Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Motion Picture Academy Series: The Music Team

The Music Soundtrack: A Composer's Forum of Contemporary Scoring Techniques

Topic Oct. 4, 2007: "The Music Team"

Guest Speakers:
George S. Clinton (Austin Powers 1-3, Wild Things)
Mike Flicker (music editor – Austin Powers 1-3)
Michael Giacchino (The Incredibles, Mission Impossible III, The Family Stone)
Bryan Burk (producer)
John Powell (The Bourne Identity, Happy Feet, United 93, Face/Off)

If there's one funny, captivating way to open up a panel discussion, it's by showing a clip from an Austin Powers flick. Such was the case last Thursday night when this panel, assembled at the Motion Picture Academy's Linwood Dunn Theater, to discuss the challenges facing "The Music Team" in this third and last part of the series.

George S. Clinton, as the composer of all three Austin Powers films, was asked how it came to be that he was the composer chosen for these movies. "I did a film for free for the AFI (American Film Institute) years earlier. Then, years later, I got a call to do a movie…and then another. Eventually, I got a call to meet with Mike Myers to do Austin Powers. That's how it happened."

The moderator wanted to know how Clinton was able to be successful in his meetings with directors. Clinton attributes it to being as authentic as you can be. "Don't be false or overwrought. Be as honest as you can be. The biggest thing you can have with a director is trust." Asked how he can make sure he is artistically on the same page as the director, Clinton responded in a loud voice, "Ask him 'Why in the world did you choose that piece for the temp score?!?!?'" This resulted in a loud round of laughter from the audience. "But seriously," said Clinton, "a lot really is based on the temp score that exists."

The moderator asked Clinton to explain his process a bit. "It's been seven years since I've actually done a paper score. I work with a great team. One of my first calls is to my music editor, Mike Flicker. He checks studio availability; he is the liaison to the picture's music editor. The music editor is like the captain of the team…he coordinates lots of areas." (At this point, Mike Flicker joined him on the stage.)

Asked to describe the day-to-day routine of working on a picture, Flicker responded that every project is different. "There's no such thing as day-to-day. The team responds to whatever George's needs are for a film. The team is involved from spotting to print master."

Flicker went on to explain that the opening to this third Austin Powers movie was actually cut (in the initial edit) to "Run Lola Run." George was locked in to the beats of the temp track, which made scoring the opening scene quite a challenge. Clinton remarked, "The team has to be flexible. It's like trying to fit clothes on a running man." Clinton uses Digital Performer and gives the team DP files to work with, which then go into scoring software. "We used to have about six weeks to do the score. Now it's about four weeks – four weeks to compose and three or four days to record."

During the composing process, Clinton will sometimes go into the house and work on acoustic piano. "I like to get away from some of the technical aspects sometimes." He will then do elaborate synth mock-ups of the score. "I tried to write the kind of music that Austin Powers himself would like to hear, or that Dr. Evil would like to hear. The music was sort of the straight man in the film." Remarking on the role of the music supervisor, Clinton said that the music supervisor used to simply find songs. Now he helps steer through the waters, including, sometimes, the process of choosing the composer for the film.

The next clip shown was from "Wild Things." The interesting thing here is that in sections of the score, Clinton used musicians that had songs in the film, from groups such as Smash Mouth and Morphine. He previously recorded studio musicians to do these parts "just in case" and also to serve as guide tracks if needed. He was ecstatic that the musicians from the groups eventually added a lot more to it, in ways that Clinton wouldn't have thought of himself.

Next up was Michael Giacchino and the clip was from "Ratatouille." This was a brilliant piece which follows "the lead rat" from underground to a beautiful scene on the rooftops of Paris. There is both incredible animation and scoring going on in this segment, none of which can be done justice by recounting it – it must be seen to be believed.

Asked if scoring animation is a different process than scoring "real films," Giacchino replied, "They're all movies. You do get a little more time to do the score. But I look at it the same way as I do with 'Lost.' These are all real characters." When Giacchino saw the film for the first time, it consisted primarily of reels with storyboards and voices. This is what gave him his first sense of what the film was about. "At first I was terrified. I didn't know if I could do it." He wrote the rooftop piece first (the one that was screened) using acoustic piano. He was later able to work with orchestrator Jack Hayes, who he described as incredibly talented. (A quick click on the IMBd database brought up 111 films, from 2007's "Ratatouille" back to 1957's "Gunfight at the OK Corral.") In discussing the scene, Giacchino said "It runs the gamut of emotions, from desperation to fascination. There's a lot going on…but you have to carefully pick and choose which hits to highlight."

The second clip, also from "Ratatouille," was brilliant as well. It was the ending scene of the movie and was very touching. Giacchino said, "You have to stick with the core emotion. Everyone is happy, but sort of melancholy as well. Melancholy is not necessarily bad. It's about accepting what is…what you have." And Giacchino was very happy to have his producer there, Bryan Burke. It turns out the Burke is as fanatical about film scores as any composer would be. Giacchino has worked with him on "Alias," "Lost," and next year's "Star Trek" motion picture. Burke commented that some of "Lost" was spotted with temp music (not Giacchino's music). "Michael wasn't even there. We totally trust his ability to score. And if Michael can't score a scene, the scene is wrong, and needs to be changed." (Editor's note: Yes, you may want to re-read the last sentence. And he wasn't kidding!)

