Wednesday, 24 March 2010

The Eight Percent

This is a short film I noticed a few years ago at the Tribeca film festival competition, where it was awarded first place. It is a lovely story with some really great acting from Benjamin McKenzie and Ashley Williams. It's one of my favourite short films, so take a look.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

What's the score with David Hearn

This month I have asked David Hearn to show a bit of insight into the complex world of film score composing. We were lucky enough to work with David in 2009 on the short film Light Rain. He has worked on some truly epic film scores over the years and was on hand this month to answer some Q&As about the scoring of a film.

-Interview Begins-

NEIL: Hi David, thanks very much for taking time away from your busy schedule to answer a few film scoring questions.

DAVID: That's ok, I was actually just looking at some can edit that bit out!

NEIL: I might have to (laughs)

NEIL: OK, so lets start by finding out where you get your inspiration when you are about to begin a scoring process?

DAVID: Well, 9/10 times in film there's a temp track that the editor/director have put in place as this effects the timing of the edits, and the overall mood of the piece. It no doubt forms the basis of the 'inspiration'. But I am also inspired by lots of old Hollywood legends - Rosza, Korngold, Steiner, Waxman, etc.

NEIL: So the director gives you a few cues of things he likes and then sends the edit with a temporary track to give you an idea of what he/she had in mind?

DAVID: Yes, the key is to not listen to the temp track more than once really. You take the feel, the vibe, the general tempo and pace of the track and then evolve something new from it. But, temp tracks are sometimes a necessary way of the director conveying his intentions for the music to you, without having to know lots of musical terminology.

NEIL: Yes, I never properly understand all the terms you composers use. So what's next in your process?

DAVID: Well, then I try to watch without any sound at all, and this is pretty much where it all happens...if you hear the score in the head, then you're golden... you can go about making it a reality. If you don't hear it, then you're either in trouble, or you might have to do a 'process of elimination' approach. Then that means sketching lots of ideas out. Finding a good tempo is perhaps one of the most important aspects of beginning a cue.

NEIL: So you watch the film in silence to gain an idea of mood and tempo, like the origins of silent cinema?

DAVID: Well, not necessarily. If there's a temp track, then I have to take note of that...because it would be foolish to dismiss the intentions of the director, plus almost all of the time, the temp track works pretty well.
But, I don't really want to end up shuffling notes around to make a sound similar to the temp instead I just take the overall vibe and feel from the temp track, then turn the sound off, and then that's when mood and melody appears in my head.
I find it very, very important to imagine it first, rather than sit at a piano and jam ideas out.
NEIL: You mentioned some of the Hollywood legends that give you inspiration, Rosza, Korngold, Steiner and Waxman. How much of a bearing does this have on the style of score you deliver?

DAVID: Well, it's hard to say. I love the 'golden age' scoring style, if you can call it that. However, it's completely overstated and wrong for movies, it's not so much of a direct inspiration, but rather a more abstract imprint it leaves in your musical mind.

NEIL: Yes, modern day movie making has certainly changed from those early days. Directors these days seem to favor big sound effects over a building orchestral score. Does this effect the way you put your scores together?

DAVID: Yeah, completely! It has to, otherwise you're giving people what they don't want. I suppose on the one hand, I love cleverly orchestrated, well put together and thought out scores. But on the other hand, I don't like being distracted by underscore when I'm watching a movie.
I recently worked on a big disaster movie (Roland Emmerich's 2012), and there was relatively little 'music' in there. Lots of percussion mostly, but perhaps of note was that the biggest action sequences were almost completely bereft of score.

NEIL: To keep an element of realism in the film?

DAVID: Yes, it has the benefit of making the audience feel more involved in the movie and makes it a more 'lifelike' experience. I guess when you're spending a million dollars on a CGI sequence to make it look like real life, to have an 80 piece orchestra going crazy over it would defeat the point!

NEIL: It can be an effective tool to keep people on the edge of their seats.

DAVID: Not that it's a new device. Was it Hitchcock's 'The Birds' that had no score? Very effectively I might add. I just hope Hermann walked in, said 'you don't need score for this', collected his paycheck and left!

NEIL: Well on the film Light Rain, we didn't have any loud action sequences. Did you enjoy using music in the traditional sense to build the emotion?

DAVID: Ah yes, indeed...well Light Rain was unusual in the sense that it had a 'storybook' feel to it. It was narrated, which is great for a composer to work around. Plus, the movie had a couple of very definite sync points that would have been a shame to not highlight musically.
With a picture like this, you want to keep the number of tempo and signature changes to a minimum, as anything that varies to wildly would become distracting for the viewer. Once I'd settled on a good steady tempo, I began piecing the other elements together as I'd heard them in my head whilst watching the initial playback. I often start with a piano sketch, then start filling the elements in around that, like a painter colouring in a pencil sketch. Once I've got a good base, I'll turn off the piano guide track and continue orchestrating as needed until the piece is complete.
The overall look and feel of the film influenced how it felt musically to me, so hopefully that was reflected in the music.

NEIL: Yes, I was very pleased with the outcome of the score. You just know immediately when something fits, because it enhances the story and makes for a better film.
You talked about how modern film making has progressed. Has scoring progressed in the same fashion and if so how has modern technology allowed you to improve?
DAVID: Scoring has both progressed and regressed at the same time in some ways. Modern technology allows us to realise the score as it's being composed. If you're good enough, it'll sound like a real orchestra, which is amazingly liberating in a creative sense.
If you're not good enough, the technology can hold you back to the point that you make bad orchestrations and compensate using even more technology. It's all about finding that balance between making the technology work for you, as opposed to working for the technology.

NEIL: I remember that you are very technology driven, even more so than most that fair to say?

DAVID:  I'm involved in the technology side as a developer too. I've created a sample library that allows very expressive string writing.

NEIL: So would you say that technology used correctly will help the process...but ultimately it is the talent that needs to be there?

DAVID: Oh yeah, for sure... if you can figure it out (and it's a minefield), it can be a godsend. Plus it allows film makers on a budget to have a bespoke orchestral score, without having the risks associated with recording real orchestras. Then there are all the other benefits of being able to change things around to suit the clients changing requirements. But, you have to be able to write properly in the first place. So the talent for music has to be there along with the talent for technology.

NEIL: It certainly helps if you have a talent for it like you do.

DAVID: Well, I'm lucky enough to be blessed with very good pitch and auralization. If I hear something in my head, I can play it, and I can hear full scores in virtually complete detail. As such, I work very fast - but in my case it's more important to get a good vibe in the first place, as with each viewing of the film you grow more immune to the initial reaction other viewers will have.

NEIL: That's all good advice. So finally, do you have any advice for any potential composers out there that might be looking at this as a career path?

DAVID: ooooh... good question! There's no set way... no set path. I guess my advice would be to do some work for other composers, to get a feel for the process. You'll just end up being a bit of a dog's body for them... so don't do it for too long! Then seek some upcoming directors and start working with them. Meanwhile, make sure you know the basics and knowing how to score things out using sibelius, basic computer stuff will get you incredibly far.
Most stuff is done 'remotely' now - so emailing midi files, mp3s, movs, etc are all very important to know.
NEIL: Thanks David, this has been very insightful. I would just like to thank you for taking the time to talk with me about it all.
-Interview End-

My thanks to David for giving up his time to conduct this interview.