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john williams

Beauty is in the Details

[frame align=”left”][/frame]Being a film composer is not just about the epic film scores. In reality, it’s mostly not. Your craftsmanship at musical story-telling is in large part made up of what you do during those small moments.

So today we’ll take a brief look at how John Williams, known for his epic film scores, handles a small transitional cue.

But before we do, here’s a few questions to ponder.

How short can a cue be? If they are very short, do they create an episodic TV feel? Cues can be very short as long as the editing warrants it, but short cues should not happen too often because they will quickly become apparent to the audience and grow tiresome.

Should there be thematic material? Overall, I would say that the score, just like a good composition, should be consistent in tone and content. Other factors are important to consider.

  • The Length of the cue: If the cue is too short for thematic content, then don’t put a theme in.
  • The type of film: A short thematic leitmotif would be appropriate in a fantasty film, but perhaps not in a serious drama.
  • Where you are in the arc of the story: Once the characters are more fully developed it might be more relevant to put in a melodic association even in a short cue. But then again, perhaps you wish to build a sense of mood and character early on.

Short cues are often transitional, so this means they will occur during important structural cuts, taking us from one scene to another.

Entrance and exits are also important. I remember reading “On the Track” where it stated that cue entries should be invisible, so it’s best to come in with a light crescendo in the strings or something like that. That’s not exactly the quote, I didn’t bother looking it up, but I have personally found that this is not true.

A good entrance will be “invisible” if it’s properly motivated by the story. It’s not a volume issue, it’s a story issue! Well, that’s another post entirely, so I can revisit the subject of cue entrances later.

For now, watch the cue below with everything discussed in mind. Watch it a few times.




John Williams and Me (on the Maestro’s 80th birthday)

My original Star Wars album from 1977

My first musical love affair was with John Williams’ score for “Star Wars”. I remember clearly lying down in my mother’s living room as young lad of 8 or 9, chin in hands, listening to the entire soundtrack on the vinyl I received as a gift.

I read and re-read the liner notes as I listened to the music, a single page containing descriptions of all the tracks and all the themes. Even though I was quite young, I treated that piece of paper like gold and it is still intact in the original record sleeve from 1977, here in my studio.

I was taking piano lessons at the time and asked to play the music from “Star Wars”. I received a photocopy of the music, which I practiced very hard. I drew my own cover for the sheet music, taking great care with it. It was a x-wing being pursued by a tie-fighter with the Death Star in the background.

I can still sing you every single note of the Star Wars score. And now, many yeas later and with a master’s in composition behind me, I can tell you which parts of Star Wars come directly from the Rite of Spring. And you know what…?

I don’t care.

My love for this music is a link to my childhood, and there’s nothing that can change that. And on top of that, now that I know what happens during the composition of a film score (deadlines and temp scores) I can easily forgive a few minor “hommages”.

After my Star Wars score I received the vinyl for Superman. Same story and now I know every note.

After that it was the vinyl for E.T. Same thing.

I had brief affairs with Vangelis, Danny Elfman and Henry Mancini, but they never lasted. I always came back to John Williams.

To say that John Williams is the reason I love orchestral music so deeply is perhaps not a stretch. Our adult lives are shaped by our childhood experiences, and John Williams’ music was a big part of my childhood. In an era before VCRs, his music was a connection to my favourite films and I listened and listened until the scores became the central element.

Now, as I make my way as a professional film composer, his music is a constant reminder of the level of excellence I aim to achieve in my own career. From the indelible melodic writing to the glowing orchestrations, to the perfect dramatic placement of the music and the pacing of the score, John Williams music remains my biggest source of inspiration.

How Big?

John Williams can go big, no doubt about it. It’s always his big score moments in correspondingly big scenes that people talk about, but from my vantage point as a film composer, I am just as fascinated by his skill at going big on what may seem like smaller scenes.

From the point of view of craftsmanship, it is those less obvious moments that can be much more educational.

Here’s an example of such a score moment; the funeral scene in Superman, where they bury Clark Kent’s father.


