I am endeavoring to create a new stand-alone piece every month, focusing on developing a certain skill or stylistic technique. Here’s what I came up with for this month; the focus here was on achieving a rich, lush depth to the orchestration, along with an intense synth/acoustic sonic atmosphere.
To continue the discussion from last week, here are a couple of popular videos from the vast world of YouTube on the topic of film music, temp tracks, and originality, with comments from yours truly. Please note that in this article I generalize heavily because it is necessary to do so to make a point. There are exceptions to what I say below. Also be advised that while both videos are generally clean, there is at least one instance of language and there are clips from many films, so viewer discretion is advised.
Comments: I think the problem of homogenized film music runs deeper than just the temp tracks; I think it indeed runs deeper then the score entirely. It is not just modern film music that is, at least in some genres, becoming bland and repetitive- the films themselves are becoming similarly predictable. Perhaps the problem is even more systemic than cookie-cutter filmmaking- perhaps it is audiences who are OK with it.
Furthermore, as the below video will address, temp tracks and indeed even rather obvious copycatting still do not necessarily result in a forgettable score. Hans Zimmer’s main theme for Gladiator and Klaus Badelt’s epic motif for Pirates of the Caribbean are very, very similar, but both scores are strikingly memorable and very powerful because- as similar as they may be to other works- they are musically powerful and emotionally gripping. They transcended wallpaper music and made powerful statements about the story of the film.
So are temp tracks a part of the problem? Possibly. But change the temp tracks out with more interesting ones and you may get a memorable score that is still not unique or creative. I think the deeper issue is a systemic failure to pioneer, and especially musically. We will pioneer aurally- fancier synths, more outlandish vocals, custom-recorded car percussion as in the case of Looper- but musically, our harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic vocabulary is dwindling vastly. And what is it that makes music memorable? The *music*. Not the sound. The sound will make an impression, of course; a chord progression that is orchestrated and synthesized will make you feel a certain way. But it will not stand out- it will not ring in your ears as you go to sleep that night and call up all the emotions from the film. You need a melody to do that, and in stark contradiction to previous generations of film music, melody is very sparse these days (though certainly not absent, particularly in animated films, which seem in some ways to be transforming into the last bastion of orchestral and melodious film music).
As an example of the music-less soundscape of modern film:
I wonder if this partially ties into the postmodern mindset of today- the existentialist “what is just is” mindset that characterizes so many of today’s blockbusters. It would be no surprise that an atheistic worldview would result in nihilistic music, consisting only of shapes and shadows and textures and emotions, but not of themes and statements and musical beauty. The Christian worldview inspires creativity and innovation, because as Christians we serve a God Who is infinitely creative, and we are called to be like Him. Our music should reflect that.
“Great are the works of the LORD; they are studied by all who delight in them.” – Ps. 111:2
Film scores that rely upon sound but do not make full use of music in the end, I believe, cheapen the story by failing to give it the depth of emotion that it could otherwise have portrayed. And while stereotypes and industry techniques are not only helpful but actually essential to musical communication (in the same way that film structure has become somewhat standardized as filmmakers have discovered what types of story structure make for the most satisfying films- it’s all about discovering the way God designed art to communicate), a failure to transcend those stereotypes and craft a unique musical signature for each film results eventually in a homogenized and bland world of film music.
My favorite point made in the above video is how they turned the Thor scene on its head. It gave me chills. The emotional richness was so much more poignant, and so much less on-the-nose. I want to see *that* movie. Enough with the wallpaper music- let’s paint a picture.
Comments: This brings out some really interesting points, especially about the evolution of sample quality. I myself started out relying heavily on the short patches, in part because of the exact reasoning in the above video. You can hear that in some of my older compositions:
While the use of those patches is part of my composition style, and while they still are the easiest to work with, as sample instruments have evolved, I (and I’m sure many other composers) have been able to convincingly write with richer orchestration (French Horn solos, lyrical flute lines, etc.):
Of course, that is not simply a matter of evolving samples; I’ve matured a lot as a composer in the time between those two groups! But that brings us to something else worth noting about this second video- the idea presented that film music isn’t really about originality; that it’s more about creatively repackaging old ideas. As much as I appreciated this video, I very strongly disagree on this point. That may be the general reality in Hollywood, but I think it is a sad one, and one with which we should not be content.
