Making it Your Own: Talking with Jongnic Bontemps about Transformers: Rise of the Beasts


Cinelinx’s resident musicologist recently got the opportunity to speak with composer Jongnic Bontemps once more, this time about his work on Transformers: Rise of the Beasts.

Just last week I was blessed with the opportunity to speak once again with Jongnic Bontemps, this time about his work on Transformers: Rise of the Beasts. Jongnic “JB” Bontemps is a uniquely modern film composer tapped by Paramount Pictures to score the blockbuster, sci-fi action movie Transformers: Rise of the Beasts starring Anthony Ramos, Dominique Fishback, and Michelle Yeoh for director and longtime collaborator Steven Caple Jr.

JB has scored dozens of features, series and video games in all genres, including the Lifetime biopic Clarke Sisters: The First Ladies of Gospel, the Toni Braxton-led drama, Faith Under Fire, the Sundance selection Leimert Park produced by Charles King (Mudbound), the BET+ original series Boomerang, and additional music for the Epix series Godfather of Harlem starring Forest Whitaker and the award winning game Call of Duty WWII.

I hope you enjoy our conversation about Transformers: Rise of the Beasts!

What was it like finding out you were going to score a Transformers movie?

So there was euphoria? And then there was deep depression. It was definitely a big swing of emotion. It was required for me to be the person to be the composer that I wanted to be.

A friend of mine recently told me that you need the A-list opportunity to become the A list in your profession. And then you have to grow in that opportunity. So this is as capital A as you get. Obviously, I was not 100% equipped when I started. But it was a journey and a lot of growth. I’m happy to say that I’m very proud of the movie and the score.

How familiar were you with Transformers before this? 

As a kid, I was Optimus Prime. Because I watched the entire animated series. I watched the 1986 movie, then the [Michael] Bay movies. I mean, I was in the Transformers world. And I modeled my young self as to what would Optimus do in many situations. So I had a real love for the world, for the lore. And when I was asked, the part is I just couldn’t believe that I would be part of this legacy, part of this universe that I adored as a child.

So with this being the seventh film in the franchise, how did you go about approaching the music in a way that would keep it fresh for the audience?

Yeah, that’s a huge question.

One, Steve Jablonsky did such an amazing job of establishing the sound of the cinematic universe of Transformers. And there were a few blocky rules that we had to make sure that we adhere to so it would sound like a Transformers movie.

The rules were, it’s a combination of big orchestra and the hybrid score. Two, there had to be a sense of nobility and honor. There had to be tools, there had to be normal chord progression. The music had to embody emotion. And then, the other piece was establishing for the Autobots using brass, using French horns to connote the honorable and almost sacrificial nature of the Autobots. So those are the things that I came into understanding what a Transformers score should sound like.

But then it was about how do I add my own experience to it in my own voice, and that was going to come in the themes and the melodies that I wanted to write for the various characters in the film. So, early on during the demo process, I wrote a theme for the Autobots. So before I was even hired, I wrote a demo recording with LA musicians, properly professionally mixed, and embedded in a four minute sizzle reel that cut together footage from the old movies, footage of me working with the orchestra on this demo, and my voiceover discussing my love of Transformers and why I think I would be a good fit for the film.

I would say that theme actually ended up being the theme of the Autobots in the movie. And again, it was just born out of my love of the franchise, and I was so pleased to hear that it fit and worked in our movie and for our Autobots. So that was one thing, the other thing I wanted to do was make sure that we had a theme for the Maximals because that’s a new faction in our cinematic universe. So it was a great opportunity to introduce a new theme for them.

Now, I did not pull from the Beast Wars theme. When we listened to it, we just felt that that was-

I was actually going to ask about that. So that answers that question.

Yes, we definitely considered it we definitely listened to it. But we just felt that that was not going to be the appropriate sound we’re going for to tell our story. So I created a theme that I thought might embody the peaceful, but also the badass nature of the Maximals.

And I’m proud of that theme as well. And then of course, for Mirage, coming up for something that was interesting for Mirage, and thinking about his quirky character, and his relationship with Noah, and also Chris, Noah’s brother. There were two kinds of ideas that came out of that; one was a very connective theme that would allow you to feel the love between these characters, or the bromance, as we would call it, but also pulling into Mirage’s quirky nature.

