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Audio: Eye on Sound

Creating Music and Sound Effects for Films, Television and Commercials

By Mark R. Smith

movie industry news music and sound effects production
  AMC's Rubicon, starring James Badge Dale as an intelligence
analyst, has many dialogue-free scenes where Peter Nashel's
score reflects the mood and tone of the story.
Photo by: Craig Blankenhorn/AMC

Watching films, television shows and commercials is as much an aural experience as it is a visual one. Original music and sound design work hand in hand with picture to define characters, propel the plot and make advertising memorable. Four of the best in this field talk about the essential role their work plays on screens big and small.

Scoring a Mini-Movie Each Week
Scoring the music for the AMC Network political thriller, Rubicon, is an intense experience for Peter Nashel, a partner in Duotone Audio Group in New York City (www.duotoneaudio.com). The point of the soundtrack for this intriguing tale of intelligence analysts, he says, "is to play out what's happening with the characters internally — which is an exciting role for music to play."

Episodes of Rubicon offer many opportunities for Nashel's music to take center stage. "From very early on, the executive producer, Henry Bromell, and I discussed the importance of score in both setting the tone for the show and creating an interior world for the characters. Because there are long stretches in the show that are dialogue-free, this allowed the score ample opportunity to accomplish both of those things."

To Nashel's knowledge, "it wasn't an intentional filmmaking decision to have long stretches without dialogue. It just developed that way organically. Both Henry and I agreed that some of our favorite shows had little or no music, so we were very vigilant about not 'over-using' score even though there were long stretches without dialogue. I think we found a great balance."

movie industry news music and sound effects production
  Peter Nashel's recent credits include
the TV series Rubicon and Lie To Me and
the documentary Client 9.

Nashel describes the style of Rubicon's music as "a thoroughly modern score that combines electronics with orchestra. It is a dark, paranoid-sounding score that uses shades of minimalism. I established themes for the different characters — although in many instances, they were very small musical cells, so I had a good deal of flexibility as to how I incorporated them, in contrast to long-winded themes that are more song-like. The main character, Will Travers (played by James Badge Dale), has a recurring theme played on the cello — early on as a solo cello — and as the show developed by a small section. The 'conspiracy' has a theme that's a nine-note piano motif that sounds anytime we are witnessing the conspirators at work." Nashel "wasn't totally didactic" about his use of the themes, however. "I just did what felt right — particularly as the storylines between the characters became enmeshed."

Nashel also composed the opening theme for Rubicon which was played by a 60-piece orchestra. "Keeping true to the sound of the score, the theme is a combination of electronic music and orchestra. It has a slightly 'exotic' feel to it that is apparent in the harmony of the piece as well as a portamento or sliding effect that was played by the violin section as they played the melody. It also has a slightly retro effect at the end of the sequence as the letters that form the show's title come together and are revealed. This was a nod to the period of filmmaking that was an overall influence on the show itself — all the great political thrillers from the early '70s. I used old 8-bit synthesizer sounds along with the melody to create a 'tag' or mnemonic to help 'brand' the show."

music and sound effects production
Peter Nashel's score for Rubicon sets the scene for intelligence analysts Tanya
(Lauren Hodges) and Miles (Dallas Roberts) on special assignment at a black site prison.
Photo by: Craig Blankenhorn/AMC

The score for episodes of Rubicon is recorded by a 12-player string section at Manhattan Center or Avatar Studios, where the show is also mixed. On the technical side, Nashel himself has a standard setup, with a Mac-based Logic Studio system and Digidesign Pro Tools HD. All told, his work on Rubicon equates to creating "a mini-movie each week," he says.

movie industry news music for film television industry
  Peter Nashel scored Client 9, the new documentary
feature from Academy Award-winner Alex Gibney.

Nashel also scored the new feature documentary from Academy Award-winner Alex Gibney, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, about the disgraced former New York governor. "It's an attention-getter about a prosecutor by day and cheater by night," Nashel says.

While Gibney delved into who Spitzer was, he didn't make the story too dark and mysterious. "What Gibney did was give the viewers a wink and a nod that things are not always quite as they appear," Nashel explains. "There were powerful men that [Spitzer] angered, and Gibney points to a possible connection to unearth [Spitzer's] personal life."

Nashel calls the doc's music somewhat "caperish" and "retro, almost jazz-influenced. That was a conscious decision for Gibney. The score explored who Spitzer was as a person and what could have led him so astray."