There is certainly truth, as we have discussed, to the idea that film music relies on and develops given techniques. This is true for at least two reasons; first, God designed music to communicate in a certain way. A scene that needs action music needs action music, period- we must be creative within the bounds of effective action music, but it usually won’t work to write a love theme in an effort to be original.
Second, as the industry progresses, filmmakers want their films to feel modern (usually, unless it’s a throwback like La La Land). So there is a certain degree of sonic quality and stylistic technique which is rightly expected of the composer. If the synthesizers make the audience think they’re watching a late-80s Goonies sequel, that is usually not going to be a good mental association for a modern film unless it is a stylistic throwback. The below piece is such a throwback; the Goonies score was actually the reference work for this score:
So what is a composer to do if he is working within the stylistic guidelines of another film or genre? Two things- first, use those tropes to season the score, but not to serve as the main course; work with the flavors of the genre you are looking for while also finding unique colors and techniques to flesh out the unique voice of your film. Second- write *music*. You can have a very similar soundscape to another film, but if your score has original music, genuinely creative and rich and melodious, it will not sound like any other movie- while still communicating the proper genre “feel”. Think of all the great orchestral/acoustic film scores throughout the 1900s- Indiana Jones and Star Wars and E.T. and Legends of the Fall and The Rocketeer and Braveheart and all of Bernard Herrmann’s works and Poledouris’ Conan the Barbarian and good ol’ Rocky and the list goes on and on. These films were all working with a basically similar soundscape- that of the orchestra and supplementary acoustic instruments. The melodies, the harmonies, the rhythms- those are what set these films apart from each other in incredibly memorable ways.
Now that the sonic possibilities of synthesizers and samples are readily available to us, that is a reason to add variety to our soundscapes- not to reduce them to a predictable mass of synthetic textures and percussion grooves. We have more sonic possibilities at our fingertips than any generation of composers before us- are we making use of that? Or are we following the pattern of our generation and forgetting our heritage, content simply with what is cool here and now?
And even when our sonic parameters are set within a certain dimension, we have the bigger tool- the language of music- which allows us, if we will try, to create truly and clearly unique scores even with similar soundscapes, just like composers did throughout the 20th century. After all, men made synthesizers. God made the language of music. Which one do you think gives more opportunity for infinite creativity?
I am convinced that even within the necessary limitations of film music there is a world of opportunity for us as composers to create and explore and invent. A score can sound modern and biting AND musically rich. An action sequence can have all the rhythmic drive of The Bourne Ultimatum WHILE sculpting a musically and aurally unique symphonic universe.
That film music is an art form bound to cliche is a premise that I refuse to accept. God’s storytelling is infinitely creative. Ours should strive to be likewise.
For myself, I strive to make every composition and every score melodically, harmonically, rhythmically, and aurally unique. I’m in this for the Glory of God, and He deserves more than just rip-offs and creative rearrangements.
David asks: “Temp tracks: yay or nay?”
It’s a simple question, but a very, very good one, one which composers generally love to be asked because temp tracks can- well, sometimes temp tracks are the bane of our existence.
First things first- what is a temp track? A temp (temporary) track is a previously composed piece of music, generally from another film, that a director or editor puts into his project temporarily while editing it together. This provides the editor with an aural sense of rhythm that he can edit to; it also makes the film-in-progress feel more complete and emotionally satisfying, which is, of course, very fun. Take an action scene that you’re editing together and stick a track from The Bourne Ultimatum underneath it, and suddenly it is twice as thrilling.
