Dinosaurs. Trucks. Dinotrux. It seems like a show that could be too good to be true — what toddler doesn’t love dinosaurs and also trucks? But, thankfully for your kid, it’s not. Because some mad genius at Netflix realized that two of the greatest things in a kindergartener’s world had not yet been significantly blended and decided to do so themselves. In any given episode, your kid will come across Ty-Rux, a Tyrannosaurus truck, or Revvit, a Rotilian Reptool, part lizard and part rotary drill. There’s also Garby, a blend of a Stegosaurus and the garbage truck, and Dozer, a Triceratops bulldozer. Don’t forget surfer dude Ton-Ton, whose parents were an Ankylosaurus and a dump truck, or Skya, a construction crane who shares a heritage with the Brachiosaurus.
Jake Monaco is the man responsible for composing the show’s monster-truck-esque sound. He’s also the composer who helped make The Hangover movies palatable, Frozen symphonic, and Waiting for Superman touching. Did Monaco know how to score a show about automated dinosaurs from the outset? Of course not. That’s not really an eventuality people prepare for. He had to figure it out. Figuring it out in the weirdest, most fun way possible — using non-instruments and generally making a racquet — is core to Monaco’s art. He is the Tchaikovsky of grinding metal teeth.
Monaco spoke to Fatherly about his process for scoring Dinotrux and his favorite “found” instruments.
What were your first instincts when you began to compose the Dinotrux theme?
When I first got the brief to demo for the show, they were looking for something that sounded like Blue Man Group or Stomp. That led to me pitched PVC pipe types of instruments and other found-percussion instruments. I combined that with electric guitar type stuff for whenever the gang got together. I incorporated an organ for more dramatic moments in the series. I also went and got these kids toys called “Boomwhackers” which are basically plastic tubes cut at specific lengths so they’re all tuned to a certain pitch — I have a collection of probably 25 or so. Then, I had to find some Joia tubes.
Were you used to using strange instruments to compose?
Yeah! It always feels like a way for me to get a unique sonic identity for whichever project I’m working on. And it might not have to be a weird instrument; maybe it’s a normal instrument played in a somewhat nontraditional way. For instance, if you take a violin bow and play it against guitar strings, it gives you a mumbled percussion sound which could be different than normal guitar playing.
So, how do you know what you’re looking for in a sound, specifically when it comes to something as fantastical as Dinotrux?
Very early on in the process we figured out that using any sort of metallic sounds was not going to work in the music, because of all of the metallic sounds of the Dinotrux. So they were clashing here and there. So I stayed away from playing middle-pipe type sounds except for the occasional big action or epic scene when I can get away with it.
I think the idea of incorporating the whole monster-truck feel to get a gritty, electric guitar flavor sounded fun. One of the characters, Ton-Ton, has this surfer dude attitude, so I did a surf guitar for him. Other than that, I think dinosaurs and I think, ‘More epic!’ So I use orchestration. The combination of those two worlds is a big opportunity to have different sounds. Every episode, we get a new character or challenge that the gang is facing, and so I have the opportunity to write a new theme or use a new sound in almost every single episode, which is exciting.
So Ton-Ton is a surfer dude. Do you help form the characters personalities with their themes or do you get the specs on the characters and create from there?
A lot of it spurs from the visual appearance or what the character does. For instance, there was a character named Splitter, and he had gigantic circle saws on his back that were always running. What kind of instrument makes the animal equivalent of that noise? I leaned into trombones and low-brass expressions, and then there are other characters like these little creatures called Junktools. They look very small, and there are a lot of them, and they are a little bit menacing and all over the place. They’re very high energy and almost frenetic feeling. That was a combination of a couple of different stringed instruments, and light percussions as they are running around and causing trouble.
For a main hero character like Ty-Rux, what was important to you when it came to his theme?
He comprised the thematic material that I originally wrote. It’s kind of “the gang” theme, and also the “hero theme.” Any time the gang comes together and engage in teamwork, we call that the “teamwork theme.” That needed to be a little more long-form, but it also needs to be an actual memorable tune, that way it can work itself into many different episodes. It can be heroic, it can also be sad and nostalgic. It’s very malleable.
Do you find that there’s a different creative process when you’re working on stuff like The Hangover versus something like Dinotrux?
It’s funny. Dinotrux is actually scored more like a mini-movie. I treat every single 23-minute episode like it’s own movie. I end up doing them very similarly. I feel like if you think about kids shows as more mature, it only helps handle the comedy. It makes it more appealing to your audience.