Adventure in weird sound

'An Interview with Danny Elfman'
By Joyce J. Jorgenson
E-mu Systems, Inc., 1996
Source: (now unavailable)
Having traveled an unorthodox path from Oingo Boingo to a spot at the top of today's film scoring pantheon, composer Danny Elfman braces for his next Mission: Impossible. When Danny Elfman's compositional talents were enlisted for Pee-wee's big adventure in 1985, little did anyone know that the lighthearted, carnivalesque music he created for the motion picture would lead to a serious film scoring career and a long-standing association with director Tim Burton.
But after that initial foray into the realm of sound-for-picture, Elfman went on to create multi-layered compositions rich in texture, drama, and ambience for the Burton-directed Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Batman (for which he received a Grammy for Best Original Score), Batman returns, Nightmare before Christmas, and some 17 other feature films outside of the Burton stable culminating in the recent release of Mission: Impossible.
Quirky and eccentric by mainstream definitions, Elfman is infused with a fascination for Gothic horror and the macabre which is tempered by a heightened sense of the fantastic. His distinctive musical style, pasticcio of wide-ranging and diverse influences from around the globe, defines a unique genre of its own first expressed in the early 70s with The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo,12-member avant-garde musical/theatre troupe, and through the 80s with the rock band known simply as Oingo Boingo.
Now, with Oingo Boingo joining the ranks of the gone-but-hardly forgotten, Elfman has been free to direct most of his energy into motion pictures and television. Among the most recent projects springing forth from his studio besides Brian DePalma's Mission: Impossible are scores for Taylor Hackford's Dolores Claiborne, Gus Van Sant's To die for (starring Nicole Kidman), and The Hughes Brothers' Dead presidents. Works scheduled to appear in the near future bearing Elfman's handiwork include The frighteners, Michael Apted's Extreme measures, and the new Burton production called Mars attacks!. Away from the silver screen, he is also currently developing a live-action musical fantasy called Little demons.
Brash and self-effacing all at once, Elfman speaks freely on studio techniques, action films, his love of percussion, and the director/composer relationship. Located in his studio while exploring new realms of sampled sounds, the following insights into his work and personality were captured in dialog expressly for our readers.
As a composer, do you typically get involved in a film from the very outset?
The nightmare before Christmas was the only project I ever worked on where I actually was involved from the very beginning. (usually the work begins with the film's first rough cut.)
Do you normally work with anyone other than the director?
In 23 out of the 24 films I've worked on, I really had very little contact with anybody but the director.
Batman was an exception where a producer was actually present, and that was because everyone was skeptical of my abilities—I'd never done an action film before. So I understand why they would be leery, especially with a humongous picture like Batman. Up until then, all I had essentially done was comedy.
In light of Batman's success, were you encouraged to score more action films?
I went on to do two or three more over a couple of years after Batman, then decided that I wouldn't do action films anymore because I felt that the music is usually much buried.
What made you want to work on Mission: Impossible?
I hoped that Mission: Impossible would be the exception, which it was.
What set it apart?
Brian DePalma is a very unique filmmaker. He deals with music in very provocative ways, so I had been interested in meeting and working with him. I figured that since it was his movie, it wouldn't be pressed from the standard action mold. He was promising something unusual, and I wanted to find out what it was. If most other action directors had been associated with it and I'd gotten the call, I wouldn't have even considered it.
As far as action films go, were you satisfied with it?
I am satisfied with the way they dealt with the music in the film. If I have a choice of two movies, I will take the one that I feel I can contribute the most to through my music. At the end of the day, I'm only satisfied if I come away feeling like I really added something to the movie—I just want to make a difference with the music.
Do any of the films you've worked on stand out as being personally special?
Hard to say. If I were to choose an overall favorite, it would probably be Edward Scissorhands. But there are sections in a number of films that are also my favorites, so it gets kind of spread out. Some films contain a specific scene or area where I really got to cut loose, or got to do something I've never done before, and I find that very rewarding.
