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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: II

What is the relationship between music and all other sounds on a film’s soundtrack? Should the composer and director consider one when working on the other?

It seems that the answer should be an obvious “yes”, but I was watching one of last summer’s blockbusters and at one point there was a foot chase accompanied by hand percussion.

Hand percussion?

Aren’t the sounds of running feet and hand percussion almost the same? Yes! And I found it made for a messy and confusing soundtrack.

Location sounds, folley, sound effects are all sounds that can clash with the music if they are not taken into consideration during composition.

The trick is to make the music either complementary or supportive of the other sounds.

For example, the hand percussion in the above example could have been avoided since it clashed with the sound of running footsteps on the street. And in any case, the sound of running footsteps provided a rhythmic drive and an immediate emotional reaction that was very much like the hand percussion, making their inclusion redundant.

Sustaining instruments (strings, winds) would have been a better choice, being more complementary to the footsteps, and would still have been be able to provide the necessary drive and tension the scene required.

To consider sound effects is the job of the composer during his daily work, that is for sure, but it is easy to forget when the work piles up and one gets carried away with the musical idea.

So it would be wise for the director to consider important sound effects during the spotting session, or during morning calls or at the very least when reviewing cue mock-ups.

Music in a film doesn’t exist on its own, it is part of the total sound package. And that is the bottom line; music and the soundtrack are partners to create a complete emotional experience.

Spotting 101: Cast Away

“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.

Timings Part I: Breaking it down

So what does a composer do after the spotting session?

Well, spotting notes are written up by the music editor (or composer on smaller projects) and then a copy is given to the composer and the director.

Here’s an example of spotting notes from a film I scored called “The Citizen.”

The important elements of spotting notes are; start and end timings, the duration of each cue to calculate the amount of score to be written, and a short resume of what was discussed during the spotting session.

From the spotting notes detailed timing sheets are written up by the music editor (or composer), which will then be used by the composer as a reference for all his timings.

The timing sheets provide a detailed description of the scene to be scored including all elements which might require a musical response (cuts, actions, dialogue etc.) along with the related timings in the hundredths of a second.

Here is an example of a breakdown sheet from a film I scored called “Say Yes.”

Now, I don’t know how many composers still use timing sheets, especially since many of them don’t even write a single note on paper, usually just playing right along to the image.

But personally, I find a lot of benefit to actually writing out my own timing sheets whenever I can. (And I also still write the vast majority of every score on paper first.)

In order to write a timing sheet for a given cue, I have to pay attention to everything that is significant;  looks, dialogue, subtext, plot points, cuts, pans, actions, whatever, and then I slow it down in order to get the exact timings!

Nothing can get you into the heart of a scene more than writing some spotting notes!

Another reason why I like spotting notes, as you can see from the scan above, is that I like to jot down notes on the timing sheet itself – notes, ideas and thoughts, and I also use horizontal lines to find the form of the scene which will give direction to the musical flow.



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