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Disney's 'Frozen': A behind-the-scenes look at the movie's music that gets its magic from an Oregon man

November 27, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 27--Down a winding country road, behind double doors, triple-paned windows and sound-bouncing acoustic panels, Dave Metzger pushes a key and a French horn lifts its noble voice. Another key produces swelling strings. Another a bass drum.

Put them all together and Metzger commands an entire symphony orchestra within his soundproof studio.

You've never heard of Metzger, but if you've seen "The Lion King," "The Avengers" or "Kung Fu Panda," you've heard his music. At 53, Metzger, whose fringe of gray hair and easy smile give him a fatherly look, is one of Hollywood's top arrangers, especially for Disney animation films. His latest, "Frozen," opened this week to a flurry of rave reviews for the story and the music.

But here's the kicker. Metzger works from home in the suburbs of Salem, 900 miles from Los Angeles. From his studio, he gazes over miles of rolling forests. Dress code is usually sweatpants and a T-shirt.

It's been years since Disney has had an enduring song, but one of them in "Frozen" is drawing Oscar buzz. At a recent screening, wrote the New York Post, "the audience quite literally gasped" when Idina Menzel began singing "Let it Go." "In just those few notes, you get the feeling you're witnessing a classic in the making, something Disney hasn't had in years."

Metzger orchestrated "Let it Go" from his studio, an amusement park of technology: three computer screens, a couple of music and computer keyboards, rows of knobs, several speakers and a sub-woofer, all connected by about 4,500 feet of electrical cords.

Just don't look for Metzger's name in the film credits. Well, you can look, but you'll have to wait until the cleaning crew shows up before his name scrolls into view. Film composers, who write the raw material, then ship it off to arrangers like Metzger, get the glory. Arrangers are almost invisible, and Metzger is particularly low key.

And yet, without them, the music would sound like dancing skeletons. A Hollywood song begins life as an audio file for piano and singer. Take the "Frozen" song "For The First Time in Forever," by Robert Lopez ("Book of Mormon") and Kristen Anderson-Lopez ("Winnie the Pooh").

The story is about Anna, a fearless optimist, who races through Everest-like extremes and magical adventures to find her sister, Elsa and save their kingdom from eternal winter.

"For the First Time in Forever" is what is called in the Broadway world an "I Want" song, a vehicle to describe a character's dreams and ambitions. Anna is excited to meet new people during the coronation of Elsa and dreams about new possibilities.

First, Metzger fleshes out the audio file with a layer of strings underneath the melody. At the end of a verse, he adds a woodwind flourish. On the second chorus, he adds a French horn line, his favorite instrument.

But the result, while more lush, still sounds artificial, so he writes out a full score with each instrument part in it and flies to LA where 90 live musicians are waiting. Unbelievably, the orchestra plays Metzger's music at sight and, within four or five days, has recorded the entire 500-page score.

Metzger is well paid for his work. He won't reveal how well, but for each film, he works from 10 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week for four to eight months. In addition, he earns two to four times his fee from royalties. This is a man who received a Tony nomination for orchestrating "The Lion King" 16 years ago and multiple productions of the show have been touring the world ever since.

"I could retire," he concedes. But why? Next up are two more Disney films: "Planes 2," the sequel to "Planes" from last summer, and "Moana," scheduled for 2018. The composer for each is Mark Mancina, Metzger's frequent collaborator.

"His scores were perfect," says Mancina, a Grammy-winning composer, recalling Metzger's work on "The Lion King." "He nailed it."

"There's a lot of angst in the music business, especially in film music," Mancina says. "When you can have an anchor who doesn't get shook and knows what he's doing, it's kind of like a rock in the room. If I throw an unbelievable amount of work at Dave, and it has to be perfect, he can deliver that."

The two musicians talk almost every day, Metzger in Salem and Mancina in Carmel. "Because of technology, it's as if we're in the same room," Mancina says. "I'll write a theme and say, 'What do you think?' I look at it as if we're in a band. We use each other's strengths."

Says Metzger, "I'm a big believer in the 10,000 hours rule. He's referring to author Malcolm Gladwell's claim (in the popular book "Outliers") that the key to success in any field is practicing a specific task for no less than 10,000 hours.

Those 10,000 hours began at the age of 12, in choir. "Oh, I can stick it out," he told himself. He soon changed his mind. In seventh grade, he started writing music. In eighth grade, school groups were performing his music. By 10th grade, at Corvallis High School, he was writing jazz arrangements.

In 1977, "Star Wars" and John Williams' grand Straussian score smacked him over the head. "That's what I want to do," Metzger said. After college in LA, he wrote music for a Boy Scouts film and for trumpet sensation Maynard Ferguson. That led to writing between 200 and 250 arrangements, or charts, for the "Tonight Show."

After his first son was born, he and his wife, Laura Metzger, an allergist, moved to Salem to be close to their parents.

"Speed 2" was his first Hollywood film; Broadway's "Lion King" soon followed. "Frozen" is his 26th feature film, his sixth for Disney.

Metzger enjoys his work, but he's also fallen into "horrible trenches of despair," he says. At one point during "The Lion King" there was so much pressure on everyone, "it felt like it could all blow apart, but obviously in the end that didn't happen."

Despite working at the top of his profession, Metzger downplays his track record with a self-deprecating smile. "It's a fluke it turned out for me."

You can tell it's really no fluke by watching him listen to his final arrangement of "For the First Time in Forever." Cymbals crash, woodwinds race and a soaring French horn blossoms into full symphonic glory. Joy seems to course through his body as he taps his foot, nods his head to the beat and breaks into a big smile.

-- David Stabler

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(c)2013 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)

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