Picture Perfect

The art of composing music for picture has a rich heritage, dating back to the very beginnings of cinema. One could easily argue that its roots date back

The art of composing music for picture has a rich heritage, dating back to the very beginnings of cinema. One could easily argue that its roots date back thousands of years to the earliest days of theater. Almost anyone living in a civilized culture is constantly surrounded by moving pictures that tell a story, including feature films, television shows, commercials, movie trailers, Flash animations, and video games. In each of those genres, music exists to highlight the message's emotional underpinnings, to give the message context, or to comment on the message; to manipulate the viewer into feeling tension, joy, or sadness; and to add depth to the message, working in concert with the visual elements to create a stronger impression in the viewer's mind.

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FIG. 1: Despite its legendary status among Vangelis fans, the original soundtrack for Ridley Scott''s 1982 science-fiction thriller Blade Runner wasn''t released until 1994.

Composing for film, TV, or video games is really a vocational or applied art, as opposed to an abstract one. The composer must always remember that music for picture is created in service to someone else's idea; although it is a creative act, it is designed to integrate with the visuals, the dialog, and the sound effects to create a synergy more powerful than the sum of the elements on their own. Working within these genres can be a well-paying prospect, allowing those with talent, dedication, and a bit of luck to earn a living making music. Composers are granted the rare opportunity to hear their musical ideas realized by a symphony orchestra on somebody else's dime, and it gives them a wide distribution medium for their work.

Over time, a whole musical syntax has developed, filled with well-worn devices (clichés) that let the audience know what is happening. Some composers write brilliant, innovative symphonic works for picture; others rely on the tried and true, grinding out feature-length, low-budget scores in a week on their MIDI rigs. The act of telling stories with moving pictures isn't going away soon, nor will the need for music to augment them.

Outstanding Scores

The classic, de facto standard instrumental palette used by film composers is the symphony orchestra. The orchestra is supple and flexible, capable of a seemingly endless variety of textures. Writing an orchestral score often represents the pinnacle of achievement, as well as the greatest challenge, in a composer's career. In the right hands, the orchestra can be lyrical, achingly beautiful, mysterious, enthralling, wrathful, or uplifting. Writing and preparing an orchestral score is a highly detailed, technical, and laborious process. But when all the cards fall into place, the effect is like no other.

Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975) was a masterful orchestral film composer. Best known for his work with director Alfred Hitchcock, Herrmann's credits include North by Northwest and Vertigo, as well as Perry Mason, Citizen Kane, and The Day the Earth Stood Still. An analysis of Herrmann's work could fill volumes on its own. But Herrmann will always be known for the violent, slashing string glissandi that accompanied Norman Bates' knife blade during the infamous shower scene in Psycho. That single device has been copied and satirized endlessly, becoming a bedrock cultural reference.

Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) made brilliant use of existing orchestral works in his masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. He harnessed the raw power of Richard Strauss's “Also Sprach Zarathustra” to represent humanity at the moment of evolutionary upheaval. This is contrasted by the balletic poetry of Johann Strauss Jr.'s “Blue Danube Waltz,” which was used to portray the graceful movement of a rocket to the moon.

2001's soundtrack is exemplary in its use of restraint. Music was used sparingly, and it was all the more powerful in impact as a result. Some of the scenes that take place in outer space follow the rules of physics, having no audio whatsoever. Toward the end of the film, the sound of fear and resolve are hauntingly articulated by astronaut Dave Bowman's claustrophobic breathing within his spacesuit helmet.

