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.
In the field of film scoring, as in all fields, raw talent or ability is entirely worthless if it is unaccompanied by professional integrity.
Too often I see talented and skilled students of composition who sabotage their own efforts and success because when the first whiff of difficulty comes, they wimp out. They whine. They lie, slander, throw tantrums and run from responsibility, pulling the rug out from under someone else on their cowardly dash out the door and out of the trust of the professional community. Some display their poor character more obviously than others, but the problem is widespread.
For a director, the ability to work well with and trust your composer is so key that many of the more successful composers I know are not the ones who write the best music or ooze the most raw talent… they’re the ones who are quick to hear, slow to speak, willing to summit to authority, redo a tough cue, who are prepared to do what it takes to give a client happiness, even if it comes at the expense of their own. Inside and outside the film industry I have friends who have been offered high-paying jobs at positions totally outside their fields of expertise based solely on the reputation they had as confidential men of character. In this day and age, integrity is in lesser supply than skill, which is saying something.
For a culture that has rejected Christ’s word as the foundation (i.e. source of definition) for all morality and character, this isn’t really much of a surprise–the absence of God must necessitate the absence of anything godly, which the attributes of professionalism most certainly are. The pathetic result is a generation of men unable to reliably reason, commit, honor a contract, persevere, guard a trust, serve others, be faithful with the little things, rejoice in trial, or love.
To clarify in advance for those who may think I’m belittling talent or skill, I’m assuming that honing and sharpening your chops as a composer is already a given. I mean to address the other half of the coin: the oft-neglected and/or mis-defined role of true professionalism, which is not just a factor for those desiring business success (though it certainly is), but is a factor necessary for the Lord to be pleased with us and our work. I don’t really make much of a distinction between the word “professional” and “righteousness”, which is basically just doing what is right in regards to God, man and duty all the time. Why is there a difference perceived between the two? Why should there be a difference?
It’s time to re-evaluate our assumptions of what determines professional conduct. This has been on my mind a lot over the last few months as I’ve noticed a number of genuinely unprofessional attitudes and habits in myself that I’m working to eliminate. I will be starting a series of posts on this topic, varying from general concepts to ones specifically applicable to the craft and business of film scoring.
What things do my readers see as key points to address?
I used to draw a lot when I was younger, and dad, being an exceptional artist, was my primary instructor. Occasionally he would take a look at my work and ask me if I thought I was “plateauing.” What he meant by this is “have you reached a position in your skill where you always make the same errors and are not getting any better?” This question usually made me uncomfortable because I knew it meant something in my art habits had to be shaken up– I’d need to leave my comfort zone of cartoon characters to climb above that plateau. At the time, I didn’t mind dwelling on the rolling hills of sub-mediocrity (which is where I was), I just wanted to draw for fun and nothing else.
Looking back, I wish I had relished my father’s input more… maybe I wouldn’t have let my artistic abilities coast and eventually slide like they did when I hit my teens. Now that I’m working as a professional composer in the field of music, I’ve come to view his reminder as something to heed and treasure.
I wanted to encourage some of you younger musicians (I’m pretty young, so that’s a narrow field) to not grow weary nor fainthearted in your quest for excellence, so I thought I’d play you an excerpt of something I wrote when I was sixteen compared with a clip of something I wrote last month for the Navigating History series. If this doesn’t make you feel better about your music, I don’t know what will. : )
By God’s grace, I believe I’ve grown in my musical ability and skill a lot over the last five years–far beyond what I can take credit for. I see areas where I’ve slacked and ways I could have invested the years in a more disciplined fashion, but thankfully God has brought in a lot of influences and trials over that time to bring me to where I am today. To continue that growth over the next 5 years, here is a list of 10 pointers I need to follow better. (By the way, whenever I say “you” in the following list, I actually mean “me”.)
TEN WAYS TO AVOID PLATEAUING
1 – Acknowledge the Creator
Having an honest perspective on your lowly state and God’s exalted one is the best remedy for blind arrogance, closed-minded professionalism, and selfish ambition. Realize that (a) you’re not actually that great, and (b) If you are (you’re not), it’s due to God’s blessings on you–not your own merit.
Pray without ceasing. If God is the Creator of music, and if he will not give His son a stone when he asks for a fish, then beseech God for specific talents and skills… only make sure you ask with the right motives.
2 – Love correction and input
In a multitude of counselors there is victory–this means getting input from a lot of people is good. I know, you think you know way more about music than the plethora of people with musical opinions, but people with fresh ears and different tastes can often see your blind sides when you can’t. I guess that’s why they’re called blind sides.
