Danny's big adventure
'Danny Elfman embraces the dark rites of film composition'
by Greg Pedersen
Electronic Musician 1997.02, Vol.13, No.2
The odds are slim that even a tremendously talented musician will
succeed in the brutally competitive film-scoring industry, but in
1985, Danny Elfman beat the odds. That year, after a lengthy stint as
the leader of modern rock's commercially underappreciated wild bunch,
Oingo Boingo, Elfman jumped ship to score Tim Burton's directorial
debut, Pee Wee's Big Adventure.
That first stab at film composition was a smash success, and it
was only the first in a series of scoring triumphs that include
Batman, Beetlejuice, Mission Impossible, and
Edward Scissorhands. Elfman has conquered the small screen,
too, creating memorable themes for TV shows such as Tales From the
Crypt and The Simpsons.
In fact, Elfman has been so prolific that he recently released
his *second* compilation of film scores, Music for a Darkened Theater, vol.2..
The 2-disc set includes music from the composer's last ten films (including
Sommersby, Black Beauty, Dolores Claiborne, and The
Nightmare before Christmas); a score for Freeway, a low-budget film
that he recently did for his best friend from high school ("I got paid a dollar,"
he says); and some unreleased material from television series such as Amazing
Stories and Pee Wee's Playhouse.
As usual, Elfman is currently deluged with scoring projects. But
as he braved a hellish deadline to complete the soundtrack for
Burton's upcoming Mars Attacks!, he graciously took a break to
share some insights with EM readers.
EM - What's it like being a film composer after spending so
many years as a rock musician?
DE - Well, being a film composer requires a level of
discipline that far exceeds anything I had to deal with as a musician
making records. As a composer, you have to write every day. Period.
You have to write approximately two minutes of music every single day
whether you feel great or you feel like crap. And you have to be
*inspired* every day.
And then there's always a certain point - as the clock is ticking
toward the deadline when the score must be finished - where I feel
like I'm stepping off a cliff. But I must have faith that when I take
that step, something will appear at the very last second to catch me.
That's what diving into a score often feels like.
EM - Are the deadlines really as tough as they're reputed
DE - I try to get six weeks to write a score, with maybe a
couple of extra weeks added so I can toy around with ideas. Sometimes
you get that much time, and sometimes you don't. Part of being a
successful composer is being able to work extremely quickly and
effectively under pressure.
For example, in 1996, I scored four major films, so that was a
particularly tight year for me. The workload on those movies - as
with any film - depended upon how much the director wanted to get
involved. Brian De Palma, who directed Mission Impossible, was
very particular and wanted to hear every cue I wrote before we got to
the scoring session (for orchestra). Gus Van Sant, on the other hand,
did not need to hear every cue I wrote for To Die For. Then,
of course, there are scheduling complications, such as when I was
brought into Mission Impossible really late and was given just
five weeks to complete the entire score.
EM - How do you begin working on the scoring process?
DE - I experiment with different ideas to get the score's
thematic material laid out, and then I play them for the director. If
he or she likes the direction the music is going, then sooner or
later I'll have to start writing the score, or I'm in deep trouble.
Once I'm actually pumping out music, Steve Bartek gets dragged in.
Steve does the final orchestrations after I have sketched out the
music as elaborately as I can. He was the guitarist in Oingo Boingo
and he has been my orchestrator since day one. When I got the Pee
Wee's Big Adventure gig, I called him up and asked, "Steve,
didn't you take an orchestrating class at UCLA once?" He answered,
"Yeah," so I said, "Well, do you want to work on a film?" It was
pretty funny, because Steve, Tim Burton, and I were all babes in the
woods. It was the director's first film, the composer's first score,
and the orchestrator's first orchestration.
EM - Do you still have to be able to write music, or does
notation software render that skill superfluous?
DE - When I started scoring in 1985, you *had* to write
music. There was no other way to communicate the parts to the
musicians. These days, theoretically, if you perform and sequence the
score close enough to the way you want it, you can print it out with
some type of notation software.
