The Films of Tim Burton: Animating Live Action in Hollywood
Excerpts from the book by Alison McMahan, reproduced with her
Pub. Continuum, 2005
Alison's homepage is at alisonmcmahan.com
Burton Does 2-D: From Animation to Machinima
"I think best when I'm drawing."
[Selection from the chapter (section on Stainboy)]
There would be a long gap between Burton's design work for Family Dog and his
next animation outing, but for the fans of his animation, it would be worth
the wait. In 1997 Burton published a collection of twenty three poems entitled
The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories, all about misfit
eccentric children, that focused on the horror of childhood with a sweetening
dose of humor. The key character in the collection is Stain Boy, who is introduced
in the following poem:
Of all the super heroes,
The stranger one by far,
Doesn't have a special power,
Or drive a fancy car.
Next to Superman and Batman,
I guess he must seem tame.
But to me he is quite special,
And Stain Boy is his name.
He can't fly around tall buildings,
Or outrun a speeding train,
The only talent he seems to have
Is to leave a nasty stain.
Sometimes I know it bothers him,
That he can't run or swim or fly,
And because of this one ability,
His dry cleaning bill's sky-high.
The reference to Batman and Superman are pointed,
as Burton had spent a year developing a feature film for Superman and
had been removed from the project against his will. His solace was to create
his own superhero, a boy who could do no more than to leave a nasty stain. Only
two of the stories are about Stain Boy (Stain Boy's Special Christmas is about
Stain Boy getting a dry cleaned suit for Christmas and covering it with stains
in less than ten minutes). Of the other stories, three are about mismatched
couples (Stick Boy and Match Girl in Love, Junk Girl, The Pin Cushion Queen),
four are about parents who are horrified by their misfit children (Robot Boy,
The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy, Mummy Boy, Anchor Baby) and fourteen are
about freaks without references to parents (Staring Girl, The Boy with Nails
in His Eyes, The Girl with Many Eyes, Stain Boy, Voodoo Girl, The Girl who turned
into a Bed, Roy the Toxic Boy, James, Brie Boy, The Pin Cushion Queen, Melonhead,
Sue, Jimmy, the Hideous Penguin boy, Char Boy) and finally three stories feature
the continuing adventures of "heroes" we have already met (Stain Boy's
Special Christmas, Stick Boy's Festive Season, Oyster Boy Steps Out). Looked
at in terms of Burton's favorite themes, five of the stories are about Christmas,
and one is about Halloween.
The Los Angeles Times described Stain Boy as a "splotch, a blob with legs,
an ink stain that one might see on a Rorschach test," But The New York
Times said: "Inspired by such childhood heroes as Dr. Seuss and Roald Dahl,
Mr. Burton's slim volume exquisitely conveys the pain of an adolescent outsider.
Like his movies, the work manages to be both childlike and sophisticated, blending
the innocent with the macabre." The same review quotes Burton on his inspiration
for the book: "I was quiet but early on, I got deemed as weird," he
said. "When someone says that and the whole world starts believing it
by the time I was a teenager, I felt weird."
In late January of 2000 the papers were announcing Stainboy's (his name was
shortened from two words to one when he went digital) transition to the web.
The San Francisco based netcaster, shockwave.com, invited several well known
filmmakers, including South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, comic
book icon Stan Lee, and Tim Burton, to produce animated Flash programming for
the web. Burton was dubious at first, but agreed after he had a glimpse of Shockwave's
Macromedia flash Player Technology. (Macromedia owns Shockwave.com). Burton
agreed to produce 26 original animated episodes of two to five minutes each.
Shockwave paid for all production of the shorts, retains the Internet rights
to the character and Burton gets all the ancillary rights. Though if Stainboy
wasn't enough of a hit online to carry over to film or TV, "Burton dryly
pointed out, perhaps the characters could be featured 'in an ice show in Las
Vegas."' In addition, Shockwave had plans develop digital trading cards
and interactive games designed by Burton himself. In a deal similar to that
brokered for the South Park creators, Burton also got a small percentage of
shockwave.com. The deal was announced at Sundance, and Burton was quoted as
being excited about "the kind of textures" he could get with Flash
THE STAINBOY SERIES
Burton feels that "Medium and idea share a chemistry. For
some stories you have to wait for the right medium. I think [the Internet's]
the perfect forum to tell a sad little story like this one. Stainboy is a character
that doesn't do much. He's just perfect for four minute animations." Burton
also chose Stainboy as the animated frontispiece for his website, www.Timburton.com,
an otherwise inactive website.
The plan was for Burton to create, write and direct the new series.
Burton did a series of original watercolors, pencil sketches and gray-on-gray
washes that were accented with pastel colors, and took them to Flinch Studios,
a 22-person animation and Web-media production studio based in Los Angeles (the
company has since relocated to Florida). Flinch was formed in 1997 by President
Chris Takami and CEO and creative director Tony Grillo, whose backgrounds were
in the video game and CD-ROM animation world of the early '90s. It was the first
studio Burton visited and found their style to his liking; it also helped that
both Burton and Flinch were represented by the William Morris Agency. Burton
charged them with creating a series of animations that would be as different
from the garish look of Saturday morning cartoons as possible, with an emphasis
on the bizarre characters in realistic settings and using minimal effects (not
even animation's characteristic stretching or squashing). Flinch's first challenge,
then, was to duplicate the watercolor look of Burton's storyboards in Flash.
(With subsequent episodes Burton used other mediums, moving from watercolor
to gouache to oil paint; by episode four Flinch was using 3D volumetric rendering).
Shockwave was considerate enough to assign them a special technical team for
the task, in order to guarantee that the Stainboy episodes could be viewed without
the need to download any special plug-in.