As you might expect, the response to this question includes a little bit both of yea and nay.
I think the biggest concern for every composer who discovers that his director has been using temp tracks is that the director might fall in love with that epic track by John Williams and want exactly. the. same. thing.
As a composer, I am hired to bring my experience and knowledge and skill and passion in the realm of music into your project to make it better. But if you fall in love with a particular score, that may end up reducing me to the producer of a knockoff score. Instead of being able to be genuinely and freely creative, I am tightly bound to the choices some other composer made. The issue is not that his score wasn’t good- it’s that his score wasn’t written for your project. I want to work with you to find more than just a good score- I want to find your movie’s voice. I don’t want to just dress your movie in really well made clothes- I want to tailor the suit to fit exactly.
So if Giacchino’s UP is already the score for your movie in your head, but I have a crazy idea that maybe some humming might fit well into the score, it will be hard to pitch that idea to you, because that doesn’t sound like UP.
But maybe it actually does sound like your movie.
So if the temp track prejudices the director to be closed off to the composer’s creativity, then in the end the film is worse off for it- the composer cannot bring his full expertise to the table, and the director will struggle to make his decisions about the music without bias.
If the director is careful to reserve judgment, however- if he keeps himself from falling in love with the temp track, and uses it only as a loose guideline for the emotions and pacing of the film- then temp tracks can be quite helpful.
For my part, I prefer no temp tracks at all. I much prefer painting on a blank canvas. However, previously composed music makes for an excellent translator in the discussion of music; one of the most helpful things for me is when a director gives me the names of some scores he likes, both in general and for the project at hand.
Sometimes it’s pretty straightforward. Years ago, working on the medieval action short Brothers Arise, Hans Zimmer’s Pirates of the Caribbean score was a very accurate picture of the feel we were going for. While the resulting score was not a copy-paste of Zimmer’s work, the influence is clear, and being able to reference a previously composed score gave us common ground on which to build the musical world of the film:
Sometimes the benefits are much more subtle. Before scoring Bound, I spent some time talking to the director. In the process, we discussed music that we liked, and he played me this track- one of his new favorites at the time:
This wasn’t a temp track; it didn’t appear in the edit; it wasn’t really even the right style for Bound. But he was communicating to me what he liked in a more general sense. What made him tick. And without having to have any long conversation, he effectively communicated to me that he liked the modern, epic grandeur of The Battle Room. That got filed somewhere in the deep dark recesses of my brain, only to reappear when writing the suite for the film- you can hear the modern influence coming out at 3:18 even in the midst of a score that is, overall, very classical in tone.
I had a fuller picture of how the director thought, and I was able to better sculpt the world of the score in a way that resonated with the director.
So if I had to answer this question in a word, I would say “nay.” Skip the temp tracks, or hold onto them loosely. Trust your composer with the music of your movie- give him room to experiment, to throw out ideas, to really work at perfecting the music. Don’t bind him to some other movie’s voice. But while you’re at it, compiling a little mental list of soundtracks and/or composers that have “the right sound/feel” for your movie is a great idea; it will give you and your composer a great jumpstart on the communication process as you narrow in the vision for your score.
This post is the first in a series answering questions about the composing process. Next week, I’ll be taking a break from the Q&A, instead sharing and commenting on a video about the music of Marvel movies. Have a question for a film composer? Just comment below and I’ll add it to the list!
Steven asks: “When looking at a script, do you picture and feel the emotion that needs to be felt by the future viewer to the movie?”
This is a question that is on one hand very personal- the answer is likely to vary depending on which composer you ask, because the composition process isn’t necessarily the same for anyone. At the same time, there are some overarching constants that every composer’s answer will include.
