5 Weird Realities Of Composing Music For Movies And Ads
If you don't think professional composers are important, observe the grand ending of Star Wars with John Williams' score removed:
Creating background music specifically designed to manipulate your emotions is a job that's both harder and weirder than you'd probably think. We talked to composers John Keltonic, Jonathan David Russell, and Thomas O'Boyle, who told us how ...
A Two-Note Chime Can Take A Ridiculous Amount Of Effort
You'll probably hear a hundred electronic tones today from various gadgets -- your phone, your car, your microwave -- and never thought about the poor bastards behind the scenes who obsessed over getting those tones just right. "We want this tone to announce the burrito is done cooking, but don't want it to seem like the microwave is angry!" And yes, that's exactly the kind of thing they worry about.
Jonathan David Russell (who composed music for several indie movies) worked on project to develop a chime for Visa, of credit card fame. It's two freaking notes (these two) which mean "payment successful," and for that one-second sound, they needed composers, focus groups, and even some terrifying-sounding "neuro-research." Russell's chime was selected from a pool of over 200 different submissions all trying to match the company's requirements: "Upbeat but not frivolous, accessible but not dumbed down, trustworthy, ambitious, appeal to the millennial mindset but not necessarily the millennial age group."
"They had focus test groups who said they wanted to have a bit more of a whoosh sound or we need to have more sparkle on top," says Russell. "Eventually, 84 percent of consumers liked it." Visa's new chime will release sometime this year, and hundreds of millions of people will hear it and not give it any thought. That's the life of a composer: turning piles of confusing feedback into pleasing noises.
Translating The Crazy In Directors' Heads Is Almost The Whole Job
Imagine you're a sketch artist trying to draw a suspect, but the witness can only give yes or no answers and bust sick kick-flips on their skateboard. That's what composing can feel like. The client is telling you in words what they want, but it's never as simple as "Like an Italian opera, only with some guitar in it." Russell says that one piece of feedback from a film director was "This is sounding way too much like a yellow snowflake. I need it to be more like a blue snowball."
What the hell does a blue snowball sound like? A sexually frustrated Jack Frost? Well, this is what they went with, if you're curious:
But at least he got to watch the scenes he was scoring, knowing that if the hero is being brutally tortured by terrorists, he could safely assume a jaunty sea shanty would feel out of place. Sometimes, they don't even get that. Composers like John Keltonic (an Emmy Award winner who, among other things, has composed music for NBC's Olympics broadcasts) are asked to score a piece they're not allowed to see, because if they did, America would have to kill them.
"I was scoring a film for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and I didn't have the right security clearance to actually watch the thing. So they'd say stuff like, 'At 41 seconds and 9 frames, something really big happens.' And I'd ask, 'Is it a good thing?' And they'd say, 'Oh no! It's really, really bad.'"
"Oooh, well, I've already sort of written something ... "
Sometimes You Resort To Weird, Stupid Methods
OK, so you finally think you understand what a director meant by "the essence of Chicago," but you're just as certain that nobody has invented a deep dish bass guitar yet. It looks like you need to get creative. Sometimes that can force Keltonic to grab stuff from his garage. "The director wanted the fastest strumming guitar possible, and I thought, 'You know what? I've got a weed whacker in my trunk.' So I stuck that next to a guitar, and for about eight seconds, I got a really cool sound. Then it destroyed the guitar strings."
Even high-level Hollywood composers are willing to do just about anything to get the sound right. The Lone Ranger soundtrack included the sound of somebody smashing a train with a sledgehammer, and the opening scene of Casino Royale included the composer rattling dried goat testicles. When it came time to make Star Trek: The Motion Picture, composer Jerry Goldsmith utilized a metal contraption known as a "blaster beam," which was 18 feet long and reportedly gave some women orgasms.
On one occasion, Russell says, "I really wasn't getting where the director wanted me to get, so I decided to leave it up to chance. I actually placed my chihuahua on my keyboard and let her walk around a bit. I recorded around what she had written and sent it off. The director loved the result, and that's what ended up in the finished film."
Well, they cleaned it up a bit. Here's what Jonathan's dog wrote:
And here's what ended up in the final film:
Real Orchestras Are Losing Jobs To Machines
While Keltonic is at a place in his career where he can hire full orchestras for his scores, younger composers like Russell or Thomas O'Boyle will sometimes write and submit entire pieces entirely on their computer. Even though he's a violinist, Russell rarely tracks himself playing live, because the tone wouldn't be the same as the parts cranked out by the software.