Special Flavors

The orchestra's versatility may be tailor-made for creating music for picture, but custom palettes of sound can be just as effective, creating a specific context and a particular flavor forever associated with that work. Mix finger snaps, mouth pops, and slapped bass guitar riffs together, and what do you get? The theme music to the television show Seinfeld. What about a combination of whistling, a rough-and-tumble male chorus, and a twangy electric surf guitar? That concoction results in Ennio Morricone's soundtrack to the Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

In 1982, electronic-music icon Vangelis used analog synths to create a memorable score for the Ridley Scott/Harrison Ford sci-fi classic Blade Runner (see Fig. 1). His synth pads were lush yet glassy and cold, illustrating the mean, rainy streets of a futuristic Los Angeles in an advanced state of decay. Gamelan and kotolike sounds reflected the Asian flavor visually depicted in the city streets, and deeply reverberant, menacing percussive hits set the stage for the dark events that unfold throughout the film.

Director Roman Coppola's CQ (2001) is a lighthearted homage to '60s filmmaking, set in Paris and Rome in 1969. French duo Mellow composed the score in their home studio. Vintage synths, twangy tremolo guitar, and an unabashed Euro-psychedelic vibe nail the spirit of the age, reminding the viewer of the story's set and setting.

From the Experts

I interviewed two veteran music for picture composers to get their takes on the process and technique of this art form. Composers Mark Griskey and Jerry Grant write music for film, television, movie trailers, Internet animation, and video games. Grant was a longtime Los Angeles — based TV composer, cranking out hundreds of scores for shows such as Quantum Leap, The A-Team, The Greatest American Hero, and Magnum, P.I. He has scored many animated cartoons for Disney, biographies for A&E, and a pile of comedy and action-adventure “B” movies. He taught film scoring at UCLA and currently resides in Nevada City, California, where he composes symphonic and jazz art music. You can visit him on the Web at www.nujazzalternative.com.

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FIG. 2: In describing the concept of leitmotifs, Mark Griskey says, “You create a small melodic device that is associated with a specific character. Such devices can be developed into more complex themes and melodies.”

Mark Griskey began his career as a classical percussionist and jazz/rock drummer, following the route of session and gigging musician. He later studied composition and film scoring at UCLA (under the tutelage of Jerry Grant, among others), held a staff position as composer at Atom Films, and has concentrated on writing music for movie trailers. If you've seen a commercial for a first-run blockbuster, chances are good that you've heard Mark's music. He is currently staff composer for LucasArts, where he has written the scores for the video games Gladius, Sam and Max II, and Knights of the Old Republic II. You can visit his Web site at www.griskey.com.

What is your favorite orchestral film score?

Griskey: There are so many good ones! When I saw the first Star Wars movie as a kid, I wasn't very sophisticated about orchestral music, but I just knew that I liked the score. It has really held up through the years. John Williams made effective use of the leitmotif idea throughout the films, which was originally a Wagnerian concept (see Fig. 2). Essentially, you create a small melodic device that is associated with a specific character. Such devices can be developed into more complex themes and melodies. The way that Williams created these devices for different characters and then interweaved them together into an engaging, powerful score supported the film perfectly.

Grant: Thomas Newman (American Beauty, Horse Whisperer, Finding Nemo) is a master at trying out interesting ideas. He has the courage to let himself fall on his face. If you have that courage, that's when you get into the really interesting stuff. Alan Silvestri (Cast Away, Forrest Gump, Who Framed Roger Rabbit) is a phenomenal composer; he goes to the edge. He is a jazz/rock guitar player who didn't know what a baton looked like when he got his first movie. He did his homework and became a phenomenal orchestral writer. James Newton Howard (The Village, The Fugitive, The Sixth Sense) is another one: he is a keyboard/synthesist who got immersed in the film world. He just dove into the orchestra and came out like a champ. There are lots of well-schooled film composers who play it safe. Their scores are always predictable. Thomas, Alan, James, and Danny Elfman (Batman, Men in Black, Good Will Hunting) all go to the edge, and come up with brilliant scores as a result.

What is your favorite nonorchestral film score?

Grant: Luc Besson's The Fifth Element (1997) has a masterful score by Eric Serra. He is a phenomenal synth and symphonic composer. He creates very cool groove-oriented stuff and blends the orchestra with synths wonderfully. BT is also a master at his craft. His rhythmic drive is like no one else's. Check out his groove stuff on The Fast and the Furious.

