Interview: George Shaw Talks Composing for ‘Abominable and the Invisible City’ and Bringing in Authentic Chinese Instruments

Awards Radar recently had the opportunity to speak with George Shaw, the composer for DreamWorks’ series Abominable and the Invisible City. Shaw was able to bring authentic Chinese music into the animated world of Abominable by incorporating many Chinese instruments, including Chinese drums, the Bawu and Hulusi (Chinese winds), Dizi (Chinese flute), and erhu (Chinese violin). 

Abominable and the Invisible City continues the story of the Abominable film’s Yi (Chloe Bennet), Jin (Tenzing Trainor), and Peng (Ethan Loh) as they set out on adventures in their city and beyond in search of magical creatures who need their help. The series premiered on October 5th on both Hulu and Peacock.

In this interview, Shaw dives into his early career of composing scores, using Chinese instruments in the series, and how certain scores play a massive part in a scene. 

How did you get your start as a composer?
George Shaw:I started writing tunes on the piano at the age of 12. I always had a good sense of orchestration and was conducting premieres of my music with my high school orchestra and the Houston Youth Symphony by 14. That led me to the University of Southern California, where I studied composition and film scoring and began scoring every student film I could get my hands on.

After graduating, I was doing orchestration work while scoring small indie projects. Eventually, I fell in with several successful Asian American YouTubers in the early 2010s (Wong Fu Productions, Ryan Higa, Kevjumba, Michelle Phan, etc.), and would compose some of their videos that would go on to amass millions of views. It was great to see Asian Americans finally have an avenue to be seen and tell their stories, though it would be a few more years before the opportunities would slowly open up in Hollywood..

How did you get involved with composing for Abominable and the Invisible City?
GS: It started with the Universal Composers Initiative, the first diversity initiative in film composing. In fact, on our first day of the program, I remember mentioning to the Universal Film Music execs that I had expertise in Chinese instrumentation, and knowing that the Abominable feature film was set in China, I offered to help in any way possible with the score. I didn’t end up working on the project, as it was an orchestral score, but it sure was full circle to get to meet the execs at DreamWorks through the program and be invited to audition for the show, bringing my unique sense of combining orchestra with Chinese instrumentation and a strong sense of melody writing to impress them enough to hire me.

What was the most challenging part about creating the scores for the show?
GS: Without a doubt, it’s seeing the characters eat delicious-looking dumplings in nearly every episode. How does anyone get anything done when they’re hungry? Props to Art Director Sei Nakashima for making them look so good. Though seriously, it was probably having only two weeks to crank out nearly 20 minutes of music per episode, especially when I was overlapping pre-production, creating all of Yi and Everest’s violin and humming scenes for later episodes, and composing the score for the early episodes. That was tough because I was still developing the sound of the show and having to work a brutal 80 hours a week to do it. I lost a lot of sleep and am still tired a year later.

Tell us a little bit about how you used Chinese instruments in the score.
GS: Since the show takes place in China and deals with a lot of mythical Chinese creatures, I used various traditional Chinese folk instruments such as Yangqin (Chinese dulcimer), Erhu (Chinese violin), Pipa (Chinese lute), Guzheng (Chinese zither), Dizi (Chinese flute), Chinese drums, and even Chinese winds (Bawu and Hulusi that I performed myself), to give the creatures a sense of history and elevate their fantastical and magical nature. The character of Nai Nai also comes with a strong sense of history, that she’s lived through some things, reminding me of how my own grandparents seemed so foreign to me growing up in another world and another time (near the beginning of the 20th century). So it seems fitting to give Nai Nai a theme that featured solo pipa and occasionally Chinese drumming.

Do you have a favorite scene in the show in which you feel the music played a massive part in?
GS: In episode 10, the season finale, there is a huge emotional climax where Yi plays the violin in front of a dragon-like creature called Nian. It’s a beautiful moment that connects Yi’s emotions with her sense of loss over her father. To not give anything away, the music leads to a magical ending, and several times while working on the scene and seeing the music and animation come together, I had tears welling up in my eyes.

Tell us about the Universal Composers Initiative that led you to this project.
GS: I’m so grateful for the opportunities and doors the Universal Composers Initiative has opened. For almost its entire history, film composing in Hollywood has been dominated by caucasian men (of the US 200 top-grossing non-foreign films in 2020, 80.5% were scored by caucasian men, according to some stats we put together at the Composers Diversity Collective). It’s certainly one of the least diverse sectors of the entertainment industry. I didn’t realize this going in, and after struggling for nearly two decades, I see how the lack of opportunities for people of color, and Asians in particular, really stifled my career growth.

For a long time, I struggled to survive as a composer of low-budget indie films and, starting in the early 2010s, scored quite a few videos by top Asian American YouTubers that landed millions of views. These were Asian American storytellers telling unique stories that filled a vacuum for an audience that wasn’t seeing itself in any traditional or mainstream media. There was definitely a moment for Asian American storytellers when Crazy Rich Asians was a success and opened the doors to more content. However, until a year or two ago, every single major movie or TV show that boasted Asian writers, directors, creators, and actors was still being scored by caucasian men.

So having a studio like Universal finally give me a stamp of approval allowed me to finally overcome the hurdle of being denied entry in Hollywood because I didn’t have a major credit or anyone established vouching for me, and getting to work on such a wonderful show that is so near and dear to my heart in representing my own family’s culture is truly a special moment for me. My hope is that more studios and networks begin to change the way they’ve been doing things and start opening the door to more talent that is out there and ready to be heard.

What is next for you?
GS: This is where the studios start calling me to hire me because of the brilliant work I did on Abominable and the Invisible City. Right?! Right….? I guess the immediate plan is to catch up on sleep after a year of nonstop wall-to-wall animation scoring. Then I’m beginning to score a cinematic video game trailer due out in 2023.


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Written by Betty Ginette

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