I don’t always look at the script. If the film is already in a rough- or locked-cut state, then I just watch that. But if the film is not yet in a viewable state (maybe they’re still in pre-production), I like to look at the script. There are a few reasons for this; first, to make certain that this is a project I want to be a part of (Ben Botkin gave me that advice a long time ago- always read the script!); if there is something in the film that would violate my convictions then I need to know as soon as possible so I can graciously excuse myself from that film’s team early on, rather than stumbling across the scene when I’ve already composed 10 minutes worth of music and spent hours and hours communicating with the director. I learned this lesson the hard way- started work on a feature film before watching the whole thing, and then when I saw the full rough cut I was shocked at some of the content in the movie. God was gracious, and the director let me back out of the project painlessly, but it’s a lesson I don’t want to have to re-learn. If a rough cut isn’t available, then looking at the script allows me to make sure we aren’t going to set ourselves up for big problems down the road. Being able to commit to the project with confidence allows us to work out all the fine print details well in advance of post-production deadlines. So when I get my first exposure to the script, a lot of times I’m skimming it for conscience’s sake more than soaking in it for artistic reasons.
Next, and more in line with Steven’s question, we come to the emotional and artistic value of script-reading. For me, this varies depending on the reason I’m reading – am I doing a quick read to make sure I can commit to this project? Or am I doing a more analytical read, mulling over musical possibilities?
For me, reading a script is pretty similar to reading a book. Good scripts can be just as emotional as good books, so in the case of a well-written script I don’t so much feel the emotion as it should be to the viewer; I rather feel the emotion of the story itself, just as I would if I was reading a Charles Dickens novel. Of course, the inverse is true- a badly written script doesn’t spark as much of an emotional response, or sparks a negative one.
With that said, a script is different from a book in the sense that, if I’m reading it because the filmmaker is bringing me aboard his project, I am of course getting a feel for something I will be called on to bring to life musically. Sometimes reading through a script musical ideas do jump out at me. I was just reading an early draft of a film’s script where there is an epic reveal of some fancy technology; the way it was written painted in my head the picture, and I could hear matching music for the scene.
I generally go about the composition process in three stages. It starts with prayer- prayer for a good melody, for wisdom, that God will glorify Himself through the music I’m about to write. And then there’s an idea- maybe musical (“let’s use the Phrygian mode to give this an otherworldly feel”), maybe emotional (“bittersweet memories”), maybe conceptual (“the protagonist works in a steel mill- let’s integrate some metallic elements into the score”). I hunt for the melodies and start collecting musical material and building the composition template for the project. Along with that, it’s rather hard to describe- I feel or hear the music, how it should be, what it should say, in my head. The composition process for me is a dance between those two elements- mental creativity and emotional realization.
Both of those elements are in play as I read through the script- artistic analysis and emotional impressions.
And this is all part of the second reason I like to get my hands on the script as early on in the production process as possible; it allows me to simmer on the concepts of the story without the pressure of deadlines; to begin to ask questions of the film and get to know the story. It also allows for me to give a composer’s perspective on things that otherwise would already be set in stone by the time they cross my screen.
My favorite thing about getting in on a project early is that sometimes there is the opportunity to actually sculpt the musical world of the film before composition proper even starts; to flesh out the melodic and harmonic and sonic and rhythmic elements that will make up the score. Then, when there is a locked cut on hand and a deadline looming, there is already a template laid out with the right instruments and sounds, and there is already a musical toolbox to draw from; once the film arrives ready for music, no time is wasted laying the groundwork, and we can jump straight into composition.
Below is an example of such a suite, written for Monitogo Studios’ “Bound” before composition on the film proper actually started. This allowed me to really nail down all of the big musical questions with the director, so when the time came to score the film we were already on the same page.
The important part of Steven’s question is the last half: “the emotion that needs to be felt by the future viewer.” Steven has pinpointed every composer’s job; as Jurgen Beck says, our job is to “create emotions.” Reading the script is one step on a journey into the heart of the film. As I read the script, I begin to better understand the world of the film; I am able to ask the director specific questions about the story, and transition from broad genre-based ideas into concepts hand-tailored for the story of the film. Rather than discussing the project as an “action movie” or a “RomCom,” we can talk about “James’ escape from an ISIS prison cell” or “Sarah falling in love with the mailman who makes a point to always have something to hand-deliver to her door.” We can now formulate ideas for ethnic references, whether or not the villain deserves his own theme, whether the hero’s theme is going to be heroic or distressed or- we can move beyond knowing that dinner is going to be Chinese and actually start looking at the menu.
