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Small Rooms, Big Returns

May 22, 2012
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In one of the most pivotal scenes in Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s 2011 documentary Saving Face, a Pakistani woman squats in front of a makeshift, outdoor kitchen, making bread. She’s describing how her marriage went bad to worse, and how her drug-addicted, alcoholic husband had angrily intercepted her outside the local courthouse, where she’d gone to get a divorce. Her partially covered face barely changes, but the subtitles tell the story: He threw battery acid—“the highest quality, undiluted,” she says—on her face, severely disfiguring the left side of her face and ruining one of her left eye. “It took one second to completely ruin my life,” she says. “One second.” As the camera moves in for a close-up, Gunnard Doboze’s score—a skillfull mix of harmonium, processed guitar, pads, and vocals—swells into place, matching the moment without being overbearing.

 
Gunnard Doboze scored the Oscar-winning
documentary Saving Face in his home studio.
In a similarly powerful scene from a film that’s just as intense, former U.S. Army sergeant Ethan McCord talks about his memories of the controversial July 12, 2007 airstrike that’s at the heart of James Spione’s Incident in New Baghdad. As the film switches between McCord, cockpit gunsight footage, and a grisly photo that’s hard to forget, we hear him talk about finding a small Iraqi girl next to her injured brother and dead father in a van, the moment perfectly supported by Emile Menasché’s supremely sensitive blend of Arabic-flavored guitar, flute, synth pads, and silence.

These moments, two of many, helped Saving Face and Incident in New Baghdad get nominated for Academy Awards in the Best Documentary (Short) category this year. (Saving Face won.) The richness and beauty of these scores belies the fact that both were done a long way from Hollywood blockbuster budgets, without a team of editors, copyists, orchestrators, arrangers, and orchestral musicians. In fact, Menasché and Doboze both composed, performed, recorded, mixed, and produced their scores in their home project studios, primarily using Logic Pro. We asked Menasché, editor-in-chief of In Tune Monthly, and Doboze, a professor at Academy of Art University in San Francisco, to give us the scoop on their processes, as well as the challenges— and the rewards—of working at home.

How’d you get the gig?

Doboze: The filmmakers got in touch with me after they saw the first movie I ever scored, back in 2004. I licensed music to them from my library, and in 2007, they called me to do a score for a movie they were doing. In 2009, they called me again, and when they did Saving Face two years later, I was the logical choice.
Menasché: Early in my career, I met a bunch of graduates from SUNY Purchase’s film program, and started doing educational films and shorts with John G. Young. Jim [Spione, director] was one of the producers of the first feature I scored, Young’s Parallel Sons, and we kept in touch. I ended up doing a lot of educational videos with Young, and then working with Jim on a couple other projects. We were actually going to work on a documentary about President Barack Obama’s inauguration when Jim found the Ethan McCord story and decided to shift gears.

What was your composing process?

Doboze: I watched the film once or twice, and then I wrote a temp score, maybe three or four cues, based on my initial reaction. Half these cues ended up in the movie. For me, the process is about stepping away, storyboarding the film in my mind, and then going back, working on specific scene cuts, or conforming my sketches to the film itself. Then the editors come back with cues—Davis [Koombe, music editor] and Daniel [Junge, co-director] are very clear about what they want, which makes things a lot easier.
Menasché: I worked a few different ways. Early on, I wrote to emotions and ideas, creating beds that indicated tension; I also created some more pop-sounding tracks to represent the soldiers, one of which ended up being used for the closing credits.

I did much of the first work in Logic Pro using Logic and Native Instruments soft synths and samplers. I like Logic’s Sculpture modeling synth for textures because you can have harmonics build and shift as a long note sustains. I also used Ableton Live for a few of the early Western cues because it’s easy to bang out ideas. I don’t think any of those made it to the final, though. Later, I wrote and recorded most of the flute and acoustic guitar in Live.

How did you use Live?

Mensasché: I started by recording in Clips view and just laying down ideas. The way I was playing with the NI ethnic instruments, they sounded too stock, so I made a percussion loop by playing a beat on my guitar. I played to that, wrote the melody that later became the flute theme, and then had my 15-year-old daughter Rebecca transcribe and play it.

 
The Oscar-nomiated Incident in New Baghdad was scored by Emile
Menasché.
I also wanted to use the flute for some textures as an alternative to the synths. I used Live’s warping features to pitch the flute down an octave and to create more melodic variations, eventually exporting a lot of it into Logic and using Space Designer to create the ambience around it, which in come cases adds a pad-like dimension.

Was it important to research each country’s music?

Menasché: I did research “Iraqi pop music” and “Iraqi folk music” on YouTube before I wrote the flute melody, which we used to represent the little girl in particular and the Iraqi people in general. But I didn’t get too locked into what I was hearing, either. These days, unless you’re really going for something indigenous, you’re usually confronted with music that mixes regional styles. I focused on elements like scales and instrumentation, and then just started playing the guitar to write the melodies.
Doboze: I had to be careful to not make the score sound like Indian music; I asked the Indian vocalist on the soundtrack, Kiran Ahluwalia, to sing in Dari, a Pakistani dialect, and instead of actual words, she sang wordless phrases. And then I made sure that all my scales were tuned appropriately.

