This Film's Script Inspired the Entire Score
Great scripts give you the opportunity to personally connect with their stories and characters. They encourage imagination. They can also be the difference between efficient execution or an uninspired production.
Our culture at Outlier Studios is built upon serving others, and one way we like to do that is by only taking on fantastic projects made by people we love to work with. So when writer/director Andrew Kadikian sent the script to his sci-fi/action short film Athena, we said "yes!" right away.
Composer, Nestor Estrada, writes about our experience working on Athena, and how the simple act of reading this imaginative script inspired an easy and creative scoring experience.
A Great Score Starts With Visionary Script Writing
Our first task when joining a project - even before we think about music - is to figure out the story, characters, and the world the writer has created. We like to come into the production process early to read the script and talk to the director about their vision. Reading through Athena's script gave us a thorough understanding of the sound we wanted to achieve. Music comes naturally when reading a good script - we hear themes and colors emerge from the story. Great script writing gives us a chance to imagine what the final product will look and sound like.
Reading the script for Athena, questions start to present themselves:
- What's this world like? What are character conflicts and motivations?
- What sort of musical themes do we need? Why?
- Do we want the audience to focus on a few certain characters or moods?
We make a note of these questions and ask them during our initial meetings with the director. We also a few weirder questions like "what colors do you want the audience to feel?." We cover a bit of that on our "Writing Music for Corridor Digital's Nerf Team Fortress" post.
A few noteworthy points about Athena's script:
- It had an immediate vibe. It imputes a feeling that's easy to understand and inspires our own interpretation.
- It was easy to read. Andrew never over-describes his characters or scenes. He doesn't fill in every blank and invites the reader to fill them in.
New Tech, Old Techniques
Andrew and I were both on the same page about the sound we wanted to achieve for Athena; a retro sounding sci-fi score, but more modern and blended with an orchestra. It was also perfect timing - I bought a couple of new analog synthesizers, which would soon be important in creating the sound of Athena. It was meant to be!
Arturia Minibrute Synth at Nestor's Instagram
Eighty-five percent of the synthesizers you hear on the score are analog. An interesting thing about working with analog synths is you can have a certain sound in your head, but the end result may turn out to be something completely different. It all adds to the identity of the film we're working on.
There’s a certain level of creativity involved in working with analog synths that no software synth can offer. Each time I created a new sound, I took a picture of the knobs and patch cables. The thing with analog synths is once you create a certain sound, unless you immediately record it or remember all the different settings you tweaked to make that particular sound, you can never recreate that sound the same way. There is no save button. But that also means every sound we make for our films are completely unique. You can hear the sounds we make at Outlier Studios' The Sound Library.
AN HOMAGE TO TERMINATOR, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, AND OTHER 80'S SCORES
Inspiration for the sound of Athena came from the script and behind the scenes footage/pictures taken during principal photography.
Traditional orchestral sounds were also taken and morphed to create interesting textures. Listen to the flute below and the added sound design.
Electric guitars and bass were also recorded and blended with some of the synths to give it unique sound.
The opening of the suite begins with the main theme. I wanted the theme to be simple, recognizable, and have a distinct sound. Its sound was created using the analog synth Arturia Minibrute, then digital placed in a large room give it a massive sound.
The theme is simple to hum and is immediately recognizable by its phrasing. You hear it several times throughout the suite (Athena Suite - 4:53). The whole thing is a bit of an homage to 80's Sci-Fi films.
One of the many things I love to incorporate on film scores are short motifs. These motifs can be an extension of the main theme(s) or short musical gestures/ideas that can also be expanded on. This is something you hear done in many film scores. One of the masters of using motifs was James Horner (Titanic, Avatar, Braveheart), who also happens to be my favorite film composer and one I studied extensively. Listen to his score for Willow. It's filled with motifs.
You can hear Athena's first motif on string basses starting at 0:25 of the Athena Suite (see below). The higher register strings come in at 0:45 and follow the same melodic shape.
This is again heard throughout the score. You can hear the higher register string section playing the same melodic shape yet the sound is different (Athena Suite - 2:17).
It paints a different vibe in this particular situation. This is one of many things a composer has in his/her tool palette to help shape the score. Creating variations on the themes really helps move the story forward by evolving along with its characters.
Another example of a small motif comes in with the brass (Athena Suite - 1:29). A synth is also layered underneath to give it a fuller sound in this case. This motif is an extension and a slight variation of the main theme.
The second theme is the synth and “tick percussion” (Athena Suite - 3:44). I wanted this one to have a futuristic sound and we felt it fit the vibe of Athena well. It’s more of a texture than melodic phrase, but still recognizable enough due to the notes used as well as its percussive vibe. Also heard are the low bass swells, which add tension. You hear these bass swells throughout the score and are used more as a means of creating dissonance to an otherwise pure sound.
This is the demo we sent Andrew to get preliminary feedback on musical vibe and colors before receiving the final cut of film.
The purpose for writing preliminary demo suites are to:
- Gather all of my ideas.
- Craft a cohesive musical outline that can be used to develop that score.
- Make those ideas available to the filmmaker, allowing early feedback. It also offers filmmakers an opportunity to get involved so they're truly part of the scoring process.
We don't always need a final cut - just an idea to let us loose and get the creativity flowing. In this case, the script and a few behind the scenes shots were able to get us ahead. We're looking forward to implementing and expanding on ideas and themes we put together in the suite. This is just the beginning. The real fun will begin soon!