However, the first time I tried notating a piece using MIDI, it
didn't come out right. I realized that, when you're looking at a
piece of music bar by bar, you learn some things about composing that
you'd miss if you just hit a keystroke and printed it out. You add
certain things and you think a slightly different way when you're
working on paper. Although I have notated some scores directly
through MIDI, I'm really glad I taught myself to write, because it is
an important part of learning how to compose.
EM - What would you say is the most critical element of an
artistically successful score?
DE - The ability to find the tone of a film can be the most
important thing a film composer can bring to the job. Anybody can
hold long chords with some dissonance and say, "That's tension." My
eleven-year-old can do that! But can you nail the tone? That's the
You see, sometimes people need help figuring out what kind of
movie they're watching, and the music can nudge the viewers one way
or another. Visually, viewers may be interpreting a scene a certain
way, but because of the music they're hearing, they know they should
be smirking or gasping.
For example, on To Die For, there was a dilemma because
test audiences had trouble reading Nicole Kidman's character (who
entices some wayward teens to murder her husband). Her character was
strange because it was wicked but not evil in the way people are used
to seeing a wicked character. As a result, audiences were very
unclear about whether they were allowed to laugh or not because the
film's plot revolved around murder. Obviously, we didn't want to wash
over the dark side of what was happening in the movie, but we also
wanted to keep the audience aware that they were watching a strange,
quirky *comedy*. So I came up with a theme for the Nicole Kidman
character that had a lightness to it.
EM - On that point, do film composers rely on specific
instruments to produce a sense of happiness or dread?
DE - A talented composer can create a light or dark tone
with *any* instrument. For example, strings typically have been used
for romantic scores, and yet the person who most influenced my style,
(composer) Bernard Herrmann, used strings for the most chilling score
I know: Psycho. He also scored one of the scariest episodes of
the original Twilight Zone television series using a harp, a
glockenspiel, and a bass clarinet. These three very diverse
instruments would not seem conducive to a scary score, but Herrmann
used the juxtaposition of two light instruments against one dark
instrument to produce something that was absolutely terrifying.
All the films that Herrmann scored had strong, identifiable
patterns that he could twist and turn a million ways. His work taught
me that there are no rules; there's no scary instrument or happy
EM - What types of things can lead you to uncover the right
tone for a scene?
DE - Well, for Beetlejuice, the craziness of the
character said to me: "Russian dancing, kicking out the legs, wild
and drunken fun!" But for Edward Scissorhands, the fairy
tale-like quality moved me to keep a sad undercurrent running
throughout the music. Batman, however, was inspired by the
set. When they were halfway done with filming, I was able to walk
around the set at night and get the whole vibe of the movie. As far
as the characterizations went, the Joker had a schizophrenic feel, so
I didn't give him a specific theme. One moment, his music would be
comic, the next moment it would sound kind of music box-like, and
later there would be some dissonance.
In Batman Returns, the characters were more consistent, so
we felt three of the four characters should have very identifiable
themes. Consequently, the soundtrack turned out to be more of an
odd-style, thematic score that switched back and forth between
Catwoman was simple. I went right for a 1960's slinky, bending
style of strings to convey a TV-show sound. I think Julie Newmar (who
plated Catwoman in the original TV series) was my first crush! Both
Catwoman and Batman themes are in a minor key, but hers is whimsical
whereas his has tragic, quasi-operatic quality. Even thought the
Penguin was evil, I wanted his theme to be evangelical, almost
religious, with a bit of a hymn quality. I definitely wanted
something that would easily turn comic or tragic.
Moving to the small screen, I very much wanted the tone of The
Simpsons to reflect a 1960's family TV show. I wanted it to feel
like it came out of another era, so I had some fun with that retro
sound. I used xylophones, muted trumpets, and pizzicato strings.
EM - When you actually get down to composing a music cue to
picture, do you usually follow any particular methodology?
