FILM COMPOSER BLOG

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 2 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 2 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 2 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 2 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 4 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 5 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 5 months ago by John Piscitello

Amen, Brother.

Nicely edited. 

Posted 7 months ago by John Piscitello

Times may change, but this all still feels relevant

A studio rarely makes a film that it doesn’t expect will succeed with at least two quadrants, and a film’s budget is usually directly related to the number of quadrants it is anticipated to reach. The most expensive tent-pole movies, such as the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, are aimed at all four quadrants.

The collective wisdom is that young males like explosions, blood, cars flying through the air, pratfalls, poop jokes, “you’re so gay” banter, and sex—but not romance. Young women like friendship, pop music, fashion, sarcasm, sensitive boys who think with their hearts, and romance—but not sex (though they like to hear the naughty girl telling her friends about it). They go to horror films as much as young men, but they hate gore; you lure them by having the ingénue take her time walking down the dark hall.

Older women like feel-good films and Nicholas Sparks-style weepies: they are the core audience for stories of doomed love and triumphs of the human spirit. They enjoy seeing an older woman having her pick of men; they hate seeing a child in danger. Particularly once they reach thirty, these women are the most “review-sensitive”: a chorus of critical praise for a movie aimed at older women can increase the opening weekend’s gross by five million dollars. In other words, older women are discriminating, which is why so few films are made for them.

Older men like darker films, classic genres such as Westerns and war movies, men protecting their homes, and men behaving like idiots. Older men are easy to please, particularly if a film stars Clint Eastwood and is about guys just like them, but they’re hard to motivate. “Guys only get off their couches twice a year, to go to ‘Wild Hogs’ or ‘3:10 to Yuma,’ ” the marketing consultant Terry Press says. “If all you have is older males, it’s time to take a pill.”

More here

Posted 7 months ago by John Piscitello

It’s blockbusters all the way down:

Of the more than 1 million acts the company tracks, about 80% accumulated less than 1 “like” on Facebook per day. By comparison, Shakira racked up an average 50,000 likes on Facebook each day last year.

Still, the dominance of a relative handful of acts doesn’t diminish the fact that the web has given musicians infinite shelf space and carte blanche to market themselves in creative ways. “That’s the silver lining in the very dismal cloud that often hangs over the music industry.”

The web has opened up opportunities for acts to break in. But break in, they must. Read more at WSJ

Posted 7 months ago by John Piscitello