Even big-time goat-testicle-shaking composers do the majority of their work on the computer nowadays. We may not realize it (or even be able to hear the difference), but nearly all modern movies include at least some electronic instrumentation. As you can guess, it's for the same reason machines are taking the rest of our jobs: Humans cost more. But even massive-budget films like the third Pirates Of The Caribbean never required a real human to physically record a single note. Most of you would never notice the difference.
Nearly every video game soundtrack is done this way, and even movies that do record a live orchestra will overlay it with electronically enhanced "samples" to give the score a massive, hyper-real sound. "This is why scores like Interstellar, Inception, Da Vinci Code, Sherlock Holmes, Saving Mr Banks, Man Of Steel have such a huge sound that you can't quite get by recording the same music live," says Russell. "You will not be able to just sit down and play Pirates Of The Caribbean as it is shown on the page and get the same results."
Hans Zimmer, of Inception and "BRAAAAM" fame, was one of the pioneers of this technique. Zimmer still wanted the sound of traditional orchestral instruments, but he couldn't get real instruments to conform to whatever crazy noises were bouncing around his brain. Early music samples weren't great at mimicking "pretty" instruments, like an airy flute or a delicate harp, so Zimmer's scores employed more heavy percussion, brass strikes, and rhythmic, choppy strings, as those samples tended to translate better on a computer. This eventually led us to the modern sound we hear in blockbusters today, which we'll dub "Batman music":
You'll recognize that style of score as "decidedly modern" and "exactly what's in literally every single action movie of the past decade." That's a 90-piece orchestra being heavily augmented by tons of electronic samples. The Batman Begins score influenced a generation of composers, and movie music became the way it is today in part because Zimmer's computer sucked at woodwinds. And also because ...
Directors Are Constantly Recycling Scores
Most of the people reading this can hum "The Imperial March" from Star Wars or the Indiana Jones theme, but could not at gunpoint do the same for, say, Iron Man or Thor. There's a reason for that ... and in fact, a reason most movie scores aren't original.
In general, composers need to see a movie before creating music for it, which means that part comes last. But the film's director needs some kind of music in the background during editing, so they use a temporary track (often a score from some other movie, or some other piece of classical music). But then, as Keltonic says, "they listen to it so much, they can't imagine the scene without it." At that point, the director basically says, "Give me something exactly like the temp score!" Thus you wind up with a score that's almost a cover version of somebody else's.
To be clear, this isn't at all a new thing. "The temp track for Star Wars is quite close to the finished product (not that John Williams isn't a genius, because he clearly is)," says O'Boyle, "and Stanley Kubrick famously liked the temp track that he threw together for 2001: A Space Odyssey so much that he decided not to use a single note of the music he'd hired Alex North to write and record for him. North didn't find out until he sat to watch the premiere."
The main difference between then and now isn't that composers are ripping each other off; it's what they're ripping off. All of those forgettable Marvel soundtracks were influenced by Zimmer's Batman music. Although it's undeniably cool, it isn't really what you'd call "memorable." (Can you hear it in your head?)
If you heard it again somewhere -- for example, while purchasing donuts with your Visa card -- you wouldn't immediately think Batman's coming. According to O'Boyle, this is absolutely intentional. What they want above all else is consistency.
"It means that if you watch a big-budget Marvel movie, for instance, the music is unquestionably grand and impressive when it comes to creating a general sound world, but there's no way that the average person on the street could hum one of their melodies. It's created music that sounds typically 'big' and 'Hollywood,' but it's fairly devoid of general musical character."
Great scores do still come along, of course. And as for Marvel, well, let's just say they didn't exactly stick with the template with Black Panther, which includes African flutes and drums the composer picked up during a trip to Senegal:
Damn, why can't that be the sound it makes when you swipe a Visa card?
You can check out John Keltonic's work here, Jonathan Russell's work here, and Thomas O'Boyle's work here. Jordan Breeding also writes for a bunch of people, the Twitter, and has done some music himself, if you care about that kind of thing.
You know what's a fun instrument to pick up and doesn't get played enough in soundtracks? The theremin.
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