DE - The system I developed during Pee Wee's Big
Adventure is the one I use to this very day; I watch a scene
until I start hearing a piece of music in my head. Then I'll time the
scene out by locking my sequencer to the time code on the work video.
Let's say I'm hearing something that I feel is roughly 126 beats
per minute (bpm). I'll input the SMPTE number for the beginning of
the scene into Mark of the Unicorn's Performer and run 126 bpm
click track locked to the video. Now I can experiment with tempos
until I find what I like. Sometimes I'll use one tempo throughout a
scene, and sometimes I'll use half a dozen, so it's also very
important that I block out a tempo map for the entire scene.
At this point, I usually select a piano sound and sketch out the
gist of what I want to happen against the scene musically. Much of
this phase is improvised, but I'll typically end up with a rough
sketch of what I want the music to do. For example, let's say there's
a 4-bar melody that I really want to end on a door slamming, but it's
a beat off. With Performer locked to the work video, I can
move the phrase one beat and adjust things until I'm satisfied.
Ultimately, I'll have a complete map of the scene, whether it's 20
measures or 220 measures. I've got all my hit points, meter changes,
and tempo changes marked.
Before I start notating the score on paper, I'll write out that
entire map on the top staff - even if it's twenty pages long - with
all my bars and all my meter changes. Then I indicate everything I
want hit with a system of little arrows. If the hit is on a downbeat
it gets an arrow, and if it's on an upbeat it gets a crooked arrow.
Now, I can just look at the entire music cue at the top of the page
and see all my bar lines *and* everything I want to hit. This makes
it easier when I begin writing the music down because I can make sure
everything is metered correctly and, as I see a hit point coming up,
make sure the music works up to that point. I'm actually writing the
music and following the map on the top staff simultaneously.
EM - Many of your scores are not purely orchestral,
however, so how do you incorporate synths and samplers into the
DE - Up until last year, I used to pre-record all of my
synth and percussion stuff on a Sony/MCI 2-inch, 24-track in my home
studio - which I call "MIDI Hell" - and bring the tape to the scoring
session. This tape, which is a recording of all the sequenced,
nonorchestral instruments I want in the score, is then slaved to
another 24-track machine that is used to record the orchestra.
The problem with this prelay system is that I have to lay the
click tracks down on tape to ensure that the orchestra stays in sync
with my pre-recorded tracks. Obviously, if we discovered any problems
during the scoring session - or if we simply wanted to make some
changes - we were stuck, because we couldn't adjust anything. The
tracks were already on tape.
On Mission Impossible, it was pretty obvious that I needed
more flexibility. So, instead of pre-recording my tracks on tape, I
sequenced everything the way I normally would and brought along the
synths, samplers, and sequencer to the session. Now Performer
could receive time code from the video, and both my sequences and the
orchestra could sync to a master click track created by the music
editor. The tracking method is basically like this: the music editor
builds a click using this tempo-processing software called
Auricle, from Auricle Control Systems (for more information on
how Auricle is used in scoring sessions, see "An Orchestral
Escape" in the October 1996 EM). Performer is slaving
to that click, and my sequences and the orchestra are playing
together live and being recorded onto a master multi-track reel.
The flexibility of this system is great. For example, if we want
to go a little quicker, say, bar 57 of the score, and notch up the
tempo three bpms, we can lose two beats at the end to make up the
difference. My sequences will simply follow whatever changes are
made. Or if I want to change the tempo for the last eight bars and do
an accelerando or a retard, I can simply edit the sequence on the
With pre-recorded cues on tape, you can't do that because tape
doesn't like to suddenly start changing speeds. I can also
accommodate the director if he or she says, "I know that I told you
come out here, but can you keep the music going for two more bars?"
Once again, I just edit the sequence.
EM - Obviously you used quite an array of gear to
presequence your scores. How much equipment do you actually bring to
the scoring session?