The second challenge was the animation itself: although Stainboy
and his partner, Stare Girl, are superheroes of a sort, they are very inactive
superheroes. They are drawn with fragile lines, and the pacing of their activity
is quite different from that of traditional cartoons. According to art designer
Will Amato, "Our goal was to create an animation that was not driven by
incident or event. We wanted to create a story that-if they wanted to-the characters
could just curl up and fall asleep."
To support a smooth production effort, the Flinch team front-loads
Tim Burton with as much assistance as possible. They take rough ideas and turn
them into storyboards, develop vectorized versions of characters early in the
production process, making it easier to animate them once script and storyboard
Shockwave initially wanted Flinch to use bitmaps for the characters.
They experimented with this technique on Stainboy, creating a body out
of one or two bitmaps, then drawing twenty different heads and masking the heads
onto the same body. They quickly found that the resulting files were huge, too
large for web transmission. In the end, Flinch went with vector-based solutions
that required the use of transparencies and transparent gradients to handle
Burton's muted color palette of grays and off-grays:
Will Amato created what he calls a "baroque arrangement
of multiple layers." Other experiments involved scans that were mimicked
in Flash. In most cases, Amato says, "I could get the Flash file to be
a smaller file than the scan." Finally he developed a combination of semi-transparent
gradients and a wash look to create a multi-layered world. Controlling the gradient
and using four to five layers of transparency enabled Flinch to achieve the
look they were after for any given character
To convey every little tick and gesture of Burton's original
watercolors, Flinch handcrafted them in Flash at a high resolution. "We
wanted to create an effect that looked like a brush had painted them onto the
screen," Amato says. "I found a way to paint the gradient, as if it
were popped right into wet watercolor. I did it section by section of the drawing.
It was a deliberate effort to mimic Tim's pure gesture. I was an art forger."
Flinch succeeded in making the image file small, but there was
not much they could do to reduce the size of the audio files. Each episode has
a heavy use of sound effects, a rich score composed by Danny Elfman, and Burton
regulars to voice to characters. For example, Lisa Marie voiced Match Girl,
and Glenn Shadix voices Sergeant Dale and other minor characters. Dialogue was
recorded into a handheld Sony DAT tape recorder (someone from Flinch would simply
go over to Shadix's house and get the needed audio), and sent right into the
To date, Burton and Flinch have produced only six of the planned
twenty six episodes of Stainboy. After that Burton became extremely busy
directing his "re-imagining" of Planet of the Apes and wasn't
able to plan any more episodes. However, the six episodes, now available for
viewing on www.atomfilms.com, give us a fairly rounded view of Stainboy's world
and some of his past history.
The first episode establishes the pattern for the rest by introducing
us to Stainboy as some kind of detective that Sergeant Dale sends on special
missions. In this case his assignment is to deal with Stare Girl, though once
Stainboy arrives at Stare Girl's house and we see her staring at herself in
a mirror it is hard to understand what threat she poses. The two enter into
a staring contest. Stainboy struggles to stay awake, then finally uses his staining
ability to loosen a ceiling lamp that crushes Stare Girl to death. The episode
has what will become a standard coda of Stainboy going back to the police station
and getting a gruff, insult-laden statement of thanks from Sergeant Dale. Elfman's
score for the episode consists of theramin wails very similar to what he did
in Mars Attacks.
The second episode is entitled Toxic Boy, who was called Roy
the Toxic boy in the book. Toxic Boy eats noxious garbage and his home is filled
with foul substances. The smell is disturbing the neighbors which is why Sergeant
Dale sends Stainboy to investigate. Toxic Boy almost kills Stainboy with his
acid-like vomit, but Stainboy evades him and kills Toxic Boy in turn with an
air-freshener in the shape of a Christmas tree. After Toxic Boy falls dead into
the dog dish, his Chihuahua comes in and takes a bite out of his head, turns
blue, and dies.
The third episode, entitled Bowling Ball Head, gives Stainboy
a villainous opponent for the first time (also voiced by Glenn Shadix), in a
form of a huge bowling ball head that kills bowlers (because they have cheapened
the sport). This episode is scary and effective, worth repeated viewing.
Episode four, Robot Boy, gives us additional insight into Sergeant
Dale: he has been married at least three times, his favorite TV show is Cops
without Tops. Sergeant Dale sends Stainboy to deal with Robot Boy because he
is causing brownouts. As Stainboy enters Robot Boy's home he sees a magazine
called Mechanics Confidential (the issue on his desk blares the headline: "Man
turns son into hedge trimmer"). Behind him various pieces of junk metal
form themselves into Robot Boy who immediately tries to kill Stainboy. Robot
Boy chases Stainboy until he reaches the end of his power cord and it comes
out of the wall, de-activating him. Stainboy returns to the police station,
Robot boy parts in tow, to find that Sergeant Dale is throwing a "topless
cop" party, and in spite of his success he is not very welcome. As in the
poem, in a later episode we see Robot Boy serving as a garbage can.
Episode five pits Stainboy against Match Girl, whom Sergeant Dale describes
as "an old flame of yours." Before Stainboy can do anything Match
Girl lights herself and blows up the gas station.
The last episode is entitled Birth of Stainboy. Although Stainboy
dutifully reports to Sergeant Dale, there is no mission for him so Dale sends
him home. Stainboy falls asleep and in his dream relives his birth (which is
shown to us from his point of view), his parent's horror, his uncontrollable
ability to leave hideous stains everywhere, and his parent's decision to put
him in the Burbank Charity Home for Unusual Cases, where he meets other Oyster
Boy characters: Brie Boy, The Girl with Many Eyes, Jimmy the Hideous Penguin
Boy, and the Boy with Nails in His Eyes. This episode contains a lot of in-jokes,
such as a monster hand rising out of the muck on TV, and numerous references
to other Stainboy installments.
