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.

 

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“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.

Five Recording Studio Documentaries

I was going through some of the footage of the band in the studio recording the new album, and it gave me the itch to watch the documentary The Wrecking Crew, about the unbelievably prolific LA session musicians who recorded most of rock ‘n roll in the 1960s. It was really good, so naturally it made me want to watch and re-watch some of my other favorite music documentaries.

I found a bunch of lists online of music documentaries, but to be honest most of them are either concert films (e.g., The Last Waltz) or retrospective interview-style profiles of bands of individuals (e.g., Beware of Mr. Baker). So that made me want to put together a list of some recording studio-centric docs in case anybody else wants to go down this rabbit hole with me.

It’s worth noting this is not an attempt at a “Best of…” list. It’s just some good flicks. We’re off!

Let it Be – The Beatles

This is the real deal, right here. The cameras followed The Beatles through rehearsing and recording what wound up being their final album. You get a sense of the dysfunction in the band, but there are some moments of joy, too, like the famous, impromptu rooftop concert scene. This movie’s been out-of-print for decades, but there are bootlegs floating around.

I Am Trying to Break Your Heart – Wilco

The story behind Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album is legendary — from the tensions between Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett, which resulted in Bennett leaving the band, to the album being passed on by the band’s label, only for them to sell it to Nonesuch Records for buckets of money on its way to becoming a big hit. And cameras were there capturing it all as it happened. This movie was actually how I heard about Wilco.

A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica – Metallica

I don’t know how many times I watched this documentary as a teenager, but it was a lot. A LOT. Part one covers the recording of the black album, and part two covers their first tour in support of it. As much as Metallica became known as self-absorbed blowhards, this is on the whole a fun look at the making of an album nobody had any idea was going to change their lives forever. And the whole thing’s on YouTube.

Sound City – Various

I love Dave Grohl. This documentary tells the story of Sound City, its legendary Neve mixing console, the demise of the studio, and Grohl’s resurrection of the board in his own studio. This is as much fun as I’ve ever had watching a music doc. Appearances by Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks, Paul McCartney, Rick Springfield, and tons more.

Muscle Shoals – Various

I’m cheating a little because I haven’t seen this one, but it’s about the music scene in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Like The Wrecking Crew, it publicly tells the story of something that was never well-known outside of the recording industry. And also, a bunch of our fellow contributors to the annual Couch by Couchwest festival hail from the Muscle Shoals area.