Success has gone to the dogs, and SOCAN members Cal Brunker and Bob Barlen couldn’t be happier about it.

PAW Patrol: The Movie – which Brunker directed, and co-wrote with Associate Producer Barlen, and Billy Frolick – achieved such boffo box office ($130 million worldwide since its August 20, 2021 release) that a sequel and a spin-off TV series have been commissioned by Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, and Spin Master Entertainment for 2023.

The ultra-popular, pre-school, animated franchise – originally created by Keith Chapman – attracted a stellar guest-voice cast to the tale of a 10-year-old and his crew of first-responder pups in charge of Adventure Bay’s rescue operations: Iain Armitage, Marsai Martin, Randall Park, Dax Shepard,  Tyler Perry, Jimmy Kimmel, and Kim Kardashian.

But it’s also created some additional opportunities for a plethora of SOCAN members: the aforementioned Cal Brunker and Bob Barlen, of course, but also Rob Szabo, who served as the film’s music editor, and added a few cues of his own; songwriters Alessia Cara and Jon Levine (for writing the song “The Use In Trying,” sung by Cara, for the film); and CCS Rights Management, which administers PAW Patrol for SOCAN member and toy manufacturer Spin Master – a  company founded in London, Ontario, that boasts more than 28 offices, and achieves more than $1.6 billion annually in gross sales.

For Szabo, it provided entry into a brand new world. “I’ve done music for films, and I’ve had songs that I’ve written appear in film and TV, but I’ve never done custom music in the way that I did it, and I haven’t done music editing, either,” he says.

Rob Szabo

Rob Szabo

“In a nutshell, the music supervisor usually sends a bunch of tracks for any given cue that’s not scored, and you chop them up to fit the cue. Then the team, which is the director, the writer, and other people,  audition eight to 10 tracks for any given cue, and they decide on what they want to use.

“That’s what I did for all that wasn’t scored in the film, but there were some instances where we auditioned those tracks, and the team wasn’t satisfied with the options they had. So at that point they asked me to write something custom for those cues. I got three tracks into the movie that way.”

Szabo, who’s enjoyed a professional relationship with director Cal Bruckner that’s lasted two decades, says his previous experience as a producer stood him in good stead for the conversion to the editorial role. “What I realized doing the job is that I’ve been in training for this for the last 10 years, producing records in many different styles,” he says. “It was exactly what this job requires; you have to really know many genres, and you have to be comfortable chopping things up pretty finely.

“There was an Adam Levine track composed custom for the film by Shellback. That was the big song for the film, and we did lots of re-edits. If you listen to the version that’s on Spotify, and you compare it for what’s in the cue for the film, the stuff’s all out of order, and some of the things don’t exist in the track, because I was working from stems – and that’s part of the job.”

According to the Toronto Star, the Kitchener-raised duo of Cal Brunker and Bob Barlen were tapped for PAW Patrol: The Movie  thanks to a lifelong cinematic obsession that bonded their  friendship around the medium. They made films in high school and carried that love into post-secondary education, with Barlen earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Film and Video at Ryerson University and Brunker studying animation at Sheridan College.

Cal Brunker, Bob Barlen

Left to right: Cal Brunker, Bob Barlen

Post-graduation, the duo focused on making commercials, and got their big break in 2013’s animated Escape From Planet Earth. Brunker was hired as director, brought Barlen aboard for script contributions, and the film –  featuring the voices of William Shatner, Brendan Fraser, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Jessica Alba –  put them on the map. After partnering as writers on four more animated children’s films, Spin Master came calling.

Brunker and Barlen pitched PAW Patrol as a film rather than an extended TV episode, with a twist. “We wanted to focus on one character’s main story and go on an emotional journey with them,” Brunker explained to The Star. “It would be familiar for fans of the show, but also an elevated experience to go see at the theatre.”

Spin Master and Paramount green-lit the project, and Brunker and Barlen told the Star that they’d found an extremely supportive partner. “We’d be showing them stuff constantly, and they were as excited as we were and wanted us to keep going,” Brunker told the paper. “We were all totally on the same page. There was no creative friction at all.”

The film’s popularity has also been a boon for SOCAN member publisher CCS Rights Management, which administers the music rights around the world for the property – in whatever form it takes. “We administer 100 percent of the music that they own and control,  and they own and control the publishing side of all of those songs,” says CCS founder and President Jodie Ferneyhough.