Look at these stills taken from the film; how would you have scored it? (Or go to 34:12 in the film and watch it without music.)

Would you have scored it in a sad tone? Dramatic? Dark? What we see is this:

  • They are dressed in black
  • Distraught
  • Sad
  • It’s a funeral!

These are the obvious surface elements of this scene, so it seems to make sense to write sad music. I bet many composers would have done just that.

But Donner and Williams were much better storytellers than that. They understood what this scene was…

This is the film’s inciting event. The death of his father is the event that makes Clark Kent become Superman.

What’s an inciting event? It’s that one thing that happens to your hero that makes him or her take action.

Just before he dies from a heart attack at 33:30 in the film, Pa Kent has a talk with Clark, saying “I do know one thing is that you are for a reason [..] .and it’s not for scoring touchdowns.” It is these words which will give Clark Kent’s life purpose, and his father’s death a few seconds later that will make him take action.

So what does the music do? Does it play the sadness? No! Williams knew this was a turning point in the story and he wrote a beautiful theme that is softly heroic, uplifting and grandiose. It soars over the shot of Clark and his mother leaving the cemetery as the camera cranes up over a wide landscape, hinting at the adventure that is about to begin.

This is music for story-telling.

And another thing, this is a Superman film. It’s bigger than life. Williams knew this and the music is crucial in giving the film the right tone and scope.

So the points to remember are these:

  • Always consider the story
  • The overall tone of the film?
  • Where you are in the structure of the story
  • What is the subtext? What can the music add to the scene that you can’t already see?

Now go watch that scene!

Chasing Indy

A video of John Williams conducting the Train Chase from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade live with an orchestra.

This one is especially insightful as we get to see the streamers and punches used for synchronizing the music to the film during recording sessions.

This requires a very good sense of rhythm and solid baton technique.

This is something I did for a good many cues for my “Legend of Silk Boy” score, conducting the Evergreen Orchestra with streamers and punches to guide me. It was a challenge!

this is called “free conducting”, when not using clicks, and this is great for when the music is very rubato in feel and you wish to achieve a musical result. The click, when it comes to rubato, can make things feel very stiff.

However, for a rhythmic scene like this train chase, where the tempo is pretty steady throughout then clicks would work just as well I would imagine. On the other hand, free conducting allows orchestral musicians to listen to each other the way they normally do, to achieve intonation and phrasing. And if you use a group of musicians used to playing together then that is a real advantage.

So here’s the video!

How Many Times the Theme? II

Previously my boys and I counted how many times the themes appeared in the first act of the first Harry Potter film.

Yesterday, we did the same thing for Jurassic Park, but this time, we did it on a micro-scale: we counted how many times the main theme comes in during the helicopter’s flight over the island.

In the few minutes it takes for them to fly over the island, buckle their seat belts and descend, we hear the theme a total of…

…wait for it…

Five times.

It starts off with the theme in full. Then comes the B section and then we get the theme again, five times separated by little interjections to follow the action and lead to the returns of the theme.

Five times in a few minutes.

This is how the professionals do it, folks. This is how the master of themes, John Williams does it. Pay attention.

How Many Times the Theme?

How many times do we state a theme in a film? Once? Twice? Most director really don’t pay attention to this, and that’s fine, because I do (and your film composer should, too) so they don’t have to.

Some films take more melody than others, such as fantasy films, animation and similar genres, but for the sake of example, I’ll take the first Harry Potter film.

I am choosing that film because it’s a great example of a recent score where the theme became very well known. I have taught piano and guitar for many years and that theme was often requested when the film came out, and it still is today. How many films do that? John Williams knows something about themes, not just about writing them, but where to put them in the film.

Here are the instances of “Hedgwig’s Theme” in the first act of Harry Potter.

