Every frame a painting
The Marvel Cinematic sound
The Marvel Cinematic Symphonic universe sound
This is a response to the 2 thought provoking videos that Thomas Goss shared on Orchestration Online Facebook group. The first on the You tube Channel Every Frame a Painting the second a response by Dan Golding [https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCqnos76uuqYRZ-zI2MRNGnA]
The first video proposes a few key ideas as far as i understand- Temp music leads to recycling- Directors and editors fall in love with temp scores- Studios like the safety of temp music scores
The second video deals with these points and refines them pointing out- Temp music is as old as film itself so perhaps not the issue- The marvel universe draws on a smaller pool of temps- rhythm and texture have taken over from melody- Technology has had an impact on both the film and music process
I feel that these are all good points and the videos are definitely worth a watch, They are well made and illustrate the above points clearly. I would like to discuss the angle that is mentioned but not explored in much detail in the 2 videos- Money
It is undoubtedly true that the Marvel films are commercially very successful. it is also true to say the Hans Zimmer is a very commercially successful composer. Commercial success leads to several things. - “if it ain’t broke why fix it?”- they must be doing something right- we should imitate their method to be successful also- the success of one brand can lead to criticism
Money talks and film projects are set up as companies. In the old days the Hollywood Studios were basically film factories. They had departments in different buildings and these departments had staff like any other industry. There were production lines e.g. composers to orchestrators to copyists to scoring stage musicians to music mixers to dubbing mixers.
In many cases multiple people were responsible for the music in a sequence. This was particularly obvious in musicals where a dance band expert arranger would take a tune written by, say , Irving Berlin and score it for big band around which a staff orchestrator, like Conrad Salinger, might write the string or orchestral elements and the sequences work fantastically well and seamlessly.
Lots of time and money was spent on the music and box office success paid the wages. The hits paid for the misses.. People showed up to work each day and did what ever musical job was required of them. This office system also lead to a career path and an apprenticeship like training route. Not that many people worked in the industry, if you compare it to insurance or automotive production. Very few students of music went to college in the hope of working in the film music world. The Second World War, arguably, fed the studio system talent that would not have chosen the path of composing for film. Bernard Herrmann was notoriously displeased with having to write music for film to earn a living rather than as a concert hall composer and yet he is revered now as one of the seminal composers of film music as an art as well as a craft.
Here is the key point Film music is a craft first and and art last. It is applied music. Richard Rodney Bennett made a very good point when he said his work for film and T.V. was more like journalism than writing a novel. Journalism is a good comparison because the big papers used to be much like the Film Studios , where there was a clear structure from top to bottom and everything was “ in house”. These days the freelance gig economy is very prevalent in both newspapers and media music.
Technology has “democratised’ music composition and made it cheaper. The level of craft needed in the old days is not needed these days. Andre Previn, a musician of prodigious talent, worked in Hollywood for a while. He is a concert pianist, an improving jazz pianist, composer and conductor. Many of the mid century composers in America had conservatoire back grounds. These days musical training is less of a requirement, not that it is missing from hollywood, there are examples of current composers who have graduated from music colleges. The difference is they may have gone to college in the first place to study film music. The point Theodor Adorno makes in the second video that “No serious composer would write for motion pictures for any other than money reasons.” gives a pretty clear idea that, in the middle of the last century, film composing was a considered a type of prostitution.
Jump forward to now and the nearest thing to a Hollywood studio system music department is Remote Control. Han Zimmer’s music production company ( he also has Bleeding Fingers concentrating on TV now too) He has a full compliment of composers and programmers to produce work of a very high level of production. There is also a huge back catalogue of music from films of many genres from Animation to Drama. Out in the world now ,however, there are also countless thousands of freelance musicians who work in the gig economy and can produce high quality work from project studios as small as a laptop and midi keyboard with some decent storage for sample libraries. The composers often start out working on projects in a secondary composing role. I met Steve Jablonsky ( of the transformers franchise) at Air Lyndhurst on the score of King Arthur where Rupert Gregson -Williams was dealing with the choir elements of the score . There is a great deal of cross fertilisation. If you can get the editors on board to use music you have already written the task becomes easier technically if less rewarding artistically.
The Temp score is a blessing and a curse. Blockbusters need to to bust blocks there is a lot of money tied up in them so investors want returns. This is perhaps why the lower budget films sometime produce the most original music scores. American Beauty was not expected to do as much at the box office as it eventually did. Thomas Newman has said that he was in the odd position of being so successful with that score that on one occasion a director said “ I was hoping this cue would be a bit more Thomas Newman”, what is the correct answer to that if you actually are Thomas Newman!
The fact that the Hans Zimmer system produces reliable financially successful results is why studios go back to him again and again as a safe pair of hands. He really is a safe pair of hands and I think he is a very intelligent, insightful musician and businessman. I remember when he got Harry Gregson-Williams to score Kingdom of Heaven so he could concentrate on scoring Madagascar. This was basically the next Ridley Scott sword and sandals film after Gladiator but Hans saw the market moving more towards animation and he was correct. Not only was he correct but one of “his” composers scored the period piece while at the same time another of his guys John Powell was scoring the animation Robots. If you take into account how many films Hans Zimmer’s team have had a hand in in the last 20 years you will start to understand they are the Ford Motors of the film music world.
