Made on a Mac: Danny Elfman

'Building music for the movies'
By Barbara Gibson, ca.2004
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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 in 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 experiment."
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 The Simpsons.
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 ideas 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 my 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. And 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. I 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," he 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 a 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 I 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 sit there 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 we 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 in the 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 with the 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 nuances."
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 Mac does everything," he says. "My music editors are doing edits on the Mac on 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 stuck with the violin," he says, "and the trombone, I learned what I needed to 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 me the 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."
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