Film Scores, Inspiration, and Whatnot

I’ve had some conversations this week about inspiration, and finding yourself in unfamiliar artistic waters, and it reminded me of something I’d written earlier this year, but never got a chance to share. Infectious Magazine wanted me to write a guest piece about film scoring, and instead I gave them a shaggy dog story about how an unconventional piece of music changed my musical path. They didn’t really go for it, so I gave them another piece they liked better.

But I liked the first draft, too, and I thought it was a nice look at how opening yourself up to things outside of your regular artistic focus can have wonderful repercussions. So here goes…

Without a doubt, the single piece of music that has had the most tangible impact on my life is Moussorgsky/Ravel’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and there’s a bright line between me seeing that performed for the first time and all of my film composition work. Many years ago, while in college, I was playing drums in a progressive metal band, and our cellist was in her campus orchestra. They did Pictures at an Exhibition, which I’d never heard, and my seat was right up front, in front of the double basses. I watched them for most of the performance, and, even though I’d seen orchestral music performed before, this was the first time for me that an orchestra stopped being a unified wall of music-making, and I was able to recognize the disparate parts, and begin to recognize how much or little the different sections played, and how these many pieces fit together.
I don’t know that I’d ever written a song at that point, and I’d only ever played drums — maybe I was just starting to pick up the guitar — so the idea of creating melodies was not something that I’d ever really entertained. But after that night in San Marcos, Texas, I downloaded a modular software synth and started exercising a totally new set of muscles.
 
I was also a filmmaker. A few months later, I was directing a short film with a big surrealism element, and I happened to find a harpsichord abandoned in a dark hallway (different story for a different day). I thought surrealism and harpsichords would go together just like melting clocks and barren trees, so I wrote a four-minute piece for solo harpsichord to go with the movie, and bam! I was a film composer.
 
Over the years since, I wrote quite a bit of (mostly) electronic music, trying to learn more about different voices, different textures, and just overall composition. Some of that music was specifically for film projects of my own or for friends’ projects, and some of it I just wrote and it later found its way into films. So with film composition as a sort of sideline hobby, I started paying more attention. Requiem for a Dream and Amelie came out about the same time, and both totally changed how I thought about film music. A year or so later, maybe, Turner Classic Movies hosted a Young Film Composers Competition, giving burgeoning composers the opportunity to score classic silent films. I watched everything I could about that, and learned a lot about traditional approaches to scoring — things like character leitmotifs. As I got more tuned-in to that kind of thing, I started thinking of film music as a way of communicating information, in addition to enhancing onscreen emotion. There’s a great example of the score actually telling a joke in Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, when a little kid of dubious parentage walks into a room. And Bernard Herrmann’s work with Hitchcock is legendary; in the moment in Vertigo when James Stewart is at his most emotionally fraught, and the music is swelling, suddenly there’s somebody just raking their fingers across a harp. You’ve never heard anybody do that to a harp, and even if you don’t consciously realize it, your brain registers that we’re in a new, terrifying place in this person’s psyche.
 
I don’t know that I’m qualified to give anybody advice on film scoring (or, anything, really), but my own path has involved 1) knowing and meeting people making films, 2) consciously trying to evolve and try new things as someone who writes music, and 3) learning how to play more instruments…or at least learning enough to screw around on more instruments.
 
Over this past summer, I was asked to score a complete feature film for the first time, and I think we took a pretty unique approach to the idea of a film score. The director asked if he thought I could do a “rock and roll score” — not songs, but essentially a traditional film score played with loud-ass guitars, distorted bass, and booming drums. After years of playing drums in rock and metal bands, playing guitar in a couple rock bands, writing and recording some 30+ songs with my band Sci-Fi Romance, and whatever on-the-job training I got from working in the world of short films…well, I was sure as hell going to find out if I could.
 