Music plays a different role in a documentary than in a dramatic feature, he notes. "You try to avoid leading the audience in a doc," Nashel says. "You always want the audience to draw their own conclusion in a doc, since there are no imaginary characters in that form, like there are in a drama."

music for film television industry>
FOX's Lie to Me, underscored by Peter Nashel, is "a fun ride.

As if Nashel hasn't had a busy enough schedule recently, he has also been underscoring the FOX series, Lie to Me. It's "a whole different ballgame" from Rubicon, he says.

"It's very intense, very high octane. The main character, Cal Lightman (Tim Roth), is a human truth-seeking missile. He's always unearthing the buried secrets of people," says Nashel, whose underscore comprises up to 27 minutes of music a week. "So we're trying to create signature sounds for when his gears start turning — and for when he finds his truth. It's a fun ride."

Matching Spots' Moods
Creating music for commercials means that you never know what you'll need to come up with next.

"Every client asks for something different," says Ann Haugen, general manager and executive producer for Elias Arts (www.eliasarts.com), which has offices in Santa Monica and New York City. "Every day, we create music from different genres, from classical to hip hop to rock, to make the music match the mood of the spot. The music is a crucial role player here."

Elias Arts has been playing the ad game for about 30 years — although Jonathan Elias founded the company with the idea of creating film scores. "As it turned out, spots were a place for 'mini-scores,'" Haugen says, "so the evolution that started in the early '80s continues today."

movie industry news music for film television industry
  [Top to Bottom]
For Nike's two-minute, all type web spot, "The Girl Effect,"
Elias Arts was challenged with making multiple pre-scored
piano tracks sound seamless.

A reggae beat from Elias Arts matched the personality of the famed Jamaican bobsled team in a Visa Olympics spot.

Elias Arts created a beautiful piano track for Sprint's "Firsts" where a chain of refrigerators cascades like dominos.

Haugen laments that pre-recorded tracks from known artists are used today even when the song doesn't really match the idea of the spot. When the recorded song is in accord with the vibe of the spot, "use it, by all means," she says. Elias plays an advisory role in those circumstances, making the "spots the best they can be" with pre-recorded tracks. But "how many licensed songs are used in spots at a given time tends to go in waves."

About 90 percent of Elias's work is post-scored. "The visual and the sound go hand-in-hand," Haugen explains, "and if you create an original score, you have great flexibility when you work with a client."

One recent trend is the use of acoustic instruments, "whether it's a guitar or a piano, or the cello or violins. People come to us for that expertise of Jonathan's. That said, the selection of pre-recorded music is getting a lot better, too."

Although she reports, "budgets are slowly coming back," the client's bottom line is still crucial to the sound of the finished product. "If the client wants a piece that feels like a 100-piece orchestra, but can only afford 10 people, we might use a public domain recording and just enhance it inhouse or do a great synthesizer demo with live samples and layer the live players in on top of it," she notes.

Such technical refinery is achieved at Elias through its seven MOTU Digital Performer suites and its live room. A session that might require a 50-piece orchestra will be done at an outside studio.

Elias's recent projects have been extremely varied. A two-minute Nike web spot, "The Girl Effect," which is crafted exclusively of bold typography with no voiceover or dialogue, incorporates two pieces of pre-scored music. "That meant taking multiple piano tracks that were sliced and diced" and going "in and out of those two pieces to make the music seamless," Haugen says.

The unusual, graphic spot "was a collaboration between us and the animator," notes Dave Gold, creative director in LA. "They gave us a short rough, and we developed a few usable ideas from there. It gave us a platform to work from, although the words and pacing were constantly changing. It was a constant bouncing back and forth of ideas to accentuate certain parts of the track. It was even broken down into chapters to make it easier to get the viewer's attention [and] prevent the spot from appearing linear or monotonous."

Elias has worked with Chiat/Day on winter and summer Olympic spots for Visa for years; they are often 15-spot packages, with each spot focusing on an athlete. For the "Jamaican Bobsled" team commercial, Elias had "fun with a reggae track to fit the mood" of the message. "We want to portray the athlete and bring out their personality," Haugen explains. "We did the same thing with gymnast Nastia Liukin with a music-box theme."