Trends picked up from the HZ approach can be widely heard in the current motion picture musical world but we must also remember that the musical taste of the directors has much to do with what is heard. There are some directors, such as Tom Hooper, who have a good knowledge of music beyond the mainstream of pop and associated genres. Some of the most successful composers of recent times have been members of pop bands in previous lives. Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman are two obvious choices. Dan Golding rightly points out that much of modern scoring is orchestrated rock music driven from the drums. The ostinato and the drone are much in evidence too. this plays well with directors whose musical tastes are often in that area of music. I would say that Hans Zimmer himself is often very inventive, especially with Christopher Nolan. Hans simmers’s collaborations with other musicians is well documented, although the most surprising to me of late was with Cathedral Organist Roger Sayer, who, coincidently, was my choir master when I was 14 ; he was only 16 and played the organ fantastically well even then! It is often the imitators who are churning out the ostinato based sound carpet by the yard for a price. Value for money is key and focus groups are asked to fill in questionnaires, including for the music!
When it comes to judging the work of a composer we have to be fair and understand that it is a job with many pressures and the real risk of being fired!. 2001 was mentioned with regards to how George Lucas wanted to score Star Wars: A new Hope. I’m sure many of you will know that a score was written for 2001 by Alex North which Kubrick rejected. You want to keep the job if you can because it pays well and you get to use your skills as a musician and apply them to helping tell the story. People get sacked all the time. Dan Golding uses the example of Troy in his video essay to point out the same approach James Horner used in several films for a certain emotion. James Horner was the second composer on that film and had to write the score very quickly. I know this because a session brass playerI I know had remarked on how good the music was for the score that got rejected and that they had recorded many sessions worth of great musical material. So money is still spent on failed attempts.
I have recently spoken to a composer colleague who was asked to score an original production for one of the streaming companies. The film was sent to him with a temp score which had a coherent sound world. He started writing and sending his music to the production and they came back saying “ this is not what we are looking for” So after spending a long time cutting with a certain type of music they decided they actually didn’t want that type of music after all. Sadly he lost the confidence of the director and left the project but you have to wonder what the point of a temp score that is irrelevant is. No doubt the situation was more complex but the lesson my colleague took from this is make sure you get in the room with people who you are working for.
Perhaps music with melody will comeback into fashion. Christian Henson made a good point in one of his vlogs , that directors often approach the score with trepidation. He said “ We are like musical Dentists” I get his point. I have always thought of media composers as similar to car mechanics, which has a similar fear on the customer end. Directors are nearly always creative and gifted people. Directors are often visually highly literate and well read people that understand the skills of art department, Lighting, Camera, and editing first hand. Some can draw their own story boards, shoot, light and edit their own films if needed. Not very many can write the score. That may be why they feel at a disadvantage with a composer and why the temp gives them back some artistic control. I must say I would rather a director sent me some music they like than try to explain it in words. We speak music, read music and write music like a language, although I don’t recommend ordering a pizza using the language of music! ( I might try ringing Papa Johns and playing Hawain guitar down the phone1)
At film school the voice over was considered a last resort when the story was not being told in pictures but cheaper than a reshoot. Ridley Scott is reported to have reluctantly given in to adding a voice over to the opening of Blade Runner and if you watch the original cut without the voice over but with the score it is a very different experience. Technology is constantly evolving and there are already programs out there which allow non musicians to score there own films by using sliders to vary tension levels. The methods of Marvel film scoring can be mechanised because there is a lot of material to analyse and A.I. is a tool that can do that quickly and easily and most importantly cheaply. I have loved music and film my entire life and have worked in the industry for a long time now. I have seen much change over time and it appears to be quickening. Supply and demand will always be a driving factor and success breads sequels, but let us hope that art, craft and human emotion are always at the centre of telling stories with film.
Stan Lee said that he if he had managed to bring the Comic from a simple teenage entertainment product to a more literary, artistic and human level he could be proud of that. He certainly made more rounded characters and emphasised the human in “Super Human”Technology has brought those characters to life on the screen and in abundance in the last 10 years but musically they may have missed a trick. Not having a more memorable bank of themes may have been an oversight. After all we all k now what Daredevil looks like or the colours of Spiderman’s suit we just don’t have a musical identity that we can say the same thing about. The films have made money and the producers can point to that and say “ you can’t argue with the figures” We know from history that the popular does not always make it’s way into the hall of fame. Film makers of today will be judged by the historians of tomorrow as will film composers. They will decide if Hans Zimmer is the new Bernard Herman. Being a great craftsman is something to be proud of and i am reminded of the story of Gershwin meeting Maurice Ravel. He asked if he could have some lessons, Ravel enquired how much he earned from music and on hearing the figure suggested it was he who needed lessons from Gershwin.
In conclusion I would say, for many reasons, one of which is financial, temp music is here to stay; so how can we use it to our advantage and to the service of the story? One way I think it is possible to make things work better is for composers to be there at the assembly stage of the film, to offer their temp choices to demonstrate and discuss the options a director might have. I do wish that editors would work mute more often. The best editors have always had a sense of what music can bring to scene without having to have actual music to cut to. The student editor will often rush cuts in the absence of music as the pace feels slow and awkward . When music is added to this slow scene it suddenly seems to go by more quickly and have much more depth of meaning with a good score behind it.
The Bottom line and the Bass line are both important