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

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

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.”