Made on a Mac: Danny Elfman
'Building music for the movies'
By Barbara Gibson
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Late at night, when no one is around, Danny Elfman flips the light on in his
studio, turns to his Mac and experiments with the rhythms, propulsive beats
and choral textures for his newest film score.
"Any unusual thing I've done," says Elfman, one of the hottest composers
the movies today, "has been through experimenting on the Mac. Because I'm
hearing it, I'm not thinking it. If you listen to any dense piece of music -
which is most of it - the density comes from my ability to freely experiment
and play on the computer myself. I develop ideas of this against this
against this against this. With the Mac, I have an experimental freedom
that's not possible unless you have unlimited amounts of money and unlimited
amounts of time to bring in players to experiment and experiment and
Batman to Simpsons Elfman is the composer behind
such widely-different projects as Spiderman, Red Dragon, Batman,
Men In Black, [Sommersby], Good Will Hunting, Mission:Impossible,
Dolores Claiborne, most of Tim Burton's movies including Edward Scissorhands,
Beetlejuice and cult classic The Nightmare Before Christmas. He
also composed the delightfully quirky theme for the television cartoon series
Elfman earned dual Oscar nods for Men in Black and Good
Will Hunting in 1997 - two films that showcase his talent for rich instrumentation
and turn-on-a-dime mood shifts. "Sometimes the job of the score in a movie,"
says Elfman, "is propelling energy. Sometimes it's creating drama or tension.
Sometimes it's creating a whimsical framework to remind us we're not supposed
to take things seriously. But it's always most gratifying when I can let my
imagination run amok. Tim provides very few restraints."
A Mock Orchestra
Elfman generally begins a project by viewing a rough cut of the movie. "And
I live with it," he says. "I really soak it in, and I start developing
and experimenting. I have a number of synths and samplers, a kind of mock
orchestra. After I get a feel for the film, I do two things simultaneously.
One, I start to get melodic ideas and tone ideas. At the same time, I start
to build a template for the movie, the template being, 'What sounds do I
want for this score?'"
Elfman spends a couple of weeks laying out the template for his score. "It's
going to be a brassy score," he proposes. "I'm going to look through
library and find some very aggressive brass sounds. Maybe it has some solo
strings, so I'll find some good solo string sounds. Then I'll get to my own
library of percussion music, and I start pulling up banks and banks and I
think 'Oh, I want this Indian drum...this gamalon Indonesian sound...this
wood block... prepared piano...prepared harps.' They're sounds I can't get
out of a real instrument with the orchestra.
"So I'll go into the studio and coax the sounds out of the instruments.
that might provide a framework. 'Yeah, I like the sound; I'm going to bring
this element back repeatedly.' And in one movie it might be all percussion -
Red Dragon is prepared piano, with a certain type of interlocking harp
pattern. That simply could never happen live."
Mixing MIDI and Audio
Elfman uses Digital Performer from Mark of the Unicorn to work out his
arrangements on his Power Mac. "I lock the picture. I try multiple ideas.
throw in my own samples, plus orchestral stuff. If I get an idea for some
live recording, I just add another track. In Digital Performer, I can be
playing 50, 60 MIDI tracks and suddenly plug in a guitar and start playing
live. Instead of a MIDI track, though, it's an audio track. Digital
Performer interfaces invisibly with ProTools so, instead of bringing up
another program and having two programs run in sync, I can just add an audio
track. Add another audio track. Add a dozen audio tracks. They just become
more tracks in one sequence."
By now Elfman has assembled six or eight audio tracks along with 50 or 60
MIDI tracks in Digital Performer. "They're all playing along together,"
says, "and they're all sync'd. And if I make an edit - this is the real
advantage - I can edit all of them together. If I want to take two measures
out, I can take them out of the audio and the MIDI simultaneously."
When he's satisfied with one template...Elfman creates a half a dozen more.
"I just go right back, try to erase everything I thought of, try it from
completely different angle. Now slower, more insistent, something more
romantic. Or maybe it's all percussion, or maybe it's all orchestra."
Working With the Director
Elfman records a two-track digital mix to review with the director. "When
have a seven, eight, nine-minute demo with a couple of hundred sequence
parts that I've painstakingly laid out," he says, "I don't want to
with the director and have to grab a zillion faders. So I'll record a mix
when I'm composing.
"Yet I can easily switch out of the mix into the live sequence if I want,"
Elfman adds. "What'll it sound like if we drop these parts out? What if
leave this out? What if we simplify that? And I can do it on the spot. 'All
right, they're having a problem with this. Why? Something here is throwing
them off. Okay, it's a combination of this string line and this brass line;
it's too much.' And I'll simplify the string line and suddenly they're going
'Oh, yeah. That's much better.'"
When Elfman sees what the director is responding to, he starts to hone in on
the tone and themes of the score. "Then I'll take two or three major scenes
in the movie," he says, "maybe a scene towards the beginning, one
middle and one towards the end, like a finale - and score each scene from
top to bottom. They're the turning points, the major melodic statements. If
I can nail these segments, I've nailed the movie."
"The goal for me," says Elfman, "is to work out as much as possible
director before we get to the orchestra so there are few surprises. With any
luck, all I have to do is get a really good performance and work out the
Doubling His Playing Speed One-time leadman for the rock &
roll band Oingo Boingo, Elfman composed the score for his first major film,
Tim Burton's Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, in 1985. "I was right on the
first Mac," he says. "I had a primitive sequencer so I could play
some stuff for Tim. I was really keen on sequencers because I was working on
the piano myself. And I'm not a good pianist. I could record a part playing
at half time as my ability would allow, and then play it back at full tempo
for the director instead of having to bang out tunes on the piano with sweat
dripping down my forehead like a fever."
Today, Elfman uses his Power Mac as his central MIDI workstation. "The
does everything," he says. "My music editors are doing edits on the
ProTools. They run the work by me, I make suggestions for album mixes and
suites for an album, and they're doing all that work simultaneously on a
number of Macs lined up all over the place."
Elfman also keeps a PowerBook on his desk hooked to a cable modem for
network access. "I send my demo tracks to Steve Bartek, who does the final
orchestration. I drag the tracks onto a server, and he drags them onto his
computer. While he looks at the written score, he can listen to the same
thing the director heard and go 'Okay, yeah, I see, it's getting soft here,'
and 'He's laying it in thick here.' It gives him more guidance in terms of
what dynamics the director approved."
Trombone and Fire Breathing
Curiously, Elfman never formally studied music. He didn't learn to play an
instrument until he was 18, when he traveled to Africa. He took a violin.
After joining an avant-garde musical theatrical group in France, Elfman was
inducted into his brother's ragtag ensemble, the Mystic Knights. "I had
double duties," Elfman recalls. "Trombone, because we had one in the
basement, and fire breathing."
That's when he began exploring his love of percussion. "I never really
with the violin," he says, "and the trombone, I learned what I needed
learn. But percussion, from that year in Africa, really held me. Even today,
it's what I love the most in terms of playing and performing. I will always
be in the percussion bay."
From Mystic Knights, where he learned to write music, to Oingo
Boingo, where he explored rock & roll, Elfman developed his flair for turning
musical conventions upside down and creating some of the finest film scores
of our time - the fantastical choir work in Edward Scissorhands, the suspenseful
score of Mission:Impossible, the Wagnerian vibe of Batman, the
jazzy, cool score of Men in Black.
"It all worked in its own way," he says. "The rock band gave
arrogance to follow my own instinct, whether I failed or not. Thank God I
was able to take that attitude, because it's the fear of failure that makes
mediocrity. And without fearing that, I was able to find my own voice."