10 Days to Score Part II
Attack of the Technical Things
November 3, 2015
So a lot of people, especially fellow students of mine interested in film scoring think that the process involves: sitting down, watching a movie, writing a piece of music, and some dude in a dark room gluing your dandy tune to the movie somehow, and then you're literally John Williams. Sometimes, this is actually the case... to an extent. Hans Zimmer did this with Christopher Nolan for Inception, and it shows in the soundtrack: the music is extremely metric, in 4/4 with 4 bar phrases, and play through like actual pieces of music. That's because Hans didn't have to write the music to the movie, Nolan DID have a magic fairy man (at least that's all I can assume he is) glue Hans's music to the movie and bam. Tyler Bates took this a step further with Guardians of the Galaxy- he wrote many of the themes and entire sequences from the script, and when James Gunn filmed the scenes he would blast Bates' music over speaker for the actors to respond to. We should all be so lucky to get THAT gig one day...
But the typical, traditional, and to-be-expected method involves a painstaking (for some, that is) process involving math, a metronome, a note pad, and several views / "rewatch"s of the film. ESPECIALLY if the director or editor cut the movie to a soundtrack they like- this means you have to create a skeleton of measured time it takes to hit certain points the director says are important.... Which can mean your nice little piano diddy or chord progression you heard in your head for this scene may go straight the window, into the toilet... wherever your try to destroy things you're not proud of.
Most of this film I'm working on is written in the aforementioned way, which I've been indredibly lucky to have gotten. The scenes require ambient music, which if you've read the previous post, are dictated by clouds of bell sounds: reversed glockenspiels, windchimes, etc. To make this particular moment stand out to the viewer, the music will suddenly be very cleanly timed to the movie, rather than "floating around it" so to speak. The effect is that the film and soundtrack relationship becomes suddenly like a music video; which are short and pack a lot of narrative, and people know this. They will subconciously pay more attention. Examples I can think of where this is used, if you don't believe me: the last scene in Inception, the bar-fight scene in Kingsman: Secret Service, off the top of my head.
I give you, "the little metric skeleton doodle".... new band name called it.
For the uninitiated, this is vulgarly and over-generalizing... ly referred to as "Mickey Mouse-ing"... [Mouse-ing? Mousing?]... So called because of its use in excess with classic cartoons where the score acted as the music, and as the sound effects as well. You know, Jerry creeps up on Tom, and as he tip-toes you hear a piano walking up the scale, and when he stops, the music stops. He hits Tom with something a mouse couldn't possible know how to weild, and then a nasty / loud chord happens while Tom screams.
Ta-da. Mickey Mouse-ing. I'm not going to use this term any longer to avoid lawsuits from powerful companies that rhyme with Smalt Tisney... Also for my generation: Guy Moon, who scores all Butch Hartman's cartoons for Nickelodeon is perhaps the modern king of this technique- watch any scene from Fairly Odd Parents or Danny Phantom or that Tuff Puppy show (I think, that was a little after my Nickelodeon days) and you'll hear Micky Mouse-ing out the wazzoo.
Futurama reference= +10 internet points.
And it's one of the hardest humps for us beginning film composers to get over while maturing as writers. When we get our film to write to, we see visual absent of audio, and we get excited-nervous like a kid sitting behind the wheel of their parents car for the first time... so we want to hit the gas full force. John Williams even had to overcome this himself- supposedly his incredibly well synchronized music for the open few minutes of Jurassic Park was so spotless, that the film felt dated and cheesy. (and "dated and cheesy" for a 90's film is saying a lot.) The editor actually had to take Williams's score and move it over a few seconds against the film, so that major swells and downbeats happened a second after the scenes changed or someone talked. This actually marks a point in his scoring that parrallels the development of movie music around this time- the very specific and tightly secured music to film moments of the past (ala the violin shrieks in the Psycho shower scene) transitioning to music that stubbornly roles on almost independent of what's happening on screen (listen to Henry Jackman's score to the film Captain America: Winter Soldier).
When used in excess, the video becomes corny and cartoon-like. When absent, the film can become aimless and feel unprofessional or poorly edited. But (as all things) when used in moderation and with an open / experimental mindset, it be the difference between awful and incredible... Or for me, a low-budget indie flick, and a micro-budget breakout hit.
Anyway, this particular moment in the film required very specific timing to illustrate it's important place in the movie. So this was one of many of the early little sketches I had to make myself while writing the music for this sequence. I had already written a theme that had gotten my approval, the director's approval, and the approval of my girlfriend and roommates I kept waking up while angrily playing it at 3am... Which almost entirely didn't fit when I figured out the time signature, meter, meter CHANGES, and length of the cue.
See? Don't you see that and think "pft I can do that."
It took two days, dozens of rewrites and a few existential meltdowns before I finally adapted my idea into something that fit the skeleton, fit the film, maintained cohesiveness with the score, AND had credence on it's own. It's now one of my favorite pieces of music I've ever written, and I wholly intend on using this on my grad-school application (GOOD LUCK, FUTURE SELF- WHO I IMAGINE IS READING THIS WITH EITHER FOND RECOLLECTION OR BITTER REMORSE). I will post it soon I imagine, though I also honestly plan on taking full use of my extended deadline to clean the absolute hell out of it before it gets heard (anyone good with mixing / levels, hit me up, xoxo).
All this to say, I wanted to vocalize this troubling moment to my friends and students younger than me as a bit of encouragement and a warning. This is part of where the actual WORK comes in while film scoring... work here meaning "things you have to do that you don't necessarily wanna, in order to do the fun things you do wanna".
Composing classical or academic music for performance or experience is neither more nor less challenging. Or rewarding for that matter. But this is where film scoring seperates itself from those avenues: your taste and intution become the LAST important thing. You become an extension of the director, a voice for his film, a vessel for his imaginary characters, and a translator for the movie's potential audience (and unless this is some art film and your team all has beards and works on post-production in the local coffee shop, that means the ENTIRE potential audience- everyone who would ever see this movie ever: friends, family, fans, and future historians who find it in the archaic relics in a dystopian future.) Then, LASTLY, you are yourself. Once you have done all these jobs, and worn all these hats, THEN you are the musician who makes the call on which melody/chord/rhythm/sound effect can best satisfy all these tasks. You will bust your ass and rattle your brain for the right answer, and then be told by one or all of these clients ( favorites such as: the director, the editor, the director's bossy girlfriend/boyfriend with too much creative input and no solutions, the test audience, anyone listening on your Soundcloud or reviewing on iTunes) that your precious one solution isn't good enough.
And a GOOD film composer... the mythical "one" at school, in your class, in your band or whervever... the one who gets the job done on time. Maintains a great working relationship with the director. Is artistically satisfied with his work. Whose music is well reviewed in the minority and the majority. Impresses doubters. Brings in new fans. Is popular in the esoteric circle AND the popular circle itself *...[like does anyone remember when James Newton Howard was on the Billboard Top 10 because someone remixed "Hanging Tree" from Hunger Games? Wtf.]...*
AND goes on to be rehired by previous directors / developers while being approached by new ones? A good film composer takes the critcism in stride and without missing a beat (heh, get it) proceeds to fix the problem. A good film composer is aware of all these issues and of the eyes watching them, and finds that solution that IS ALWAYS out there.
A lot of this, by the way, is an amalgam of wisdom told to me from intelligent, experienced and actually succesful people much older than me, before you start being all "Who the hell are you, you're like 14 and wrote music for like 6 things, shut up."