Are you given unlimited creative freedom in these projects? How would you describe the director-composer relationship?
I usually have a lot of freedom but I'm always working with the director. First, we meet and talk about the movie. There's the spotting session where we go over every scene and the director tell's me where he or she hears music and I try to get an idea about what they are going for, what their concerns are, and what they intend a certain scene to do. Sometimes it's not clear when you first see it. For instance, do you want to direct the audience this way or this way? So I'll keep all that in mind when I'm writing. Maybe because of the way a scene's shot or because something wasn't clear, the music can help clear it up. It can also direct the audience's attention to create elements of deception, surprise, understatement, or overstatement. Most importantly, the music conveys what the characters are feeling or thinking. My job, as a composer, is to translate these impulses into sound.
You basically prepare most of your scores in your own studio. Describe the process and what equipment you work with if you would please...
Well, my console is an analog 32-input Soundcraft T12, no automation or anything fancy. I don't do any mixing in my studio, only composing. I work with a number of samplers and synthesizers which I break into two groups. I use the first group for building an orchestral mock-up. These mock-ups are what I'll play for a director to give him an idea of my direction. To provide quick, easy access to a number of sounds for these mock-ups, I use a lot of E-mu Proteus devices: the Proteus I, II, III, as well as several Roland samplers, and most recently, the Ultra Proteus. Beyond the mock-up stage, I utilize a second group of instruments for the parts which will actual stay in the final score. Primary among this collection are three of E-mu's Emulator IV samplers. The power of these EIVs allows me to work from a library of samples I've recorded, usually specific for the film I'm working on. I love having 128 megabytes of memory on each sampler. When I show up on orchestra day, I might have anywhere between 2 and 20 tracks of percussion instruments with me.
During the orchestral sessions, how do you sync your samples with the live orchestra?
For bringing my material to an orchestral session, I use Performer software from Mark of the Unicorn, which is a MIDI sequencer package. While the orchestra's playing, the music editor simultaneously sends out the click track to the orchestra along with SMPTE from the tape we're scoring to. The SMPTE will lock with my computer and the orchestra, then I'll hear all my sampled drums and weird sounds. My weird sounds are basically all those that an orchestra can't play. If I want a real bass drum sound for example, I'll write it for the orchestra. Sometimes, however, I'll want a sound like that bass drum to be purposely "de-tuned" from the orchestra, and then I'll have it played from my EIV section.
Mission: Impossible's chest-pounding score resonates throughout the entire film. How did you come up with that sound?
I recorded these big Japanese taiko drums which I used a lot of for that film, even in Lalo Schiffrin's wonderful theme song in the beginning. These drums propel the rhythm and give it this big ooompfff. I also recorded a lot of snare samples and different percussion things that I thought would work or be applicable, along with some break drums being hit with metal hammers and what not. That score stands in direct contrast to the one I created for Dead presidents, which utilizes a palette of much more subtle rhythmic sounds like tiny sticks playing on metal stands or the sides of a tympany or cymbals, and fast rolls, and very small, strange kinds of sounds which I could make rhythmic frameworks out of and overlay with the orchestra.
Is it common for you to begin with this framework of percussion and then build the entire score from that point?
Half the Dead presidents score consists of percussion sounds that I sampled and then created these rhythmic frameworks out of for the orchestra to play on top of. On Frighteners, the movie I just finished, I wanted to revolve around these harpsichord sounds, so I did a session where I just banged on piano keys with hammers and metal rods, and I obtained this hybrid sound which was kind of like a cross between a harpsichord and a out-of-tune clavinette. That was a very twisted little sound. I used it in the theme, as well as throughout the entire score. For each movie, I'll take this library of sounds that I have, listen to them, and then I'll do a session or two where I come up with new sounds expressly for that movie and no other.
What single composer, if any, had the most influence over your musical development?
