Sundance Film Composer Lab at Skywalker Sound

A few weeks ago I was at Skywalker Sound as assistant film orchestrator/copyist. Skywalker Sound is a world famous recording and post production facility, and ground zero for sound post production and music recording for blockbuster movies and top selling video games. Hidden in the beautiful bucolic Marin County hills north of San Francisco, it is a place that few people ever get to visit. I am one of the lucky ones.

The occasion was the Sundance Film Composer Lab. The Sundance Film Festival is a well-recognized independent film festival, founded by Academy Award winning actor, director and producer Robert Redford. Since the early 2000s, the Festival has been promoting up-and-coming film composers through the Film Music Composer Lab. Led by Peter Golub, the program pairs six upcoming composers (called “Fellows”) with six upcoming film directors, culminating in the live recording of up to two cues of 5 minutes maximum, with a live orchestra, at Skywalker Sound.

This is an exciting and high pressure environment, emulating the Hollywood world of film music where composers are under huge time pressures to get everything done last minute. On Wednesday, the Fellows composers get their cues. They then have until Saturday to write the music, finish their MIDI mockups [pieces of music created on a computer, using virtual instruments and synthesizers, emulating live instruments—it’s the way film composers work these days], get them approved by their director, and incorporate any input from the program mentor for this year, Hollywood veteran composer Laura Karpman. By no later than Saturday noon, the composers have to hand their MIDI mockups to the lead orchestrator/copyist, Marco d’Ambrosio, and myself. This is when the fun starts – between Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning, we have about 11 cues of up to 30 minutes in total to orchestrate.

30 Minutes may not sound like a lot, but with less than 24 hours, it’s a lot of work. Everything has to be fully orchestrated for a 26 piece orchestra (flute – oboe – clarinet – bassoon – two horns – harp – 6 first violins, 6 second violins, 4 violas, 2 celli, one double bass). Given the tight time schedule, there is no room for error. The players are booked from 10 am to 1 pm, and from 2 pm to 5 pm. Not one minute more or less. The players are top notch professionals and play sight reading, without rehearsal. All the notes have to be correct, both in the conductor score and the parts, and that’s just the starting point. We also write out the dynamics, any special techniques; and obviously, before that, we make sure that the right musical lines are assigned to the appropriate instruments or groups.

The score and parts must be properly laid out in accordance with film music conventions (huge time signatures for easy reading, systems with all instruments even if they do not play, “free clicks” indicated on the score and all parts since everything is recorded to click track). I refer to the excellent blog by Philip Rothman and Tim Davies’ website. And aside from the film score engraving traditions, there are a couple of hard and fast rules you need to keep in mind:

  1. Everything is recorded to click track, so if you receive a MIDI cue, you do not change either the time signatures or the tempo. The Pro Tools session you just received is being uploaded in parallel in the control room, and is being prepared to be played back, with video and click track, to the conductor and all the musicians. Can you imagine what would happen if you orchestrate a cue to 4/4, and the conductor and all the musician would hear “CLICK – click – click – CLICK – click – click” in their headphones? (If you cannot imagine what would happen, the answer is: chaos).
  2. Closely related to the foregoing, as with all film music, the cues are written to a specific film scene, and the timing is crucial. And there usually are pre-recorded tracks as well (synthesizer, piano, vocals), which are included in the Pro Tools track that is being played in the control room. If you change the timing of the music, you risk unhinging a carefully written scene. It may not work anymore with the picture. That is another big no no.
  3. In general, you respect the composer’s intentions as much as possible, and you take on board any specific feedback or guidance.

To give one specific example, one of the last cues that came in, was 5m01, by the talented young Canadian composer Amritha Vaz. Initially she was just going to go for one cue, but she changed her mind on Saturday afternoon, and asked if we could orchestrate another cue. She said that she wanted some “weird stuff”, maybe with special orchestral effects, suggesting an uneasy feeling. We said “of course”, and on Sunday morning Marco asked me to work on this. More on that below.

The cues were delivered in Pro Tools format (including audio stems a master reference tracks, and individual MIDI tracks), which I converted to Reaper, using AA Translator. After this, I manually imported the MIDI tracks (exported from Pro Tools). The Reaper session looked like this:

You can see the audio tracks, rendered by group, as well as the click track, mixer, big clock, and a master reference audio track. I can solo/mute every track and go back and forth, and get an exact idea of what Amritha had in mind, musically, just by listening. That is very powerful.

To compare, in Pro Tools the same cue looks like this. Despite the difference in layout, the functionality is substantially the same.

Sibelius ran smoothly, across multiple platforms. Marco is on Mac, and still on Sibelius 7.1; I am a lifelong PC guy, and recently upgraded to 8.4.1. That said, we had zero issues swapping Sibelius files back and forth. I exported my files to Sibelius 7, and gave them to Marco on a USB stick. There were many different cues and versions, and files were going back and forth. You have to be very clear in your naming conventions, and have a clear system on where to keep all of your different files from Sibelius and Pro Tools.

But if you think about the concept of having just one small Sibelius file that contains everything – score, parts, everything in the right place, and formatted as you want it – and you can change it in a matter of minutes, and then print out score and/or parts – that is very powerful. Dynamic Parts keeps the score and parts in sync, and magnetic layout is a great help in making slurs look good with little or no extra work – very powerful.

Think about how much time and effort it would have taken, if we would have to write out everything by hand, on manuscript paper… quite frankly, without a much bigger team, it would have been impossible.


Musical Challenges – Part I

Let’s get down to the music. After importing the MIDI file for this particular cue in Sibelius, it looks like this:

After seeing the above, you may think, “what on earth is this”?! And I agree, you would not want to give this to the orchestra. But that is where Marco and I come in. We clean up everything, and after an hour or two, and some corrections, it looks like this:

Much better, wouldn’t you agree?

It’s a very dynamic environment. After the first take, Laura asks the double bass player to play one octave lower. This was technically possible, since he had a low C extension; this is not a given, but professional players usually have it. And then, next up, she reassigned all the stuff I gave to the woodwinds, to the strings. At least one of the woodwinds was transposing (Bb Clarinet), so parts had to be reprinted, and given to the strings. And then, the “col legno” parts for the second violins didn’t really work in terms of dynamics (too quiet), so Laura asked if they could play them arco.

All this happens on the fly, with parts being created, printed, and rushed to the scoring stage – a chaotic creative environment where everything happens simultaneously.


Musical Challenges – Part II

Another example is from one of the other cues, 4m1 – Afronauts by Morgan Kibby. Laura asked for some random playing of the triads going on in the woodwinds. I took it quite literally, and wrote it out like this. Looks great, no?

Problem is, the woodwinds know best how to play random triads. So by trying to be helpful, you are really just trying to micro manage. Remember that they are classically trained, and play whatever you put in front of them. Better to let them do their own thing, like this:

And that is how it was presented to the woodwinds, and how it was recorded.



Make sure you’ve got everything up and running, software and hardware (including cables, headphones, iLoks, maybe even an extra large screen monitor).

Don’t forget your notepad, manuscript paper, and a few extra pencils, and especially don’t forget your hard copy of Elaine Gould’s Behind Bars. 🙂

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