The first episode in the series went online in October of 2000,
and within the first six days had generated over a million hits. Every time
a new episode was released the high volume of traffic for Stainboy slowed down
the servers at Shockwave.
Critical response was positive. For example, Variety praised
"The simplicity of the ink and watercolor drawings, the odd details in
. And the skillful way Burton uses colors against the black-and-white
backgrounds". The same article also had high praise for Elfman's score.
Shockwave had pursued animations by Hollywood talent as a response
to financial pressure; while as the Stainboy series was in production (produced
with a grant from Compaq) some staff was laid off, even as the company pursued
advertising, sponsorship and merchandising opportunities and considered a subscription
model for their series'. In other words, Stainboy was an experiment in developing
revenue streams for the Web, which did not succeed, at least not financially.
However, as a result of the Stainboy series, Burton became a
hero and role model for the machinima crowd.
THE MUSIC OF DANNY ELFMAN
It is impossible to talk of Tim Burton's films without also mentioning
the film composer Danny Elfman, who has scored all of Burton's work since Pee-wee's
Big Adventure (including his television work), with the sole exception of
Ed Wood. It is only slightly less impossible to talk of pataphysical films without
mentioning Elfman, who, in addition to scoring all of Burton's pataphysical
films, has also scored eleven comic-book films, making his style of composition
the default for the genre. Finally, it is necessary to discuss Elfman because
his work is the third tent-pole (the other two being the screenplay and the
production design) to what goes into making up Burton's auteur "brand".
This book has referred repeatedly to the types of stories and screenplays Burton
prefers and seems to do best with: the tone of production design, usually carried
out by regular collaborator Rick Heinrichs; the "silent movie star"
style of acting Burton prefers, often embodied by Johnny Depp; and finally,
the type of music. Each of these elements has an important role to play in the
making of a film that we recognize as Tim Burton's. Elfman's musical brand is
also identified by the style of music he has written principally for Burton,
music that is often called "dark" and "gothic". It is characterized
by an emphasis on "minor keys, low-pitched melodies and textures, and frequent
use of dissonance both at melodic and harmonic levels
. [he] regularly
applies atonality, dissonance, and sonic experimentation to [all of his], scores,
not just those written for Burton .
The goal of this chapter is not to do an in-depth musical analysis of Elfman's
work, but to give the non-musical reader an overall sense of how film scores
are produced and in particular how Elfman's scores work with Burton's films.
Elfman was born in 1953 in Texas but grew up in the Crenshaw
area of Los Angeles. He taught himself to play the Sears Roebuck organ he had
at home, starting with the keyboard solo to The Door's Light My fire. He fooled
around with his Fender knockoff, imitating Jimi Hendrix licks. He took piano
lessons, was told he didn't have long enough arms for the trombone. As a senior
he settled on the violin.
When he finished high school in 1971 he spent a year traveling
around Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, Upper Volta and Uganda, hitching rides on the
backs of trucks. He took a violin with him and learned how to play it on the
trip In Africa he encountered and fell in love with "High Life", an
African pop music style similar to a combination of salsa and reggae. A band
performed "High Life", with seven or eight members using guitars,
bongos, drums, bass and a three-piece horn section, a musical set-up that Elfman
would imitate when he later formed the band Oingo Boingo. Music professor Janet
K. Halfyard describes High Life as follows:
Highlife is a twentieth-century African fusion of several different musical
idioms that have been finding their way to Africa since the nineteenth century.
The hymns introduced by the Christian missionaries during the nineteenth century
produced a musical idiom that combines European harmony with African practices.
The brass instruments of British military bands from colonial days led to the
use of brass as the main melodic instrumental group in a typical Highlife band,
with the usual regular 4/4 meter, not typical of traditional African music,
reflecting the regular rhythm of military marches. This is then blended with
polyrhythmic ideas from African traditional music played on percussion in an
improvisational idiom that owes a great deal to jazz, which became an influential
as dance music in Ghana and Nigeria from the 1920s onward.
The trip around Africa would affect Elfman's musical thinking
for the rest of his career. In fact, while in Africa he considered becoming
an ethnomusicologist, with a particular interest in Java and Balinese gamelan.
It was also in Africa that he became interested in building instruments, especially
percussion instruments. He built three percussion orchestras, one composed of
West African style balophones, which resemble xylophones. In Africa they are
made of bamboo and wood and gourds, too fragile for him to take home, so he
built his own. He had to invent ways to make huge gourd-like resonators, and
ended up using weather balloons and fiberglass and resin. He also made an Indonesian
style gamelan orchestra, using metal tubes, and a kitchen orchestra all made
out of found objects such as brass pans, army surplus pots. His pride and joy
is still the celeste he made out of Schlitz beer cans.
While Elfman was in Africa his older brother Richard spent four or five months
in San Francisco working with a transvestite theatrical company called The Cockettes,
directing and composing music for their shows. On a trip to Canada Richard had
a chance encounter with an avant-garde musical theatre group called Le Grand
Magic Circus. He moved to Paris to work with the group. In 1971 he returned
to L.A., bringing with him a singer-acrobat, Marie-Pascal, whom he married.
Together they formed a theatrical group he called The Mystic Knights of the
Oingo Boingo. He invited Danny to join them. It started out as a twenty person
company with several female vocalists, including Marie-Pascal and Miriam Cutler
(who is now a well respected film composer herself, scoring Lost in La Mancha,
for example). Later he reformed it as 12-piece group and spent years playing
on the streets as a kind of busker act, with Danny playing bongos, violin, and
the trombone. Their money came from passing the hat. Richard was responsible
for the staging and theatrical aspects, while Danny was responsible for most
of the musical aspects. The Mystic Knights performed for eight years, during
which Danny dutifully reenacted, reworked and transcribed Jazz numbers from
the early 1930s. Their performances consisted of both original material and
old Jazz classics.
