The Creative Process Part 2 (or How to Go Insane In 10 Days or Less)

Hi all.  I’m back for Part Deux.  When we last left off, I had chosen the themes for Broken Hearts Club, figured out the variations, and was ready to write.  That’s usually when the creativity comes to a screeching halt, except that this time I had no room for a block, so I had to write.

And, for me, that’s when the magic happened.

Because of the impending deadline, I had to change the way I normally scored a film.  On Amhurst, for example, I wrote a handful of cues a week, orchestrated, mixed, and then met with the director to audition and go over them.  I took notes on the cues that needed changes, talked about the next set for the following week, and then went back to the studio.  But we also had 12-15 weeks to score the film (11:11 will probably be scored in a similar way, although I’ll have even more time), not 10 days.

In order to get the film done on time,  I decided the quickest way was to do the writing, all 86 minutes of it, first.  Writing is always the hardest part of my job, orchestration being the most fun, but if I did the writing in one swoop I could breathe a little easier.  Normally, I’ll write a piece, the director will ask for changes, I’ll do a rewrite, more changes, another rewrite and then you have a finished cue.  But there wasn’t any time for rewrites for this version of the score, I knew I had to have the film scored for the festival submission deadline, so we decided to forgo the back-and-forth until later, when I had time to tweak things.

I powered up the studio and sat down on the morning of Day 1.  It’s kind of a magical thing, the way your brain realizes that there’s no time for procrastination, and that you just have to put your hands on the keyboard and write.  So I did.  I laid the main theme down over an intense, emotional scene for Terrence (the doctor) and worked it into the film.  I worked in a non-linear fashion, I’d move along for 20 minutes of film, and then jump back or forward to another section and do another 20 minutes.  I spent about 15 hours writing per day, from about 7am to 10pm, and then stopped to recharge.  Every single night I’d think, wow, I created a lot of music today, but I’m spent.  Where am I going to find more in me tomorrow?  And every morning I’d get up and sit down and it would just flow again.  I noticed that the score was getting better and better as I moved along, and by the time I reached the end of the 6th day, some of it was the best stuff I’d written to date.  Also, I was done with the writing part of the score.  86 minutes.

On Day 7, I started orchestrating and cleaning up notes.  There were misplaced notes here and there that had to be fixed, and the orchestration was incomplete.  Orchestrating is the process of taking a melody you’ve written and adding accompaniment in the form of complimentary instruments.  It’s still very much a part of writing.  You’re filling the piece out to make it full,  and sound complete.  It’s the equivalent of painting a picture of a person on a white canvas (the writing), and then adding in trees, sky, birds, ground (the orchestration).  It’s creating the environment around the melody to form a complete picture of the piece, or cue.  Orchestration tends to go faster for me, because it’s more task-based than imagination-based, there are rules to the way instruments work together and what notes fit with the melody.  But that’s another blog post.

I spent Days 6, 7 and 8 orchestrating.  On Day 9, I started mixing and bouncing down cues.  On a film with a larger budget, the composer will hire someone to do the mixing for them, an engineer.  It’s a job in its own right, and not an easy one.  But every composer should, at the very least, know the rudimentary rules of mixing properly.  It’s about when to add reverb (echo) and when not to, how to shape the EQ (equalizer) and other effects (compressors, limiters, etc) to make the piece sound as real and sonically pleasing as possible.  I did some preliminary work on the mix at the end of Day 8, so I got started early on Day 9 and finished the mix at around 11pm.  After you mix the cues, you have to “bounce” them to audio files so that they can be imported into the movie.  The two most common are .aif and .wav files.  

After the bounce, I uploaded the finished cues, all 32 of them, to a server and sent the download link to the director, Angelo Bell.  Angelo downloaded all of them at once.  I was nervous because he literally hadn’t heard anything since we approved the original theme.  He could easily hate all of it, and I’d have to start over from scratch, because that’s my job.  

I got a text message from him about an hour later, and it was all in caps.

OMG, THIS SCORE IS DA BOMB! I LOVE IT!

Whew.  I got it done, and with half a day to spare.  The next morning I made a few changes to some of the source music cues (a party scene with hip-hop playing on a boombox. Not necessarily my forte as a writer, I’ve since spent more time with beats so that it’s not a problem again in the future) while Angelo dropped the rest of the music in place and converted the film to a DVD.  And then it was in an envelope and off to Canada.

Scoring a feature film in 10 days is not something ideal.  The score for a film comes to life by the back-and-forth collaboration between the director and composer, and it’s rarely birthed in one pass.  But it was a great exercise in time management and the ability to work under pressure.  Below is the main version of the Broken Hearts Club theme, written for the doctor with a solo cello.  I’m currently working with a soundtrack company to release the entire score, hopefully before the end of the year.  I hope you enjoyed reading the past two entries and much as I did sharing the experience.

Broken Hearts Club Theme