Jodie Ferneyhough

Jodie Ferneyhough of CCS Rights Management

“For the most part, the songs in that movie are direct pulls from the TV show.  There’s some variations on those songs in the film, but those fit with Spin Master and we still control those.  Spin Master has a partial ownership in the Adam Levine and Alessia Cara songs.”

The music rights also extend to Spin Master toys. “We license a lot of music into toys, and a substantial amount of PAW Patrol songs are used in everything from balloons to ride-on cars,” says Ferneyhough.  “Those types of opportunities for new uses in products goes a long way.”

Ferneyhough says handling the music rights for a huge company like Spin Master also does wonders for CCS’s credibility. “It definitely does help us as an administrator when I go to a conference, or I call up other production companies,” he says. “The fact that  we’re being trusted to administer for that kind of a juggernaut opens doors for us.”

Perhaps Rob Szabo gives the best paws for thought [Groan – Ed.] when it comes to future participation in the potential  PAW Patrol movie franchise. “It’s amazing to be part of something at this scale,” he says. “To get music in a movie like this is fantastic.”

“I got into music because of my health issues,” confides Céleste Lévis, a 26-year-old songwriter originally from Timmins, Ontario. “I had to undergo brain surgery when I was 14 because it was compressing my spinal cord. Nowadays I’m doing so well. I have to go round-trip to Toronto once a week for a treatment to deal with the pain. My headaches sometime radiate all the way down to my legs. The only moment I’m not in pain is when I’m high on adrenaline because I’m singing. But as soon as I’m done, the fun is over. That’s why I write songs: so I can move forward!”

Celeste LevisHer fourth album, Si tu veux tout savoir, is unencumbered by frivolous things, and offers eight straightforward, bona fide folk-rock songs. It was produced during the pandemic alongside her husband, multi-instrumentalist Marc-Antoine Joly, in the basement studio of the couple’s Ottawa home.

“The goal,” according to Lévis, “was to achieve an indie rock band sound with more emphasis on the drums, and songs that are more pop,” says the artist, mostly known for her duets.

Are they love songs? “I’ll remain vague on that topic; it’s not really an album about relationships,” says the newlywed. “It’s a snapshot of the last 12 months, so if you want to know everything about me, you have to listen to them!”

From this rather unusual endeavour rises a genuine personality, all of whose stories have a common thread, a shared ambiance and atmosphere. “I’ll arrive in the studio with melodies, chords, and the lyrics,” says Lévis. But during the pandemic, I kept asking myself if I’ve said and sung everything. I was afraid of that.”

Guitars “intertwang” perfectly in order to get the best of her head voice. “I’ve always had a deeper voice, but this time around, I understood that it’s an instrument, and I pushed myself to sing more nuanced notes and more complex melodies,” she says. “I was afraid of that voice, but I’ve decided to embrace it.” Although there are no songs that seem revolutionarily innovative, one can definitely hear a major influence from the American duo The Civil Wars, among other charming contradictions.

Flashback to 2015, when Lévis was living in Montréal’s Hochelaga-Maisonneuve neighbourhood, and a contestant on La Voix (the Québec franchise of The Voice TV singing competition). “Moisi Moé’ssi,” by Fred Fortin, is one of the songs she sang, while playing her Gibson SG-200 with great detail. “It represented me well, even though it wasn’t one of my songs,” she says. “I’d already played talent shows like Ma première Place des Arts [2013] and the Festival international de la chanson de Granby [revealed at Ontario Pop]”. After her journey on La Voix, she was signed by Tandem Musique, and then opened 18 shows for Francis Cabrel. Six songs in 20 minutes, every night.

How hard is it to sing in French in Northern Ontario, despite trailblazers like Robert Paquette and Cano? “Contact Ontarois during Rideau in Québec Cityc, and the Trille Or gala every other year, give us better visibility and the context is generally more favourable for the province’s songwriters,” says Lévis. “I also had the chance to record live sessions at Madame Wood studio in Montréal in the midst of the pandemic, to boost the songs from my album Donnes-moi le temps [2018]. I’m serene as far as that’s concerned; the communications and promotion networks are increasingly efficient.