In 1978 The Mystic Knights formally disbanded. Danny organized
a few musicians who remained into a rock band, which he called Oingo Boingo.
One of the continuing members was guitarist Steve Bartek, who would go on to
become Elfman's orchestrator when he started composing for film. It was while
working with Mystic Knights that Elfman learned how to write music:
That is where I learned my confidence in my ear. Cab Calloway's arrangements
could be very fast and complicated. I would listen to videocassettes of Betty
Boop cartoons and old records, but I learned that if I listened hard, I could
freeze it in my head and hold it there and write it down. It ended up being
critical training for me, even though I didn't know it at the time.
At first, Elfman composed by hearing a tune in his head and then
picking it out on an instrument. Once he could pick it out on an instrument
he could write it down. Steve Bartek would then transcribe his music for the
other band members. This is basically how Elfman and Bartek still work together.
In 1982 Oingo Boingo contributed songs to various films:
"Goodbye, Goodbye" for Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which led to
Boingo also contributing the theme songs for short lived TV series for the film.
Several songs, including "Better Luck Next Time" for the film The
Last American Virgin. In 1985 they wrote "Weird Science" for the John
Hughes' film of same title. This would turn out to be the band's most successful
Oingo Boingo stayed together for 17 years, made 16 albums and
numerous singles, as well as a handful of music videos. They never had a hit
at the top of the charts and were never really accepted by the critics, but
they had a loyal fan following especially in California and some international
Elfman wrote over one hundred songs for Oingo Boingo. He also
wrote a five minute piano concerto "Oingo Boingo Piano Concerto One and
a Half" for piano and small ensemble. By the time he wrote the piano concerto
he had learned how to write music.
Writing music for Mystic Knights, and later for Oingo Boingo,
was in fact good preparation for orchestral composition. Elfman has noted that
the Mystic Knights had eleven or twelve individual instruments and each one
needed its own part. This is not too different from writing for an orchestra
that might have ninety instruments, but these will be divided into sections;
there are still only between twelve and seventeen parts. The biggest challenge
is the same: how to divide the themes among the various sections.
He still occasionally writes material that is "semi-impossible
for the musicians to play" but the way he says this on the commentary track
to the Edward Scissorhands DVD implies he does this on purpose just to keep
his musicians on their toes (he works with the same musicians over and over
again as much as possible).
Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985)
About 6 years after he wrote the piano concerto he was asked by Tim Burton,
who was a fan of Oingo Boingo and liked to go to the Whiskey club performances
in Los Angeles, and Paul Reubens (Pee-wee Herman) who had seen his brother Richard's
first film Forbidden Zone (1980) to score a film starring Reuben. This
was Tim Burton's first feature, Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985). In the
1980s most scores produced for comedies were jazz-influenced or a synthesizer
pop-score, similar to Oingo-Boingo's song for Weird Science. Elfman found a
"different and effective" way to score a comic film, inspired by Nino
Rota, especially by his work on Fellini's films: a music with bright colors,
which constantly switches between major and minor keys. Elfman was given four
and a half weeks to compose the score for the film, which he saw for the first
time after it was complete (unlike his later collaborations with Burton, where
he was brought in much earlier in the process).
As a result of Pee-wee's success, Elfman was asked to score numerous
other comedies (Scrooged, Midnight Run, Hot to Trot, Big
Top Pee-wee, and Beetlejuice in 1988 alone). In fact, Elfman did
so many comedies that he thought "short little cues" and a lot of
starting and stopping were normal for film scoring. It wasn't until he worked
on Dolores Claiborne that he got a chance to write a twelve minute cue.
There was more to the differences between comedy and drama than simply length;
Elfman found that on a comedy the music has to follow the action very closely,
"like close dancing" (he specifically compared it to a tango); the
music can never stray too far from the action, unlike in drama. Caught rather
by surprise by Burton and Reuben's request, Elfman proceeded to teach himself
film scoring by listening hard to the work of classical film composers:
I still believe that the old school guys tend to be more talented
than the new school guys, as a general rule. My heroes are all dead: Bernard
Herrmann (Citizen Kane, Psycho, Taxi Driver) Nino Rota
(La Strada, La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2, Godfather Pt II),
Max Steiner (The Informer, Gone With The Wind, The Treasure
of Sierra Madre), Franz Waxman (The Blue Angel, Sunset Boulevard,
A Place In the Sun, Rear Window), Erich Korngold (Midsummer's
Night Dream, Anthony Adverse, The Adventures of Robin Hood).
I don't think anybody working today can hold a candle to just about any of those
And the people today I really like are Elmer Bernstein (The
Ten Commandments, To Kill A Mockingbird, True Grit, Animal
House), Jerry Goldsmith (Patton, Planet of the Apes, Chinatown,
The Omen) and Ennio Morricone (Fistful of Dollars, The Good,
The Bad, and the Ugly, The Mission, Cinema Paradiso), so again
they tend to be the older guys. I still think they're the best, and of course
John Williams (Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters, Schindler's
List) - he really helped to re-open the door of orchestral composition for
The Pee-wee score has a few recognizable themes that are used
and then re-used in altered form according to thematic need. The opening cue
is chase music, which will be re-used every time Pee-wee is chased throughout
the film. It has a slight variation that plays with the breakfast machine and
works as a "Rube Goldberg" theme , which reappears when Pee-wee starts
using the amazing gadgets on his bike to elude the people chasing him on the
When he sees the two boys doing stunts on their bikes, a quick
little melody in the form of the school yard taunt "na na nana na"
sounds in the score. This is a Puccini-like device, to use leitmotifs that show
us what people are thinking. In this case, it is what Pee-wee thinks the boys
are thinking of him, which leads him to try a few stunts of his own with painful
A similar very direct cue is the series of "many descending
scales" as Pee-wee drives the convertible over a cliff and there is along
fall through the air.
