By Dan Leach
By Dan Leach
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There is an episode of the cartoon comedy, Family Guy, in which a genie grants Peter Griffin’s wish for his own theme music. Hilarity ensues as we watch Peter going through his day accompanied by happy, uplifting music, until this annoys someone on the bus, at which point the music turns darker...
The cleverness of the joke is that we are laughing at a character on TV noticing what we, engrossed in the events of the story, often don’t consciously recognise - the score.
Among the last creative touches in the movie-making production chain, the score provides a critical ingredient - tone. A composer can elevate a romantic reunion to the iconic, etching it into the memories of millions (and unfortunately beyond the reach of most real-life relationships), or they can signal impending doom and seed the nightmares of pre-adolescents around the world for decades.
Imagine Darth Vader’s entrance in Star Wars without John Williams’ sinister trombones, or a gunfight in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly without Ennio Morricone’s famous ocarina-harmonica combination, or Tim Burton’s Batman driving off in his Batmobile minus Danny Elfman’s spine-tingling theme music. These films and the world of cinema would be a much different and poorer proposition without them.
In fact, the composer’s impact runs even deeper. TV and cinema has a huge influence on our attitudes, social and political* in which the composer is complicit. They cannot help but influence and shape our reaction to what we see by adding shades of sound - light or dark. They not only create beautiful art that can move people to tears, investing pictures with meaning, but they are moral and social educators by proxy. And, due to smartphones and online streaming, this influence is no longer restricted by location or time.
Who are these unseen influencers, the conductors of dreams and nightmares? What is it like to do what they do and how does the creative process work?
In this feature, we step into the world of award-winning Hollywood composer and owner of eSonic Productions, Greg Tripi, who boasts an intimidating CV of Academy and Emmy Award-winning movies and TV including: Drive, The Knick, Contagion, Drag Me To Hell and Dark Places and video games like Twisted Metal and Far Cry 4.
Ever wondered about the black magic that goes on behind the speakers? Now is your chance to find out.
Welcome to the Score.
*Goldberg & Gorn, 1974 ‘Children’s reactions to television advertising’ in Journal of Consumer Research, Paul Kellstedt, 2003 The Mass Media and the Dynamics of American Racial Attitudes, and Charles Atkin, 1980 Effects of the Mass Media.
Hollywood might be a well-oiled, corporate machine, but projects do not always run like clockwork. As in any creative pursuit, things overrun, problems arise. Unfortunately, as one of the last links in the chain, the film composer must be able to cope with the tightest of deadlines.
Years of work, millions of dollars of studio and investor money, even whole careers, might all rest on you. Dwell on it too much and you can go a little crazy. Fortunately, Tripi has learnt not to let the pressure affect him.
“You never really want to force it. I’ve learnt that you need to practise and be comfortable with your tools and, at some point, you have to trust in your abilities that this very simple, almost throw-away, idea you might have in your head can be produced into something fully realised, something that you can say “well, that little idea just sparked a whole score”.
“When you’re looking at a really rushed deadline, having confidence in what your abilities are and your style, knowing that every little idea that you come up with you can turn into a bigger, more complete idea, is really valuable and really makes working efficiently possible.
“That’s not to say you won’t find yourself sitting there at midnight scratching your head saying “I have no idea”, but a big part of it is, hopefully, you knowing your sound and knowing your style and knowing how to turn that small, little spark of an idea into something bigger by just applying yourself.”
To give you some sense of timescale, four weeks would be considered a fast turn-around for a score, assuming around 60 minutes of music is required (generally two thirds of the length of the film, though of course this can vary greatly). In contrast, Tripi and Cliff Martinez (former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer and now acclaimed film composer) were working on Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 thriller Contagion for several months. This was because they would be given updated versions of the movie every few weeks and had to keep adapting the music accordingly.
It was in the middle of Contagion that Tripi assisted Martinez in scoring Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011), the cult noir thriller starring Ryan Gosling. It is one of those unique instances when a film’s music is so powerful that it almost becomes another character. In fact, it had such an impact that, in a slightly flawed tribute, BBC 3 decided to show the film in 2014 with a new soundtrack curated by DJ Zane Lowe and came in for some criticism for those loyal to the original.
What was it like to be involved in such a seminal piece of work?
“Drive was a special project for us”, says Tripi. “Cliff Martinez was asked to score it when we were working on Contagion. We put that film on hold, and scored Drive in five straight weeks. It came out very easily and organically. It was definitely a cool film when we saw it for the first time, so there was a little pressure on Cliff’s team not to ruin a good product. I’m glad people dig the music so much.
“I have a limited edition, pink double vinyl copy of the soundtrack. It’s sort of a family heirloom now. It’s also the one and only time I’ve been credited as playing sitar on a film score.”