Harry Partch was an amazing man who built an incredible orchestra of instruments. Had I not taken the path I ultimately chose beginning with The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, then that's who I wanted to be, another Harry Partch. (born in 1901, Partch started composing when he was 14. At 29, he basically tore up all he'd ever written and began building his own instruments for intonation in a 43-tone scale. Made entirely of natural materials and using no electricity, his own creations included elongated violas and guitars. Aside from his own instruments, Partch also favored the 72-string kithera--an ancient Greek lyre--and giant bamboo reeds called boos. Until his death in 1974, Partch flatly rejected the idea that music should reflect the times, preferring instead to transcend them. -ed.)
Later, when you started writing music for film, did you receive a lot of direction from other film composers?
My mentor, my idol, is Bernard Herrmann, who always used orchestral instruments in very inventive ways. He wasn't afraid to use very peculiar, interesting ideas to get the sounds he wanted. I'm sure if Bernard were alive today, he'd have all kinds of strange sounds he'd be creating with orchestras. In my opinion, he was absolutely fearless.
Percussion is definitely a big part of your musical roots which goes back to your earlier studies of African and Indonesian music.
I love percussion, I've collected percussion instruments from all over the world all my life. I am good at Indonesian gamelan from Java and Bali, and I have a huge collection from both, plus I'm fairly skilled at West African drumming. New doors opened up for me with the dawn of samplers, because it allowed me to indulge my passion for percussion even further. For example, I have a West African balafon, which sort of resembles a xylophone in concept. It has very, very delicate gourds which resonate to produce sounds, and if you move them around, or anything breaks, you're screwed. So, when samplers first came out, I immediately sampled my balafon so I could take the sound anywhere and not worry about accidentally destroying the instrument. I made that sample with one of the first Emulators back in the 80s. I have been addicted to the technology since.
From a percussion standpoint, would I be safe in assuming that action films would be more accommodating than a romantic comedy?
Without a doubt, an action film, with its aggressive score, can thrive on percussion. To be successful, however, you have to be inventive, therefore there are certain things I avoid, like using a rock rhythm section to imply energy. That's the easy cheap way because you can do it with any drum machine. I understand why composers do it. If for no other reason, you can score the film in three days, and make a lot of money doing it. But it's not very inventive. If I'm going to use percussion, I want to use a lot of sounds that don't feel like they're coming off drum machines. Creating a palette of sounds for a movie is part of trying to bring something original to that movie.
Once you create all of your sounds, how do you save them?
I used to save everything on floppies in the old days. Then technology marched on and we started carrying around hard drives, and then optical drives. I still have one of the original 300 megabyte Pinnacle opticals. It's huge. You can relive the entire history of storage mediums if you look around my studio. Fortunately for us, things are becoming smaller, faster, and better all of the time. I mean, my first optical drive looked like a small washing machine or microwave.
One last question: What's the most adversarial aspect within the director/composer relationship?
I'd have to divide that into two categories. The first is the occasionally exhausting process of discovering what a director responds to. Sometimes a director will start a project not knowing what they want, but simply knowing what they don't want, and the composer has to cover a lot of territory before they strike a gold vein—and tap into their director's sensibility. Second, sometimes a director wants a composer to go with a direction which goes against the composer's instincts. That's probably the hardest thing to deal with. A director may become very attached to a piece of music that they placed in their temp score and will want the composer to recreate it. The composer has to walk a fine line between their desire to please the director and their desire to maintain their artistic integrity. In these highly plagiaristic times, that's become particularly acute. Only several times in my career have I had to say no to a director about a musical direction. But sometimes, if you want your work to be original, that's what you have to do. I have a simpler way of dealing with the problem of temp scores, I try not to listen to them at all.
How do you get away with that?
By telling the director that I don't want to listen to it, and if they're attached to a piece of music that's in the temp by another composer, that they ought to just hire that composer.
That's pretty frank...
That's the trickiest situation that I run into these days and there's no easy answer, in general, with how to deal with a director's desires. I've been lucky up to this point in my career, so far as that I've never had a score thrown out. Although, I'm sure it will happen to me someday.
Why's that?
That happens to everybody eventually. The bottom line has to be true to one's own vision.
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