Grammy Winning Heitor Pereira: It’s About Harmony When Composing For Animated Films


Interview by Christine Thompson

The grammy-winning Brazilian composer Heitor Pereira sounded slightly out of breath when we are finally able to connect by phone for the interview.  I have the feeling I’ve interrupted something important, even though he is assuring me that we have plenty of time to talk.

These days, he is a very busy man, working as a film music composer at Hans Zimmer’s studio. He talked with us about the animated film Smallfoot, which was released September 28th and the soundtrack to the movie.

You may have seen him play guitar with Simply Red and several famous musicians, like Elton John, Rod Stewart, k.d. lang and Jack Johnson. He has collaborated as an artist or arranger with musical icons including Jack Johnson, Bryan Adams, Elton John, Willie Nelson, Shania Twain, Seal, and Nelly Furtado. In 2005, Heitor Pereira won a Grammy for “Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist” for his collaboration with Sting and Chris Bottie.  Although primarily a guitarist, he also provided backing vocals live for the Simply Red song “Thrill Me”.

You might have heard his compositions in films such like The Angry Birds Movie, Despicable Me, The Smurfs, and Curious GeorgeThe Moon and the Sun starring Pierce Brosnan and William Hurt, If I Stay  A Little Bit of Heaven, and Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights starring Diego Luna. Pereira’s film scores have garnered critical acclaim and accolades, including two Annie Award nominations (Despicable Me 1 & 2) as well as seven ASCAP Film & TV Music Awards. He has also been a featured guitarist or composed additional music for some of Hollywood’s biggest movies of the last decade, including The Dark Knight, Pirates of the Caribbean, Black Hawk Down, Mission Impossible: II, The Simpsons Movie, Angels & Demons, and Madagascar.

The soundtrack to the movie Smallfoot  features 18 tracks by Pereira, and also features the Niall Horan song “Finally Free,” that plays over the end title sequence, plus original new songs written by Wayne Kirkpatrick and “Smallfoot” director Karey Kirkpatrick, with several performed by members of the film’s all-star cast. “Wonderful Life” is performed by Zendaya, “Let It Lie” is performed by Common, “Perfection” is performed by Channing Tatum, and “Wonderful Questions” is a duet performed by Tatum and Zendaya. The collection further includes “Moment of Truth,” written by the Kirkpatricks and performed by CYN – the breakout artist signed to Katy Perry’s Unsub Records; and “Percy’s Pressure,” a completely hilarious karaoke version of the classic ‘80s hit “Under Pressure,” performed by James Corden (listen to it here), with additional lyrics by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick, the Tony-nominated songwriters from the acclaimed Broadway musical “Something Rotten!”

We wanted to know what it was like to compose music for an animated film versus  a regular feature film with live actors.

AMFM: You’re such an incredible and prolific composer.  I listen to the music from Smallfoot and I loved it.  You’ve done some amazing things, and you are working with amazing people. When you have a film in front of you like Smallfoot, how does it all come together?

HEITOR PEREIRA:  I try to get into it as early as possible, so I’m in sync with the filmmakers and all the process and the changes and confirmations that they’ve gone through I have at least witnessed until I arrive at a point to where I can write the music.

I like from time to time visiting them and seeing where they are at with the storyboards or even the original book they are making the story from, because I find in the end when we actually get ready  to talk about making the music, I am so much better informed from where they are coming from. In one way or another we’ve already had that conversation, it’s been illustrated, so to speak. 

AMFM: You’re more in touch because you’ve been in on the story since the beginning? You’ve already seen all the changes so that when you’re finally ready to compose you really know where they’re going with it.  

HEITOR PEREIRA: You know, what happens with animated movies is they need to screen the movie sometimes in storyboard format in front of an audience, and gauge whether or not the jokes are funny. If there is a moment where you want them to laugh and they cry instead, for example.  So they have to put the movie at a very early stage in front of an audience.

And sometimes temp music doesn’t help. As great as some pieces of music are that are already written,sometimes in the narrative, a music editor still needs an original piece of music. That’s why I write something at a very early stage, just to fill that gap. So… temp, then my music, and back to temp. I use it before I write my official score, but I’ve already written a couple of pieces this way, because they need to screen the movie so many times.

AMFM: That’s interesting, you go through several phases of creation.