Griskey: I really like the Pulp Fiction score. In all Quentin Tarantino's films that I've seen, he tends to shy away from creating an orchestral underscore or using any music written to picture. Instead, he licenses cool, obscure, funky pop music and edits it to taste. I think his choices support the picture really well.

What are the differences between composing for picture and composing for a nonvisual medium? What are the similarities?

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FIG. 3: Jerry Grant says, “When writing for film, I consider the picture to be the melody. What I am writing is the countermelody.”

Griskey: In both cases, you are composing music that you want to be interesting, dynamic, and engaging. When composing for picture, as opposed to writing a song or creating art music, the music is subservient to the picture. Its function is to underscore what's happening onscreen and support it.

Grant: The process of composing is always the same; I am always basing my work on a singular thought or feeling. The process is to come up with one word that describes the emotional quality of the picture. When I'm scoring a scene, I come up with the singular emotional word that best relates to what is going on: fear, sadness, joy, and so forth. For me, all music is dramatic, so it doesn't matter whether the music is picture-specific or not. I'll use the same approach to writing a piece of art music. I used to be a very cerebral composer, writing from my head; the result was that people would find my music “interesting.” To go beyond “interesting,” you have to transcend the technique. By focusing on this emotional process, I am able to write from the gut, which is where music really comes from.

When writing for film, I consider the picture to be the melody. What I am writing is the countermelody. As a result, the score is often not as dense as it would be in an art music context (see Fig. 3). It's very easy to overwrite, create too much density, or make things go too fast. Sometimes, a picture requires only a little stroke. A composer will feel insecure, which makes it hard to just let that little gesture sit there.

Discuss your creative approach when making music to highlight someone else's vision.

Grant: First, I want to understand the emotional attachment of the visual to the person who created it. How do they feel about each particular scene? If the director doesn't have a musical background, you have to reach into their head and find out what they are really looking for. You can't talk about music; you have to talk about the emotional quality of what they are looking at. I try to have the director define that emotional quality. We find that single emotional word, zero in on it, and then make sure that our individual definition of that word is the same. Once, in the mid-'80s, I was asked to create a rock score. So I went away and created something in the style of the Police, who were very hot at the time. I brought it in and the director said, “That's not what I want. I wanted the Platters!” So it's important to make sure that your visions are clearly defined.

The process of composing for picture seems to always be the same: you sweat it out for three or four days. I jump into the shoebox and rummage around for ideas. You try things, then toss them out. Pretty soon, you come across something that's interesting, and that becomes your path.

Griskey: I need to get the vibe of the entire scope of the work before focusing in on one particular segment of it. I'll read the script and discuss the emotional elements with the director. Once we've established the mood of what we are trying to do, I start throwing ideas out there. I think about some musical directions that could work, then improvise against the picture. Sometimes I will throw some previous work against the picture as a temp, just to see what kind of approach might work. Then I begin to refine the process, focusing in and establishing the instrumentation and defining a tonal palette for the work.

What approaches do you use to make sure that your approach aligns with the director's approach?

Griskey: Every project is different, and every creative team tends to have a slightly different way of working. The first thing to do is to establish a rapport and suss out the best way to work with the team. Some directors tend to be pretty hands-off, trusting your judgment based on your expertise and track record. The director drops off his or her project and picks up the music when it is done (see Fig. 4). Other directors might be more hands on, looking for a two-way interaction, particularly if you haven't worked together before. In that case, you definitely want to make sure everyone is on the same page creatively before you get too deeply involved in production. Discuss the direction, throw out ideas verbally, and watch to see which ideas make the director light up; that will guide your approach. If the director has a strong musical background, you can often achieve clarity verbally. Otherwise, you can cite specific examples that they are familiar with and play some examples. Once that's done, you can mock up sketches, which will eventually get the green light. At that point, the approval process becomes more of a rubber stamp, and you can just start writing in earnest.