  • 0:00 Hedwig’s Theme over the Warner Brother’s logo
  • 0:25 Magic theme
  • 2:10 Hedwig’s Theme full
  • 2:50 Hedwig’s Theme under dialogue
  • 3:45 Hedwig’s Theme in celesta
  • 4:02 Magfic theme over credits
  • 7:25 Quidditch theme as snake escapes
  • 7:50 Hedwig’s theme
  • 8:36 Hedwig’s theme
  • 9:20 Quidditch theme
  • 9:33 Hedwig’s theme
  • 10:05 Magic theme
  • 10:58 Hedwig’s Theme
  • 11:58 Magic theme
  • 12:40 Family theme
  • 15:09 Magic theme
  • 15:53 Hedwig’s Theme
  • 17:40 Hedwig’s theme
  • 18:22 Family theme

We hear Hedwig’s theme a total of 10 times in the first 18 minutes or so. Not to mention that he also uses a few of the other themes that come back throughout the film for various cirumstances.

It’s a great theme that is for sure, but part of the reason we remember it is that he states it throughout the film at important points.

Here is Michael Kamen on themes;

When I was doing The Next Man […] there was a fellow named Carl Prager, who was the music head of United Artists Pictures, which was the distributor. He was an old hand, he had supervised film music for many years and he taught me a great lesson: He came to my house to listen to the themes that I was writing for The Next Man, and I’d say “now in this scene I want to use this theme.”

He’d say, “That’s a great theme, you could use that.”

I’d say, “And in the next scene, here’s this cue I want to use.”

I played it, and he said, “Well, where’s the theme?

And I said, “I’ve just played the theme and now I have to do this.”

He said, “No, no, play the theme again.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, in film you play the theme, and then you play the theme again and then you play the theme and then you play a variation of the theme and then you play the theme…”

And it was very instructive; I had been writing it like a piece of symphonic music where Theme a comes and then Theme B and then the development section and you might even bring in another theme – not so in film. Monothematic, and with very few exceptions that is the rule of thumb for all films. If you have a melody you drive it home; if you have two or three make sure that they’re related to each other – or completely, starkly opposite.


PS: I would like to thank my two boys, Brandon (8) and Lucas (5) for helping me breaking down the themes in Harry Potter.

Score Works: Source or Score?

In “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” there is a scene where Indy and his father go the get the diary back and, in the process, meet up with Hitler.

That scenes begins with the score functioning as source music. John Williams wrote music that an unseen brass band would be playing in the square as the Nazis burned books.

As Indy gets pushed to the center and meets up with Hitler, the music becomes underscore by performing an ominous drum rhythm only, letting the brass drop out for a while as the tension plays out.

When Hitler picks up the diary and signs it, we realize all is well and the military march resumes! There is, of course, no way that the military band present in the square would have done this! So the score here has actually switched roles and become underscore.

It starts up again with the same melodic material as the source music, but almost immediately cadences on the scene transition, the way underscore does!

So this musical sequence blurs the line between source and score, something I recently did as well in a score I wrote, which is why I thought I would bring this up. Something good for directors to be aware of;

Music in a scene can function as both source and underscore!



Spotting structure

Structure is a crucial element of beauty, and film is no different. As I wrote in the previous post, a music cue can do more than just highlight action or represent the subtext; it can also play a large role in clarifying or even creating structure.

To that end, here are some questions to ask during the spotting session (or whenever you think of it!)

  1. What is the inciting event that motivates the action that follows.
  2. Where does the action proper start? (Note: The music could start on the inciting event, creating a sense of musical introduction, and the main melodic material arrive when the action truly starts. This creates a cohesive sense of structure.)
  3. Where does the scene end?
  4. What event signals the end of the scene or sequence?
  5. Are there multiple scenes that form a whole.
  6. Should the music play through the cuts and scenes?
  7. What cuts are structural.

Example: Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade: the boat race in Venice.

After facing rats and burning waters in the catacombs under the library, Doctor Jones and Elsa come out from a man-hole, surprising tourists. Indiana says “Ah, Venice.”

When the two come out, the music from the previous sequence ended, leaving room for this comedic moment. This musical break also serves as a structural point, separating the previous, more serious sequence from the following lighter action sequence; the boat chase in Venice.