Since Elias has seven full-time writers with expertise in virtually all genres, "it's like [having] an inhouse band," notes Gold. "For a spot that's highly specialized we bring in a player who is also highly specialized, like a trombone player for the reggae track by composer Dave Whitman. He's a percussionist, and he contracted the trombone player but the rest of the musicians were inhouse."

Another hot new spot marked Sprint's launch of the HTC EVO, the first 4G phone (see Making Commercials in this issue). Says Haugen, "Sprint had a lot of 'firsts' that are detailed in the visuals. We created a beautiful piano track for the spot that had a twist, delays and interesting modern elements to show that the 4G is not just a normal phone."

AnEFX sound production for NBC's The Event
Sean Walker (Jason Ritter) appears to be the sole survivor of a mysterious plane crash in the desert in NBC's
The Event, which features sound effects by AnEFX.
Photo by: Adam Rose/NBC

Where Sound is Always an Event
Burbank-based postproduction studio AnEFX (www.anefx.com), whose award-winning audio services include sound effects, sound design, dialogue, ADR, Foley, music editorial and dubbing, is working on its third project for producer/director Jeff Reiner: The Event, the new NBC thriller, follows Caprica (SyFy) and Trauma (NBC).

This relationship spanning a trilogy of shows clicks because Reiner "is a very musical thinker and has given us great suggestions," says AnEFX president and CEO Jack Levy. "Sound can be a character in the show, as well as provide background to it. And moods and tone are so broad."

Signature sound effects also create emotion for the audience. "When you have car chases or robots [in a story], there is a complete visual and audio primer of how to approach the sound," Levy notes. "But The Event's storyline is about covert operations — or what you don't see. So this is really more about the intrigue. What's the sound of suspense?"

AnEFX sound production for NBC's The Event
AnEFX edit stage featuring primetime Emmy and Golden Reel Awards for Battlestar Galactica.
Photo by: Caleb Coppola

From its debut The Event has combined aspects of a political thriller with sci-fi elements. Its first "money" VFX shot showed a commercial jet full of passengers poised to crash into the presidential compound in Florida when it's suddenly engulfed by a mysterious wormhole that makes the aircraft vanish. To help come up with sounds for this, An EFX called on guitarist Joshua Grange, a backup player on the recent Eagles/Dixie Chicks tour, who used "an ancient aluminum lap guitar, one of the first electrics," says AnEFX supervising sound editor Daniel Colman.

"The wormhole that sucks away the plane is made up of various sounds that Joshua and I came up with on his guitar and a ton of effects boxes," he explains. "We did a lot of scraping and hitting the strings while the other person adjusted settings, sweeping oscillators and filters around. It wasn't 'playing' a guitar in the traditional sense; it was more using the guitar to produce noises in the same way I might with any non-musical, sound-producing object. The idea was to get all the random organic sounds that come from physically playing a sound rather than editing or programming one. We wanted something that would lend an otherworldly feel to scenes."

movie industry news AnEFX sound production for NBC's The Event
  AnEFX president and CEO Jack Levy reteams
with producer/director Jeff Reiner on the new NBC thriller,
The Event.
Photo by: Caleb Coppola

Those sounds alert people on the ground that something terrifying is happening in the sky above them. "This happens a long time before we actually see the wormhole," Colman notes. "Then the plane sound starts: a combination of jumbo jet, fighter plane and metal scraping. After the plane sounds take hold for a while, I started adding in roaring wind, twister and thunder sounds. These all build up with the plane sound pitching higher and higher until they are ready to explode; then the wormhole appears and sucks the plane in."

At the last minute energy radiates out over the plane's wings. "In order to cut through all the low- and mid-frequency madness I had to make the energy a high, piercing sound. The plane then vanishes, and for a split second I took out all the sound and then hit in a hard boom. The moment of silence is critical for feeling the shockwave. If you just keep on building sounds up louder and louder, even the most massive explosion layered over it will sound small because the ear sort of closes down from the bombardment of sound. By cutting out for a split second you trick the ear into relaxing, and then even a smaller concussion sound can feel huge."