Now the ideas can really start flowing with more specificity. We can begin to pinpoint the flavors and feelings that the world of the film needs to present. We have common ground on which to build our discussion of the score.
Sometimes those ideas come spontaneously; sometimes they come analytically; often it is a blend of emotion and analysis. Regardless of how we arrive at them, those are the ideas I am hunting for when I look at your script.
This post is the first in a series answering questions about the composing process. Next week, I’ll be fielding a question about the pros and cons of temp tracks. Have a question for a film composer? Just comment below and I’ll add it to the list!
No, I’m not going anywhere… that’s the title of the piece. This is an excerpt from a work-in-progress that I can’t wait to share with everyone when it’s complete. I’m experimenting here with a very modern cinematic sound; lots of effects and synthesizers coloring the soundscape.
The filmmaking world is unique for a variety of reasons; the convergence of disciplines, personalities, passions and skills that come together to make a single production is staggering, and the community that such like-minded laboring forges is easily compared to the relationship of a family; the cash flows in torrents, circulating enough green rectangular blood cells through the body of the filmmaking community to support many thousands of professionals and their families; the end product will often be seen by millions of eyes in dozens of countries around the world. With such a huge industry, so much skill, so many relationships, so much money, so much exposure and influence, it becomes quickly obvious why filmmaking makes such a powerful tool for the advancement of the Kingdom of God; inherent in a tool’s power, however, is a corresponding necessity for the careful use thereof.
There are no seven day waiting periods for the purchase of butter knives.
So what are the inherent dangers and temptations facing us as Christian filmmakers? While I cannot claim to list them all, I would like to suggest three powerful lures that would love to displace Christ as the king of our hearts.
The first is money. There is nothing wrong with a desire to make money- to the contrary, we are required to provide for our own, and that implies making money. Furthermore, Scripture says that the laborer is worthy of his wages. It is not “more Christian” to work for free, nor is it somehow wrong to charge a price that makes our work profitable. But the problem arises when we see our professional pursuit primarily as a means to make money, rather than primarily as a means to serve God. We cannot serve both God and money, and in an industry so flush with cash- especially in the secular realm of Hollywood- the lure of riches shimmers bright and golden, and we as believers must remind ourselves of what is truly priceless. (1 Tim. 5:8,18, Luke 16:13)
The second is fame. Your average McDonald’s burger-flipper isn’t interested in making sure that he is known nationwide as the most talented patty artist. But step into the filmmaking community and “who you know” becomes essential to professional success. You need a brand; you need name recognition; you need a social network. And these are simply necessary considerations for a wise businessperson. But it is a very short step from Christ-focused pursuit of professional excellence and self-focused pursuit of fame. Add to this the peculiar glamor that comes from having your name (and maybe your face) playing in front of thousands of people, and it becomes a powerful recipe for self-idolatry. A good litmus test for this snare is whether or not we can rejoice in the success of other believers, especially those who share an identical professional pursuit. If my focus is on Jesus, and if I am considering others more important than myself, then when that other composer gets signed onto the awesome film project, I will be glad for him, praying for him, and excited to see God’s Kingdom go forward. I will also trust Him to provide for my needs in the way that is best for me- even if that means I need to get a job at McDonald’s! After all, if I am seeking first His Kingdom, then it is about His fame and not my own. If, however, my focus is on myself, I will struggle with coveting others’ successes, and I will not be content with the blessings God has given me. (Matt. 6:33, Phil. 2)
