Composers Compete for Oscar With Fresh Tunes, New Technology

As film music evolves, its creators sound off on issues like having enough time on a project and dealing with temp scores

Shrinking budgets, tight schedules, temporary music, new recording techniques — these are just some of the challenges facing film composers these days.

Variety asked several composers in contention for awards this season about trends in their business. Most roll with the changes brought on by technology, and some were pleased about filmmakers understanding the need for adequate time to create — especially on the big scores.

For example, Johann Johannsson worked on “Arrival” for more than nine months, starting before shooting began. His director, Denis Villeneuve, is a firm believer in long lead times and had even invited him to the set of their previous collaboration, “Sicario,” to, as Johannsson says, “get a feel for the geography, the atmosphere of the place … on a film that relies so much on exteriors and real locations.” (Because so much of “Arrival” was visual-effects-driven, Johannsson didn’t feel the need to visit.)

For “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” composer James Newton Howard also started early, writing two “eight- or nine-minute suites” of proposed themes for early auditioning by director David Yates. “Most of that thematic material ended up in the movie in important ways,” Howard says. He was on the film for seven months.

“Immersion in a movie over months and months will give you what you just can’t get in the same way over a four- or six-week period,” Howard says, referring to the usual late-in-post-production scramble to find the right music.

Regarding budgets, major studio pictures still seem to have the resources for a proper score. John Debney’s “Jungle Book,” for example, had a Disney-financed orchestra of 100, plus a 50-voice choir. But the medium- to lower-budget independent films, he says, are often under-budgeted for score, so that “it becomes very difficult to do an original score with a live musician or two.

“I am hearing of smaller films with top-name actors but little or no money, maybe a couple of thousand dollars, for music,” Debney says. He has turned down jobs “where the budget won’t allow me to do what I think the film needs, musically.” (Among the reasons, he surmises: the Pandora/Spotify mentality where “you push a button and you get free music.” That doesn’t take into account the costs of writing it, orchestrating it, recording it with actual musicians.)

Even though it’s been a standard practice for decades, the use of temp music — pre-existing music added to an early cut, often before a composer is hired to write an original score — remains controversial. Some embrace it as a key tool in understanding what the director is looking for; others find that it can damage the cause of originality and fresh approaches to the material.

Nicholas Britell, who scored “Moonlight,” sees both sides of the equation. “Music is very difficult to talk about,” he says. “One of the most powerful things that a temp can do is provide a reference for an idea or emotion or some musical concept that might be difficult to explain in words. The negatives are when people [editors, directors or both] fall in love with something, to the detriment of the picture.”

He adds, “A lot of temp is like throwing a dart at a board. You’re just testing things out. And the only way you figure things out is by experimenting. Ultimately, it’s about how the temp is used. If it is used as a conversation starter, then it can be helpful. It’s a problem if they’re saying, ‘this is what we need.’”

Nearly all composers are now asked to “mock up” their score on synthesizers in advance of recording so that directors can approve each cue before they get to the scoring stage. “The point of purchase for what we do is now that mockup,” says “Allied” composer Alan Silvestri. “If that mockup does not communicate, that piece is not in the movie.”

In fact, Silvestri says, composer mockups now routinely go into the movie for preview screenings. “For the duration of the preview process — to the execs, or showing it to audiences — that mockup better hold its own in a movie theater,” he says.

One of the most talked-about trends in film music is the relatively new practice of “striping” — recording sections of the orchestra separately to give filmmakers greater control of the score during dubbing (the final mix of dialogue, sound effects, and score). Brass is recorded separately from strings, woodwinds from brass, and so on.

Veteran composers disapprove. “I wouldn’t be able to achieve what I wanted with the orchestra if I had to do it that way,” says John Williams, composer of last summer’s “The BFG.” “The players really need to hear each other. When an orchestra plays together, they’re inspired by what’s going on around them. The violas have to match the horns in pitch and articulation, for example. It can all be done in layers, but I don’t think it’s ever going to quite have the emotional impact, or conviction, or character of the piece.”

Adds the five-time Oscar winner, “A conductor can create a variety of sounds and characteristics [if the orchestra plays together]. It’s not possible the other way; it’s going to be, in some sense, clinical.”

Popular on Variety

More Artisans

  • Advanced Imaging Society Honors 10 Women

    AIS Honors 10 Women in Tech

    Celebrating 10 years of achievement in entertainment technology, the Advanced Imaging Society today named 10 female industry innovators who will receive the organization’s 2019 Distinguished Leadership Awards at the its 10th annual Entertainment Technology Awards ceremony on October 28 in Beverly Hills. The individuals were selected by an awards committee for being significant “entertainment industry [...]

  • Will Smith Gemini Man Special Effects

    How the 'Gemini Man' VFX Team Digitally Created a Younger Version of Will Smith

    More human than human — yes, that’s a “Blade Runner” reference — yet it sounds like an unattainable standard when it comes to creating believable, photorealistic, digital human characters. But the visual effects team on Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man” set its sights on something even more difficult: creating a digital version of young Will Smith [...]

  • Jest to Impress Cartoon Network Virtual

    New In-House VR Program Helps Cartoon Network Artists Add a Virtual Dimension

    Teams of animators and artists from across Cartoon Network’s numerous properties are getting the chance to expand into virtual reality storytelling via the company’s pilot program, Journeys VR. The work of the first three teams — including experiences based on action, nature and comedy — was unveiled to global audiences Oct. 1 on Steam and [...]

  • Frozen 2

    How the 'Frozen II' Artists Created Believable Emotion Through Animation

    “The more believable you can make the character [look], the more people believe how [it’s] feeling,” says Tony Smeed, who, with Becky Bresee, shared the challenge of heading animation on Disney’s highly anticipated “Frozen II.” “Emotion comes from inside and manifests itself into actions and facial expressions. Anything beyond that is movement for the sake [...]

  • Lucy in the Sky BTS

    'Lucy in the Sky' DP Shifts Frame to Show Inner Turmoil of Natalie Portman's Astronaut

    What drew cinematographer Polly Morgan to “Lucy in the Sky” was how Noah Hawley’s script so clearly illuminated the emotional breakdown of astronaut Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman) in a way that felt very insular: The visual cues were on the page — and conveyed an unusual approach to charting the character’s journey. “When things fall [...]


    How Makeup, Hair and Costume Team Gave 'Joker' a New Look for Origin Story

    “We’re not in the superhero world,” says Nicki Ledermann, makeup head on Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” which reimagines the iconic comic book villain’s origin in an acclaimed performance from Joaquin Phoenix. “This story is treated as real life, and that’s what made the project so interesting.” In this most recent take on Batman’s nemesis — a [...]

  • Exceptional Minds VFX Autism Training

    VES Honoree Susan Zwerman Trains People on the Autism Spectrum for Film, TV Jobs

    Most of those who have earned the honor of VES Fellow in the past decade have been recognized by the Visual Effects Society for on-screen innovation. But this year’s honoree, Susan Zwerman, is equally distinguished by her off-screen accomplishments. Zwerman is the studio executive producer for Exceptional Minds, a visual effects and animation school for [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content