So I’ve tried to pull in this idea of coming from video games, and the 90s, like a Gameboy style. So how can we have little bleeps and bloops little squawks that sound like digital games and integrate that as part of the score. So those are the kinds of ideas that I came up with, to bring my own sense of style and voice into the score.

So you’re saying you made your own theme for the Autobots? Were there any pieces from the past films that got incorporated in?

Oh no, we definitely wanted to incorporate the themes from various parts of the Transformers universe. So for example, for Unicron, we actually pulled in the Vince DiCola theme from the 1986 movie. They include an instrumentation on glass harmonica. So in the 1986 movie, when you first hear and see Unicron coming into the frame, it’s very ethereal, very creepy, and then there are four notes that go with it, we definitely pulled that into the score. And that is there for our Unicron score.

There’s a deep love for those themes. And I’m thinking I have a deep love for them as well. So we wanted to figure out when was it appropriate in the movie to introduce those themes, and we found a spot and it works wonderfully. And my thought was, why not get the OG himself, Jablonsky, to come in and write music that incorporates the themes from the past movies, including the new themes in this movie, and create a medley that we played in the third act.

All the chatter that I’ve heard from people that have seen the sequence thus far, and listened to the music there is that they get such a wonderful sense of nostalgia and how they become a kid again when they hear that piece of music. So I’m excited that that is there. And I’m blessed that Steve Jablonsky came on and helped with that.

And that’s a good way to keep continuity by bringing the previous composer in to work on it like that.

That’s right. He was amazing. He was so gracious. He was so helpful and became a wonderful mentor. And his whole thing was, “I’m here, JB, to support you to be a part of your team, and to help pass the torch.” And people have lived with his music for so long. And the movie, it says, now I’m happy that it will be living with your music and these movies.

So, the Transformers movies are very CGI heavy. Did that make any parts difficult to score for? Or did you have to change anything? Because of all the CGI?

Oh, absolutely. I mean, the CGI, Steven [Caple] was constantly fighting to get the emotion that he wanted for every scene in the CGI. So the CGI went through many iterations. So there was a lot of versions of the picture that I saw, and the versions would change. One thing that is part of the business is keeping up with all the changes. And the changes aren’t necessarily just, oh, this got shorter, the hair longer, no things would get rearranged, or the piece of music that I wrote is no longer appropriate because the entire sequence, or what’s important in the sequence has changed. So there was a lot of rewriting cues based on how the CGI evolved over time.

Also as the CGI became more real, that also influenced the music. Because I would actually see the nuances and the details of what was happening. And I was like, “Oh, now I see why it needs to change” or what I need to accentuate in the music, as they became more real. And that also caused there to be revisions in the music.

Finally, when the actual sound effects are being layered in, that might also change how I need to think about the music. Because at that point, then I might have some metallic sound, or some rhythm that now doesn’t work with the movement of the figures on screen. So that then might alter how I need to approach the music. That might mean I need to pull some elements out and allow the movement of the sound effects to be the pulse. And I can pull the pulse out of music because they weren’t working together. So it’s this multiple layers constantly massaging the music, as the CGI became more real.

I was on this film for a year and a half, which is extremely long for a composer to be on a film like this. But it was essential. Because one, it was a huge learning curve for me to pick up all these lessons on how to work on a film of this size, but also to read any part of the evolution of the film. And there are still pieces of music that I wrote in that very first version when I got started that are still in the film today. Because they actually came up with the film and this became part of the scene. And there are things that a lot of music that is in the recycle bin, lots of it because it just no longer worked as the film evolved.

How were you on it for 18 months? How early in the process were you brought in?

Well, they brought me in right at the beginning of post [production], they had just wrapped the movie, it was November of 2021, I believe when they just wrapped the movie. And they were starting post production discussions. And I had worked with Steven Caple Jr, for over a decade, starting at USC. So he put my name up for consideration in the spring of 2021. And then they hired me in December of 2021. So I was on very early.