Because the film spoofed TV genres in certain sections, Elfman's
music also spoofs TV music, especially in the scene where Pee-wee goes shopping
on the promenade before his bike is stolen.
Elfman has avowed repeatedly that he learned much of what he
knew by listening to the film scores of Bernard Herrmann over and over gain.
For him, Herrmann was a role model, the perfect composer. (Elfman's admiration
for Herrmann is most manifest in his score for Dolores Claiborne, which
in many ways is a tribute to Herrmann's Psycho score; he also arranged
Herrmann's music for Gus van Sant's remake of Psycho in 1998). There
are some homages to Herrmann in Pee-wee, especially the shrieking violins
when Pee-wee discovers his bike has been stolen and the dark, morose music that
plays as Pee-wee wanders around dejectedly, while other on their bikes, unicycles,
etc wheel all around him. As his dejection turns to obsession, the music sounds
more and more like Herrmann's score for Vertigo, especially the sequences
where Jimmy Stewart tails Kim Novak.
Over the length of his career Elfman has been somewhat averse
to scoring romantic films, although he eventually did The Family Man
(2000). It is interesting that the first time he wrote some romantic music was
for Pee-wee and the waitress, Simone, for the scene where the two spend
the night talking inside the dinosaur. Later when Pee-wee sees Simone about
to get on the bus to go to Europe, the music is a "twisted little waltz"
- very similar to the waltz music that Paul Reuben's liked so much in Richard
Elfman's Forbidden Zone.
Elfman and Burton have such similar tastes that it is not surprising
they decided to work together again. From his Oingo-Boingo days it was clear
that Elfman, like Burton, had a macabre interest in the more fantastical aspects
of death. He loved monster movies from childhood, including all the same ones
that Burton likes: Hammer Films, Roger Corman films, B-monster movies, with
a particular fondness for characters often portrayed by Christopher Lee and
Vincent Price (Elfman has stated repeatedly that he was very grateful for the
opportunity to meet Vincent Price on Burton's set for Edward Scissorhands).
Though Burton identified primarily with Vincent Price as a youngster, Elfman
had a more particular fondness for Peter Lorre. Furthermore, Burton fell in
love with stop motion when he watched Jason and the Argonauts and The
7th Voyage of Sinbad, the same films that, along with The Day the Earth
stood Still, encouraged Elfman to become a composer.
In Pee-wee Elfman had mixed major and minor keys, but for Beetlejuice
his commitment to working predominantly in minor keys became firmly established:
The music is in a minor key and has an angular melody played by the brass, the
sense of angularity being increased by the repeated use of an augmented fourth.
This acts as a constant 'wrong note' that upsets the expected melodic outline
and is symptomatic of Elfman's use of dissonance in most of his scores. The
dissonance in the melody is underlined by repeated augmented fourth chords from
muted trumpets, and these elements would all suggest a sinister tone to the
music. However, the rhythmic character of the piece is fast-paced, bright, and
dancelike. It has a scurrying, klezmerlike clarinet line and the trumpet motif
comes in on a jauntily syncopated offbeat. The juxtaposition of this exuberance
with the sinister character implied by the harmonic and melodic material is
one of the more characteristic features of Elfman's music. It would aptly describe
much of the music he wrote for Oingo Boingo, as well as for The Nightmare
Before Christmas, and this particular quality is something that has been
exploited by directors in a line of films that combine various genres - including
thrillers, dramas, fantasy and horror films - with blackly comic elements. The
combination of the dark and quirky can be found in Scrooged (1988),
To Die For (1995), Freeway (1996), The Frighteners (1996)
and A Simple Plan (1998) as well as almost all of Elfman's scores for
Burton, the main exception being Planet of the Apes (2001).
When songs are mixed into the films Burton usually chooses them.
It was Burton who chose the Tom Jones song "It's Not Unusual" for
Edward Scissorhands and also the "Day-O" song for Beetle
juice. In Burton's films songs, like the Prince songs in Batman,
are usually diegetic (emanating from the story world and heard by the characters),
whereas Elfman's score is non-diegetic, outside of the story world (and not
heard by the characters). Some of Elfman's music works as a score but is also
diegetic, such as the '60s style lounge music for the "waiting room in
the beyond" in Beetlejuice, with a Polynesian sound but also a sense of
menace. Elfman likes to parody other genres of music, especially television
genres, a practice that works well for pataphysical films. For example, for
Pee-wee Elfman had written music inspired by seventies TV ditties.
In pataphysical films and comic-book films the composer's contribution is close
in importance to that of the screenwriter and director. The screenplays for
these films are often thin and the characters archetypal rather than well-rounded,
so the score adds a layer of emotional development that complements the dialogue
and the actor's performances and supplements the camera's movement or its stillness.
Elfman's approach to scoring the heroic theme for his comic book hero was a
departure from the confident militaristic music with its regular beat and sense
of action and optimism that characterizes the music usually used for action
adventure heroes, especially by John Williams in films like Superman,
Star Wars, and Indiana Jones.
Elfman's opening theme for Batman is darker, more "gothic".
The Batman theme is in a minor key, then leads to a pounding march with snare
drum and brass punctuation, a martial sound that functions as a fanfare for
Elfman came up with the particular heroic theme for Batman in an effort
to impress Batman producer Jon Peters: "I just took the same basic
theme and turned it into this march, and did it a certain way - changed the
key around a little bit - and all of a sudden [Peters] leapt up out of his chair
and it was completely obvious that I had found the Batman hero theme."
