Sunday, September 21, 2008

Keeping Score

Kate Simko, a local composer/electronic music artist with a pretty good national and international reputation, scored the music for our film. She just forwarded a link to a blog where she wrote about the process of composing the score for the film (Kate was a contributor to the blog; the blog as a whole is about the process of creating and listening to music).

It was really fun for me especially to read her entry. Andrew and I first met with Kate some years ago, as we were just getting started with the film. It was so early in the process that we didn't really have much to say about what we thought it would be like, so Kate listened to us and expressed her interest, and then we went our separate ways for about two years.

In the meantime, I fell into a trap that happens to many editors. (Monica fell into it, too). I fell in love with my temp tracks. This is a common phenomenon, and here's how it works: you have passed a critical phase in the edit. You've moved past "what should be in? What should be left out?" and are beginning to work on shaping, feel, tone, mood, rhythm. The fun part. You're no longer scouring transcriptions to find what quotes to use, you're so familiar with the "b-roll" (shots of buildings, landscapes, people walking, transition shots, or anything else that's beautiful or interesting that can be used to cover up awkward cuts, or shots that can take on metaphoric meaning when placed in context. Hmmm... I think I'll write a new entry in homage to the b-roll. Watch for that...) that you can draw from it at will, and you're constructing sections, conversations, phrases, moments. It's the real fun part.

So, naturally, one of the first things you do is to add music. Anyone who's ever edited (or even listened to This American Life, for that matter, knows the effect that the appearance of music can have on your material. Here's what Ira Glass himself said about it in a 1998 online article:

People ask, "Why do you put so much music?" It's because music is like basil. Everything's going to go better. Put it on, don't think twice. Chicken, vegetables — it's just going to be better.

Now, that was before This American Life was criticized for using music as liberally as, well, basil. They've since become a bit more careful about it. When I teach sound design at Northwestern, I often quote from the great film post-production intellectual Walter Murch, who lamented that many times editors used music to install or imbue a scene with emotion, rather than reflect and direct the emotion that (hopefully) is already there. In short, music often tells the viewer / listener "this is a sad moment. Hear the sad music? You should be feeling sad now." (This is how This American Life was criticized for its use of music: too often it served to tell the listener what to feel).

When done right, Murch claims, music simply unlocks or directs the powerful emotions that are already there. When that happens, it becomes a moment that is greater than the sum of its parts: the emotion in the scene and the music that appears catapults the experience beyond the left-brain understanding of what is being said and seen; the right-brain gets involved and the whole thing becomes magic.

So --- back to the temp music. Monica and I had discussed the music at length. The Tevatron (Fermilab's 40-year old particle accelerator) was a beautiful, ugly, advanced and primitive machine with percolating valves, hi-tech computers, rusting bolts, dirty concrete, gleaming surfaces, and a devious personality. What's more, it was located smack in the middle of a prairie, with native grasses and buffalo wandering around. We knew that somehow we needed music to reflect this crazy combination of unfathomable technology and raw nature. A tall order. Andrew, our producer, had introduced me to Jan Jelinek's music. It seemed to capture what we were looking for perfectly. It was electronic music, yes, but generated from dirty analogue sources. We fell in love with it, and I used it almost exclusively.

So much so, in fact, that I had a hard time trying to part with it. So, Andrew said, "well, why not ask if we can use it?" Being the producer that he is, he tracked down Jelinek's agent and inquired. Sure, we were told. We could use the music. As long as we licensed it.

At $120 per second.

Per second.

I did a quick tally. I had approximately 20 minutes of music in the cut. A cozy $144,000.

Suddenly parting with Jelinek's music was much easier.

Re-enter Kate Simko. We had gotten back in touch. She was ready and excited to begin working; it fell neatly between projects for her so she had the time. I screwed up my courage to tell her that I was really attached to the Jelinek music; most composers hate to hear that editors have fallen in love with temp music. It means they might be expected to try to mimic what's already there. With Kate, I felt instantly relieved. She said, "I love Jan Jelenik!"

She also stated in no uncertain terms that she was not going to be doing any mimicry. She had to have free rein to compose, not just replace. But having the temp music already there was, for her, a good starting point: it meant she didn't have to try to pick a director's brain about some of the basics of timing, mood shifts, rises and falls, etc.

Then the fun part began. Kate and I had many long conversations where we watched parts of the film and I got to expound on the emotional texture of the film. She asked me to just describe what the "feel" of the film was at a certain point, and she took copious notes. I'll quote here from the blog entry I referenced above:

Clayton and I went through the scenes in the film together and he provided poignant adjectives to describe the mood in each scene. For example, one of my favorite compositions, which we called "Tevatron Dream," was described by Clayton as, "the tevetron having a dream. slightly surreal; waiting, peaceful intermission; rye sense of humor, dreamy, wink in eye, half asleep, kicking back, relaxing after hard work; not dark, emotionally neutral." After understanding the underlying mood in each scene, I started collecting timbres, textures, and modeling synths that I thought might fit.

That phrase, "The Tevatron having a dream," was something that I came back to again and again. I thought it was an absolutely perfect way to describe the passage. If the tevatron could have a dream, what would it dream about? As this aging machine, contemplating the last years of its life, drifted off to slumber, what images would rumble around its four-mile ring? I suspect the Higgs boson would be part of it. I could imagine the Tevatron twitching as it slept, like a dog, its legs gently pawing at an imaginary lawn. The Tevatron might bump and rattle a little as it slept, drifting through the ether and racing across the universe, dragging through the Higgs field, bouncing between protons and electrons, sighing gently as it settled down next to the buffalo, then jumping up again as an anti-proton exploded into a shower of gluons and tau pairs.

I think Kate got it perfectly. It's an example of the incredible processes involved in creativity: taking a semi-incoherent series of descriptions (mine) through intense technology (Kate's synthesizers and computers) and emerging with something beautiful. (Trying to figure out how to post audio here; anyone know how to do it? Kate has an example on her blog of another cut from the film).

Over the course of several weeks, we posted files back and forth, and Kate was extraordinarily cooperative, going above and beyond the call by letting me sit with her and listen to the cuts in progress, patiently letting me say things like "it should be a little darker here" or "a bit too rhythmic --- can you pull back the beats?" I think it helped that I have a background in music, so I was able to talk to her about major and minor keys, tempo, tonality, and the like.

I'll wrap it up here by saying that Kate was extraordinary to work with. We ended up with something that exceeded what the temp track had done, because it was custom-fitted for the film. Rather than being a piece of music that was composed in Scandinavia and simply placed into a soundtrack, Kate's score was composed to match the characters and stories in the film. It rose and fell at the right moments, reflected the environment, and was guided by what was happening. It didn't install emotion into the scenes, but rather reflected what was already there.

I think Walter Murch would have approved.


Bill Rexroad said...

Jeff, you continue to impress with your depth of knowledge, your insight, your excellent writing, and your willingness to share your experiences with us. Thank you so much.

Clayton said...

Thanks, Bill! Really appreciate that.