And you know what, it was very wise to bring me on early. No surprise, I had not done a film of this size. As a matter of fact, I’m the first African American to do a film of this size. So I needed to be part of the process from a very early stage.

The producers, when I was brought on, they said they wanted to hear music early, so that they could guide me and make sure that what we were doing fit the world of Transformers and told the story that they needed at the top. And when we had our first play of the movie to the studio, and I believe that was around late winter of 2022, I had had the first 20 minutes of the movie scored. And that was a huge hurdle to pass, because they have to check to really hear what I was going to do to picture. And I passed that hurdle. And I was able to live another day. But the great news is that they were able to be part of the process and be able to hear music to picture and be able to guide me along the way.

Which was great. And then also allowed me to really stick with some of these themes, and really work through some of the music, and spend the time to add the detail and craft into what it became today.

Yeah, having that long, you must have learned a lot about working on a film of this scale.

Absolutely, I learned a ton. And it’s not just about the composition, which obviously there is a lot to learn about that, about the size of the composition and how it needs to work. Especially on the some of the action sequences, how it needs to follow the action. So there was time for me to get up to speed with all that stuff. But also building a team, because I hadn’t had the team that’s required to do a movie of this size. So being on this early allowed me to recruit and build the team that was required to get it to the finish line. Folks who help with this programming, people who are going to do additional music, because not one person can write all this music by themselves.

They need support people who will take the themes, and the ideas and the textures that are created and help me apply it specifically to certain scenes. I find people to help me do that. I had a great orchestrator named Susie Seiter. And she came on board early in the process, and really helped me craft the music for the orchestra. And music conductor Anthony Parker, who conducted the orchestra, longtime mixer and recorder John Chapman. So it really allowed me to organically grow the team. So by the time we got to the final three months, and we had to get this music produced, everybody was there and ready. So it really was essential for me to be on this early. But I also know that sometimes it’s also very dangerous to be on that early. And I’m glad that I survived.

Did working with Steven Caple make it easier to work on this film since you had that past relationship together?

Well, yes, because we have the past work, and we got to where we almost have a shorthand as far as talking about drama, talking about music. And he also knows from our past experience that even though I may not get it right the first time. I rarely get it right the first time. I’m going to continue to work at it until it’s right, right for him, right for the story.

And having done that for him time and time again for 10 years, gave him the confidence in me that I was going to get there and that I was going to work hard for him and the story. Having that past relationship allowed us really to have a trust factor between us. And also he didn’t have to pull any punches, he could talk about things candidly, because we were friends. We just were able to talk about the music in a way that two friends can. And that was extremely helpful in this process.

I can imagine. So you mentioned before, one of the rules was the Autobots had to have all a very brassy sound with horns and such.

That was one of the rules that was definitely present in the Steve Jablonsky world of the score. So when you first see the Autobots roll in, we have a nice big old breathable theme that hurls them in and then created that Autobots theme that really has a big brass texture to it.

But then also, we can use that same brass ensemble, and that same theme when we want to get more introspective, when you’re trying to understand and feel what’s driving Prime to do the things that he needs to do. We are able to use that same ensemble in a more breathy, choral texture, to really give us that deep emotion. Contemplative emotion.

I guess I wanted to ask how were the Maximals set apart from the Autobots, because I’m assuming from the trailers that they are on the same side, but they’ve still got to be set apart musically.

Yes, they do. And they do have to be set apart musically, and they are on the same side. And even though  I pretty much use the same instrumentation for their theme, meaning that it’s in orchestral instruments, either strings or breath. And we hear both themes in strings and brass, throughout the film, the themes themselves are also very different, just in their structure, in their cadence, and you will not mistake one from the other.

For the Maximals, the Maximals are a peaceful society that decides to live in animal form. And their world is burdened. And they’ve learned to be peaceful over the millennia. They have a deep respect for life, and spreading technology and their love of peace throughout the universe. So they really are like the creators, they are the ones who are going to help bring a better way of life to other beings. So I wanted their theme to be not just noble, but also peaceful, but can also be very bad, because the Maximals are also these large creatures that can kick butt when they need to.