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FIG. 4: Griskey says that some motion-picture directors trust the composer to carry out his or her wishes without supervision, while others take a more hands-on approach to hearing their vision come to life.

Discuss your thoughts on music's relation to other elements.

Grant: Music's purpose during dialog is to constantly reflect the emotional quality of the dialog. Dialog rarely goes along at a flat pace. It becomes emotionally charged, then relaxes. There will be conflict or resolution in the dialog, and heightening that quality is really the job of the film composer.

Griskey: Whenever possible, a composer should collaborate with the other audio creatives on a project. When you are spotting a scene, you have to take into account where sound effects and dialog will be so you can write around them. You have to leave space in the music score to let the sound effects stand out and be prominent. If actors are speaking quietly, don't try to drown them out by writing music that is overbearing or that conflicts with the frequency range of the human voice.

Discuss your composing process for a project from soup to nuts.

Griskey: First, you meet with the project team and determine who your creative point people will be. Read the script thoroughly, and ask questions if there are aspects of it you don't understand. Spotting sessions should happen as soon as the picture is locked. Sit down with the director, watch the film, and decide where music is needed and what purpose it should serve emotionally and aesthetically. Don't make the mistake of scoring the picture with wall-to-wall music. That takes away from its effectiveness and can just clutter up the soundtrack.

I usually create MIDI sample-based temp scores for everyone to comment on, then they get sent to the orchestrator. These days, MIDI scores really need to be pretty sophisticated. The tools are out there, and directors are used to hearing elaborately mocked-up MIDI scores. Your rig should use the most high-quality samples available and get as close as possible to the final sound.

Your orchestration and instrumental choices will determine much of the flavor of the score. You will work that out ahead of time to achieve a particular vibe. Budget plays a big role here: you might want a 100-person orchestra, but if the budget doesn't accommodate it, you can get creative with doubling parts and blending samples with live instruments. The first time you hear what your music is going to sound like is when you are actually on the scoring stage, hearing your music performed by these fine players. It is the highlight of the whole experience for the composer. When the final mixes are integrated into the film along with dialog and sound effects, many of the subtler moments may get buried. But the recording session is your moment to shine, standing in front of the orchestra and soaking it all in.

The mixing process brings it all together, achieving the goals you wanted to create. It's your last chance to balance levels between sections of the orchestra, making sure everything is heard that should be heard.

These days, I hear more after-the-fact music editing than ever before. With the tools we have now, you can move cues around and have more flexibility than you used to, all the way to the end. I think music editing for picture is much more of a creative tool than the mechanical process that it used to be. In the final mix, you always have to remember that the music is subservient to the picture and is just one element in the overall project. Don't make the mistake of thinking that every nuance you wrote in the score has to be heard in the final mix. If you've written your music effectively, it will do what it is supposed to be doing.

You frequently compose music for picture without knowing in advance what the picture will be. What is your approach to composing trailer music on spec?

Griskey: It's a whole different style of composing. In some respects, it is similar to songwriting in that you have to think of a formula with a beginning, middle, and end. Having an idea of what film genres you are composing for allows you to determine the appropriate instrumentation and tempo. The main thing is to keep focused. The piece can't develop too much; it needs to evolve, change, and build constantly through the short time that you have, without going off on some sort of tangent.

What do you like and dislike about working in film and TV?

Grant: In TV, I like the royalties. You can't be as subtle in television, though. You have to make pretty obvious strokes in TV music. In film, you can make a very subtle stroke and often have it be heard. You just can't rely on the TV speaker to carry your music. Working in film is like writing a symphony. You get some ideas and consistently develop them throughout the whole picture. In film, I never wrote the main title first. I would start writing in the middle, and once the piece was half done, the main title would become very evident. That's the fun of writing for film: you get the excitement of making little discoveries in developing the material, like Beethoven did.

Discuss the use of technology in film music.

