“Cast Away” starring Tom Hanks is an interesting and unusual example of spotting.
The film has no underscore until the final act. None!
If you remember the film starts in the holiday season and there is source music there. You know, holiday music.
Then there is that amazingly well done plane crash which brings Tom Hanks to his island. No music there either. When something is as well done and so powerful as this plane crash sequence, the visuals and sound effects are more than enough.
Not only was that sequence great without music, but adding music to the plane crash might have removed the feeling of realism, turning it into an adventure perhaps, which would have gone against the realism that set the tone for this film.
During Tom Hanks’ time on the island there is no music either.
Sure. there are moments when there could have been music, like when he removes his own tooth or when he first makes fire, but the absence of music has much more impact than its presence.
The first and most obvious result of having no underscore is that the feeling of being alone on the island is heightened.
But what isn’t as obvious is that music would have added something familiar, even comforting, while the emptiness of the film’s soundtrack created a feeling of uneasiness which must have been palpable in the theater. (I only saw this film on DVD and I still got that feeling! It must have been great in a cinema with a few hundred people all sitting in stunned silence.)
Having no music for the first two acts of the film was a bold choice for sure, but it pays off big time when Tom Hanks finally departs the island.
Do you remember the scene? He is on his raft and he finally breaks free of the breakers, that barrier which had held him on his island for years!
When he realizes his is free and looks back on his island which had been his home for so long the music starts, a gentle string adagio.
It’s brilliant and a great film moment, visuals and music coming together in a way that can only happen in film.
This is a very short post that poses a very serious artistic question; is the use of the temp track an artistic dead end for film scoring?
During an seminar at USC, John Williams was asked about temp tracks. He was very cautious in his answer, saying that, for better or for worse, temp tracks appeared to be here to stay.
The most interesting comment from Mr. Williams, though, was during a discussion on the score for Jaws.
– Would there have been that famous Jaws theme if there had been a temp track?
There are three tools a filmmaker can use to engage his audience: Suspense, Mystery, and Dramatic Irony.
Suspense is where the audience knows as much information as the protagonist; mystery is where the audience knows less than the protagonist; and dramatic irony is where the audience knows more than the protagonist.
Foreshadowing in story and in the musical score is a part of dramatic irony, where the filmmaker privileges the audience.
Foreshadowing can be done with visual clues and hints in the story. It can also be done by simply telling the audience what is going to happen, like in “American Beauty”, where we know the main character is going to die but don’t know how and why. This deeply affects how we view the entire film.
Foreshadowing thus affects our perception, simple scenes are completely transformed. Because we know the Titanic is going to sink, James Cameron was able to have simple scenes of people walking on the deck of the doomed ship which would have normally been extremely boring, but because they are on the Titanic, it becomes a poignant scene.
Dramatic Irony was the favourite tool of the great Thriller/Suspense director Alfred Hitchcock. He knew that if you SAW a character place a bomb in the roomÂ it would be much more effective than not having the audience see it being placed because they would be on the edge of their seats waiting for it to go off.
Music works like all of those examples above: it can give you hints about what is going to happen but it can’t tell you exactly, making it the wonderful foreshadowing tool!
The musical score can only give the audience a sense that something will happen (good or bad) but cannot communicate what that will be, and this is a wonderful way to engage the audience.
The typical example of musical foreshadowing is the scary music before someone gets attacked. This is a simple device, but it works.
Why does it work? A scene with someone walking is boring and trite, making the scene appear like filler, but add a dash of eerie music and suddenly the audience gets involved, sit on the edge of their seats and primed for the upcoming surprise.
Jaws is the perfect example of this, of course. In Jaws, the clever two-note motif lets us know the shark is coming, even when we don’t see it, heightening the sense of dread. Spielberg and Williams never fool the audience however, they only present this music when the shark is actually coming. It never becomes a red herring.
But foreshadowing is not just for building suspense in scary movies, it can presage anything the film is about.
The big, sweeping main titles of “Laurence of Arabia” tell you that this will be an epic story. Similarly, the magical main titles of “A Night at the Museum” foreshadowed the magic to come, which carried us through the decidedly non-magical first act setting up the father’s motivations: his personal and financial problems.
Music can highlight foreshadowing elements on screen, both visual or story-based, making them more obvious and feel more important.
We could go on and on, so I’ll just close by saying that foreshadowing is an important storytelling device, and music is a natural for it. It can be brash and obvious and extremely subtle, it can be suspenseful or heroic, or anything the story is about. Using it wisely is part of creating a more cohesive, propulsive and engaging experience for your audience.
Perhaps musical foreshadowing should be part of screenwriting?
(Many thanks to director/writer Kevin Bottomley for proof-reading this article, the first two paragraphs and that bit about Hitchcock. Thanks Kevin!)
How much melody can there be under dialogue?
It is common for directors to fear that melody will get in the way of the dialogue. This is an understandable concern, of course, since the coherence of the story relies in large part on the dialogue being assimilated by the audience.
Anything that gets in the way of the story should be cut or simplified, right?
However, an instrumental melody can be easily assimilated by the audience simulateously with dialogue. (Notice I said an instrumental melody here, more on this later.)
A good example is the helicopter ride in Jurassic Park, the scene where the main characters are chatting away in the helicopter on their way to the island.
Here is the music from that scene; “Journey to the Island” by John Williams.[audio:http://www.gettingthescore.com/audio/Journey-to-the-Island-clip.mp3]
As you can tell, this is music filled with clear melodic lines, rhythm and colour. Did you remember the music from this scene? Did you even remember there was music in this scene? Perhaps not and that is exactly the point!
Audience members are completely able to assimilate melody and dialogue all at once because they do not step on each other’s toes!
Songs, on the other hand, do step into the dialogue’s territory because our minds are naturally drawn to the voice and will attempt to understand the lyrics and dialogue all at once… not always successfully. Oh, it’s still possible to have songs under dialogue, but approach with caution!
Off-screen dialogue requires more care while underscoring. Dialogue without the reinforcement of facial expressions and lip movement requires a bit more effort to be clearly understood, and thus the music must make a special effort to stay out of the dynamic range of the speaker’s voice and avoid sweeping melodic statements.
But then again, perhaps a big sweeping statement is exactly what is needed!
PS: Could this Jurassic Park scene have worked well without music? I don’t believe so. The music was important to this scene at this point in the movie especially because it was all dialogue.
You see, this scene occurs during the journey to the island, but the sitting down dialogue could have easily negated the feeling of excitement and anticipation which was required at this point in the film, otherwise the momentum would have been lost. Gotta love a good use of film music!