The Slow Burn

Earlier this summer I found myself wondering how I could best describe the work of film composer Hans Zimmer. In many respects, Zimmer’s contribution to modern film scoring is extensive as it is expansive. With this post I’d like to discuss the constitutive elements of the Zimmer “sound” and how it works with the image.

Since the 1980s Zimmer has written for various genres, from intimate dramas (Rain Man) to summer blockbusters (Gladiator), and has established himself as one of the most versatile figures in modern film music. His Remote Control studio (formerly Media Ventures) is a veritable training ground for young composing talent, which has arguably led to a definable Remote Control “sound.” The fabric of Zimmer’s approach is evident in the works of John Powell (The Bourne Identity), Steve Jablonsky (Transformers), Klaus Badelt (Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl), Harry Gregson Williams (The Chronicles of Narnia), and other proteges of Remote Control.

The sound I am talking about can often be misunderstood as synthetic, loud, and lacking compositional complexity. As a listener and collector of film music, I am quite familiar with the criticisms leveled on Zimmer and his colleagues, which emphasize the music’s lack of counterpoint, intimacy, and tradition. Zimmer himself has gone on record a number of times to point out that his music is indeed performed by an orchestra, even though it often sounds synthesized, modulated, or processed.

The power anthem

The Zimmer sound has also contributed to a distinct trend in modern orchestral film music. What we might call the power anthem has emerged as a dominant texture of not only movie music, but also music for sporting events and television advertising. The power anthem is a muscular, brassy motif with considerable synthesized augmentation, and the occasional anvil hit. Which is why it finds a comfortable home in the world of sports montages and commercial advertising. At the Rogers Centre, the Blue Jays’ starting lineup is announced to Badelt and Zimmer’s main theme from Pirates of the Caribbean. Composer Mark Isham (who does not appear to have any affiliation with Remote Control) composed the Army Strong music with a strong power anthem at its core. On television, a power anthem was used in the opening credits of the short-lived reality series The Contender, starring Sylvester Stallone and Sugar Ray Leonard.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone utilized a Remote Control protege, Harry Gregson Williams, to compose the score to Team America: World Police in the same style. In this case, the intent of the score was parody. At the time of Team America‘s release in 2004, the anthemic approach had achieved such a profound ubiquity that the South Park creators were only too willing to acknowledge and mock. Much of the Team America score is overwrought with muscular horns and percussive hits with nary a hint of subtlety. Parker and Stone’s parody is as much of the Remote Control sound as it is the style of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer productions such as Top Gun and Armageddon.

The resounding strength of the power anthem, no doubt the result of its transparent melody and brassy flourishes, has been tied to military themes. However, I hesitate to identify the music as being inherently masculine or patriotic or militaristic. There is nothing — that I can tell — that is distinctly militaristic or masculine about the anthem trend, unless we are willing to define brass and horns as distinctly “masculine” instruments. At the same time, the power theme has been used in this way to convey militaristic themes of honor and masculinity. We might be able to define the use of the power anthem as a stylistic choice favored by Jerry Bruckheimer. His own dislike of wind instruments and preference for emboldened brass underlines the power anthem structure, which has become a staple in most of his productions.

Roll Tide

The military anthem is certainly not new to film music or ceremonial music, but its modern incarnation is very much rooted in Zimmer’s output in the 1990s. In fact, one of the earliest manifestations of this motif can be found in the fourth movement of Anton Bruckner’s olympic eighth symphony. Listen to a snippet here and here, and tell me that you don’t hear the driving bass lines of most modern action film music. The principal theme of this movement reminds me of both Danny Elfman’s Batman (1989) and Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s newer Batman cycle.

Back to Zimmer and the power anthem. There is Black Rain (1989) and Backdraft (1991), but for me the real birth of the Zimmer anthem came with Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide in 1995. The relatively intimate submarine drama relied heavily on closeups of Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington, but Zimmer’s score was much grander, much wider than that. The “big speech” delivered by Hackman’s character, Captain Ramsay, comes on a rainy night as he addresses the crew of the Alabama. While he attempts to inspire the troops, the soundtrack fills with the tinny sound of rain, the low-end rattling of thunder, and Zimmer’s rising orchestra. As Ramsay intones that the ship belongs to the “greatest country in the world,” we cut to a wide shot of the ship and its crew spread across the length of the Panavision frame. The power anthem arrives on the cut to emphasize the scope of the moment. Not even Denzel Washington’s ironic smirk can dilute the epic seriousness of this sequence.

Following Crimson Tide, the power anthem structure was clearly audible in The Rock (1996), The Peacemaker (1997), and Gladiator (2000), where Zimmer turned it into a battle waltz. In some sense, it’s not that surprising that the anthem became a de facto element of big-budget Hollywood music, considering Zimmer’s collaborative approach to scoring. The Remote Control environment is one of open collaboration, where several composers take turns sewing the musical fabric to different scenes. Which is why it can sometimes get confusing when Zimmer admits — for example — that he wrote the Pirates theme, but did not score the actual film. The risk being that the Remote Control composers write in a similar fashion. As a result the power anthem has reached a point of saturation that even Zimmer has begun to lighten his use of it in muscular projects such as Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Asked why the anthem-driven motif for Batman in the first Nolan film was not used more, Zimmer stated simply that the character had not yet grown into the heroic figure worthy of such a grand statement. By the time of The Dark Knight, Zimmer virtually abandoned the motif in favor of a less sure-footed theme. To be sure, the anthem is still present in the score, only in fragments.

