Adventures in Film Scoring

I’m sorry that it’s been so long, but it was a tough semester.  I was taking a film studies class in which I wrote a 25 page paper on Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel (I’ll hopefully condense it down into a blog post sometime soon) and also made a short film for an independent study in music tech and film scoring.  It’s the latter I wish to (not-so) briefly discuss today.

I am by no means a composer, never have considered myself one, and the few experiments in composing that I’ve done, while not out-and-out failures, did not encourage me to continue it.  My previous composition experience was mainly limited to assignments in various theory classes, counterpoint, and Introduction to Composition, which was one of the required classes for my BM degree.  This is all to say that I am not a composer.  But that being said, my original project idea for my film project was around a five-minute short, surely I could write between 2-5 minutes of music, right?

Well, the film turned into roughly a 17 minute short (closer to 19 with credits).

First, some background on the independent study.  Basically, I would meet once a week (twice a few times) with my advisor and we would go over the basics of some programs used in film scoring (i.e. – Logic, Pro Tools, Audacity, Reason, Garage Band, etc) and I would mess around with them, do some basic re-scoring to a selected clip (I mainly used parts of the battle sequence in Kurosawa’s Ran), and then I would meet again with my advisor and we would discuss what I did.  At the same time, I was also reading from some books and we would also discuss that.  Roughly half-way through the semester, once I had got the basics of most of these programs down – emphasis on basics – I started planning the project.  After two or so ideas that quickly spiraled into much longer and complex projects than I had time to do, I came up with a simple, easily film-able idea that also presented a variety situations to score.

Thus was born The Last Beer – a film with no real script, just loose scenarios for each scene and dialogue made up on set.

(I cannot upload video or music to this blog as I don’t want to pay the $60/year, though if you are friends with me on Facebook, you’ll find it uploaded in my videos section.)

The basic idea was to adapt the Rashomon technique of multiple, conflicting flashbacks of one central mystery.  In this case, the question of who snaked the last beer?  The film itself is in six scenes, each between 2-3 minutes long, of which three are webcam testimonials of the main characters detailing what they remember happening.  And in having these three sequences, I could try some different techniques and sounds, but the end result was slightly different in that I actually have a mostly unified score in terms of thematic material and instruments.

The actual filming only took about five hours, and then another couple of days to cut and edit the footage for a rough cut (of course, the editing process was spread out over a few weeks in reality).  After having the rough cut assembled, the first actual “scoring” was for a trailer I also edited together to an excerpt from David Arnold’s Stargate score, but for the actual score I had no illusions of duplicating his sound.  The first thing I did was pull out my bassoon and just sort of noodle around until I came up with a theme (in g minor) which I could mold my score around.  I thought about actually writing for bassoon which I could then record and integrate, but again, because of time and other limitations I decided to scrap such a plan.

From there I actually scored the film scene-by-scene, in order, using Logic Pro.  Most of the score is for piano and classical guitar, with some other guitars, bass (both electric and upright), jazz piano, and glockenspiel.  My instrument choices were mainly made using the criteria of what actually sounded good in the computer, which is why I only used strings and voice in the very last cue where I deemed it necessary for dramatic reasons.

When I actually sat down to being scoring, I felt overwhelmed quickly.  I played through the first scene a few times, playing along on piano until I hit upon the rather sparse opening of simple low piano fifths that lead into the very ending of the theme.  After searching through instrumental patches, I found that I liked the basic classical guitar sound and decided to use that for the first complete presentation of the main theme (though, there are two basic versions with slightly different rhythms used in the film), this then segues into a more raucous presentation as the main title cards come up, presented on what I call “James Bond guitar” but is called in Logic “Beatnik Guitar.”  I prefer my name.

While scoring that opening, I came up with the idea of the basic guitar loop that underpins the first full scene.  This is actually how I scored most of the film.  I would come up with a basic accompaniment that I could record once and then loop under a melody.  Sometimes the melody (usually related in some way to the main theme), would come first, but most times I would write the accompany figure first. The melody for the first scene I was quite happy with as I found it very insipid and annoying, which I thought would work well with the promise of an evening hanging out with friends.  I bring the minor mode back in, along with the main theme when one character remarks on the Rashomon poster, the plot source for the film. Following a full statement of the main theme, the insipid melody comes back in, but remains in the minor.