3 – Identify and acknowledge your weaknesses
You always have them. If you can’t see what they are, that shows you’re gauging personal success with a broken barometer, and it’s probably pride.
4 – Never compare yourself to your peers
This will only produce, at best, a product percentage points above the accepted, and often, mediocre norm. Don’t ever think “I’m pretty good for my age” or “I’m pretty good considering my circumstances,” think… “How can I be better than the best?” Compare yourself to the greats, and you will always see something to improve on. If you don’t reach for the stars, you’ll never get past the clouds. (I should note that if your peers are actually your superiors, you would do well to acknowledge that fact.)
5 – Learn to imitate
Intentionally study and copy great composers’ music as an exercise (I don’t recommend trying to pass this music off as your own). Put yourself in the shoes of the greats and maybe you can learn how they walked. The more music you are familiar with, the more you can understand what creativity is.
6 – Get out of your comfort zone
Stretch your ear, your musical retention skills, your musical tastes, your technique, your knowledge–whatever you can think of. If you always play or write by ear, use sheet music. If you always compose at the piano, compose away from the piano. If you only ever write pop ballads, write a string quartet. If you only ever write symphonies, write something for big-band ensemble. Increase your knowledge in whatever ways you’re lacking.
7 – Study and learn things outside your chosen “field”
This sounds counter-intuitive at first, but a greater knowledge of theology, history, science, mathematics, biology, culinary arts, architecture or like disciplines can give you insights and perspective on your area of expertise you would never have realized being entrenched in that field alone.
8 – Write with clear objectives in mind
Don’t be a perpetual improviser or a wandering romantic. Have both long term goals with your music and short-term, piece-specific goals. “What mood do I need to communicate? What should the audience leave the theater feeling?”
(By the way, just blindly following that fuzzy “feeling” you get when you’re composing usually means you’re reverting to the things that automatically touch you in some way, i.e the things you’ve already decided you enjoy, i.e. the content of your ipod’s “most played” category.)
9 – Write music to please people other than yourself.
Isn’t this one of the goals, anyway? The opinions of people besides you are a much better barometer of how good you actually are. Musicians who exist merely to “express themselves” or “discover themselves” in music end up being the most unoriginal and unreasonable individuals.
10 – Do the work
Now that you know what you need to do to improve, do it… realizing that worthy goals aren’t reached without a boatload of effort. Self-improvement is an exercise and a discipline not devoid of enjoyment, but it’s hardly a bed of roses. Well, maybe if you include the thorns.
Here is an excerpt of a letter I recently received from a young composer. As it turns out, I am a young composer as well, but I digress.
Would you score a “non-Christian” film? Would you score How to Train Your Dragon? How about Inception? The Dark Knight? Star Wars? Why or why not?
I think you see where I’m going with my questions. I don’t want to compromise on principle, but at the same time I don’t want to go further than God would have me to, and myopically pursue my own standard of holiness.
Just as a Christian mechanic would fix a non-believer’s car, would I as a Christian composer grant the gravity and power that good music gives to a film to a non-Christian filmmaker?
I understand where you’re coming from, as these are questions I have had to (and still do) ask myself.
Would I fix an unbeliever’s car? Assuming I knew anything about fixing cars, needed the money to support my family, or thought it was a good opportunity to minister to someone, then yeah. Sure I would.
But would I fix an unbeliever’s TANK that’s threatening Christian homes?
No way! But in reality that is what many Hollywood films are built to do. They’re spiritually deadly, often directed toward taking down Christian families, and are generally effective in that goal.
If I was a mechanic I should instead work to build a bigger, better tank to defeat Hollywood’s and defend what is right and true. This is what a “replacement” film industry would mean.
Would you score a “non-Christian” film? Would you score How to Train Your Dragon? How about Inception? The Dark Knight? Star Wars? Why or why not?
It is tempting to just accept the culturally defined labels “Christian” and “Secular” and let them decide for us what our involvement in film is going to be, but we really need to test both definitions against the standard of the Word to see where they stack up. Thus, every project will need to be examined on a case-by-case basis.
I would not score Inception, Dark Knight, or Star Wars because the messages of these films are not ones I could promote or advance through my involvement–at least not in good conscience. Not only do I think that these particular movies are destructive, but they drive me crazy on a personal level because the messages those films promote are ones I have had to deal with or fight against in real life and now have a very biased position against.