And if you think about it, Pictures at an Exhibition is really a film score, even though it was written before there was such a thing as film. Modeste Moussorgsky attended an art gallery showing of works by a friend who had recently died. Afterward, Moussorgsky wrote a piece of music for each painting on display, and connected them all with a Promenade theme, which evolves and changes as you move through the temporal experience of the show. It’s putting music to picture. And maybe nobody’s ever done it any better.

 

All the References: Goodbye at the End of the World

We recently gave away a pair of autographed CDs over at the all-purpose geek-themed site Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together to people who correctly identified the most sci-fi and film references hidden in the animated video for our song Goodbye at the End of the World. But nobody was particularly close to getting all of them. There were a lot.

Now that the contest is over, it seemed like a good time to put together all the references in one place for those who might be interested. Let us know in the comments, on Facebook, or Twitter if one of your favorites made it into the background.

Robby the Robot, Forbidden Planet

Robby actually makes two appearances, one in small scale in the couple’s kitchen, and one in large scale in the museum. You can spot him in the background of each of these shots.

Robby at Home Robby in Museum

And for what it’s worth, in the museum shot you can also see the band’s old logo (itself an homage to the old RKO Studios logo) and the album cover against the wall.

Arthur Dent, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Although only the one shown above made it into the final video, the museum set has two exhibit halls, both named after characters from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Arthur Dent, and Ford Prefect.

Vampira

Vampira, the iconic late-night horror TV show host from the 1950s who was the model for Disney’s Maleficent and was immortalized in one of my favorite movies, Ed Wood, was a persona created by the Norwegian model Maila Nurmi. The “V.” on the character’s museum ID card is for “Vampira.” I have a distant personal connection to Maila Nurmi, in that when she passed away in 2008 I helped buy her a headstone.

ID Card

CRM-114, Dr. Strangelove and Others

Maila’s employee ID number is “CRM-114,” which is a designation that began life as the code device in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Kubrick himself went on to reference this number in several other films, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, and since then many, many filmmakers have hidden nods to it in their movies. Like, for instance, Doc Brown’s giant amplifier rig in Back to the Future.

CRM114

Speaking of…

The Time Machine, Back to the Future

Maila, or possibly her boyfriend Roger, drives the time machine, which is parked in the driveway.

Delorean

Tiptree Science Musuem, Alice Bradley Sheldon

Alice Bradley Sheldon was a gifted science fiction writer who had to work under a male pen name in the 1950s because of awful gender stereotypes, and that pen name was James Tiptree, Jr. I thought a sci-fi video with a kick-ass female hero should work at a place named after a real-life sci-fi female hero. You can listen to a great radio story about Alice Sheldon here.

Museum Sign

Gort’s, The Day the Earth Stood Still

In part, this video began with the idea “I wonder if I can make a giant robot step on a gas station?” Seemed a very 50s sci-fi thing to do. Like Robby the Robot, Gort is one of the signature robots of 1950s science fiction films, and appears in maybe the best genre movie of the era.

Gort

Bester Library, Alfred Bester

Alfred Bester wrote The Stars My Destination, which had a tremendous impact on me. As a matter of fact, as soon as I finished it, I put it down, picked up a guitar, and wrote the song “Gulliver Foyle,” the first track on the first Sci-Fi Romance album.

Bester Library

The library sits at the corner of…

Wm. Castle Blvd. and Harryhausen Drive

William Castle produced a number of great, schlocky B-movies, notably those with Vincent Price like The House on Haunted Hill, and maybe surprisingly, Rosemary’s Baby. Ray Harryhausen was a stop-motion animation master who brought hundreds of creatures to life and gave them personalities and soul you wouldn’t expect in films like 20 Million Miles to Earth.

Intersection

Karloff’s at Le Moulin, Frankenstein

At the end of Frankenstein, which inspired the Sci-Fi Romance song “Frankenstein’s Lament,” also from the first album, Boris Karloff’s monster gets torched inside a windmill. Like Le Moulin Rouge, which was a restaurant and named after a windmill, I went for a little obvious symbolism.

Karloffs

Karloff’s performance is particularly meaningful to me, and it also inspired our song “The Bride of Frankenstein, 1935” from our October EP.