Kazim and the Brothers come running out of the church and the music begins. This is the start of this scene, the inciting event that forces Indy and Elsa to start running.

The music is played as an introduction as they all race towards the boats. The melody itself only starts once everyone is in their boats, on the cut to Indy, Elsa and one of the Brothers hanging on to the back of the boat. This is the start of the action!

To find out how the ending music is structured, go watch Indian Jones and the Last Crusade and find out for yourself!



To Bike or Note to Bike; the importance of inner motivation.

You can learn a lot about the power of music in film by looking at the smallest, most seemingly inconsequential scenes in a film.

For my first Scene Analysis I will look at a short scene in E.T.

But before I begin, I would like you to read this fabulous quote from Hugo Friedhofer, golden age composer, taken from the book “Music Scoring for TV & Motion Pictures” by M. Skiles.

“The idea of a score, the way I look at it, is to point out or to make the audience aware of the things that can neither be photographed nor said — the interior motivation, in other words.

If the man runs, why is he running? Not the mere manifestation of speed.”

Now, here we go. I encourage you to pop in your E.T. DVD and watch it.

The short scene we’ll be looking begins at about 15:04, after E.T. goes running off through the garbage cans, leaving them to roll down the steps as Elliot looks on in wonder.

SCENE: Eliot is looking up at the steps drenched in red light, the door still swinging from E.T.’s hasty departure. His eyes are filled with a sense of wonder after his encounter with E.T.
MUSIC: The music comes in gently, the high strings playing a soft, dreamy chord. The music carries over the cut to the shot of Eliot getting on his bike.
NOTES: Elliot’s expression shows he is not scared, but curious, with a child’s sense of wonder. He is making the decision to go find E.T. and that takes us over the cut and into the next scene. The music links over the cut as well by starting on that look and leading to him on the bike. The music has a dreamy, floating quality that works perfectly well with Elliot’s intent.

SCENE: Eliot sits on his bike for a second then starts to slowly pedal away from his house.
MUSIC: Muted brass play an adventure-like theme, subdued but still with a sense of forward motion.
NOTES: This is the start of Elliot’s adventure! But all we see is him sitting on his bike, thinking for a moment then almost hesitantly leaving. Not very dynamic, but dramatically adequate. I suspect that Spielberg knew that these visuals would play with music that showed Elliot’s “interior motivation” as Hugo put it.

SCENE: Eliot goes down the hill, disappearing from view for a moment. This symbolic imagery shows his departure into the unknown, it is also his first time away from home in the film.
MUSIC: The music here becomes big, using thick and percussive string chords.This has a very decisive and serious feel to it, almost martial in character.
NOTE: This could be seen as a strange scoring choice from John Williams perhaps, but these are visuals that could easily be perceived as “a leisurely stroll on bike” then it’s easy to see how important the music is, but also we must consider that this particular shot, with Elliot disappearing down the hill, is really about him facing possible danger, then the musical choice here explains itself.

SCENE: Elliot going down a large, sandy hill.
MUSIC: The music returns here to the initial muted brass adventure theme.
NOTE: Not much to say here that has not been said.

15: 23 etc…
SCENE: Close UP of Elliot’s hand starting the spread the Reese’s Pieces.
MUSIC: One of E.T.s main musical themes comes in and carries us for the next little while.
NOTE: The shots of Elliot on his bike served as an introduction to this sequence, and the music also followed this structure, which is an important aspect of film scoring – to highlight form and structure.

Closing comments

When working with a composer, musical decisions like these come from a full understanding on the composer’s part of the director’s intent. If you watch these shots of Elliot on his bike without the music you will see it might not be readily apparent what the intent is.

Sure, upon further scrutiny it might become apparent, but deadlines do not always permit further scrutiny! So make sure that all these wonderfully insightful and creatively stimulating details are clear to the composer before he begins work. You can do that during the spotting session or with a morning phone call.



