Tyler Bates | Movie-Music Maestro


Photo: Photography by Mitch Tobias, Grooming by Denika Bedrossian for margaretmaldonado.com

Tyler Bates picks up his Togaman GuitarViol (see Fig. 1), a six-string electric instrument that's tuned like a guitar and bowed like a cello, and starts playing it into a Boss Loop Station pedal connected to a Fender amp. He records an initial legato pass and then layers several more over it as it loops. The resulting piece of music is rich, ambient, and heavily delayed. Bates is demonstrating to me one of the methods he uses for developing score ideas. “I explore textural ideas with it,” he says of the instrument. “By using delays and different bowing techniques, motifs and thematic ideas often emerge in a crude form. I frequently extrapolate elements from these little space jams that ultimately become central to the orchestral aspect of a score. The GuitarViol was all over 300” (see Web Clip 1).

FIG. 1: Tyler Bates often uses his Togaman GuitarViol for generating score ideas.

Bates, who has been busy scoring movies since the mid-1990s, has been on a major roll over the past several years. In addition to 300, he composed music for The Day the Earth Stood Still (the 2008 remake), The Devil's Rejects, Halloween (Rob Zombie's 2007 remake), and the Showtime series Californication, among many others.

He does most of his work from a modestly sized but well-equipped studio on the ground floor of his L.A. home (see Fig. 2). Bates's scores cover a wide range of musical styles, frequently blending orchestral and electronic elements. The electronic aspects of his music are often developed through collaborations with Wolfgang Matthes (aka “Wolfie”), who brings a deep knowledge of synthesis and sound design into the mix. Bates told me that most of the electronic and nonorchestral acoustic instruments in his scores are played live rather than programmed. Matthes has been involved in most of the scores that Bates has created over the past 11 years, and the two have developed a unique work style, with many musical concepts developed on the fly as they bat ideas back and forth from their respective keyboards in Bates's studio. (For more on Bates's gear, see the online bonus material at emusician.com.)

FIG. 2: Bates''s home studio, with Wolfgang Matthes''s Synthesis Technology analog modular synth (right).

I had a chance to visit Bates's studio and talk to him at length about Watchmen and his approach to scoring.

You're comfortable with both orchestral and electronic scores, as well as with hybrid ones. How do you decide which approach is going to work? I have no presumptions of what a score should be. I tend to think in terms of what it can be, with respect to the director's artistic sensibilities. Regardless of how interesting an idea is, it has to register within the director's musical vernacular; otherwise, he or she will have difficulty understanding how it's affecting their film and ultimately will lack confidence in the score. Time and budget are also important when conceptualizing a score, as are its production values. In my studio, we always ask ourselves, “Does it sound expensive?” [Laughs.] Joking aside, these details, in addition to the texture of the film, lighting, editing style, and pacing, all influence whether the emphasis leans toward orchestral or nonorchestral music. Nearly all of my scores end up as hybrids because of the process I engage in from the beginning.

When you start on a scoring job, what are you trying to figure out from the material at hand?

It is critical to get into the emotional palette of what the movie is and who the characters are before writing any music. It is also important to understand what the director wants to communicate with the film in general, and to know whose scene it is when two characters share a scene that consists primarily of dialog. I tend to look for a connection between that material and something that I have experienced personally.

What inspires you musically when you're writing a score?

I don't consciously think in terms like we should do a [Gyorgy] Ligeti thing, or a Brian Eno-type thing, or a Jerry Goldsmith thing, for that matter. I think I would be a bit embarrassed saying something like that out loud. There's no doubt that music and images have seeped into my brain over the years, which must influence my train of thought and my sensibilities. I guess that's what sets the parameters for any artist. I'm not sure I can answer your question in a general way. I am always battling the insecure artist within me. Maybe trying to kick its ass is my greatest inspiration? [Laughs.] I'm not sure.

FIG. A: Matthes with his Synthesis Technology MOTM analog modular synth.

Let's forget scoring for a minute. Musically, if you had to say where you're coming from, where would that be?

The answer to that question is a cliché waiting to happen. I would say that inherently I am always looking to experience that feeling I had as a kid when I put on a new record. It gave the space I was in — usually my bedroom — an ambience that was specific to that record. I desperately attempt to channel that s--t every day. And once in a great while, it actually happens. There is plenty of music that immediately triggers that feeling for me, like Stevie Wonder and Sly and the Family Stone, and even Kiss! There are composers who dredge up that feeling in me, like Samuel Barber. Don Ellis's scores for The French Connection movies get me pretty worked up also. And, of course, those who embrace dissonance and beauty in the same frame, like Bartok, Ligeti, Gang of Four — all the great masters of jagged rhythm and sadness.

Do you have a classical background?

Not in the formal sense. But after I heard the cannon blast in Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture for the first time, I learned that you can kick some serious butt with an orchestra.

But you do have a rock background.

