FILM COMPOSER BLOG

Foo Fighters – Something from Nothing. Sounding very much like the perfect 90s band they were. And are.

 

Gwen Stefani – Baby Don’t Lie. This may not sound like her 90s band, but the video rocks a Windows 95 screensaver look.

 

Taylor Swift – Welcome to New York. This song will be inescapable. The full song is on Grantland…below is a 30-second preview:

 

Posted 1 day ago by John Piscitello

Based on the Arts Technica Yosemite review (and the fact that I just wrapped up a project on Thursday), I’m tempted to go ahead and install it. I recently tried a Mavericks install, but a failing system drive meant I had to fall back to Mountain Lion.

The Avid Pro Tools Community seems to think Yosemite is running OK, though there is some concern about Waves License Center.

The Arts Technica review is 24 pages, but still is as succinct an overview of a new Mac OS as one could expect. What is fascinating is the criticism about the translucency that is all over Yosemite:

Mac OS X Yosemite Safari tabs

Translucency in Mac OS X Yosemite

 

Still, my favorite quote is this one:

For the most part, a new look for an operating system doesn’t need to justify itself. It’s fashion. We all want something new every once in a while. It just needs to look good. But things start to get complicated when fashion butts heads with usability—then we want reasons.

Though I’ve tiptoed around it thus far, the friction point in Yosemite’s new visual design is its pervasive use of transparency. (Technically, “translucency” is more accurate, but please indulge my idiomatic usage.) Allowing what’s behind to influence the appearance of what’s in front is problematic in a couple of ways. From a purely aesthetic perspective, transparency is unpredictable. Designers can decide which aspects of the background will influence the foreground image, but they can’t control the content of that background. Will its contribution make the final image more pleasing, or will things turn ugly?

 

 

 

 

Posted 3 days ago by John Piscitello

On Wednesday I made a huge mistake.

I set up a Gmail filter to send certain spam emails directly to the trash, but in the “Sender” field mistakenly entered in my own email. After selecting “Apply to all matching conversations” and emptying the trash, that, as they say, was that. 17,000 of my Gmail emails were deleted forever.

Every email conversation I’ve had for the past 10 years is gone (what’s left are incoming mails to which I never responded.)

For 48 hours I’ve begged Google to restore them from their backups, but my pleas have been met with silence. So I’m jumping straight from denial to acceptance.

It’s not quite as devastating as it could be, because in the past year or two I established some work habits that mitigated the problem:

  • Work logs. When I wanted to check when I last upgraded a hard drive, I found myself endlessly searching for email receipts from MacMall. So I started a work diary: Touch any piece of gear in the studio, and it gets logged in a Google Doc. I do the same for home / life stuff as well - fixing a ceiling fan, getting new tires, etc.
  • Contact Management. I use Insightly to track projects and opportunities. You can forward key project-related emails  to an Insightly email address, and they go into your database and automatically link to your contacts and projects. That’s handy when a co-producer you only met once 2 years ago gets in touch.
  • Document Storage. Any important attachment I download to on my local drive, which is backed up to Time Machine and then off-site on Amazon Glacier. In each of my project folders, right alongside “Audio Files”, “Mixes”, and “Orchestration” will be folders like “Legal” and “Expenses”.

What I didn’t do, and should have, was use Apple Mail to download a copy of all my email to my local machine. Even 10 years of email only uses around 5GB. The reason I didn’t? Apple Mail was slow and had a tendency to autolaunch and take over the machine.

This mini-fiasco also revealed that I, like most people, tend to normalize risk. I’d gone 10 years without ever losing an email, so why put up with Apple Mail to back it up? As it turns out, when you lose data in The Cloud, it’s just as lost as work on your local drive.

I’ll try to treat the loss as a good thing, like the artist Michael Landy who destroyed all his possessions at his art gallery exhibition Break Down. A fresh start!

UPDATE: It appears the Gmail restore process is automated, and the system was waiting for me to change my password. *Whew* I’ll set up Apple Mail as a backup for when this happens again in 2025.


Arrested Development – “I’ve Made a Huge Mistake”


“Break Down” by Michael Landry

Posted 3 days ago by John Piscitello

Here’s a peak at what film composers’ work desks look like. I’m working a 90-second orchestral musical number. We recorded 7 singers solo plus in 3 duo pairings. Here is what the “assembly”, or “comping” of the best takes looks like in Pro Tools.

VOCAL COMPS

This is the first pass, but the editing won’t get much messier from here.

I imagine this is nothing compared to what the dialogue editors routinely face. Then again, I’m only showing you the vocals, the 80-piece orchestra we recorded resides in another Pro Tool session. ;-)

Posted 4 months ago by John Piscitello

Some films call for pop scores. That can mean a lot of things – anywhere from modern country to quirky indie acoustic to dubstep drops – but across most popular music styles there are common approaches that producers.