Grant: When I start, I make a sketch, often using MIDI. But I grew up with a pencil in my hand and love to write that way. I've noticed in pictures of contemporary studios that there is often nothing to write on. All you see is keyboards. The process of sitting at the keyboard and improvising creates a different end result. With a pencil, you get more counterpoint and less pad. I am able to interlock the melodic material better that way. When composing from a keyboard, you tend to rely on your licks, often just getting a melody with a chord pad underneath. I feel that music is made up of lines; their interplay is where the really interesting stuff happens.

I've been subscribing to Electronic Musician for about 15 years now, and I read it religiously every February. There's nothing wrong with electronics; I've got a studio full of stuff. But to make the technology the music is a mistake.

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan wrote a very important book called Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. This is where he coined the famous phrase, “The medium is the message.” That's a good analogy to what can happen and often does happen with technology in today's musical spectrum. And it's unfortunate that many producers and directors have bought into this. Now they can create a score using Apple GarageBand. They can create their own score and don't even need a composer any more!

Tell us about your rig.

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FIG. 5: “Although I love cool analog gear, more and more my system stays in the computer, relying on plug-ins and software synths and samplers," says Griskey. "That way, six Februarys after the fact, I can pull up a project and be able to rework it.”

Grant: I buy a new computer every three or four years. I am not a gear nut. If you are a sailor and you lose the race, you blame it on the fact that your sails aren't good enough. That's not where the blame lies; it lies in the way you are sailing your boat. Moving back into music, in the heyday of the Yamaha DX7, we each had 10,000 sounds for the synth. Let's say I have to write three minutes of music in a given day. How long do I have to look through those thousands of sounds to find the perfect sound? You can't do it. Instead, you cultivate 100 favorites, and if a sound doesn't work, just find another one. It wasn't worth it to me to spend one hour editing a sound, when in that same hour, I could write 30 seconds of music.

Griskey: Music technology evolves so fast these days that it seems we constantly have to upgrade and research to keep on top of the curve. Having said that, you need to have an environment that is solid and reliable, so you can turn it on and get to work. That seems to be the challenge. Once a year, my studio goes through a pretty major overhaul (see Fig. 5). When I have some downtime between projects, I sit down and think about how I've been using the rig for the last year, making changes to the areas that could be more effective. Although I love cool analog gear, more and more my system stays in the computer, relying on plug-ins and software synths and samplers. That way, six Februaries after the fact, I can pull up a project and be able to rework it.

Nick Peck is a composer/keyboardist/sound designer/engineer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find him on the Web atwww.underthebigtree.com. Special thanks to Mark Griskey and Jerry Grant for their generosity of spirit in sharing their combined years of wisdom with us.


Mark Griskey

Computers: Apple Power Mac G4/1.25 GHz (dual-processor), SoundChaser PC, Carillon rackmount PC

OS: Mac OS X, Windows 98, Windows XP

DAWs: Pro Tools|HD 3 Accel, Apple Logic Pro 7

Samplers: (2) Tascam GigaStudio 2.5, (2) Akai S5000

Sample Libraries: SAM Horns, SAM Trombones, Vienna Symphonic Orchestra, Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra

MIDI Instruments: Roland V-Synth, Roland V-Drums

Acoustic Instruments: drums, African and Middle Eastern percussion

Preamps: (2) Brent Averill Neve 1272

Compressors: (2) Urei LA-4

Microphones: (2) Neumann TLM 103, (2) Neumann KM184, (3) Sennheiser 421, (1) AKG D112

Jerry Grant

Computer: Apple Power Mac G5

OS: Mac OS X

Audio Interfaces: MOTU 828, MOTU 2408

DAW: MOTU Digital Performer 4.12

Samplers: MOTU Mach Five, (2) E-mu Emulator IV

MIDI Instruments: Roland JV-1080, Korg Wavestation, Roland R8M, E-mu Audity 2000, Yamaha KX88 controller

Notation Software: Sibelius