You could say that I do, but to be honest, before I ever became a rock musician, I was exposed to a broad spectrum of music of all genres. I spent a lot of time as a kid listening to records with my mother, who was a music freak. She would buy 10 or 12 records a week, and listened to music nonstop. She read the liner notes to me until I learned to read them myself. I memorized the arrangements, musicians, and producers, but for whatever reason, not so much the lyrics. I didn't give much thought to doing film music until I was in my twenties, but I have always loved instrumental music that provided an escape from reality.

How did you get started doing scoring?

I was in a studio in Chicago working on a project, and my brother called from L.A. He was line producing a low-budget film that ran out of money and needed some rock cues. They gave me the lengths of the cues and where they wanted changes to occur in the arrangements. I turned them around in a day, and $300 later I had my first film credit. If only it were always that easy! The producer of that film asked if I was interested in scoring a movie he was directing, so I said, “Sure.” I moved to L.A. and got started. Fortunately, one led to the next, and probably my first 15 movies happened in the first three years I lived in L.A., which kept my rent paid while my band, Pet, pursued the rock 'n' roll dream [laughs]. All of these films were super-low-budget. If you were to listen to any of those scores, I would seriously have to apologize.

I bet it was a good way to hone your chops.

Sure. It was great. Most of the time, I was paid enough to make my rent and to eat. I learned along the way from directors, producers, mixers, and music supervisors. I was fortunate that most people I encountered were gracious and patient with me. I didn't meet an actual film composer until I had done nearly 20 film scores. I was pretty clueless for a while. After I did a couple of movies, I was like, “Oh yeah, I guess I need a computer, don't I?” [Laughs.] Then I got an [Alesis] ADAT and started from there. I did a bebop film called The Last Time I Committed Suicide [Tapestry Films, 1997], just after my band signed to Atlantic Records. After seeing a screening of the film, my manager, Arthur Spivak, said, “Tyler, you should do movies. The rock business is for s--t.” I thought about it, but my band was just about to make a record, so that remained my priority for a while.

Was this the deal that Tori Amos helped you with?

Yeah. She happened to be in town at the time that our band was signing to Atlantic Records, and she came to one of our shows and flipped out over us. And she was like, “You guys have to do a record now! I will finance your f--king career if I have to!” That was a nice bump for us at the time.

So what happened next?

Things went pretty well for a while. We recorded our record at her place in Ireland. We managed to get a song on the soundtrack album of The Crow: City of Angels [Dimension Films, 1996]. That album went Platinum, which was cool. We toured with some pretty big-name bands before the rock 'n' roll clichés got the better of us and we fell off the tracks. But the experience forced me to really consider the film-scoring thing seriously. I knew at that point that I didn't want to work within the confines of a band.

Let's talk about the creative pressure of scoring. Songwriters generally have the luxury of waiting for inspiration to hit before they write something. Whereas in scoring, you basically have to create on demand, right?

In the scoring world, especially television, there are no days off where you're like, “I'm not feeling it.” You have to come up with two minutes a day or else you'll end up behind the eight ball and the music will suffer terribly.

FIG. B: Here''s a still from the prison fight scene in Watchmen. It features fast cutting as well as changes from slow motion to normal speed.
Photo: Courtesy Warner Brothers

Let's say you get in a situation and you're not feeling it. Do you have any methods to pull yourself out of that hole and come up with ideas?

I try and do something outside my studio. Once in a while, you need to feel intense artistic pressure, or even a bit of panic, in order to create something impacting. I'm not talking deadline pressure. I'm talking about artistic pressure. When that becomes really intense, it shifts your focus away from the peripheral stuff, like the expectations of everyone involved in a project, to just getting into your work.

Give me an example.

Let's say I sit down in my studio and I have nothing. I may pick up an instrument and play a bit, or I might experiment with synths, effects, or instruments that are not necessarily related to the project I am working on, just to get music flowing in some way. Then it is about being steady and tenacious in this exercise and not allowing yourself to procrastinate, which I sometimes do anyway [laughs].

Do you spend a lot of time coming up with tempos that accentuate certain hit points in the music?

Sure. For instance, I am working on a fight sequence, and the editing is MTV-style, hard-and-fast cutting. In that case, the editor's rhythm will be integral to the tempo of the music in the cue. Depending on how intense the cuts are, the editing can mandate the parameters rather specifically, limiting your choices with regard to tempo and color. But in some cases, a director may not want you to hit the action or accentuate the cuts. The story, the acting, and the editing may make the point without knocking the hell out of the picture. Obviously, with genre films, you will most likely be directed to hit the smash cuts, and if you're doing something that's rhythm oriented, you have to really land synchronous to the picture in order to accentuate the action onscreen.

And how do you go about doing that?