I recently produced a track for a film “Peace, Dall & Partition” at USC which lent itself to an acoustic pop treatment. Here is the track, about 2 minutes long:

 

  • Simplicity: Most successful tracks keep themselves to 1 or 2 core musical ideas. “Whistle” has a vocal hook and a whistle hook. Everything else is just fleshing those out.
  • Dimension: iPods made people use headphones a lot more, which made mix panning much more important. Listen for the “lift” in “Happy” when the hook’s vocals spread the mix (like the outstretched arms of a happy dancer).
  • Doubling: Doubling parts and panning them left and right gives fullness and energy. You hear a lot of doubled guitar parts on “You Look So Perfect“.
  • Newness: Perhaps the most important and difficult challenge is to present something completely new. A classic example is the vocoder / pitch effect in Cher’s I Believe (and it was a big deal at the time).

Of course, there is no formula to success. I’m just pointing out common practices. I try to remember this quote from Nadia Boulanger (find the documentary on her on Netflix if you can, it’s short and fascinating): “I won’t say that the criterion for a masterpiece does not exist, but I don’t know what it is.”

Posted 4 months ago by John Piscitello

How does a composer improve at writing for tuba and cimbasso?

Mike Patti of Cinesamples asks him what a composer can do to be more original for tuba. Doug points out tuba is actually an agile solo instrument, citing Jabba the Hut’s scene in Return of the Jedi. It’s also a common misconception that the tuba is inherently loud, but it can be rather quiet and light in all its ranges (which makes it resourceful as a doubler of bassoons and cellos).

Composers love loud tuba blaaats for combat music, but often write too low. Below the staff, the tuba has trouble being loud. Watch as Doug demonstrates bringing a D up from below the staff to the middle and how much louder he can play it.

I can’t get enough of hearing musicians talk about their instruments. There will always be more to learn.

Posted 4 months ago by John Piscitello

How to make drawings seem alive…in a sample based and EDM musical world, these are good to keep in mind  (and makes me think of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories – by using more live instruments, it’s  a reaction against the lack of life and breath that can creep into electronic music):

 

Posted 4 months ago by John Piscitello

Someone recently rediscovered this concise and coherent analysis of how Don Fagen wrote Steely Dan’s Peg. Especially helpful is the overhead camera shot on the piano, so you can see exactly what the notes are in the piano riffs.

A couple of interesting points:

  • The verse is a 12-bar blues, organized by plagal cadences on the I, IV, and V degrees.
  • Peg sort of defines that breezy late 70s California sound. One shouldn’t be surprised that a lot of it depends on major 7th and 9th chords in open voicings.
  • The riff can be voiced an imperfect plagal cadence, landing on a first-inversion tonic, which means the bass moves down a half-step from ^4 to^ 3. That can make a nice descending chromatic bass line when the 12-bar blues goes from V to IV – watch how the bass moves G-F#-F-E.
  • The interlude discussed in the second video is similar to the verse riff, but instead of a plagal cadence, it’s a half-step descent from a major 9th (G9) to a dominant 7th (F7#9) . This 2-chord riff is  repeated three times in descending whole steps. This is similar to the verse riff two ways: the bass moves down by half-steps within the riff; and the entire riff descending by half-stems mimics the V-IV from the 12-bar blues. 

 

It’s always good to know how the classics were done. 

 

 

Part 2:

 

Posted 6 months ago by John Piscitello

This is 15 minutes well-spent, a brief history of film trailers.

Going in before watching, here are the trends I’ve been noticing:

  • When exactly did the “In a world…” voiceover become verboten?
  • Have you ever foreign-language film trailers always avoid dialog?
  • Comedies use pop song cues, medium-sized action movies use sound design cues, but the biggest tentpoles still go the massive-orchestra-plus-choir route.

As it turns out, this Vimeo video doesn’t address any of those questions, but it’s still fun viewing. The best part is seeing the trailers themselves, so skip ahead to around 5:30 when the talk turns to Casablanca. And don’t miss Alfred Hitchcock’s direct pitch to the camera for Psycho (I should like to see Disney make a Star Wars VII trailer like that one).

The History of the Movie Trailer from FilmmakerIQ.com on Vimeo.

 

UPDATE: Here’s another good trailer history roundup focusing on the predominance of  SFX “money shots” in trailers, with Independence Day, Star Wars, Top Gun, Spider-Man, and more.

Posted 6 months ago by John Piscitello

No Place On Earth will premiere on History Channel 6pm ET / PT on Saturday, April 25th. The television version contains an additional segment “After the Wall”, which includes a new musical cue not in the theatrical version of the film.

The editors chose the cue from a batch of unused mockups I had created for the film version. It captured the mood of the post-war events so well that we decided to go ahead and record it with a string orchestra:

 

 

 

And here is the trailer for No Place On Earth:

 

Posted 6 months ago by John Piscitello