Composing: a collaborative process

Divergent methods employed to make poignant scores

Some composers work in isolation, while some lead teams of writers and orchestrators who help complete their vision. Whether they’re scoring huge Hollywood features or smaller indie films, they all have their own methods of working with their production teams. Each has the same goal — to put the final storytelling stamp on a film.

“The musicians are the last actors on a movie,” says Hans Zimmer, veteran composer of such blockbusters as the “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy and “Batman Begins” as well as the upcoming “Sherlock Holmes.”

Zimmer, like fellow composers Michael Giacchino (“Up,” “Star Trek”) and Andrew Hollander (“Waitress,” ABC Family’s “Labor Pains”), works with a loyal team of collaborators that is integral to getting the job done on tight deadlines.

Big Hollywood films require big Hollywood machinery — the music department is no exception. From his home base at Remote Control Prods. in Santa Monica, Zimmer oversees a veritable army of music professionals, using a unique system that keeps the production ball rolling smoothly within the pressures of the studio system.

Zimmer starts each film by creating a suite of music, containing all of the themes and tones present in the movie, sometimes written before cameras even start rolling. “It has every little accent, every little nuance,” the composer explains. “It’s like the instruction manual of where we go from here.”

Veteran music editor Bob Badami then applies the various themes from the suite to the finished film, identifying music cues and conforming appropriate themes to the cues where they fit. The result is, in a sense, an initial pass at the score. “We do our own temp track,” Zimmer adds.

A meeting is then held with Zimmer, his composing and orchestrating staff and others, at which transitory cues and other pieces of music are assigned for a full fleshing out, with Zimmer left to focus on the centerpiece cues.

“Hans basically creates all of the ‘food groups’ that we require,” explains team composer Lorne Balfe. “We know our color scheme, because Hans has created all of the vocabulary that we need. My job then is to get it working to the picture.”

The process will often include a “house band” of the composers and other key musicians-soloists, who help Zimmer try out different ideas before committing to score. “It’s a lovely luxury,” explains Balfe. “You’re able to jam and then create new textures and little motifs. Nobody else does this.”

A completed mockup is handed to orchestrator Bruce Fowler, who, with a team ranging in size from three to 10, completes the orchestration of the score, again, based on Zimmer’s original suite themes and sounds. Zimmer makes a point of welcoming Fowler’s input — or anyone else’s, for that matter. “I don’t want an anonymous orchestrator,” he says. “I like people pushing back. I like people saving me from my own worst mistakes.”

On the other end of the scale are composers like New York-based Hollander, whose work can often be found in indie features. Like Zimmer, Hollander will begin creating themes based on the script, recording initial “sketches” with assistant Jeff Slutz.

“I like to get in while they’re editing,” the composer explains. On Cheryl Hines’ upcoming “Serious Moonlight,” he says, “I was writing the themes as they were cutting, giving them sketches as they were going along. It helped them with the edit, and it helped me see how they put scenes together.”

Hollander’s scores typically comprise a combination of orchestral and rock (or “small group”) elements, the latter often drawn from local NYC bands.

For his scored music, Hollander turns to orchestrator Sonny Kompanek, who can often be counted on to help more fully flesh out the composer’s ideas. Kompanek also conducts the sessions, something Hollander finds invaluable. “Sonny already intimately knows every cue, because he orchestrated every one,” says Hollander.

Hollander also counts on a scoring mixer, Lawrence Manchester, who can handle both orchestral and rock recording. “We’re always trying to do something a little bit different, a little nontraditional,” the engineer explains. Having neither the time nor the budget of studio films often forces Hollander’s hand, creating new sounds out of necessity. “A lot of creativity goes into Andy’s scores,” adds Manchester, “because he’s managing limited resources. By having parameters to work within, you have to get creative in other ways.”

Somewhere in between lies composers like Giacchino, who, at any given moment, can be found writing music for both Hollywood features (“Ratatouille,” “Mission: Impossible III”) and television (“Lost,” “Fringe”).

Such a workload can overwhelm even the heartiest of composers. “I was busy on ‘Lost’ and all the movies, and then (“Lost”-“Fringe” creator/”Star Trek” director) J.J. (Abrams) says, ‘And we have another TV show. . .'”

The solution, as with Zimmer, lay in “spreading the love.” While Giacchino created the basic template in “Fringe’s” pilot, he offered his assistants, Chad Seiter and Chris Tilton, the opportunity to score the remainder of the series (Tilton took over the second half of the first season and continues on season two). “It would be impossible for me to do everything I’m doing and ‘Fringe,'” says Giacchino. “It’s a great opportunity for Chris and Chad. I trust these guys — I can just say, ‘You know enough already of how I like to work and what I like that you’ll know what decisions to make.'”

On his TV work, Giacchino and crew must orchestrate their own writing (“There really isn’t an orchestration budget for any of the television stuff,” notes Tilton), but for feature films Giacchino works with longtime orchestrator Tim Simonec. “Orchestrating for Michael is very much a refining process,” Simonec explains. “And you do have liberties within that refining process to be very creative,” something that continues during the recording stage.

Giacchino’s scores are recorded by 81-year-old veteran mixer Dan Wallin, whose career dates back to his years broadcasting live big band gigs in the 1940s. “Dan isn’t simply the guy who pushes the buttons and sets up a couple of mics,” the composer notes. “He can build mics — he built the speakers that I use. He’s an engineer in the true sense of the word.”

Never comfortable with reusing old sounds and techniques, Wallin continues to learn and develop new ways to record. “He’s always trying something, and then he says, ‘I think you’re gonna like it,'” laughs Giacchino, who counts on such creativity to help complete the director’s vision with his music. “No matter what the project, I’m working with characters and story. Our job is not to write music; it’s to tell stories.”

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