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Danny Elfman

Sound vs Score IV: Should music be heard?

In the DVD featurette about the music of Spider Man 1, Tobey McGuire says that Danny Elfman’s music is good because it is “not noticed” and that this is the best compliment you can give the composer of a film score.

I forget which great golden age composer it was who said something like “if music is not meant to be noticed, then why do we bother writing it?”

What I think Tobey meant was this; film music is great when it fits the film so perfectly that it feels completely natural.

This is a very important distinction.

When music is the perfect fit for a scene it becomes part of the whole film experience, which is there to support the story. Just like the sets, set dressing, costumes, lighting and acting.

None of these other elements “disappear” or are not “seen” by the audience. Actually if they are not seen or relegated too much to the background, then they cannot serve their purpose, which is to support the story!

The danger with Tobey’s statement is to think that a good score should not be noticed, and to take that at face value, which can negatively influence the presence of the score in the mix.

The bottom line is this; in order for film music to be effective and support the story, it should be noticed!!!

A Mile in Our Shoes

As a director you have to be a storyteller, yes, but also a leader. And to be a leader who gets the most out of the people he leads, there is nothing better than walking a mile in their shoes.

That doesn’t mean I suggest you have to sit down and compose, but listening to what composers want and need, their desires, what they consider the best working environment for them, understanding those things will go a long way in building a productive and creative working relationship with your composer.

Here is an interview with 5 established composers published in the Hollywood Reporter . A lot of important subjects were discussed, some of which I will address here.

But first, here’s is the link to the full article. Oscar Roundtable: The composers [N.B.: requires subscription.]

Today I will comment on some answers by Howard Shore and Danny Elfman, which I quote below.

Shore: It’s important to make films in a linear way. It’s the most productive way to do them. You wouldn’t start shooting a film if the script wasn’t finished.

Elfman: It’s a contemporary problem. Thirty, 40 years ago this wouldn’t have happened. It’s something we deal with now that our predecessors didn’t have to. They didn’t have to reconstruct things in the eleventh hour the way they do now.

Shore: It’s a good discussion point, because here is a group of composers sitting here saying that the best way to make good films — which is what we all want to do — is to allow that the postproduction process be linear. It’s like what Danny said: Films used to be made like that, and look at all the great films that were made.

They are talking about the last minute changes that happen now because of the new digital editing revolution. Now everyone can have a say in the final cut and it keeps on going and going and going.

Sometimes the changes are minor and a composer can rework his cue, or the music editor can nip and tuck the music, but if the changes are big enough then the whole cue goes out the window.

During the editing you may not feel the changes are big ones, a few frames cut here and another few added there, no big deal, right? But suddenly none of the hits in the music cue work anymore and it has to be redone!

What these guys mean by a linear postproduction process is that the final cut stays final while the sounds and music are being created.

And the bottom line, is that redoing cues hurts the quality of the music overall, since the energy spent on reworking something that was already done takes away time and energy from music that still needs to be written.

Like Mr. Shore said, we just want to make good films!


Write After Reading?

Today’s topic: Should the composer read your script? Well, sure, but not to write musical ideas from.

You know how it goes, you read a book and then you go see a movie and the movie is never like you imagined it. You had completely different ideas of what the characters looked like, etc…

A composer reading a script is no different. He/she will surely have a very different ideas than what the director had in mind.

John Williams actually refuses to read scripts, he will only write when he sees the film. The late Jerry Goldsmith was the same. When discussing writing for “Alien” he recalled being in the theater watching a scene and being scared out of his mind, telling himself “it’s just a movie.” And that’s how Jerry liked it, basing his music on that first gut reaction he got from watching the movie as an audience member, not as a composer or film maker.

Furthermore, you know as well as I do, a lot can change between script and the final cut.

Here’s a personal example.

I worked on a feature called “The Impossible Life of Martin Pranks” early on in my career (sadly it was never picked up). I liked the script and started writing as they were shooting without ever seeing any dailies.

When I finally saw the first rough cut, the tone was much more dramatic, emotional and tender than I had envisioned. Actually, I did not interpret the script as being that tender at all, and the director never mentioned anything during our talks either, not that I recall anyway.

So none of the musical ideas I had fit the tone of the movie at all and all that work was wasted. And you know how hard it is to change your mind on something, too! I really liked my ideas!

If I had worked watching dailies instead of the script then that would have been better for sure.

So reading a script is not enough of a basis for music composition, we got that, but can a composer still start writing music before the first rough cut?

I remember Danny Elfman talking about going on the Gotham set of the first Batman and soaking up the Gothic feel of the film. That gave him the information he needed to start writing music with the right feel

So inviting the composer on the set is a good idea, but let’s face it, it all depends on the set. If the set is a simple run-of-the-mill house, it won’t do much to visit!

Visiting the set when the actors play out a crucial scene might be good.

Oh, and I didn’t mention the most important of all: discussions with the director his/her vision for the film.

But remember, first impressions are hard to let go of. Make sure that if your composer gets the right impression of the film right from the get-go, that everything is clear and all will be well.

Happy New Year!


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