The title cue for Batman is two minutes thirty seconds
long. It has an extraordinary number of key changes: it starts out in B minor,
changes to A minor, then G minor, then F# minor, then D minor, all before reaching
the one minute, nineteen second mark. At that point the sequence reaches its
"faster" section, which goes form G minor to C# minor, then E flat
minor, ending in dim 7 leading to a whole tone cluster. We will find out later
in the film that C minor is the key most associated with Batman's theme, especially
towards the end of the film when he has found his place as a man who is loved
and is part of the law enforcement in Gotham. This is in direct contrast to
the love theme associated with Vicki and Bruce Wayne, which is usually in C
Major. The tension between the major and minor key emphasize the tensions between
the two aspects of Batman's personality.
The title sequence is worth dwelling on because the title cue
of any film, but especially of fantasy films, is extremely important. It is
what enables the spectator to leave the real world behind and enter the story-world
of the film. It gives the spectator a sense of what the conventions of this
new world will be. Burton is known for his trademark title sequences, but by
the time he made Planet of the Apes he didn't seem interested in doing one.
Elfman had to beg to do it and finally Burton relented. As a result, Elfman
ended up working with Bob Dawson to make the credit sequence, with Elfman writing
some music, Dawson drawing some storyboards, Elfman writing more music in reaction
to Dawson's storyboards, until the sequence was finalized.
Although Elfman establishes the Batman theme early on, Jack (who
will become the Joker by the end of Act One) does not have his own theme; instead
he has silence and some association with the Batman theme, to emphasize how
much the two have in common and how easily Batman could have become like the
Joker. Once the Joker emerges he has his own melodies, all appropriations of
some sort, especially his variation on Stephen Foster's Beautiful Dreamer, and
waltzes of all kinds, waltzes that have been "twisted" (as Elfman
did for Forbidden Zone and very briefly for Pee-wee), mock-versions of circus-type
waltzes and Strauss-type waltzes. Elfman scores Batman's theme in various different
ways, so that it takes on very different meanings, form heroic, to loving, to
a revelation theme, to a Fate theme. The difference in music for each character
underlines the duality and opposition between them. Their relationship to power
is indicated by their musical themes. The Joker's are all from songs, which
are so well known that they are difficult to alter, and so the action has to
comply with them; but Batman's music is part of the orchestral underscore, which
is more flexible to the needs of the film. As Donnelly puts it: "One could
almost say the Joker represents the triumph of musical logic over cinematic
logic, while Batman represents the subordination of musical logic to cinematic
logic, his image consistently invoking his musical theme."
Donnelly also points out that this relationship was inverted
in Batman Returns: only one pop song was used, "Face to Face",
performed by Siouxsie and the Banshees, which was co-written by Elfman, and
attains a degree of continuity with the orchestral score through using leitmotifs,
or musical elements from the films character themes. Batman, Penguin and Catwoman
each have their own leitmotif which is heard whenever they are on screen.
Batman is 121 minutes long, ten minutes of its music are songs written
by Prince, seventy minutes non-diegetic music composed by Elfman. A high proportion
of screen time is therefore supported by music, reflecting the trend towards
increasingly use of music in contemporary films. In the 1960s and 1970s, the
standard length of a score was between forty and sixty minutes.
Batman, was, and remains, Burton and Elfman's biggest
success, a breakout film that put them both on the map forever and is still
their most successful film. Because of the success of Batman, the Elfman
"sound" has become part of the genre of comic-book films, whether
Elfman composed the score (as he did for the Darkman, Men in Black, and Spiderman
series, as well as Dick Tracy and the Hulk) or not.
There is a lesson here about what it means to be a film "auteur."
In today's film world, an auteur is not an individual artist working on his
own. Rather an auteur name like "Burton" or "The Coen Brothers"
or "Sam Raimi" represents a brand. It stands for a group of people
who work consistently together to create a consistent look. Terry Gilliam almost
always works with the same people. Burton works consistently with Elfman and
with production designer Rich Heinrichs, and he often works with the same actors
over and over again.
Elfman has described Batman as the hardest score he ever worked
on, and it was while writing it that he finally became c omitted to his new
identity as a film composer.
Although Batman veered away from Burton's usual pataphysical approach,
with Batman Returns he circled back to it, but subtly, and this shift is amply
signaled in the music, which is overblown and consciously filled with musical
clichés. Donnelly compares the film and its score to a classical Hollywood
musical such as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), "where design
and music coalesce into a world of dazzling visuals and explosive musical sound."
He relates this to the style of cartoons because, like cartoons, "Batman
Returns constructs its own world
with a preponderance of 'mickeymousing'
(where the music directly mimics the action). A key quality of this music is
that it relies on the audience's familiarity and sense of recognition for its
The Elfman Myth
Since the fall of 1989 a rumor has circulated that Elfman does not know how
to write music. Janet K. Halfyard deals extensively with this controversy in
her recent book, Danny Elfman's Batman: A Film Score Guide. Apparently
the rumor started because in an interview Elfman is clear that he writes out
twelve to sixteen staves of music and his orchestrator, Steve Bartek, places
orchestral parts in the correct keys and clefs. Ironically it was the fact that
Elfman was up front about the fact that he was self taught, and described specificially
how he worked with his orchestrator and his conductor (at the time, Shirley
Walker, who "transcribed the Mantovani-style arrangement of "Beautiful
Dreamer" that Elfman incorporated into the score, a musical idea that Elfman
freely attributes to Burton) that enabled an academic to respond to the article
castigating the author for glorifying Elfman's "musical ignorance"
which will make his students think they don't have to learn music theory or
compositional technique. Elfman responded defending his status as a self-taught
musician. Halfyard credits the fact that the Batman score was not nominated
for an Oscar to this exchange. In fact none of his scores for Burton until Big
Fish were nominated, although he did receive nominations in 1997 for
Men in Black and Good Will Hunting. Halfyard quotes Lukas Kendall's
assessment of Elfman's abilities:
The similarity of style from score to score, the fact that
he has continued to write large-scale scores without using Shirley Walker
to conduct, who people at one point assumed really wrote Batman; that
Steve Bartek has done on his own have been completely different
from Elfman's music; and the sheer illogic to the assumption that Elfman could
have hidden an army of ghost-writers somewhere without anyone naming names
or coming forward.