AMFM: So you are at the top of the heap.  You start the creation, and then bring in others.  How is it decided to bring in all those who worked on the film?  Specifically the animated film Smallfoot. You have some amazing people on it, Channing Tatum, James Corden, How is that decided?

HEITOR PEREIRA: That is decided very early.  Typically the voice dictates a lot of the mannerisms of an animated character, and obviously the depth of vocal acting can dictate a different direction sometimes.  For example, there is a script. But if you put that script in front of an actor and they become super inspired, you want to keep many of the things that weren’t scripted.  Now they’ve become that character more than you would have written. And in doing that in a chronological order, sometimes, you lead that character with vocal acting to a much higher conclusion of the movie and the story than was originally in the script.  So for me musically, I like having the characters, because they are instruments too. On top of being dialogue, and I kind of have to get away from them at times so people can understand the dialogue clearly. Independent of that, the voice itself is a musical instrument.  Spoken word or not, the fact that sound itself, organized in a language. It’s an instrument, it has rhythm, also when we talk we have pitch, right?

Spoken Word As Musical Instrument

Picture: Taken at The Eastwood Scoring Stage (Warner Brothers) used by permission from

HEITOR PEREIRA:  To a musician’s ear, that’s the counterpoint that comes from visual characters interacting.  It’s all like when you’re writing music for a specific character, you’re taking into consideration “is he a talkative character?  Is he a quiet character? The one that talks a lot will probably have more long note melodies. The one that talks very little, but says a lot with body language will probably have more a melody that is not populated with notes, and more rhythmic.  You know what I mean? So all of those things I take into consideration when I hear the acting for the first time.

AMFM: So your art is imitating life which is imitating art.  Amazing. Is it the same for when you compose for non-animated feature films?

 HEITOR PEREIRA: No, it’s not actually.  I don’t think so, I think it is to a degree, but there are certain emotions that I think we need to help and emphasize, and when it’s live action, you just want to get out of the way.  For example an actor will “look” in a particular moment, in a scene that’s a close-up. It shows how much acting there is inside the eye, and you want to pay attention to that. So maybe then the music will become a little more sparse. In the animated world, those nuances, even though they are there in some instances,  many other times they are not. So you want to enhance the actor’s “look” with music.

AMFM: What would you like to give as advice to younger people who would like to follow in your footsteps?  I know that’s a really broad question and people get it all the time, but another way is to ask what would you say to your 19 year old self?

HEITOR PEREIRA: Celebrate the fact that what you just made has been made by a lot of people.  Become part of that village, and be one more citizen of that animated village.  In my case, Carey Kirkpatrick, the director, he co-wrote the songs with his brother Wayne.  There is a lot I took from there.

And as  i told you, the actors have their mountains and valleys, I listen to it, that dictates the music.  And also the producers and the studio, those people have made so many movies – they have so much information, you cannot just close your ears.  Be part of this collaborative endeavor.

For a young person, I would say learn to be part of a band.  Even though you have the spirit of a band leader. You just want to be one more of the guys in the band.  It’s like an orchestra, when you hear the whole sound, it’s so impressive, You want to be one more of those musicians in the orchestra with it’s beautiful harmonies and beautiful colors.  All the composition, and in this case the composition being the whole movie, and the studio, and the marketing department. All of that stuff. It goes on after it’s done – it needs to get to people – to arrive at the movie theaters.  For that young person I would say be open to that whole process. From the book and the storyboard, to the animation, to the conversation with the directors and the filmmakers, to working with the marketing, perhaps adding music to a toy.

Nick Glennie Smith conducts the woodwinds and strings on Smallfoot

Picture: Taken at The Eastwood Scoring Stage (Warner Brothers) used by permission from

AMFM: So you’re saying you have to cooperate, and squash ego a little bit to be part of the whole team.

HEITOR PEREIRA: By cooperating, you are feeding the ego with quality, in a way.  Because now, you’re listening to people who have done this many more times than you have. Now you have valuable information that adds a little to who you were before. So now it’s plus.  A good, amazing thing.

AMFM:  I understand, so as you give you take.  It’s symbiotic.

HEITOR PEREIRA: Right! And isn’t that what music is all about?  Silence, no silence, a lot of rhyhthm, then sparse rhythm, then silence again. Then solo, no solo, then big ensemble.  There is a certain harmony about the people that make a project like this, so as a musician you should behave like one.  Always be thinking what can I do here to keep this endeavor, this journey, as harmonious as possible.