Case Study: Jurrasic Park – keeping the tension.

One of the important uses of music in film is to provide tension and momentum.  This is especially useful when the tension is in the subtext and not in the visuals or dialogue.

Jurrasic Park are a great example of this.

At 55:27 the character of Dennis Nedry begins the shutting down of the computer systems to allow him to steal the dinosaur embryos. This sequence is dramatically important, but the visuals are somewhat static and intercut with the characters of Alan Grant and Ian Malcolm humorously getting aquainted in the Jeep, oblivious to the danger ahead.

It’s all pretty quiet stuff which requires music to drive it along and give the right tone. The music is percussive, rhythmic and filled with tension, giving this sequence the necessary propulsion and the right sense of dread.

The Jeeps stop, the fences fail, Nedry escapes. It all is important to the plot but the dialogue and visuals are mostly static or slow with benign dialogue, so the music is important here and carries through it all. (This is not a failure on Spielberg’s part, but rather shows understanding of how to use music as part of the story telling.)

And then we cut to the goat at 1:00:21 and the music stops, leaving silence. We know the goat, it lets us know where we are and it also as a foreshadowing tool that lets us know something bad is going to happen. Music is not needed.

There is no music at all during the entire T-Rex attack.

Spielberg and Williams were smart to not put any music here. They knew that the audience was seeing something they had never seen before, a truly believable onscreen T-Rex. The shock of it was made even more intense by the relatively “empty” soundtrack, which must have bee especially powerful in a theater.

And there is context to consider as well. The shot of the goat which starts the T-Tex sequence was preceded by a long stretch of music. Silence makes a bigger impact when it is preceded by lots of sound.

After the T-Rex attack is done, we cut back to the control room with a slow zoom-in to dialogue about lines of code. Not the most exciting stuff. The tension here is in their obliviousness to what is happening outside, the subtext, so the music returns here to keep the tension and momentum going.

As a side note, when adding rhythmic music to a scene, it is always amazing to me how the music changes the tempo of a scene, making it seem to go by much faster.

Bottom line: Music is great at keeping tension and momentum going, especially when there is a subtext of tension that is not necessarily present on screen. Music is not always necessary when there is strong and dramatic on-screen action.



Sound vs Score III: Melody and Voice-Overs

In last week’ s post, Scooby Doo showed us that melody is still an important asset to a production at any level.

One of the challenges is when to present your melodies and when not to. A common fear among directors is that melody will interfere with the dialogue.

Of course it is crucial for the dialogue to be well understood, but melody doesn’t get in the way like you would imagine when you are first listening to a composers demo or when doing the final mix, times when you focus your attention too much on the music.

Here is a recent example.

The great film “Memoirs of a Geisha” opens with a narration, a voice-over by Sayuri as an old woman. Under this voice-over her theme is played on cello with a light wind accompaniment.

The Sayuri theme is beautiful, melodic and distinct, yet it does not interfere with the words. (And music with voice-overs is a particular challenge since the audience does not have the lips and gestures to reinforce the words.)

Ask yourself, did any of you notice the music there when you were first watching the film? Did it detract from the narration? Of course not, since you were listening as audience members.

But now that I have drawn your attention to this, if you were to watch this scene you would listen to the theme more and start focusing on it with a film maker’s ear, and might say “there should be no melody here, I am listening to it instead of the narration.”

What decision would you have made if you had heard this melody as a demo from the composer or during the mixing session?

I asked my wife after she watched that opening scene if she heard the music. She said yes, sure. Did she hear the narration? Well, yeah… of course.

Melody under narration and dialogue works prefectly well. The audience’s mind can take both in simultaneously.

As filmmakers, it is important to listen to the music being put in your film from the audience’s perspective. It is wise to not focus on the music entirely either during a demo presentation or during mixing, but on the dialogue or the action, because that is always where your audience will be focused as well.

And when in doubt, put melody! A good melody makes music more memorable, approachable and likable, all of which can only make your film better.



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!


Temp Track Thought

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?

Not likely.

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