Bartek, in an interview with Kendall, notes that Elfman has an
"unorthodox" notation practice: "
he's not good at bass
clef, but he does everything in treble clef with an octave marking so you know
exactly where he wants it to sound
". (Halfyard confirms this from
her examination of the Batman score which is now on deposit at the University
of Texas at Austin.) Halfyard also points out that the very nature of film scoring
itself, poorly understood by people outside of the industry, also added to the
confusion. Most people assume that all composers work like concert hall composers,
who have six months to a year to complete a twenty minute symphonic composition,
whereas a film composer has two months or less to write seventy to one hundred
minutes of music. In addition to producing the score, Elfman and his team have
to produce the recording, with specific cues of music timed to specific events
in the film (called "writing to cue".) The only way to accomplish
that is to work with a team, consisting of one or more orchestrators and arrangers
and a conductor, as well as the orchestra, in much the same way that a director
relies on the skill of his or her director of photography, art production, and
editor and their crews.
Halfyard notes that Elfman's working method "echoes practices
common in the Golden age of Hollywood film, where the number of films being
made and the speed at which they were turned around in production necessitated
the existence of studio music department, staffed by both composers and teams
of orchestrators and copyists. In other words, the fact that the tight deadlines
required of film composition lead to a need for a reliable, talented staff,
and Elfman's candor about the contributions of his colleagues has led to his
credibility being put into question. However, there seems to be no evidence
to support this myth.
The Film Scoring Process
On his commentary for the Pee-wee DVD, Elfman described how he works
with Burton. As with other directors he has worked with before, he often gets
involved in Burton's productions early on, and reads the script before anything
is filmed, though for him the real work begins when he gets to visit the set
during production. This is especially important on Burton films, where the production
design is so critical to the overall tone of the piece. Elfman says he takes
a tape recorder with him on these set visits and starts "laying down tracks"
by singing ideas for different orchestral parts into the tape recorder, the
most direct way he can capture his first impressions and thoughts while on the
set or on the way home from the set. For Batman, ideas suddenly started
coming to him when he was on an airplane, so he had to keep running to the restroom
with his tape recorder to lay down tracks and indicate "this will go on
top of this". The flight attendants thought he was either ill or in dire
need of illegal substances, but Elfman knew that if he didn't get the tracks
down before he landed the muzak on the plane would act as a "mind eraser".
He came close to panicking when he got home, as the notes on his recorder weren't
very clear because of plane noise - but after listening to it repeatedly he
was able to figure it out.
Once at home he transcribes what was on the tape recorder and then starts building
little themes. He has described his process of finding themes as follows:
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 composing.
He then composes the main themes, taken from key moments throughout
the film, while watching a video with time-code (a numeric indicator that gives
the exact position of the scene within the film as a whole) burnt into the lower
frame of the image, so that he can match the timing precisely to the time-code
numbers. The first step towards composing is to "map the tempo" of
a scene by writing out a map of the beat of every cue. This can be time consuming,
but it has to be done before he can write a single note.
He will often make numerous variations of each theme, and then
when Burton comes to hear his work, he will play him a theme, if Burton doesn't
like it he will play one of the variations, until they agree on a basic set
of musical ideas, which Elfman will then expand. He begins really composing
often as early as the rough cut stage of editing (at which stage the film may
already have a "temp track", some music thrown together by another
composer or even by Elfman himself for screening purposes). His describes his
greatest challenge as "writing to cues" or "the business of finding
timings" which means, having the music build up, be expressive, or come
to a point in synchrony with a specific action on the screen - a door slams,
a character throws up their hands, etc. Comedies and action films have more
points to hit and so can be harder to write. Elfman has worked out his own system
of writing precisely to the action and makes multiple notations to make sure
that the precise bar of music will coincide with a specific action.
Elfman has often compared the process of assigning themes to
key parts of the film to a jigsaw puzzle. Each puzzle piece will be three or
four or even nine minutes of solid music, and he will write between three to
eight of them, which he uses as a resource throughout the scoring process.
He often adds the metaphor of a painter mixing his colors up
before he starts painting to the jigsaw puzzle metaphor to describe his composition
process. On the Edward Scissorhands DVD he compared composing to assembling
color-coded pieces like the pieces of a huge jigsaw puzzle. His job is to come
to an understanding of what each color group does for the movie, and then to
divide the color groups into individual shapes that make up the various cues.
These various pieces are then re-linked together like a puzzle.
When he describes how cues will bridge very different kinds of
moments, such as the moment in the third act of Edward Scissorhands when
the movie goes from storybook approach to the tide turning against Edward, he
likes to compare scoring to knitting or tapestry weaving, as the knit holds
together various sequences of the film that would otherwise feel very separate.
Because even though the music will change in tone and tempo to bridge the changes
in the scene, he will keep a melodic thread. It is this melodic thread that
knits the disparate elements of the cue together.
