From talkies to virtual reality, the composer Guillaume Roussel speaks with PremiumBeat about his process in making a film into a film.
Sound on Film has come a long way since 1926. That year, Don Juan premiered as the first major motion picture with a full-length dubbed soundtrack with full score and sound effects. But no dialogue.
Max Steiner's contributions to films like King Kong make him revered among composers to this day. Image via RKO Radio Pictures.
By the early 1930s, Hollywood had embraced talkies and the technological improvements continued vigorously. The creation of modern film music is most often attributed to Max Steiner for his non-diegetic film music in King Kong of 1933. Steven C. Smith, author of Music by Max Steiner: The Epic Life of Hollywood's Most Influential Composer, spoke to Variety last June about the following observation:
He's the one who put it all together at the start of the talkies, this idea of how to write orchestral music under and around the dialogue – something that producers and directors were really very suspicious of in the early years of talkies. They didn't want music in dramatic films. It was okay if it was a musical. And Steiner is the guy who figured out not just how to write music around dialogue, but how to write themes for characters and shape them subtly throughout.
Thanks to technical advances – such as B. Sound on Disc and Sound on Film – Steiner (and others) was able to investigate how music can be used effectively on film. About eighty-seven years since the gorilla climbed the Empire State Building and made contemporary film scores, how has ever-changing technology contributed to this development?
Premium Beat had the privilege of having a glimpse into the modern process with composer Guillaume Roussel, who most recently scored Disney's Black Beauty with Kate Winslet.
An interview with Guillaume Roussel
Roussel has worked extensively in both France and Hollywood. When asked what artistic and logistical differences there might be in working with European filmmakers, it was fascinating to hear how Roussel focused on the relationship between music and dialogue that Steiner dealt with so many years ago.
There are so many differences between European and American filmmakers. The main difference in France is that we work on a lot of comedies. The music for these comedies should be in the background so that the dialogue is not impaired. In comedies, dialogue is most important. Artistically speaking, France is more reluctant to do the music you write for pictures unless you are working on a European science fiction or adventure film, which is quite rare.
The other technical difference is the timbre of the actors' voices. The sound of American voices is much higher than that of French voices. The music hinders dialogue more in France because their voices are quieter. The music cannot be as rich in terms of frequencies as when you create the same music with English speaking actors.
Another recent consideration is the emergence of advances in the very technology of filmmaking. For example tent pole projects based on visual effects. Would the technology involved in the actual filmmaking affect the technology used in the score?
For me, the main difference between a film that is more visual and more effect-oriented is that it's easier to take a more sound-oriented approach than just the melody. Sometimes music can be as simple as playing the piano. Or it can be very great and have a lot of different instruments play together. That would add more information to the film. That said, melody is one thing, but sound is another level that makes the music richer. I also always linked colors with sounds. I have always been fascinated by the music of the early 20th century and inspired by their paintings. For me, the visual has a direct impact on the sounds of the music, more than on the melody.
Technology has also driven modern trends in the way composers work with directors and producers. We asked Roussel if he had a model of his composition on a synthesizer before recording so that he and the director would be on the same page, with pointers before going to the scoring phase, and what the pros and cons of this process could be.
While Roussel is a fan of writing music on the computer, he started out with pencil on paper.
I'm a big fan of writing music on my computer because it is a pleasure to hear music while you are writing. The directors and producers love that too. I've put a lot of energy into the model I'm making and making sure it's as close as possible to the final music we're going to deliver. On the other hand, the only downside to this approach is that the director and producer may get used to the model's music and it can sometimes be difficult to get from the model to the final version. Sometimes they keep listening to the model no matter how much better the real version is with the orchestra. If it is too different, they may prefer the model version.
The other problem: It seems technically easy to make a model, but it's actually quite complicated. Because of this, the requests for changes are becoming more frequent and faster. This puts the composer in a place where you're not working on the main substance of the music, but rather making more corrections to please the director or producer or to reassure them in some other detail. It sometimes takes a lot of time to explore melodies and all that kind of creative brainstorming which is very important. It has become part of the process and is unlikely to change. Therefore a balance has to be found between the use of the technology.
It seems like a trend for composers is "striping" – recording parts of the orchestra separately to give the filmmakers greater control over the score during the final mix.