Which leads me to my next point regarding Zimmer’s sound. The power anthem may be the most recognizable and disseminated technique popularized by the composer, but it says nothing of his art. There is a much more instinctive scoring technique that Zimmer continues to employ in film after film that has evaded considerable focus and attention.

I’ve called this technique “the slow burn” in order to emphasize the ways in which the music rests underneath broad sequences to unify the diegetic space and slowly build to a satisfying crescendo. Avoiding musical punctutation, Zimmer’s musical building blocks are expansive, sweeping, and blanketing. Through percussive overlays, rhythmic counterpoint, and cyclical ostinatos, Zimmer allows his music to breathe through sequences and culminate in a crescendo that is not otherwise indicated visually.

In this way, Zimmer does not deviate from established Hollywood practice; he still emphasizes dramatic action and underscores the emotional textures of scenes. I would not go so far as to call this musical minimalism in the vein of John Adams or Steve Reich, but there are hints of the sparse rhythms and repeated motifs of these American minimalists. One major difference between Zimmer and the minimalist phenomenon is that Zimmer will introduce a thematic motif and develop it throughout the piece, reaching a full statement at the climax, then decaying in the final moments.

Do we hear film music?

The old Hollywood adage goes: we shouldn’t hear film music, we should feel it unconsciously. The slow burn method, emphasized by Hans Zimmer, fulfills this traditional perspective since the music is based on textures and ostinatos that seems to exist only in the ether. It’s mesmerizing precisely because it is not immediate. It grows over time, builds to a climax then disappears again. Arguably when film music is “heard,” it interrupts the diegetic sound flow. Suddenly room tone is eviscerated by a battery of horns. In other words, it is an an inorganic element. I have spoken with many film PhDs who argue over these two approaches: the less-is-more and the more-is-more traditions in film music. I’ve even heard arguments over these varying techniques used by the same composer:

“Well, Bernard Herrmann’s over-the-top Seventh Voyage of Sinbad pales in comparison to the minimalist tones of Cape Fear.”

“Really, Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is much more involving and thematically diverse than his minimalist works for Cronenberg.”

Zimmer’s functional aesthetic with the slow burn anticipates the need for unity and emotional resonance without an overt call from the orchestral pit. There is an impressionistic quality to this music, even if the images are overly literal. The technique works best, however, when the images are equally impressionistic and open-ended.

In The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick’s poetic World War II drama, Zimmer’s score provides a dream-like haze over the sprawling narrative. While Malick’s narrative never quite congeals in the classical sense, the original score unifies the disparate plot and ties together the multiple voice-overs with a handful of recurring motifs. Zimmer wrote much of the score before the film was completed, leaving Malick with large swaths of music from which to pick and choose in the editing process. In this way, Zimmer could write elongated passages that were not scene specific, but rather mood specific.

The Japanese bivouac sequence underlines this approach. I am not one who regards Malick’s narrative as an exercise in the sublime, but I will say that Zimmer’s music in this sequence is a near-perfect exercise in image-sound relations. The visual narrative of the bivouac sequence is deeply layered, with shifting perspectives throughout, yet Zimmer composes not for intricacy, but for movement.

Lately I have become fascinated with how filmmakers achieve movement, whether through framing, editing, or sound. It’s a complex phenomena that I shall return to in later posts, but for now let us examine Malick and Zimmer’s cinema of movement in the bivouac sequence.

The slow burn

The sequence begins as Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) stares at the remains of a Japanese soldier, whose entire body — save a small portion of his face — is covered in dirt and ash. Witt is captivated by the face, which seems frozen in time, and he imagines the voice of the soldier speaking about the meaning of death and honor. We then gradually move with a battalion of American soldiers as they make their way to the Japanese encampment, through a dense fog. When the soldiers emerge from the fog they are enveloped in a chaotic battle scene, where some Japanese soldiers are firing at them and others are wounded on the ground, screaming in pain. Their words are not translated, leaving the audience (and American soldiers) to interpret only the sounds and not their meaning. While some Americans attempt to console the wounded, others fire at them. The sequence ends with Private Doll (Dash Mihok) asking, “Who’s doing this? Who’s killin’ us…?”

Malick’s camera remains fluid throughout the sequence, in search of a focal point, but never finding just one. He panaglides from one soldier’s face to another, registering the utter disbelief and horror on their faces. Each of them seems to be asking themselves, “What are we doing here? What do we do?” In the midst of the chaos, a lone Japanese soldier meditates. Another tries to hide in an above-ground fox hole but is killed by a mortar explosion.