Crane Shot, Citizen Kane

These last two are probably the most pretentious, but when am I ever going to get the chance to tip my cap to these films ever again in quite the same way? So when the camera swoops through the domed ceiling of the museum, this is where that came from.

Citizen Kane Shot

Final Shot, The Third Man

Like the stereotypical film school graduate I am, I love Orson Welles. But probably my favorite movie with him is one he didn’t direct, Carol Reed’s masterpiece The Third Man. I love it, and its final shot is, for me, one the most indelible ever.

third man

Third Man Shot

Since I animated this thing myself, I had nobody to tell me I couldn’t be as self-indulgent as I pleased.

“Goodbye at the End of the World” Process Blog

The music video for “Goodbye at the End of the World” was a pretty major undertaking for me. It is a four-plus minute, computer animated music video about an alien invasion and a couple whose relationship is on the rocks, but who try to save the world. It was written, designed, animated, and rendered by me alone. I had never done anything like it before, so I wanted to run down the process behind the video and tip my hat to the individuals and sites that helped me eventually get the thing across the finish line.

When I set out, what I wanted to do was tell a story that allowed me to pay homage to the sci-fi, classic horror, and cult films that I love, and that have been a front-and-center influence on the band’s music. Initially, I had the notion that I might actually hand-draw a video in an attempt at something like the UPA style of animation that defines the look of 1950s animation for me. I figured it was contemporary with the great 50s sci-fi films, and it would feel like a natural fit.

I went away to a cabin in the mountains to watch old movies, drink beer in a styrofoam cup, and write the script

I went away to a cabin in the mountains to watch old movies, drink beer in a styrofoam cup, and write the script

Thing is, I’m a terrible draftsman, and I wasn’t able to even design characters that I liked. There was certainly no way I’d be able to hand-draw the thing. I have experience in motion graphics and a little bit of experience in 3D modeling programs, although never really with anything much more ambitious than flying text. I was able to design a pair of characters and some alien vehicles that I could live with, and then set to work trying to model them.

Concept Sketches

Concept sketches for the two characters and the alien walker

The modeling and animation were done in Cinema 4D. I had the help of Josh Johnson when it came to rigging the humans, because my first attempts at that were so disastrous that I knew I’d never get there in the time I had. I relied heavily on C4D Cafe for tutorials and insights available in their message boards. I watched a ton of videos on Vimeo (many from Greyscale Gorilla and EJ Hassenfratz) to learn about rigging, toon shading, and more.

The characters, aliens, some of the buildings, the streets, a number of props, and the interiors I mostly built from scratch. For the rest, I used some of the models that came in Cinema 4D, as well as models available at Turbosquid and Archive 3D, to which I usually made some kind of changes. I don’t feel too bad about using canned models, since I was working on my own and simply did not have the time to model everything from scratch.

I cannot thank the artists who made tutorial videos and contributed to these sites enough. I simply never would have been able to do this without their generosity.

Once all the sets and rigs were completed, I just got to animating. The entire project start-to-finish took about three months of late nights, usually starting work about 10 pm and wrapping up between 1 and 3 am. And then up again at 7 to go to work.

The finished video has over a dozen references to films and writers hidden (mostly) throughout. I think the video rewards careful viewing for that reason, and also because, particularly inside the museum, there are some set-dressing elements that help fill in the backstory to the aliens and why all of these events are happening in the first place.

Museum Kane Shot_0087

A still from inside the museum. Notice the crashed flying saucer on display. Keen-eyed viewers will notice a number of other things hidden in this shot, as well.

I’m quite proud of the finished video. Its technical shortcomings are certainly evident, but for a one-person production, I think that all-in-all, I punched well above my weight. I’m proud of it as a piece of storytelling, and for the fact that somehow, I feel like the characters came out empathetically.

Goodbye at the End Script

I had two of the walkers 3D printed at Shapeways. Because.

I had two of the walkers 3D printed at Shapeways. Because.