At first I wasn't a huge fan of grazing the orchestra because you obviously lose the sound of the instruments together in the same room. I have to say it's so convenient when you have to mix the movie as a whole. I understand why and I encourage it depending on the type of movie, but the sound effects are so important in a movie and come at the end of the process after the music is recorded. For me it is very helpful to be able to calibrate the music along with the sound effects. When you finally get to dub, you have all of these items at hand. The ultimate goal is to serve the director's vision as best as possible. He cannot achieve that vision until he has all of these elements. Suddenly he can see that these sound effects are very important at this moment in a key scene. If you can lower the percussion instead of lowering the entire orchestra, the music becomes more efficient. This is just an example, but that's why I think it's a good thing if it's used well.
While filming the 2020 version of Black Beauty, Roussel had to remotely conduct a live orchestra. Image via Disney Plus.
Roussel's most recent project, Black Beauty, was developed during our current global pandemic. He told us about using Skype to remotely manage a live orchestra and the challenges and unexpected benefits that the experience brought.
For me, the biggest challenge in remote monitoring, besides the fact that I always love hearing the sound right off the stage, is that people are difficult to deal with. When I do a recording session, I want to make sure people are bringing the best energy forward. I enjoy taking care of people to make sure everyone is happy. This is not possible over Skype as you are only talking to one person who is either the sound engineer or the conductor. So it puts you in a little box instead of being able to feel how the musicians react and feel. The more the musicians enjoy what they are playing, the better the music will sound! And it's an amazing human experience to share in person rather than on skype.
Roussel works on a Mac Pro with Cubase software. We asked how he composed before using this program and how it is of value to his process.
Before I started using Cubase, I wrote music with pencil and paper. I've always wondered how working on the computer affects the way you write, and it definitely does. This tool gives you so many ways to experiment with different sounds. There are so many great things about a computer that I can't say I would prefer a pencil and paper. The truth is that if you don't use pencil and paper, you put more effort into producing and producing the sounds than you are into the type of music. Sometimes I like to work with a piano as much as I can before moving on. For me, this is a way to keep in touch with the initial approach of composing on the page. I think the computer forces you to get straight to the point in order to be more efficient. It's probably a good thing, but I like to try to keep a combination of these two approaches as much as possible.
Technology is obviously used to great advantage in composing, but it can also be used as a productive tool for collaborating with the creatives involved in the production. Roussel had this to share:
Every film is different in terms of workflow and interaction with the director and producer. Sometimes more than two people are involved. So it goes from playing back in my studio to sending videos over the internet. Technically, that's probably the challenge. For example, I wish everyone had at least the right headphones or speakers. We know you won't hear the music through high quality speakers. That is one of the challenges for me. Overall, work on productions is getting further and further removed even before the pandemic.
Since the focus of this piece is on the technology of sound, we wanted to know if Roussel had any tips and tricks he'd learned while composing.
For me, it is more important to know one (or just a few) tools really well than many. Over the years I have been able to try many different tools. Sound libraries are a great example of this. After finding my favorite sounds and orchestral libraries and working with the same tools for so many years, this is so important because I write so much faster.
Besides DAW and Cubase, the main tools for composers are sound libraries. I have been collecting sound libraries from Project Sound, the Vienna Symphonic Library, Spitfire and East West for many years. I remember twenty years ago there were only a few sound libraries available and so many now – it's hard to know which ones to use. At this point in my career, I've had enough time to know what to choose, combine, and what types of models are great.
We posited Roussel that if he were to push the boundaries of what you could do with a score in a production, what would he like to include?
What has always fascinated me is virtual reality. I've never worked on a VR project because it's relatively new, but the way the music interacts with the audience seems very different from normal features or TV shows. That would be a very interesting artistic challenge that I would like to experience. I am sure that in the future, VR will offer composers a new way to express their talent.
It is fascinating to think what Max Steiner would think of the use of computer software in the assessment process or the concept of virtual reality. He was one of the first to treat music as almost a different character in film. He knew that music had the ability to reveal emotions, highlight action, blend and hide, or manipulate it in good and bad ways. Where can it go from here? What is the future of film music? And who will be the next pioneer?
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Cover picture via Guillaume Roussel.