The score cue — known on the soundtrack album as “Journey to the Line” — runs the length of the sequence. The music grows out of the mist as Zimmer employs a series of rhythmic pulses over the principal motif, which is performed on low strings. These pulses underline the entire sequence, while Zimmer continues to add orchestral layers, including further instrumentation of the mourning brass figure.

At the four minute mark, as the soldiers enter the encampment, taiko drums are added to the mix to intensify the rhythmic properties of the piece. Everything continues to grow out of the main theme, with horns carrying a soulful three-note descending motif that cascades over the rest of the orchestra. We’ve reached the height of the sequence: a terrified Japanese soldier covers his ears from the sonic chaos that we can barely register.

Before we know it, the horns have subsided and the rhythmic pulses return. Low strings pick up the main tune without the drama or intensity as before. As the soldiers assess the situation, Zimmer introduces a high-string element that works through several prolonged chords before evaporating into the sound of the jungle. In the film, Zimmer’s music gives way to a quotation from Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question.

The passage from near-tranquility to chaos and back again is accomplished through the blanketing texture of this cue. The sound grows without any specific visual cues; it simply exists. Yet, the sequence is unified by the singular theme that grows to full maturation at the mid-way point.

We might say that Malick’s roaming camera presents a variety of dramatic vignettes without any context. Zimmer’s music concretizes the emotional weight of the sequence by building the layers, piece by piece, until the tension and drama is fully realized. Then it dissipates, evaporates.

In a 2007 interview with, Zimmer commented on this approach:

Here’s the thing. If I come up with an idea like the Thin Red Line thing, for instance, it’s not finished when I finish that piece: it’s just a jumping-off point to try to get better at that. So I’ve been going back to that idea because I think, as a composer, you have a duty to develop. It’s evolutionary, not necessarily revolutionary always. So the idea of these patterns and these things building on top of each other is really just minimalist music taken to a romantic level. The whole Da Vinci Code score is sort of based, I suppose, on minimalist ideas…

It’s a very open piece, and what it does in the movie is that it lets you in, it lets an audience participate. It’s not like a normal tune, which has a start or end; it’s asymmetrical on purpose and breaks all the rules, so it’s more like a question than an answer.

As he says, the slow burn is also utilized in climax of The Da Vinci Code when the location of the Grail is revealed. The scene itself is rather flat, with Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) walking from his hotel to the inverted glass pyramid at the Louvre. Zimmer scores the sequence much the same way he did The Thin Red Line with an organic motif that builds to a full statement over four minutes. Beyond the exposition of the sequence delivered by Hanks in voice over, Zimmer’s arpeggios suggest a mystery about to be solved, while the choral and high-string ovelays provide that much needed sense of release. Throughout, the sequence moves on the wings of the music, as it does with The Thin Red Line.

The “romantic minimalism” of this approach offers a sense of movement that is entirely dependent on the sound track to provide such momentum. Thus, the movement derives not from the rhythmic properties of the music, but from the slow evolution of the thematic motifs. The music drives the sequences, setting up the audience for a reveal, a culmination, a release at the end that the image does not convey. With the finale to The Dark Knight, Zimmer underscores Commissioner Gordon’s speech to his son: “Because he’s the hero that Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now…and so we’ll hunt him…because he can take it…because he’s not a hero…he’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector…a dark knight.” Throughout the monologue, Zimmer (and James Newton Howard) builds a musical fabric from the Batman motif developed earlier in the film, and wisely chooses to conclude without a culminating chord. The end credits begin on a higher note, but not one that entirely satisfies.

It’s not a groundbreaking function of film music, but it is one that continues to fascinate me. To unify the image, enhance the drama, and move the audience with music is surely a difficult task. Zimmer has stated on occasion that even though he is quite prolific, he tends to experiment with musical ideas across an array of films until he feels a creative satisfaction that a concept or motif has been perfected or exhausted. The creative process is much like a puzzle, sifting through the pieces to find the right order and reveal the big picture. With film music, it is about finding the right tone, the right accompaniment, or the right set of notes. At one end of the Zimmer spectrum is the power anthem: aggressive, catchy (in pop music terms), and direct. At the other end is the minimalist romanticism that punctuates the dramatic action by blanketing it with a build-and-release rhythmic arc. The musical function that I have described as the slow burn is as much an exercise in long-form composition as it is a different way of scoring to picture. It represents a musical option in the composer’s arsenal to complement the dramatic action without being tightly bound to the confines of the image.


  1. Adam Slight says:

    This was an ambitious post! I’ve often tried to write about or describe film scores, but I doubt I’d be able to get past one paragraph. Zimmer definately is diverse. I had to listen to At World’s End while reading this. I was amazed when I saw that he had composed for Something’s Gotta Give…completely different from the Power Anthems of his more epic film scores. What I love about film scores is that they can also be separated from the films they are written for. I recently downloaded the soundtrack for Kung Fu Panda and its really good, despite the fact that I haven’t seen the film. His power anthems are also good to listen to while jogging! haha

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