Profs use giant gorilla to unpack movie music

November 24, 2016

A look at how custom music changed film forever


Before you tuck into a comfy theatre seat to watch the next installment of the Star Wars saga—or whichever holiday season blockbuster you plan to take in—Department of Music Chair Allan Gilliland and faculty member John McMillan encourage you to give some thought to the soundtrack that’s driving the story behind the film.

On Wednesday, November 30 the two composers will host a screening at Metro Cinema of the original 1933 King Kong—a film that forever changed the relationship between movies and music.

“Not only is the original 1933 version of King Kong a great film, it’s also essentially the first to have a custom musical score," says John, whose composing credits include Hawaii 5-0, Now You See Me, Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World. "That ground-breaking step allowed musicians and composers to become part of the storytelling process. From that point on, we were no longer musicians alone—we were musicians and filmmakers.” 

Allan and John will spend time after the film discussing the art of film scoring and the role film music plays in enhancing the cinematic experience.

THUMB_Reel_Learning_2Check out the REEL Learning screening of King Kong at Metro Cinema on Wednesday, November 30

Here John shares his insider view of the role music plays in what happens on the big screen, a few things you should keep an eye out for the next time you find yourself in a theatre, and a peek at how he teaches his students to compose for film.

How important is music to the storytelling process in movies?

Movies just don’t have the same impact when you strip out the soundtrack. Need proof? John suggests watching the final scene of Star Wars: A New Hope on YouTube where it’s posted in its original form without a single note of music. As Hans Solo, Luke Skywalker and Chewbacca make their way through the Throne Room, the only things that break the silence are footsteps, shuffling and the occasional cough.

“It’s really awkward,” says John. “The music that propels that scene forward and without it, it’s just difficult to watch.”

As a film composer, how do you get started on a new musical score?

“We start with a full version of the movie that either has no music at all or some temporary music that the director has chosen to provide a sense of what they’re looking for,” explains John. “I usually watch a film at least once without music just trying to get an idea of what the story is about. I use the same approach when I’m teaching my fourth-year film scoring class.”

Next, John says, they start looking for “moments” to hit and musical ideas that can be carried through the story and the score. Sometimes the consistent element is a particular sound, instrument, chord or chord progression, and other times it’s a small melodic line.

John says that the Pixar film Up is a perfect example. Composer Michael Giacchino uses a single four-note theme in one of the movie’s early scenes to convey a lifetime’s worth of emotions over the course of just four minutes: joy, sadness, excitement, disappointment, playfulness, mournfulness, love and grief.

“That one little theme carries through the film, conveying so much emotion,” says John. “It also helps it feel like one entity—and that’s what we’re looking for.”

Do you ever feel like a bit of an emotional puppet-master?

“Sometimes,” John laughs. “We’re looking for music that is going to make the emotion ‘sing’ the loudest. If I know a scene is going to make someone cry, then I’m going to write music that will hopefully make them cry a little bit more. That sounds terrible, but that’s kind of the way it works. If I know that someone is going to be affected by watching a moment of sadness or vulnerability, it’s my job to take that feeling and just kind of tap into it a little bit.”

It doesn’t always take much.

“You really don’t need to write a lot of material for emotional scenes,” he says. “Sometimes a single note held on a violin or a single piano chord with a long reverb tail is enough. A lot of people think that a sad scene needs to be in a minor key, but it doesn’t. We can play with range, tone quality and tempo to fix emotion.”

But when it comes to action, a film’s music takes on a more active role.

“Action scenes are where we need to use music to inject anxiety and movement into the story. We want to add a little bit of tension, build it to a certain point, let off a little bit and then start building again.”

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How much attention should we be paying to the music?

“I think that the best scorers blend the music into the film in such a way that viewers don’t even think about it,” says John. “A lot of composers would disagree with me, and some might go as far as to say that the music is more important than the film itself, but I really think that film composers need to be in service of the film. Yes the music is important, but it’s just one component. Lighting is a critical part of film too, but it should look natural and you shouldn’t be able to see the huge lights that simulate it.”

A final note

“At the end of the day, I hope my students learn that writing a great musical score isn’t always about writing an incredible piece of music,” says John. “It's about writing the music that speaks most clearly to the scene and is in service to the film. A lot of the time less is more—you don't need to fill out every single gap and every single space in the soundscape. You just need to fill out the emotional content.”

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