If I was offered How To Train Your Dragon, that would be a tougher decision–the same goes for Pixar’s Up. Both of these films have some elements I really like (notably, their music, which would not be there if I was), and both of these films include messages which seem to align more closely to the messages of scripture than those of, unfortunately, many “Christian” films I have seen! This is not meant to be a “kudos” for Pixar or Dreamworks as much as it is to be a rebuke for the Christian film industry.
But there are some obvious problems with these films. For example, in HTTYD I would have to decide if the father-son and Hiccup-Astrid relationships in the film were handled in such a way that I could associate myself with them and be comfortable facing my Creator on judgment day, expecting to hear “well done, my good and faithful servant.” I mean, the director would ask me to compose this big romantic swell when the teen lead gawks at the modern, domineering, and feministic love interest. The problems with that image run several layers deep.
But even if a film project is not thoroughly putrid and heinous, that doesn’t mean I have a sworn duty to accept the job. I run into a lot of Christians who don’t seem to believe that they’ve been given the authority to say “no” to a political candidate, job offer, or just the world in general… missing a key principle of Christian ambassadorship: Christianity has never been about doing what was merely “okay” but what was RIGHTEOUS and best.
“Can I justify investing the Lord’s time in this endeavor?” is at least as important a question as “Does this movie have problematic and immoral content?” and possibly more so. Any three-year old can be taught to point out objectionable elements X,Y,and Z, but few truly cultivate the discernment to know how to maximize their time on earth.
I’m an ambassador of Christ, and I can’t afford to spend my life solely doing stuff that any non-Christian can do—even if that “stuff” is not “bad.” Let the dead bury their own dead, and let’s be about the reconciliation of the world to Jesus Christ (2 Cor 5:18,19,20), and be the leaders of projects that WE have control over and an industry that WE have control over. Let’s put ourselves in situations where WE can be the ones who choose, and the world has to settle.
My suggestion for you is this: dig into the Word more and more to discover what things please the Lord and what things don’t. This will build in you the right theological and moral framework for making those life-and-death decisions that will affect your life… and death.
What on earth would compel a film composer to turn down a $400,000 composition contract from PIXAR (!) besides religious conviction? Study to show yourself approved (2Ti 2:15), and make sure your religious convictions (everyone has them, atheists included) are sound.
Recently I’ve had to re-think my time-allocation paradigm as I’ve been convicted of these very things, primarily at Vision Forum’s Independent Christian Filmmaker’s Academy. For a long time I had just kind of assumed that I was going to be a music guy for… always, but I can’t be a slave to that assumption if the Lord would have more important things for me to do elsewhere.
As a result, I’ve turned down some composition opportunities recently that, in earlier years, I would have leapt for joy at. I didn’t say “no” because those projects contained grossly unacceptable content, but so I could tackle some non-musical endeavors that I believe are a more important investment of my (the Lord’s) time.
I’m glad you’re asking these sorts of questions now in your life instead of later. The man who plans to stand before kings (the skilled in their work [Pro 22:29], something every Christian must be) should determine where his convictions lie before he’s asked to be Hollywood’s cupbearer, mechanic, or musician.
I recently ran across this fascinating City Journal article by Theodore Dalrymple, an author and columnist with many worthy observations and commentaries on modern culture trends.
His article raises an interesting question: if the emotional messages of classical/orchestral music are merely subjective, neutral, or as vague as most today give them credit for being, how could this music have such a profound effect on people– even those who haven’t developed an appetite for it?
Staying recently in a South Yorkshire town called Rotherham—described in one guidebook as “murky,” an inadequate word for the place—I was interested to read in the local newspaper how the proprietors of some stores are preventing hooligans from gathering outside to intimidate and rob customers. They play Bach over loudspeakers, and this disperses the youths in short order; they flee the way Count Dracula fled before holy water, garlic flowers, and crucifixes. The proprietors had previously tried a high-pitched noise generator whose mosquito-like whine only those younger than 20 could detect. This method, too, proved effective, but the owners abandoned it out of fear that it might damage the youths’ hearing and infringe upon their human rights, leading to claims for compensation.
There is surely something deeply emblematic about the use of one of the great glories of Western civilization, the music of Bach, to prevent the young inheritors of that civilization from committing crimes.
Disclaimer: None of the films I mention on this blog are recommended for viewing in full or perhaps even for closer study. They are chosen for the purpose of instruction, to illustrate a specific principle, and do not have my full endorsement because of many erroneous theological and aesthetic elements.