The final snare to beware (for this post, at least) is the idol of art. We creatives are generally quite passionate about our respective crafts, and there are few things more satisfying than making a ________ (scene, score, script, etc.) that turns out just right. But as satisfying as that is, it is ultimately empty if it is not subject to our pursuit of Christ. The goal of artistry is not just to create excellent art; it is to create excellent art for the glory of our excellent God. This doesn’t mean cramming a “pray-a-prayer” scene into every script, but it does mean that our definition of good art stems from our pursuit of Christ and our understanding of His leading on our life. It also means that if our artistic pursuit is not what God wants us to do right now, we will not cling stubbornly to our dreams, but will rather follow the leading of our King. If the question changes from “what does Christ want me to do” into “what do I want to do” in our pursuit of artistic excellence, then we have created a golden calf in the shape of our passion, and we have revealed the true attitude of our heart- more passionate about our craft than about our Christ. This can also be diagnosed with a simple question- if Jesus wanted me to quit filmmaking and go work in a gas station, would I be OK with that? (1 Cor. 10:31)
This all boils down to the simple commandment to seek first the Kingdom of God- to love Him with all our hearts. If we are doing that, then we will see that no amount of money, no amount of fame, no level of artistic achievement can ever rival the joy and perfection that is for us in the infinitely satisfying Jesus Christ. (Matt. 6:33, 22:37, John 15:11)
“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”
Have a wonderful passion week and a blessed Resurrection Sunday; it is a great opportunity to meditate on a story so powerful, so important, so life-changing, and so easily taken for granted.
Jesus is alive. Oh that that would echo every day, every moment in my heart and mind. He is alive.
The below track was written for an album remembering the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. You can get it here.
“You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (Jas. 4:4)
We talk a lot about authenticity in filmmaking and storytelling. Sometimes that seems to be a code word for rejecting any kind of Biblical content standards so that our stories are “authentic.” But it leaves me to wonder- authentically what? Authentically Christian, or authentically worldly?
If, for example, we make a rugged gangster movie or a brutal Afghanistan combat sequence without any swearing, are we failing to be authentic to the world, or are we simply being authentic to the commands of Christ- and which is more important?
It’s more important to present a holy Jesus to the world than to try to minimize the distinction that Scripture makes so clearly; obviously not meaning that there shouldn’t be sin and conflict in our films, but that our films should apply the same Biblical standards of conduct that we would apply to our lives. “I wouldn’t blaspheme God in real life; I shouldn’t do it in a movie either.” “I wouldn’t wear something that skimpy in real life; I shouldn’t wear it in front of a camera either.” And the list goes on.
This is notably different from saying that our films shouldn’t portray any sin at all- rather we as Christian filmmakers should not commit sin in the process. Our convictions don’t become magically negligible because we walked on set. I can pretend to be a murderous gangster without actually murdering or a drunkard without actually getting drunk. But I can’t pretend to swear. I can’t pretend to wear inappropriate clothing.
True relevance comes not from being like the world, but from being like Christ. If the world is not impressed with our lack of “authenticity,” then we can count ourselves blessed. The goal should be not to impress the world with our movies, but to show the world Jesus as He truly is. If we remove holiness from our productions, we damage our witness and become hypocritical, calling others to obey a Jesus we disobeyed in calling.
“Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.” (Matt. 5:11)
I am so excited to watch this project beginning to come together. This beautiful music video showcases what is one of my favorite tracks on the upcoming album Higher by vocalist Jacob Pennington. What a ride it has been, creating the orchestral backdrop for his excellent voice and richly poetic songs, all while working with an artist who so clearly has the glory of Christ as his first and highest goal.
Stay tuned, folks. It’s gonna be good.
Congratulations to the whole team behind the “Mission Underground” project, which took home multiple awards at the 2017 Christian Worldview Film Festival, including runner-up for best original score! I was blessed with the opportunity to arrange, orchestrate, and produce music for composer Josiah Fields on this project, and I’m thrilled to see the film so well received!
You can hear some of the score below: