James Horner Conducting

Liberation through Limitation

It’s the end of November, which means Wright on Film has been dark for nearly two months. Yikes! I think that’s a record. With my thesis and teaching load, I have had little time for anything else, especially things related to cinema. As my course winds down for the term I thought it might be time to share some of what I’ve been up to.

Lately, I’ve been mired in the practical world of sound production, learning how to write about the norms and conventions of this particular facet of modern Hollywood. Like any element of the American film industry, the sound chain represents a site of cultural production. There are union dynamics, hierarchies within the employment system, shared aesthetic conventions, and complex relationships with technology. The sound chain itself is a spider’s web of different duties and departments, which are amazingly connected by one governing rule: the story.

At every level of the sound chain, story remains the guiding light for nearly every element of sound style. From Foley to the final mix, every squeak, tweak, and dub is motivated by the oldest question in the Hollywood playbook: how will this affect the story? This Hollywood chestnut anchors the sensibilities of the sound crew, so that everyone is on the same creative page. Go too far with a bone crunch and it loses its meaning within a scene; don’t go far enough and it loses its emotional impact. Dialog editors, too, are gatekeepers of clear and intelligible speech. If someone swallows their line or the production track is too noisy, the main goal of any dialog clean-up artist is to sift through alternate, usable takes. Here, “usable” means intelligible.

You might think that this is a fairly constrained way to work, but artists in most mediums work within some set of boundaries. For many sound professionals, constraints offer creative flexibility — however strange that sounds. But limitations in the form of norms and conventions can be profoundly liberating, especially when working under tight schedules and even tighter budgets with which modern Hollywood sound crews are faced. A re-recording mixer recently told me that there is still room for experimentation even in the most programmed summer blockbuster. But that room is quite small. The mixer suggested that if you needed to work in a creative environment without boundaries, then Hollywood sound production was not for you. At the same time, those same blockbusters offer the sound artist unparalleled access to new technology and, perhaps most important, the chance to collaborate with other creative types who are at the top of their field.

In this sense, my work in film sound has revealed the extent to which boundaries inspire creative decisions. James Horner, the composer of Titanic and the upcoming Avatar, has suggested that unlimited creative options can often be more constraining to one’s work than simply working within a bounded set of options. Which is why story appears to dominate the goals of most Hollywood sound practitioners. Given the demands of the narrative, sound can shape its contours and emphasize (or de-emphasize) certain elements that the image cannot properly convey. In the case of Avatar, Horner’s musical score is “more accessible. We tried some experiments with really weird stuff and ended up alienating the visuals. It was so overwhelming. It’s good to be a little more conservative.”

We often separate the work of composers from the rest of sound production, but Horner’s sensibilities are no different than the work of sound editors. Faced with an elaborate car chase, the sound editor must choose certain elements to emphasize and others that will be sacrificed for the sake of narrative clarity. Unless otherwise directed to include a particular sound element, the editor composes the sequence the same way Horner works with the picture to emphasize certain gestures and movements with his music.

While Avatar afforded him an opportunity to create new sounds for the alien Na’vi culture, the horizon of possibilities was ultimately too wide, and he returned to more familiar orchestral territory. This may enrage critics of Horner’s work, who accuse him of recycling his own melodies in score after score. But I believe the calls for plagiarism have less to do with compositional conservatism than with aesthetic convention. Horner has often stated in interviews that the function of his music should serve the dramatic arc of the story and character goals. Without a clear sense of the narrative, he admits that he has trouble finding the purpose of the music. This reliance on story can also explain why he favors certain orchestrations and instrumentations. It is also why composers often return to familiar idioms when faced with action sequences, love scenes, or comic moments. There is no mistaking a Jerry Goldsmith action cue or a John Barry love theme because these types of scenes sound a certain way to these composers. Goldsmith hardly spoke about the mechanics of his working style because for him it simply made sense to score a scene in a particular way. “How did you come up with that theme?” is one of the most common questions that composers are asked, and yet their answers are rarely satisfying. When asked by Peter Bogdanovich how he shot a particularly memorable sequence in Stagecoach, John Ford famously sniped, “With a camera!”

The intangibility of the creative process offers us few avenues of insight to this particular problem, but shifting our focus to questions of “why” may yield some greater insights into the conventional logic of composers like James Horner. Why were certain tonalities chosen over others? Why a particular focus on this character? Why no music in certain passages?

As original and fresh as the Avatar score may be, Horner’s compositional approach has not changed; indeed, the function of his music remains the same. The orchestral colors may be new, but the structural DNA of the music reflects Horner’s conventional logic. In this sense, convention is less a pejorative term than one that defines an aesthetic approach, including the function of music in any particular sequence.

Hollywood craftspeople have been complaining about shrinking budgets and shorter schedules for decades. And yet I have never read of a composer or sound editor admit that extremely long schedules produce better or more innovative work than shorter ones. Perhaps this may not be the case with visual effects artists, who often require more time to fine-tune FX shots. Horner has experience at both extremes. Ransom and Troy were scored in fewer than 14 days; The New World and Avatar were written and scored over a period of months due to picture changes. And yet even with so much time, he needed to adapt quickly to the editorial changes and sometimes drop or rewrite entire cues to fit the new assembly. Alfred Newman once said that if one was not prepared to work quickly and sacrifice personal taste in favor of what was needed to better tell the story, then one should avoid work in film music. As much as craftspeople complain about short schedules, there is nothing quite like a deadline to inspire the most creative solutions and innovative breakthroughs at all levels of production.

There is still so much to learn about the process of film production, especially the structured environment of Hollywood post production. Not surprisingly, it’s also one of the hardest things to teach, because film students at the undergraduate and graduate levels are generally accustomed to analyzing films for broad-based cultural, social, and authorial meanings. To study a group of films and ask why certain choices were made is difficult not only because we rarely have access to filmmakers, but also because we have yet to develop a solid framework with which to study these issues productively.

This is not an intentionalist argument, since I am not concerned with intention as much as I am interested in the process that led to a particular decision. For example, James Cameron might have given Horner a particular direction for his score — an intent — but I am interested in studying how Horner juggled that request with his own frames of reference and horizon of possibilities.

Update 11/28/09: A new interview with James Horner has been posted by Daniel Schweiger. Although not as long and in depth as the 2006 discussion, Horner provides some context for this creative decisions on Avatar, and speaks a little about the current state of film music. It’s definitely worth a listen.

Editorial note: I have tried to locate a lengthy interview Horner gave to Daniel Schweiger from “On the Score” in 2006, but the links have disappeared. Hopefully the audio will be reposted at some point, because it offers a candid and honest discussion of the composer’s style and his ideas on the functions of modern film music.

Horner Contemplating