The three central testimonies were scored based partially on the actors themselves.  When I got to them, I had already developed a sound of sorts for the score and a few variations of the main theme.  For Bob, since the actor plays jazz bass, I decided to have a bass ostinato as the basic loop.  I then wrote a basic melodic figure that I could transpose easily up and down, much like the melodic figure from Scene II.  But as the scene moved on, I did some very basic improv and at times just used chords.  This actually led me to the way I scored Doug’s testimonial.  For some reason that I’m still not sure of, I decided to write a 3/4 base for this scene, a waltz-like accompaniment.  Over it, though, I decided to just improv in g minor.  The actor plays jazz sax and is a great improviser, unlike myself, but I felt it would be appropriate.  I recored and looped the waltz patter and then just began recording some improvs.  When I started to think I had “lost it,” I would go back to the last good point, delete what I didn’t like, and start from there.  It took about 3 or 4 times through to get a performance I liked.

For the third testimony, Steve’s, I had a tougher challenge.  During the course of filming and editing, it became somewhat clear that Steve was the heart of the film.  Originally meant to be comic relief, the actor playing him so nailed the role that he practically stole the film.  It was also around this time that I started getting ideas for a trio of films with the same characters, of which this would be part one.  And as I developed the idea in my mind, Steve became the lead character.  I knew then that the main theme I had written a few weeks prior was not just The Last Beer Theme but also Steve’s theme.  And because of this, I knew I had to try and compose a fully realized version of the theme for use during his testimony.

To accomplish this, the first thing I had to do was actually harmonize it.  When I first wrote the theme, it was just melody since I wrote it while playing bassoon.  A curious thing happened though, while the theme starts on tonic, the first down beat could not be a I chord, which made it awkward to bring in the melody since I had to plan the loop around an awkward pick up measure.  Once I had the harmonic structure done, I went about writing a counter-melody to fill in the temporal holes in the theme where there is just a held note.  From these three elements – theme, counter-melody, harmony – I then just began layering them.  Starting out very sparsely, then thickening the texture, and then thinning it back out, until only the piano, which starts the cue, remains.

The final scene was the last hurdle, then.  I first tried doing it using only loops provided in Logic, the idea being that I wanted some bigger orchestral sounds for this climatic scene, but after finishing it and viewing the film with all the music, I jettisoned the idea and started over.  I spotted the scene with three different moments for music, but I was determined to actually use strings this time, no matter how bad they sound (though I did actually use them in Steve’s cue, albeit quite softly and only for harmonic support).  For the first sequence, I decided to use a 6/8 arpeggio support figure with a mournful violin solo, to which the classical guitar is then added.  This is all to set a slightly ominous feeling leading up to the moment of discovery that there is no more beer.

That discovery is made by Meg, whose scene at the fridge is a mash-up of Peter Gunn and James Bond, or at least that was the original idea in my head.  I was messing around with bass sounds and stumbled upon one called ‘Liverpool Bass,’ which is fat sounding bass.  Playing around with figures I actually started playing the bass line from Mancini’s Peter Gunn theme and decided that was it…though not.  Instead of having a third as the first interval, I widened it to a fifth and went from there.  The guitar melody, played by my erstwhile James Bond guitar, is still derived from the ever-varying main theme, and most closely related to the violin melody heard in the previous cue.

The last cue of the film was very tricky, and is basically made up of two small sections.  The first section is a sort of conflation of Bob and Doug’s testimonial music, using a waltz rhythm basis with the bass and piano from Bob’s cue, and a melody played by glockenspiel that takes its cue from Doug’s music.  The second section is for string and chorus and is a final statement of the main theme that crescendos to a mighty g minor chord as the film fades to black.

The end credits features what I call “The Last Beer Blues” and stands apart from the rest of the score.  Originally I was going to pull a Bourne Identity and have Moby’s “Extreme Ways” but decided to go another direction just to keep clear of copyright law.  For this, I used a slow blues template in Garage Band, took out most of melodic instruments and had a friend improvise over it with an electric piano sound.  I wrote some lyrics for it, but again I didn’t have time to record vocals.  Maybe for the sequel.

I mixed the film as I composed it, and this was also quite tricky.  I was writing the score in the labs at school using Logic, but I was editing the film and doing the final mix on my PC at home using Corel Videostudio Pro X3, which only has 3 music tracks to play with.  I would export the individual tracks from Logic and take them home where I would dump them into Audacity and do a mix there.  I would then downmix that into a .wav file that I would import into Videostudio where I would do the more complex mix of making it fit with the film’s audiotrack.  I know, a rather convoluted process, but I had to work with the tech I had.

Anyway, it was a enjoyable process and as soon as I can afford to buy my own camera, and finish writing the script for Part II, I think I may just have a new hobby.  I harbor no illusions of actually becoming a filmmaker, but this, I think, can make for a fun way to keep my sanity as I work on my dissertation.  As long as it’s better than Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, I think I’ll be doing well.  That film is now my benchmark for awfulness in film.

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