Tripi became friends with Martinez around 10 years ago, hanging out and chatting about sound design and “crazy music stuff” for about a year before working together.
Over the years, Tripi says, a kind of working shorthand has built up. “I’d say our collaboration involves me taking on a role of producer where I just do whatever needs to get done to make the finished score sound as good as possible.
“Sometimes it means trading ideas back and forth; sometimes it’s coming up with really interesting and unique sounds and approaches for a cue; sometimes it’s adding orchestra onto a cue that’s almost done [cue is shop talk for an individual piece of music in a movie or TV show].”
Tripi is a true multi-instrumentalist, even to the extent that he is no longer sure what his primary instrument is, but the majority of the time finds himself playing a lot of metal drums, bass, guitar and piano. He had a classical upbringing, initially playing the bassoon in the school orchestra and then moving into heavy metal and the bass guitar and also electronic music (especially drum ‘n’ bass) before he returned once again to classical and film music.
He got his initial break by winning a fellowship with the Academy of Television, Arts and Sciences Foundation to study TV music. That year William “Snuffy” Walden, the renowned Emmy award-winner who has scored numerous TV shows, including West Wing, Roseanne, and Friday Night Lights, had taken on this mentoring role. He made Tripi his assistant, thus providing priceless, on-the-job experience.
“I was very green and fresh off the boat, as they say,” says Tripi. “I learned to drink coffee like a real man and multitask with reckless abandon. We were doing seven TV shows at the time so it was a lot to digest. One of my first days at work was going to Capitol records with him and recording the title for a TV show.”
And the key lesson he learnt?
“I feel like I came out of that job with Snuffy having a new perspective on patience and making sure things are right. Making sure that if it’s something that we’re sending out into the world - a TV score, or a demo, or a film - a little patience goes a long way to making sure you get it right and have done the best job on it.”
Greg Tripi walks into the studio control room with a nervous excitement. Today the full power of an orchestra will be unleashed on the music he finished writing only days before - there is no other feeling quite like it and is one of the experiences he loves most about being a composer.
The booth is crowded today - as many as 20 people ranging from the mix engineer, to the director of the film, to the orchestrator, to the music editor, who will make a note of the takes to use. As the orchestra strikes up in front of a big screen showing the movie, Tripi is concentrating intently on the printed score in front of him. Does the tone fit? Does he need to add a little more bottom end or a little less high section? Are they blending correctly with the electronic music and pre-records?
“Sometimes what it’s really about,” says Tripi, “is just listening to the whole execution of it. When you hear live people playing it, it takes on a whole different life of its own and you pick up ideas to enhance it. Sometimes you’ll hear a wrong note and it will probably stick out, but usually it’s more a matter of a misprint on the page than the person playing the wrong note. And the musicians’ sight-reading is impeccable so they’ll play the right notes even if they’re wrong! ”
Is the movie’s director present during the recording process?
“Occasionally, but I’d say it’s more their own interest in the project than feeling they need to contribute something.
“I think a lot of directors find it exciting to do it. A lot of times you work on a movie as a director and you’ll spend a year, maybe multiple years, getting to the point where it’s almost finished and recording the orchestra is one of the last stages of the entire film. A lot of them find it very exciting to be reinvigorated by the whole process and see that the film is close to completion.”
Since recorded sound first appeared in movies in 1927, technology has continued to affect the score production process in different ways. Recently, it has become popular to record European orchestras and this has opened up possibilities for those who wouldn’t usually be able to afford an orchestra on their score. The string section of Tripi’s score for Dark Places, for instance, was recorded in Macedonia which he monitored over Skype: “We could talk to the conductor and he would translate for the orchestra any comments I had and I would just stream the audio into my studio.
“Granted it was evening there and it was 6am here, but it was great because, by the time they finished, it was uploaded and downloaded over here and mixed by my mixing engineer and put into the movie 24 hours later.”
Despite all the advances in software samplers and synthesisers, having an orchestra in your laptop, so to speak, is still no substitute for the real thing, but it does allow the composer to provide a preview of what it will sound like before they record. In the past, the composer would simply play it on a piano and ask you to imagine an orchestra.
The influence of technology is shown also in the number of electronic artists producing film scores in recent years, perhaps most notably Daft Punk’s work on Tron Legacy. The scope such crossovers provide excites Tripi immensely: “Jazz can be fused into it, folk can be fused into it. And vice-versa you can take classical orchestra music and fuse into electronic music, and really that’s something that interests me a lot. It’s not just electronic music being fused into an orchestra, it’s an orchestra being mixed into electronic stuff.
“So that cross pollination of musical styles is something that really catches my ear.”
These days video games are becoming closer to films, hiring actors, scriptwriters and, of course, music composers which series such as Grand Theft Auto have taken to the extreme using a whole troop of famous musicians. So how does scoring a game compare to a Hollywood movie?