I work up an idea after finding a tempo that feels right with the scene. With film music, tempo tends to move around a bit. I try to avoid drastic tempo changes in the middle of complex sequences because it not only draws attention away from the picture, but it's very difficult to get the orchestra to execute cleanly. That's something you need to be mindful of when writing for orchestra. However, if that's what's called for, it might be best just to punch in the orchestra at that point.

Do you start figuring out your tempo by playing a click track against the scene?

I start with the tone of a scene, and then with the help of a click, I find a comfortable tempo that feels good against picture. For instance, I may be feeling good with a section of music with an average tempo of 130 bpm, and I need to land a hit that coincides with a cut or an event onscreen. I want to avoid having that hit occur on a 16th note if I can make it work on the top of a beat. So in that case, I would ramp the tempo up and down over time to naturally hit my sync points, which also makes the music feel more natural and exciting than it would at a static tempo.

So talk more about how you approached the music in Watchmen.

[Director] Zack Snyder tends to make huge films that explore the headspace of his characters. It's common that an action scene will take place behind narration in his movies, which presents a lot of musical challenges. In general, loneliness is a common denominator among the characters in Watchmen. The score is the din of the headspace of those characters. It is intended to express what they can't come to terms with within themselves.

So how did that translate musically?

The musical approach is ambient and emotional as opposed to what you might expect from seeing the trailer. There is no leitmotif [recurring theme] or typical superhero themes in the score.

Is the music kind of angst-ridden?

Some of it is, and some of it is deeply sad.

What percent of the Watchmen score is orchestral?

There are probably 65 minutes of orchestra and 20 to 25 minutes of nonorchestral/electronic music.

What about for the action scenes? Are those mostly orchestral, or did you bring in more rock instrumentation?

The action sequences are mostly orchestral, although none of them are entirely so. There's a prison fight scene, for which Zack asked that the music be heavy, rocking, and fun. And the picture cuts are a bit wild, switching between slow-motion and ramp-tempo [speeding up or slowing down] events, so it seemed natural that bass, guitars, and drums would be part of the music. Beneath it are programmed bass lines, percussive sequences, and drums, intended to create a contemporized expression of an '80s sound. The Dave Smith Evolver came in handy for this, in addition to an Elektron Monomachine and a Synthesis Technology MOTM analog modular system. [For more on how Bates composed the music for this scene, see the sidebar “Scoring the Prison Fight Scene.”]

You mentioned that you don't really have a classical background, so how did you learn how to write for an orchestra?

My first formal training came when I played saxophone in the school jazz band. I've educated myself a fair bit by reading various books on orchestration and harmony, as well as studying classical music on my own. Also, the orchestrators I have worked with along the way have helped me improve my orchestral writing and knowledge — especially Tim Williams, who is my orchestrator and conductor, and next-door neighbor.

How fleshed out are your orchestral arrangements when you give them to your orchestrator? How does that process generally work?

I leave very little if any room for speculation, because I have to produce convincing demos for the directors and producers involved in each film project. It's best not to ask for suspended disbelief or to make disclaimers when playing a cue to them. When music is ready to be orchestrated, I will put a copy of the [Digidesign] Pro Tools session for each cue on a drive and then hand it over the fence to Tim. He has an identical Pro Tools system, so it opens and plays in his studio exactly as it does in mine. This ensures that he knows exactly what my intent is with each instrument in a given cue. Once he prepares the cue in [MakeMusic] Finale, we go over the score and discuss where we may add color to emphasize specific melodies or voicings, or perhaps effects played by brass or strings.

Let me change gears a bit and ask you what you would recommend for composers trying to break into film scoring.

Create a reel, or a body of work that shows your abilities to prospective directors and producers. If necessary, find film clips on the Internet or even take classic films and write music to the picture without sound — anything that can show who you are as a composer. Make a Web site with examples of your work. Solicit yourself to student filmmakers in local colleges. You may want to write to directors you admire and see if they will listen to your music. You should have an idea of the kind of movies that you want to write [music for]. Learn the technological side of music so that you can possibly assist an established composer. There is really no succinct answer to this question.

But would an established director or composer pay attention to someone who is unknown?

You never know. Someone may hear a clip they love and phone you up. I read as many of the emails that are sent to me as possible. I do my best to answer people and also listen to their music if they ask me to. You have to show up every day and try new ways to improve as an artist in order to create opportunities for yourself.

Mike Levine is EM's executive editor and senior media producer. He hosts the monthly Podcast “EM Cast.”

Tyler Bates: Selected Credits

Watchmen (Warner Bros., 2009)

Rise of the Argonauts video game (Liquid Entertainment, 2009)

The Day the Earth Stood Still (Fox, 2008)

Californication TV series (Showtime, 2007 to the present)

Halloween (Rob Zombie's version; Weinstein Company, 2007)

300 (Warner Bros., 2007)

Slither (Universal, 2006)

The Devil's Rejects (Lions Gate, 2005)

Dawn of the Dead (Universal, 2004)

Get Carter (Warner Bros., 2001)