Asked if there is a difference between movies, TV, and videogames, Giacchino replied, "No, it can all be the same. The time schedules differ, that's all." And commenting on the sameness that Hollywood sometimes expects from music, Giacchino said (quoting someone who originally came up with this idea), "Hollywood is like a dumb shark. You throw some blood over there, it goes over there. You throw some blood over there, it goes over there." As to the schedule for "Lost," he has two days to write "Lost," and one day to record.

Addressing the overall composing process, Giacchino said "You form relationships with these people. You want to work with them. That's what it's about. And the music itself is about story, story, story."

John Powell was introduced next but instead of being interviewed, sat at a Mac laptop and gave his own unique presentation on "The Technical Team." A former viola player, Powell brought up a screen from Logic Pro 7 and said "I'll show you how geeky composers are." The rest of his presentation lived up to this promise. Powell was hilarious, basically by just being himself. He was a geeky, highly creative composer whose British accent could barely be heard making funny asides as he led the audience down a slippery slope of sequencing in Logic.

"Three years ago I got it all down to four Macs. I hate PCs. I have Macs running as Gigastudios. But now I can fit it all into one computer." He showed a scene which began with a sampled acoustic guitar, then brought in some strings. He added a harmonium, cracking jokes and remarking on how a director can be tested by his capacity to tolerate a harmonium part. After showing several different Logic screens, the perfect conclusion for this demo occurred – Logic crashed! The audience laughed, which was probably a relief to most after seeing Powell's complex Logic windows on a huge cinematic screen.

Asked if using the computer changes his composing style in any way, Powell responded, "You make the tool transparent. You make the computer perform as good as it can be. I use autoloads extensively, which saves time…because when things break down I have to 'switch brains.'"

The moderator wanted to know if Powell's job in the Bourne trilogy was made any easier by the use of the computer. Although the answer would intuitively be 'yes,' Powell explained that Bourne 1 was done on Logic 5 with TDM. Bourne 2 was run native on Logic 6, and Bourne 3 was done in Logic 7. "The second one was very, very difficult…a nightmare," he said, referring to the incompatibilities of plug-in versions and other technical problems. "The third one didn't have a lot of new material, so it didn't pose any real problems," an admission that many composers might not have made.

At this point there was a break. Coffee, cookies, and fruit were consumed so quickly that those at the end of the line were left with a few sour grapes…literally.

In Part II the guest speakers (minus Bryan Burk who had to go back to work) assembled for a Q&A, mostly consisting of questions submitted by audience members on 3x5 cards. The first one asked how many rewrites of a cue the composer will be willing to do before settling on a final. George Clinton said that he will simply ask the director what problem isn't going away, because the director may be hoping that the music will solve some other problem.

Another question stated "Are you ever able to see a movie and enjoy it without deconstructing it?" Most agreed they could, if the movie was very good. Clinton noted that he never noticed the music in his original viewing of "Ratatouille" because the movie was so good.

Asked to cite examples of the best direction ever given to them by a film director, Giacchino recalled this one from his director: "Imagine it's Christmas day and you're a few feet from your Christmas presents. Your parents tell you to stay right where you are and you can't reach those presents. That's how frustrating the music must be at this point." Clinton remarked that musical direction boils down to "faster/slower, bigger/smaller."

A discussion of soundtrack CDs ensued, most expressing frustration because the CDs are viewed in typical terms – how many units they sell. The important thing, Giacchino said, is about the art, not the number of units. Clinton's gripe was that soundtrack CDs were reviewed as if they were meant to just be listened to, without picture – an unfair way to judge them.

The moderator wanted to know the panelist's thoughts on how they balance work with personal life. Clinton said he gets up at 4:00 a.m., goes out to the studio until it's time for breakfast, which he has with his family, and then sees his daughter off to school. Then it's back to work, until about 11:00 p.m. at night. Giacchino has three kids and waits until they go off to school. He works until about 5:30 p.m. and then spends time with them until they go to bed. He may or may not resume work until about 10:30 at night. Powell simply remarked that everything has been made easier by the composer's ability to do everything at home.

Laughter ensued when the panel was asked "Who selects the temp music?" and someone on the panel quipped, "Satan!"

Michael Giacchino recalled some interesting stories about his intro into the business, first when he was only known as a game composer and J. J. Abrams called him to do "Lost." Giacchino thought it was someone playing a practical joke on him. But it turned out that Abrams was a videogame fan and really liked Giacchino's music, and they ultimately became good friends. And Dreamworks, it turns out, only knew of Giacchino from his work as a game producer, not as a composer. One day Giacchino got a call that Steven Spielberg was downstairs and wanted to speak with him. After getting over the initial shock, Giacchino proceeded down the escalator where Spielberg was waiting at the bottom. Giacchino recalled, "It was like a super, slow motion dolly shot of me going down, right into where Spielberg was standing. It was unreal!"

For his most challenging project, Giacchino cited the Albert Brooks movie, "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World." In a session with Brooks, Giacchino recalls him saying, "Can we try that note higher? We can right? It's just a note." So Michael did. Then Brooks says, "Can we try the note lower? And Michael obliges. "Now," Brooks says, "right in the middle." So Michael goes back to the original note. "Yes, that's it!" exclaimed Brooks. Giacchino said "I realized right then that I was in an Albert Brooks movie!"

The moderator closed off the evening by asking for a volunteer from the panel to play any musical selection from one of their own scores on the grand piano. There wasn't an immediate response until finally, George S. Clinton went over to the piano and played a theme from "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," an HBO film that he had scored. It was a beautiful and perfect way to end this great session.

- Bob Safir

October 6, 2007