Tell me about the mixing process.

Menasché: Once I’d recorded the music, the mixing process was pretty simple, though we did end up remixing tracks. The music has to blend with many other sounds, and things that sound great when you listen on your own sound horrible under dialog and sound effects. EQ changes can make a big difference. During the final film mix, Jim brought over his system, and if a track wasn’t working, I would do a quick remix on my system and give him the new file on a flash drive.
Doboze: If an instrument stands out in a documentary score, it destroys the narrative. It’s important to create a big space for everything. I tried to keep the mix really balanced but uniform at the same time so as not to draw attention to itself.

Given the nature of the film’s subject, were you mindful of certain political and cultural considerations?

Doboze: Again, making sure the music sounded Pakistani, not Indian, was important, as well as staying out of the way of these women by supporting the story in the most atmospheric way I could. I had to draw people in with the score and help them focus on something that would otherwise be very difficult to watch.
Menasché: I didn’t really think about the politics involved vis-a-vis the music, other than to treat the various cultural references with respect. I wanted the music to be direct and sincere, and not sound like it was from a Middle East sound library.

What are the pluses and minuses of working at home?

Menasché: Working at home is good when you’re able to play most of your own parts, and it’s definitely nice when you have a demanding day gig because you can rest and then work. The disadvantage is that you end up having to focus on technical considerations instead of just focusing on the music.
Doboze: Having your studio at home is kinda difficult because work is always there, and you don’t have the separation you have in other jobs. The plus side, however, is that if you have an idea and you want to express it, you can express it whenever you want to. So there’s that wonderful transparency between having a creative thought and executing it, which I like a lot.

What workflow tips would you give to aspiring film composers?

Doboze: For me, it’s all one big, giant happy accident. I compose and mix as I go, and more often than not, I come up with things that far exceed my expectations. I always encourage people to think of workflow as being very circular, not an end-to-end sort of thing. Usually, by the middle of the session, I have a really good sense of how things should be, and then it’s just a question of bringing things to a close.
Menasché: Don’t get caught up in sound libraries and plug-ins—focus on writing good music. Export your mixes as uncompressed audio, as well as MP3s, even in the early stages. Organize your work. Create flexible arrangements. Play with feeling! And don’t get too locked into what you think is best; be open to what really works.

How early should composers talk about getting paid?

Doboze: Stipulate a payment schedule in your contract. Agents will often put contracts together while you’re scoring the film, and you won’t get your first paycheck until the film’s done. It’s important to have enough money up front so that you can relax, write, and not have to worry about doing ten other projects at once.
Menasché: Talk about money early. If you’re working with indie filmmakers, they may not have much of a budget. You have to decide whether you want the credit (or the pleasure of doing the project) or the money. Make sure you retain all rights unless you’re getting a good buyout. Make sure to get a cue list and submit it to your performing-rights organization.

How do you think things have changed for film composers in the last five years?

Menasché: Technology has made it easier to get the score to picture, but stay focused on using the technology to aid your own unique creativity. You don’t need the most tricked-out system to create effective film music. If you do use something pre-existing, don’t be afraid to add your own ideas to it. Even the drum machine part at the end of the film—a few people asked me where I got that track. It started as a programmed part, but I modified it and then improvised a solo over it, and that was it: Done.
Doboze: The biggest change has been that most film scoring has moved to the project studio. Budgets for live music are diminishing, but the quality of sample libraries is increasing. Recording a live orchestra, for example, is becoming less and less relevant. The upside is that there’s less overhead; if you’re a composer, your creative fee is your creative fee, as opposed to going out the window for expenses.

The downside is that because directors know scores can be produced at home, they’re making last-minute decisions, which really impacts how composers approach material. Huge Hollywood movies still have professional music editors and big music budgets, but on most films, composers are treated as though they’re film editors who can make changes on the fly. The landscape of the industry is shifting toward a more fluid dynamic between composers, editors, and directors. If you can’t pivot, you won’t work. Learn how to write flexibly and effectively, and you’ll stay busy.

E. E. Bradman, a musician, writer, and editor, is a graduate student in the Academy of Art University’s music production and sound design program.

A Tale of Two Rigs

Doboze and Menasché share their studio setups.

Gunnard Doboze
Rig Quad-core Mac Pro
Interface TC Electronic Studio Konnekt 48
Software Logic Pro 9, Spectrasonics Omnisphere
Plug-ins MOTU Ethno Instrument 2, Vienna Symphony Strings
Monitor M-Audio BX5s
Microphones Studio Projects

Emile Menasché
Rig MacBook Pro
Interface TC Electronic Konnekt 24D Firewire, Zoom H4 8 as a USB input
Software Logic Pro, Ableton Live, Native Instruments
Plug-ins Space Designer, various delays, and UA Dreamverb, running on a Universal Audio UAD-2 Duo card in the laptop’s expansion slot
Monitors Genelec 1030s, Hafler TRM 8.1s with a subwoofer
Controllers Ozonic, Axiom Pro 61, and Samick electric guitar equipped with a Roland GK-3 pickup
Mic and Recorders Zoom H4 8 and an AKG C414
Instruments Taylor 814-BCE

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