Small Rooms, Big Returns
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|
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
Was it important to research each country’s
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
Given the nature of the film’s subject, were
you mindful of certain political and cultural
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
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
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
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
A Tale of Two Rigs
Doboze and Menasché share their
Rig Quad-core Mac Pro
Interface TC Electronic Studio Konnekt 48
Software Logic Pro 9, Spectrasonics
Plug-ins MOTU Ethno Instrument 2,
Vienna Symphony Strings
Monitor M-Audio BX5s
Microphones Studio Projects
Rig MacBook Pro
Interface TC Electronic Konnekt 24D
Firewire, Zoom H4 8 as a USB input
Software Logic Pro, Ableton Live, Native
Plug-ins Space Designer, various delays,
and UA Dreamverb, running on a Universal
Audio UAD-2 Duo card in the laptop’s
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
Instruments Taylor 814-BCE