“Ontario’s Francophone community knows how to find itself, even 10 hours’ drive apart!” she continues. “We’re lucky, ’cause there ain’t a lot of us. On the other hand, there’s generally one venue per town where we can play, so once you’ve played one place, it might take three or four years before you play it again.”

In 2020, she released a Christmas album, Noël Tout autour, which she managed to write during the pandemic. She notably covers Robert Charlebois’ “Marie-Noël. Avec des mots qui grimpent au ciel.” She will tour that album throughout Ontario, with an additional stop in Montréal.

FM – the acronym of François-Maurice – Le Sieur has long stopped counting the films and TV series that he’s scored. The definitive trait of his music is that it illustrates the subject at hand, but never obfuscates it. His latest work can be heard on Tou.TV’s series Doute raisonnable, but he’s also launched an album of solo compositions. Piano, Désert & Machines was born of the inspiration provided by the piano when the man has some free time.

“A lot of artists work on multiple platforms – video, instrumentals, songs, TV – but I’m a film buff,” says FM Le Sieur, as an opener. “Screen music isn’t just one aspect of my work, it’s everything I do – and like to do.” In other words, his intense desire to share is what motivated him to release Piano, Désert & Machines. “I liked listening to it, it’s relaxing, and even though I’ve been in a band before and I did compose other stuff than screen music, I’d never actually done an album like that,” he assures us.

He first re-visited a few pieces written for Émile Gaudreault’s films and then, without thinking about it, he drifted towards inspiration from Steve Reich, an artist he greatly admires. “Serenade for Steve Reich” opens the album, even though the clear connection between the piece and Reich’s melancholy only became evident after the composition was done.

“Whether I’m working on an ad, a TV series, or a film, I always get flashes of music when I look at moving images,” says Le Sieur. “That’s why my album of compositions certainly wasn’t pre-meditated,” he adds, about the genesis of the project. “When the pandemic hit us like a shovel in the face, I took some time off to have fun. I worked on the project, and also on a violin concerto that’s on a tablet somewhere at home.”

But once he was done recording those bits of “fun,” he still craved moving images. “I don’t like the ugly layout of iTunes, where you listen to songs without cover art,” he says, giggling. “At first I always used still lifes or images of solitude and isolation, then, finally, I let myself be carried away by the photos of Luc Robitaille, who I know. His impressive images guided me for the remainder of the project.” He humbly admits that he was moved by his own pieces, which led to the creation of the album. “I don’t want to imply it was an accident, but I had time on my hands and a strong desire to make music for myself. As with many projects, if my creation moves me, I know it can move others.”

A chameleon of musical composition, he knows how to find his place in a project without taking centre stage. His music plays a secondary role, but a strong and essential one. He’s the man who says a lot without uttering a single word. “I’m a good subject for silly things, or for dramas. I do bespoke,” he says. But how does one know if one has hit the target? “Everything I do musically is a happy accident,” says Le Sieur. “The software I use is always recording, even when I didn’t hit the ‘record’ button. That means I sometimes find stuff I totally forgot about. And in the end, some magic happens.”

Work on Doute raisonnable was supposed to start in June of 2020, but the pandemic changed those plans. “It’s a story about the creation of a sex crimes squad inside the Montréal police department. It’s incredibly well-written, dark and intelligent. But there’s also a kind of fragility, because of the victims. It’s a series that’s demanding of its audience, and I like that,” confides Le Sieur. He consciously doubled down on being at the service of the story, to avoid yanking the viewers out of the delicate subject matter. “I played with textures a lot and tweaked sounds, like the violin for example, so that they were two octaves lower and sounded even sadder,” he says. “I didn’t even go near more flamboyant instruments.”

If the TV projects were indeed paused or at least slowed down by the pandemic, Le Sieur is rapidly going back to “normal life.” “I’m going to work with François Avard again for the first time since Les Bougons,” he says. “It’s an irreverent and intelligent script, a reflection on society, that revolves around a college professor who’s fed up and decides to move to the countryside.” Work will also start soon on Season Two of Doute raisonnable, as well as two other “secret” projects that should come to fruition in the spring. “There’s also my violin concerto that I should probably release,” he says absent-mindedly. “Maybe an album of violin, if I feel like it. Maybe not, if I don’t. We’ll see.” Well, we’ll hear, as it were.