"Matching action isn't just a matter of how fast the tempo is or how loud it is. It's a question of writing for the scene. You have to always remember: It's not a gig, it's not an album- it's a movie, and it's all about what's on the screen."
You Oughta Be in Pictures
It was the kind of situation anti-perspirant ads are made of. Guitarist-turned-film-composer Mason Daring was sitting in front of the producer, director and music supervisor of a brand-new feature project, trying to work up usable theme music with string sounds from a Syn-clavier rig in a posh Hollywood studio. But nothing was working, and the sweat was starting to show. "lt'd been a few hours, and I could tell they didn't like anything, and, frankly, neither did I," recalls Daring. "I said, 'Gee, I really wish I had a guitar.' One of the guys from the studio said, 'What kind?' l didn't even know they had a guitar! I said, A Tele.' He comes back two seconds later holding this old hybrid Tele with a neck from the Kennedy administration and pickups from Nixon, and plugs it into a SansAmp. I had a ball, and proceeded to come up with the show's major themes."
The creator of diverse soundtracks for John Sayles movies like Lone Star, The Secret of Roan Inish, and The Brother from Another Planet, the PBS WWI documentary The Great War, and the themes for PBS's Frontline and Nova programs, Daring has made guitar a principal ally throughout his career. Once a fixture on the New England folk scene - he and partner Jeanie Stahl penned the local favorite "Marblehead Morning" - Daring toted a Martin D-18 around the coffeehouse circuit for years, plucking and strumming in the folk-pop tradition of Richie Furay, Neil Young and Stephen Stills. A stint as a video director and editor sparked his interest in soundtracks, and he landed his first composing gig on Sayles' first feature, Return of the Secaucus Seven. "People are still making student films that look fabulous, and they all want music," Daring advises. "If you're interested in getting into this, find somebody who's making student films and tag onto them. That's what I did. Return of the Secaucus Seven had a $700 music budget, and it made Time magazine's Top 10 list. Somebody out there is doing one of those today, and someone is going to compose music for it."
According to Daring, guitarist/composers may well have an advantage in today's film market, largely because of the instrument's central role in the popular music of the last 30 years. "We Baby Boomers are in our 40s, approaching 50, and we're very used to guitar. We don't think it's weird to hear guitar in any movie, and we're much more accepting of it as an instrument in any context than the previous generation was. So there's a great need for guitar composers, and there's certainly no shortage of people willing to step into that role." But how do you get started? Provided you've got a basic recording setup and a few years of experience playing and recording under your belt, what do you need to hot-rod your rig for film composing?
"The first thing you have to do is understand synchronization," stresses Daring. "Basically, you have to synchronize your video deck to your multitrack. If you want to go to a computer-based digital editing platform like Performer or Pro Tools, they all lock up to SMPTE very quickly. You can use a VHS hi-fi deck in stereo, stick SMPTE on track 2 and lock that up to Pro Tools. A Tascam DA-88 locks beautifully, and you don't need a synchronizer. If you want to go analog, then you need a Lynx Time Line or something similar; it gets a lot more laborious."
The next step, says Daring, is to master the tempo map, which organizes tempos and tempo changes, and matches them to SMPTE locations. "A tempo tells you, 'Am I going to have to change my meter or go to a bar of 2/4? When he kisses her, do I want a lot of cymbals?' You want to block your cue out so it matches your action. Sometimes there's not much to do: 'Hey, I like it at 150 beats per minute, it's 17 bars long, and it's done.' But often you have to make a lot of changes in tempo and dynamics to fit what's happening on the screen. Before you even start writing you have to understand how you're going to match your tempo. Remember, people did that beautifully with a stopwatch and a pencil for 30 or 40 years. I like to do it with Performer, but you can certainly do it with E-Magic or Cakewalk; they all lock to SMPTE. My recommendation is get a video deck, find out how you're going to sync your video deck to multi-track, and then figure out how you're going to sync your click track. You need those three elements, then you can start writing your piece. Learning how to use your click track in combination with your video is the first major hurdle for anyone who wants to compose for film."
Although he frequently writes for orchestra, piano and synth, Daring calls on a wide variety of guitar tones for his scores, from nylon-string to mandolin to Heil talkbox. "A film will take you to so many different places, and if you want to perform the soundtrack on guitar, the guitar should go to all those different places." Mason usually draws on the talents of Boston guitar guru Duke Levine. "Duke makes everything I write sound so much better," says Daring, who's also worked with Jeff Golub. "They're both great cinematic guitarists, and I can only define that as being about taste, the ability to pay attention to picture. It's the same thing that defines a great film composer."
"Paying attention to picture" embraces many concerns, such as the importance of balancing music and image. "You never want to do more than the film does," Daring suggests. "Don't go over the top if it's not an over-the-top scene. How heavy is the moment supposed to be? How much should you respect what the movie is doing, and not help it very much? Do you want to tell everybody that the monster's going to eat the pretty girl? If the movie is doing a good job of it, maybe you should just highlight it a little. Or maybe you should grab them by the throat and thrust them against the screen. If people are walking you shouldn't do music that sounds like they're running. It's a question of matching that action. It's dynamics. You have to ask: How much higher and louder can I go, and where do I start? All action is relative, so the composer must decide what the peak of any moment in the score is, what the low point is, and where in between you want to lie at any given moment."
Paying attention to picture and matching action may also mean underscoring an actor's "subtext," the hidden thoughts and motivations that drive a scene but don't necessarily get explained in words. Or it may mean working against what's happening in the film. Faced with an assignment to score footage of a "successful" nuclear bomb test with celebratory scientists, followed by a sequence of events leading to the Hiroshima mushroom cloud, Daring originally scored the first segment with a heroic, breakthrough fanfare. The Hiroshima segment was scored with sad, minor-key themes. But Daring had a change of heart.
"No one needs me to comment on Hiroshima; we don't need music to tell us what this is about," he explains. "These guys in the test weren't figuring out how to win the homecoming game; they were figuring out how to annihilate mankind." So Daring switched the sorrowful music to the bomb test segment, and left the Hiroshima footage silent to speak for itself. "It was much more effective. Matching action isn't just a matter of how fast the tempo is or how loud it is. It's a question of writing for the scene. You have to always remember: It's not a gig, it's not an album - it's a movie, and it's all about what's on the screen."