“It is quite different”, says Tripi, who has worked on Eat Sleep Play’s Twisted Metal and Ubisoft’s Far Cry 4.
“Often when you work on these bigger games they have big music teams working with them and you’ll supply tracks to them broken out into stems where you’ll take the whole track and break it up into individual components.
“They can reassemble it and have the track as I wrote it, or they can cut it up and extend maybe a five minute track into a 15-minute track, and they can collaborate with you to make this big game environment happen where you’ve got this piece of music that’s constantly evolving and reacting to the environment as you’re playing through this scene in a game.”
Tripi also looks forward to a world in which Virtual Reality can remove the mouse from the composer’s set up as well as composing for VR games: “I would love to try it. There’s an aspect to it that would certainly lend itself to surround-sound composing.”
There are just as many different types of director as there are film composers and they all have their own system and ideas.
Having worked on films and TV directed by heavyweights such as Steven Soderbergh and Sam Raimi, Greg Tripi is ideally placed to provide an insight into the sorts of conversations that go on between director and composer.
“Some of them have very, very detailed instructions about what it needs to sound like and they’ll make a temp track with pre-existing pieces of music laid into the movie so you can see exactly how they want the music structured, and sometimes what they want it to sound like.
“Other times it will be a very blank slate. They’ll say: “go and be creative and come up with something”. They really want to hire a composer to give them what they’re searching for. You find that the directors you get along with - these are about relationships and friendships, ultimately - are the ones where you enjoy working together, but also ones where you kind of have a dialogue where you understand each other’s job.
“I can’t speak all the director terminology, but I know enough about making movies that I can communicate with them with my caveman speak about how to make movies and likewise they can communicate to me about music without using music theory. Sometimes there are a lot of adjectives - a lot of things to describe - emotions and moods and more abstract notion of what the music is doing.”
To produce the kind of tension required in thrillers or horrors especially, timing is so important, with the director often specifying exactly where they want the music to get “bigger” or “smaller”, “fill out” or “get manic”.
Tripi says: “Sometimes, the dialogue between director and composer says: “well this is an important scene where, even if we don’t see what’s on the screen, we want the audience to know that they should feel tension here. They should feel like something’s going to happen”. And that’s really where film music can really shine and add something great to movie-making. It’s that you’re really adding a piece to the whole story that isn’t right there in front of you.”
Of course, each film has a different tone and atmosphere that must be portrayed. What Tripi learnt when scoring the emotionally traumatic Dark Places was the importance of contrast. Despite the subject, the music didn’t have to be dark and foreboding all the time; it actually proved to be more effective to intersperse the darkness with lighter and more melodic moments.
A recent score that particularly impressed Tripi was Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Sicario: “I think it’s really just fantastic and amazing - very very different to his Theory of Everything score [Jóhannsson was nominated for an oscar for best original score for both) but a super cool use of orchestra and sound design.”
The life of film composers such as Tripi and Jóhannsson is very much an independent freelance capacity - musicians frequently operating out of expensive home studios. However there are signs that things might be changing.
In 2014, the famed composer, Hans Zimmer, created Bleeding Fingers Custom Music Shop - a collaboration between Sony and Zimmer’s Remote Control Productions. Based in a state-of-the-art facility in Santa Monica, it is a team of composers combining to fulfil what the website calls a “growing demand from broadcasters and program makers for a power player to enter this space”. Is this a sign of times and will we soon be seeing the lone wolves forced to join packs?
For now at least, Tripi thinks not. Zimmer’s company is focussing on reality TV in which shows traditionally use library music. “I’m hoping that if anything, Zimmer’s business will persuade more of these reality TV companies to pay for quality music again. Most of them have gotten into the habit of taking music for free with the promise of backend royalty payments. Guess we’ll have to see what happens.”
And what of the composer’s role in the influence of TV and film on society? Is this something he is aware of and would he ever turn down work for a morally dubious project?
“Over the years", says Tripi, "I have been offered some less-than-fair deals for work, but nothing that was morally wrong. I could see a situation where someone could ask me to compose music for a subject matter that just didn't jive with my beliefs, and turning it down, like a Donald Trump campaign commercial. Fortunately, that hasn't happened yet.”
Currently collaborating on a project with the renowned composer, Danny Elfman, and with further Cliff Martinez collaborations likely, we can expect to hear much more from Tripi. Despite ten years in the business, he is only just beginning to harness what you might call the curse of the professional creative and set aside his professional instincts in his downtime: “I love watching movies so I’ve got better about just relaxing and not critiquing it so much, just try to sit back and enjoy it, but the production side of my head is always thinking about how I could make the music sound better if I had the chance.”
For more on Greg Tripi visit his website here.