Ace Wonder: Sketches and Ideas

Posted on September 1, 2011 at 7:07 pm, by Ben

Artwork by Matt Sample Ace Wonder Sketches by BenBotkin

Every musical project requires a certain amount of preliminary experimentation and ground work before you can begin on the final thing. For Ace Wonder, I spent a long time working up an assortment of little musical ideas and sketches based on the adjectives and vision the director (John Moore) articulated for me. (At this point in the process, I had also read the script and was getting little clips of the film to wet my musical appetite, but did not have an edit of the film.)

I immediately started versing myself in the pieces of music that possessed the flavor and feeling that John particularly liked– I also had a number of ideas of what existing pieces of music would capture the essence of his verbal descriptions. Wading through a lot of existing music first can really help the composer understand the musical tastes of the director. This is crucial. John’s understanding of what “Crazy- madcap-science-steampunk- action-adventure-detective-noir-mystery-music ” sounds like may differ greatly from my own, or may not be fully formed yet.

The pool of inspirational material we dove through was pretty wide and ran quite deep. John Williams, John Powell, Danny Elfman, Michael Giacchino, Randy Newman, Hans Zimmer, James Horner, Michael Kamen and more– all these composers and their scores were frequently referenced in our dialogue as we tried to mold and define that Ace Wonder “sound.” If someone asked me what my main source of inspiration for this project was, I would have to hand them half of my music library.

At least that’s what it felt like.

I wrote of dozens of these short, rough musical sketches, experimenting with everything from instrumentation to rhythm, melody, and meter. It took anywhere from 20 minutes to a couple hours to sketch one of these up, so every couple days I would send John a new batch of samples for him to peruse and pass judgment on–every piece of feedback I received told me a little bit more about the way John’s mind ticks in regard to music.

After a while of this, we ended up having a pretty good sense of the feel and flavor for the music and had worked through melodic ideas and the use of themes throughout the film. I was ready to begin scoring to picture, which at that point was nearing the “locked edit” stage.


  • Have you finished scoring to the picture?

    Posted by Benjamin Dawson on August 23rd, 2011 at 9:23 am
  • Really liking your strings, Ben! The expressiveness you are getting out of them speaks to a good library and–more importantly–good programming.

    I have to wonder if there is a point of too much experimenting and sketching before starting actual work on a score. Do you ever feel like you’ve been in danger of creatively exhausting yourself before a project like this is complete?


    Posted by Rick Holets on August 23rd, 2011 at 12:34 pm
  • Artwork by Matthew Sample–I am having a hard time getting his name to show as a caption to the image, so I’ll credit him here. Here is his site with some more of his work viewable:

    Posted by admin on August 23rd, 2011 at 4:36 pm
  • Having worked with a composer before, I know how crucial the composer/director relationship is, and how important it is that there is mutual respect between them.

    When using other composers as inspiration, are you ever afraid of your work sounding too much like theirs?

    Posted by Grace on August 24th, 2011 at 2:26 pm
  • Beautiful.

    I love the melodic theme that keeps coming back in one way or another.

    It’s genius.

    Posted by Daniel Lamb on August 24th, 2011 at 9:31 pm
  • Building on Grace’s question,
    How do you avoid sounding like other composers?

    Posted by John on August 30th, 2011 at 5:56 pm
  • @Benjamin, yes, I basically am, and have been for a while. There are a couple tweaks here and there, but 99% of the work is done.

    Posted by admin on August 30th, 2011 at 7:39 pm
  • @Rick, thanks!

    About experimenting and sketching: I find that creative exhaustion is a daily occurrence, but gratefully, not an eternal condition. 🙂

    I guess it depends a little on how much time you have before the actual scoring-to-picture process begins. I had the script for Ace Wonder about 8 months before there would be solid visuals to score to, but I waited until a few weeks before the spotting sessions to really dig into the music and experiment with ideas. Most composers don’t have as long of a gap between when they’re brought on board and when they need to start writing music, so getting your ideas stretched too thin over a long period is probably less of an issue for most composers.

    What I don’t do is wait until the absolute last second in hopes that pure, impulsive spontaneity will solve my problems for me. Actually, I find that my musical gut “impulses” are usually the things that sound the most like someone else’s work.

    “James Horner’s ‘danger motif’? How this this get in here??”

    Posted by admin on August 30th, 2011 at 8:06 pm
  • @Grace and @John,

    The best way to sound just like everyone else is to be unfamiliar with what everyone else has written.

    That sounds counter-intuitive, but the men with the widest knowledge and familiarity with music and musical styles are the men who are best equipped to understand how music communicates–and the best equipped to know what is original or not.

    Man is not a purely creative creature, he is an inherently derivative one–we build on and create out of a knowledge of the familiar. Study what other musicians have achieved and you will know how to surpass them. Reject studying their achievements and you will be doomed to imitate “twinkle twinkle little star” and “happy birthday”.

    Posted by admin on August 30th, 2011 at 8:23 pm
  • @Daniel, thanks!

    Posted by admin on August 30th, 2011 at 8:24 pm
  • Great post with convicting information on your thoughtfulness and communicativeness with the director.

    Posted by Gabriel H. on September 1st, 2011 at 2:15 pm
  • Thanks, Gabriel! Glad it was helpful.

    Posted by admin on September 1st, 2011 at 2:36 pm