I've watched the first Avatar film way too many times, so I didn't really need a refresher. I was a very devout fan of Avatar to the point where when James Horner passed away, (the original composer of the first Avatar film) I was really heartbroken because I was a huge James Horner fan, and it was a huge loss to the film-scoring community. Then my thought was about who's going to score the next Avatars; I would be lying if I didn't mention that I wanted to score an Avatar film,” she admits. 

“The second one didn't come my way and it was a disappointment, although Simon did a fantastic job with the score. Lo and behold, pretty soon after, I got a call for the video games, and I was like, ‘Okay, this is how I get to be a part of this franchise’. It was a dream come true because what Avatar created is more than a film; it's an experience. With this game, how we're able to be really immersed in it and how we're able to experience everything sonically, individually, is really special.”

I would be lying if I didn't mention that I wanted to score an Avatar film.

In the score, you will not only be able to hear some homages to the late Horner’s original Avatar score, but also experience the new regions and their respective sonic world which expands the score beyond what fans are accustomed to hearing from the Avatar world.

“There are different regions in the game, and those parts especially pay homage to James Horner in terms of his approach to harmonic language and its instrumentation,” says Toprak.

“Beyond that, we tried to expand on the other regions to see if we could go beyond the original Avatar sound. It was fun to be able to do both: pay homage to the original and to have the freedom to do some other things as well.”

The album is a soaring, orchestral score that thrillingly evokes the fantastic world of Pandora and the action that ensues. A monumental undertaking, the score was recorded over two years using more than 200 musicians from all around the world. The game publishers were in good hands though, as Toprak once famously hired, financed and conducted a 70-piece orchestra for an audition she had no guarantee of securing a job from. Spoiler alert: she got the job, landing Captain Marvel and becoming the first woman to score a major superhero film while she was at it.

“We did it in sections and there was a lot of planning involved,” she says of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora. “I have to thank my music editor and our audio director for that. They planned out the master plan, so to speak, so when and what we were going to record and how – so it was a lot of configuration. Also, because they're designing the game and implementing the music as I was writing, it was always like, ‘We're going to do this batch first because they have to get that implemented into the game’, so it was a bit like an assembly factory line situation going on. 

"As far as the different orchestras, we recorded in Scotland, Budapest, we had a Bulgarian full choir – we had so many solos from different parts of the world. It was an absolute blast, and really rewarding to see it come to life after such a long time.”

what Avatar created is more than a film; it's an experience.

Fans of certain genres can be intense, and are known for being passionate (and rather vocal) about all elements of what makes up a game. (Toprak says she has learned not to look at the comments about her music online.) When it comes to curating the ever evolving sonic world for the player in such a high profile game with an existing fanbase, how did Toprak begin such an epic task?

“You know, the saying: ‘How do you climb Mount Everest? One step at a time’. It's kind of like that. If you look at the entire mountain, it's really overwhelming, but then you take it down to digestible chunks. And honestly, Ubisoft were so organised with their mission, they would give me this Google Doc of, ‘This is what we need. These are the regions, and in this region, we're going to need this’, and we worked on a weekly thing like, ‘This week, we need this and it needs to be these many minutes, and then we need transition cues’. 

"That’s because of the way that the music gets composed and implemented into the game – it's all layers and it's all buildable, dynamic and adaptable,” she explains. “So there will be a certain cue, depending on the weather: if it's raining and if it's daytime, that's going to trigger different layers of the music. So: nighttime, no rain; nighttime rain – different intensities. It's a bit of a Lego situation – musical Lego.”

Is there a hidden easter egg buried in the game for players unwittingly triggering a certain piece of music? “I really feel like I should say yes to that, because that'd be so cool! But no. I could probably ask the guys, ‘Can you guys do that for me? And maybe they would do it,” she smiles.

As composers, we look at our DAW software more than we look at our partners, so you might as well like what you're looking at!

Essential to Toprak’s workflow is Steinberg’s Cubase, which she has used on every project she has done in over 10 years, which helps with her template of close to 2,000 tracks – giving her access to every different kind of articulation and sound at her fingertips, whilst making her workflow seamless.

“I switched over to Cubase around 15 years ago and I've never looked back,” she shares. “As composers, we look at our DAW software more than we look at our partners! That's what we're looking at all day long, so you might as well like what you're looking at! I like how the software is designed; it needs to get along with the way your brain is thinking because I always say the best software is the one that you know the best. 

"They all ultimately do a very similar thing, but with Cubase, it works really well with large templates, and I work with quite a large template. I find Cubase very stable and their support is very good. Those things are really important because they're constantly evolving and they're constantly hearing from us. If I have a bug of any kind, they get back to me immediately and they resolve it immediately, so I really feel that personal connection to the team.”

Toprak is using the most recent iteration of the software, Cubase 13, and reveals a few features she couldn’t do without: “I have two touch surfaces that all the macros are designed for and I love the fact that you can customise and streamline your workflow. If there are eight steps that I would normally do to accomplish something, you can create a macro for it, and it's on my surface and it's immediately executed. 

"And the MIDI editing features, for me, don't compare to anything else. They're a very exciting company and like I said, I look at it for many, many, many, many hours a day, so there are tons of features that I love, including the improvements to Cubase 13.”

Toprak’s next project is sure to be another huge addition to her already impressive IMDb page, but for now, she can’t reveal any details for risk of breaking an NDA. “Currently, there isn't much I can say, unfortunately. It's funny how in our world we can't mention anything for the longest time and then we do all these press things and we are non-stop talking about it. It's two extremes,” she says with a knowing smile.


Pinar Toprak: Christina Gandolfo

Avatar: via igdb

Family Switch: Colleen Hayes/Netflix