AnEFX sound production for NBC's The Event
Blair Underwood stars as President Martinez in NBC's The Event, which features sound effects by AnEFX.
Photo by: Joseph Viles/NBC

Colman finds the flashbacks, that show the aliens arriving in Alaska in 1944, are often "a place for fun with sounds" because "it does become important to sell the time period with appropriate sounds." For the airplane in the 1944 flashback Colman located "the correct sounds for the exterior of the P-51 Mustang. But I had no interior recordings. I went on YouTube, which I find to be a great source for investigating what things actually sound like, and listened to a bunch of videos that people have shot while flying in P-51s. Using those videos as a guide I was able to layer and tweak the exterior sound to match what it sounds like inside the cockpit."

AnEFX has a full stage dedicated to creating original sound effects, with numerous Foley pits. "And we have countless surfaces, plus a water pit that can fit two grown men and an effluent pump. It's great, because we can fill it with pancake mix, pudding or peas as easily as water," Levy explains. The Foley stage also has a giant bi-fold door to the exterior "so we can fit a side of beef or tractor engine on the stage. Most stages aren't set up that way."

AnEFX also boasts 12 Pro Tools HD systems, ISDN lines, sound design and ADR stages and fiber that keeps the stages connected to studios at the very highest speeds.

Black Toast Music True Blood
Black Toast Music has placed its songs on the HBO hit True Blood; vampire Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer)
meets a werewolf in the last season.
Photo by: John P. Johnson/HBO

Making the Perfect Marriage Onscreen
Celebrating its 20th year, Chatsworth, California's Black Toast Music (www.blacktoastmusic.com) offers a fully-realized song catalog plus instrumental cues and more to a roster of television shows, including True Blood, Treme, Dexter, Sons of Anarchy and The Good Wife.

Founder/CEO Bob Mair was an independent songwriter and musician who played on tours and recording sessions before launching Black Toast Music. Now "music supervisors come to Bob to fill slots in their shows," says business partner Amy Kenzer. "They know the quality of music Bob produces."

Black Toast Music has cultivated "some amazing talent," including indie artists who contribute to the company's growing song catalog, says Mair. "Some love pushing the gamut, some are more accessible. They represent different sensibilities.

"The way we produce music is not mass production," he emphasizes. "It's all about quality. I'd like to think that any track of ours could go on the radio and you wouldn't know it's not by a major artist. Our clients respond well to this concept."

Black Toast Music True Blood
In True Blood, Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) and vampire Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) share
a rare quiet moment..
Photo by: Doug Hyun/HBO

Mair has been working with True Blood music supervisor Gary Calamar since the show made its debut on HBO three years ago. "Gary has worked on many high-profile shows and his ears are just phenomenal," Mair reports. "His knowledge of music is very deep, so we've developed a shorthand way of communicating with each other."

Last season Black Toast Music had several featured songs in the hit vampire series. When Jason Stackhouse (played by Ryan Kwanten) was sitting at a desk playing with paper clips in his new role as deputy-wannabe, Black Toast's "I Got More Bills Than I Got Pay" played in the background. "There was zero dialogue," Mair recalls. "The song and the visual were the moment. It had to be a perfect marriage."

Scenes in Merlotte's bar and restaurant often use source music or songs that relate to the plotline. In season two Black Toast's "Wanna Cause Some Trouble" was the ideal theme for a scene where maenad Marianne casts a spell on Merlotte's customers.

"A good music supervisor is always looking ten steps ahead," says Mair. "They need to know what has to fit at any particular point."

Black Toast Music True Blood
Bob Mair of Black Toast Music has placed songs from his catalog on many TV shows, including
True Blood, Dexter and Treme.

Although the New Orleans-based Treme typically features area jazz artists on the show, it has tapped Black Toast's hip hop tracks "to create an atmosphere," according to Kenzer. "Sometimes a song's lyrics are important because the song is prominently placed to hear them. And sometimes a song creates a sensibility or feeling of place like 'gangsta' tracks that give an ominous feel to a scene."

Black Toast Music also enjoys strong relationships with music editors who are sometimes seeking very specialized elements, such as "the quintessential rock 'n roll scream" which Mair found on a Latin rap/rock track. But more often the company supplies a fully-realized track that editors can cut and customize as required.

Dexter is another show that has called on Black Toast Music throughout its successful run on Showtime. "They've used us a lot over the years," says Mair. "We love being involved with shows that push the limits, that are very edgy. We've also done quite a bit of business with FX's Sons of Anarchy."

Mair points out that Black Toast Music not only places music from its catalog but also creates custom music for shows. He co-penned the theme for the animated Nickelodeon series, Glenn Martin, DDS, which has been picked up for a second season.