DE - Typically, I'll bring a rig with an Apple Power Macintosh
9500 running Mark of the Unicorn's Performer, two Emulator EIV
samplers with 128 MB of RAM. and two Roland S-760 samplers.
Sometimes, I'll bring my other Emulator samplers; two 3XPs and two
ESI-32s. The S-760s are playing guide stuff - the orchestral string
and horn mockups that I've sequenced at home - that I can refer to,
but these tracks seldom end up as part of the final score. The EIVs
and the 3Xps are the machines actually laying down what will end up
on the final score as the drums, percussion, and so on.
EM - Stylistically speaking, you've definitely broken
convention and forged a unique style.
DE - I guess I *must* be breaking some rules, judging by
the incredibly negative reactions from other composers and how
frequently I hear my self imitated in other composer's scores!
EM - When did you start noticing composers imitating your
DE - Right after Pee Wee's Big Adventure. For that
film, I took an Italian, Nino Rota-like approach to an American
comedy because I didn't like the fact that most contemporary comedy
scores were so jazzy and poppy. So, of course, for about the next
five years after Pee Wee's Big Adventure, all these comedies
were suddenly becoming Italian!
And the imitations didn't stop after Pee Wee, either. My
other scores that are imitated the most are probably
Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Batman.
Unfortunately, my generation of composers are by and large the
most plagiaristic in the history of film. And, you know, composers
have a wonderful way of rationalizing when they plagiarize another
For Example, John Williams' 2-note pattern for Jaws has
been imitated thousands of times in tense scenes, but composers will
simply rationalize that he didn't *invent* those two notes. Well,
that doesn't matter! It was Williams who brought those two notes to a
certain style of movie, and that's really the key issue.
The bottom line, I believe, is that it's just too easy to imitate
your musical contemporaries. It's like taking a free ride. I think
that composers who really care about the *art* of film composition
will tend to draw more from the work of dead masters than from their
Inset to above article
"I just finished scoring my 26th film," says soundtrack wizard
Danny Elfman, "and you'd think it would get easier, but I'm no less
insane when I'm composing. And it's still just as hard to play music
for th director for the first time!" However, for EM readers
itching to enter the celluloid madhouse, Elfman offered some tips for
surviving film-scoring gigs with a few shreds of your sanity (and
stomach lining) intact.
Work those themes. When I'm starting a film, I make sure to
compose a primary theme and at least two secondary ones that can be
turned a number of different ways. I'll take the theme and figure out
whether I can play half of it and still recognize it. Then, does it
work in a major and a minor key? Can I turn it from funny to spooky?
Can I cut it down to just three notes and still make it recognizable?
These are some of the acid tests I put a theme through while I'm
Be empathetic. The problem between every director and composer is
that music is not easy to describe in words. You can spend hours
talking about the score, but from the first moment the music is
played, it either works or it doesn't. Then you realize all the
talking you've done doesn't mean a thing! I try to approach
everything from the director's eyes so I can compose something that's
satisfying for me and yet still connects with the director.
Define the demo. Make sure the director understands that, in the
demo stages of an orchestral score, the synth brass are going to
sound like car horns and the synth strings are going to a have a
peculiar edginess. I usually play the director a demo of another
score, such as Batman, and say, "Here's the demo score I
played for Tim (Burton), and here's the real thing. As you can hear,
the real orchestra is going to sound ten times better than the synth
Argue early. Show the director some themes and sketches as soon as
you can and engage their opinions. If there are any problems, the
goal is to duke it out in the studio during the writing process. You
don't want conflict on the scoring stage when there are 90 musicians
sitting there! Ideally, when you get to the orchestra session, all
the director should be hearing is a better version of what he or she
heard in your home studio.
Let the film conduct. Most film editors have an internal metronome
going, so if you can tap into that rhythm, it will make scoring a lot
easier and more fun. In fact, if you're out of sync with the film
editor, it will be very hard to make the picture work. Once I lock
into the editor's rhythm, though, it's easy to make all my hits match
perfectly to the action onscreen.