So it has to be able to be honorable, and noble and peaceful, but also be able to be a rallying call to defending their values, and defending the sanctity of life.

In contrast, was there something different used for the Decepticons, and I think it’s the Terrorcons that are the new villains? 

There are no Decepticons in this movie. The villains are the Terrorcons. And for the Terrorcons, yes, I did use a different texture for them. It’s basically a three note motif that is low and ominous and dangerous and full of threat. And I use that in low strings and low steps. So this way, it really had that creepiness in the note sound. Someone coming after you. So that was what I decided to use for that texture. That’s very different from what the Maximal sound is.

I think you might have mentioned this in part, but since this is a prequel, and therefore set in the past, did that this is set in the 1990s, did that affect any of the musical choices at all?

Let’s just say that there’s two ideas for setting the title. One was going to be the placement of the songs. It’s set in Brooklyn. Brooklyn in 1994 is a great era for hip hop. So there are a lot of needle drops in the first part of the movie that focus on setting that time in place. I mean, we’ve got Wu Tang, A Tribe Called Quest, Black Sheep. So you get a real sense of the culture of the time of Brooklyn, right from those songs.

So we didn’t need the score to do that. And Steve and I talked about earlier that the score does not need to be hip hop, because we’ve got that already in the songs. The score itself needs to be about the struggle, it needs to be about our characters. But I also wanted to bring a little bit of that flavor in. And I did that by using the instrument that is so iconic, for that time period and hip hop music, which was the Roland TR 808 drum machine.

It has a very specific sound for the hi hat, but the toms and especially the 808 kick drum. So for in the queues at the top of the film, you will hear a sprinkling of that drum machine, a sprinkling of that Boom Back sound throughout the queues at the top. And that’s how I was able to introduce, you know, a little bit of Brooklyn, and a little bit of the time into the score. And then of course, the aforementioned Gameboy sound hit tune sound that I brought in for Mirage.

I’m just curious, you mentioned briefly that there’s no woodwinds?

That is, there’s none except when we go into Peru. When we go into Peru, I want to be very specific about what woodwinds we were going to use to really accentuate the afro Peruvian style of music that I wanted to integrate into the sound. I was very careful not to overuse pan flutes because pan flutes had been used a lot to signify Latin America in scores. So I want to stay away from that.

But I did also know that woodwinds in general are very important to the music of that region. So I want to be specific. I looked at tarka flutes, for example. And so those were the specific things I looked at, to bring that labor into the score for those elements. And I was able to recruit and collaborate with probably the most famous one of those famous Hollywood woodwind players are out there, Petro Eustache who’s worked with all the greats, including Hans Zimmer, and he came in and he knew exactly what I needed for the score. So much so that he built a custom flute for the score that had a head of a tarka flute, but the body of a Western flute, so this way, you get that sound.

Having the tarka but being able to manipulate it to get the notes that we needed so he can actually integrate it into the score. Never heard before on a score, actually never existed before and we have it on Transformers.

But just wanted on one last quick question. Is there anything you hope audiences notice when they’re sitting watching the movie, anything you hope jumps out at them?

I hope that they feel the universality of a Transformers movie. And it was important to me that it had the Transformers sound, but then also had the hints of the culture of the people, that this way people can hear themselves. In the movie we have the sound of Brooklyn, and the sound of a little bit of hip hop. So we have the sound of Peru and Latin America. I wanted it to be within the story itself, and where we go, that people can actually hear themselves, hear their culture, hear their music, in the score of a Transformers movie, but still have it be a Transformers score with all the size, scale, threat menace and nobility that we’ve come to expect from this franchise.


I want to give a big thank you to Jongnic Bontemps for taking the time to speak with me about Transformers: Rise of the Beasts. The film is in theaters now!

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Becky O'Brien
Armed with a PhD. in Musicology, Becky loves to spend their time watching movies and playing video games, and listening to the soundtracks of both whenever they have the time. Can usually be seen writing for Cinelinx though they also do a bit of work for Screen Age Wasteland too. Their favorite superheroes are Batwoman and Spider-Gwen.