Although for comedies Eflman usually has very little time to
compose, for films like Batman he will have three months or even four,
as he did for Sleepy Hollow. Since he can, at most, write about two minutes
of music a day, the length of time he needs to do a score is rigidly determined;
a large part of his job is negotiating how much time he will have to do the
Regardless of how much time he has had to compose he often has
only three to six days to record. The recording sessions run in three hour segments,
with a ten minute break for each segment. During recording, a fast-paced, high-pressure
process, he will listen to the performance with Burton in the sound booth and
re-direct his composer and musicians from there after getting notes from Burton
or simply a sense of Burton's reactions. The two of them have now worked on
so many films and television episodes together that this process is so intuitive
that Elfman repeatedly describes their communication as "almost telepathic".
BL: What are you actually doing during a scoring session? You
hire a conductor to conduct the score, and... ?
DE: Conducting for film scoring is actually a very technical job. People really
get confused about that because in a Symphony orchestra the conductor is interpreting
the piece. The conductor really is the director. But in a film score the conductor
is really just moving things along very efficiently.
BL: Do you ever conduct?
DE: No, I never conduct
I'm listening in the booth, which is where I
prefer to listen anyway because I am hearing closer to the way it's going
to sound. In the room it is a wonderful sound, but you really aren't hearing
the balance in a real sense.
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Although Batman started a trend towards denser soundscapes, when scoring Edward
Scissorhands Elfman found that allowing some scenes to play in silence,
especially when the scene was well performed, would then highlight the music
in the scenes that did have them. According to Elfman , Edward Scissorhands
was the first film where he went into it thinking of himself as a film composer.
Up until that point it was only something he had dabbled in (even though he
had scored fifteen films by then). It was the only film he was sorry to be finished
with once it was recorded, and as late as 1999 he was considering scoring a
ballet based on Edward Scissorhands.
The opening credit cue contains both of the key themes of the film: the storybook
theme carried primarily by a boy's choir with a lullaby feel to it, and Edward's
theme, which has two aspects, a light evanescent theme with voices, strings,
and a bell-like xylophone, and the theme that represents Edward's emotional
heart. Kim, Edward's love interest, does not get her own theme, but rather a
variation of his plays over her. In other words we only see her through his
eyes, a rather unusual choice - not in keeping with classical Hollywood practice.
The extensive use of voices, a practice Elfman would continue
with Sleepy Hollow, ties Scissorhands to Disney films such as Pinocchio
(1940) and Sleeping Beauty (1959), though the Disney scores favored major
The opening theme is replayed, but more darkly, when Dianne Weist's character
goes into Edward's mansion for the first time. This is a packed cue with a lot
of emotional variation.
There is another variation of Edward's theme in the scene where
Vincent Price is teaching him about manners. Here his theme has been slowed
down. Unlike in comedy, where, as noted above, the music has to match the action
closely in both tone and tempo, in fairy tales or more dramatic material the
music can diverge more from the action. Another difference between comedy and
more dramatic scores for Elfman is that comedy scores have very short cues and
the theme is often interrupted before it is played to completion. However on
films like Scissorhands he can almost always play the theme all the way through,
and can choose to interrupt it for effect.
The "suburbia theme" has a little bit of a muzak feel too it, too
include Edward's sense of wonderment, combining Edward's sense of it all being
marvelous, and the way it appears to us. The suburbia theme returns when we
see the housewives approaching Peg's house, and a variation of it appears when
we see the husband's driving home from work or leaving for work in the morning.
Elfman had written some 60s-inspired lounge music for Beetlejuice
and he used this idea again, for some of the suburban scenes, what he called
"the ballet de suburbia", which had an inserted Polynesian beat but
also some sense of menace in the middle.
He used a fast paced gypsy music for scenes where Scissorhands
showed his mastery with the scissors, whether it was for dog grooming or haircutting.
The housewives find his mastery erotically stimulating, especially when he is
working his magic on them.
Eflman's music for Edward Scissorhands has been imitated
more often than everything else he has done put together, in movies and especially
television commercials. His scores for Pee-wee and Beetlejuice
were also imitated, but not as often as Edward Scissorhands.
The "ice dancing" scene was a major focus of the score
early on. He knew it would define how he would start the movie and how he would
define the entire score. This is another trademark of how he works: he identifies
three key emotional moments of the film, with one especially at the center,
and builds the score around the themes he writes for these moments.
Edward's musical theme is always live, it is the unifying melodic
thread. Even in the theft and rampage scenes, his theme is distorted and twisted,
but is still there.
An example of the music "playing away" from the action
occurs in the overlap scene where Edward cuts Vincent Price's face accidentally
when he is trying to be tender, and when he cuts Kim's little brother's face
accidentally when saving him from the oncoming van. The music lets us know that
his intent is not to hurt, he is just trying to help.
There are two moments of Puccini-like leitmotifs that convey
revelation or at least, characterize a character. There is a kind of church
organ refrain that appears with the pious housewife, and a variation of Edward's
theme that plays briefly while Kim is watching him on the television talk show
indicates that Kim is warming up to him.
Nightmare Before Christmas
Elfman's process for scoring Nightmare was quite different from standard animation
practice. Burton described the film to Elfman while they were working on Scissorhands.
To begin with, all that Burton had when the film went into production was a
Seussian-like poem and numerous drawings. This led to the two of them working
on the songs before there was a script. Burton would describe each part of the
story, and Eflman would write a song. He recorded them in his home studio, singing
all the voices but Sally's on the demos. Elfman would later supply the singing
voice of Jack in the finished film. The animators began to work animating the
songs before there was a script; screenwriter (and associate producer) Caroline
Thompson actually had to write the script around the songs and flesh out characters
who weren't fully formed. She likened it to designing a house after everyone
was living in it.
Usually the composer receives a black-and-white pencil version
of an animated film, so the score can be composed while the animation is in
the works, But in stop-motion "there's either footage or there's no footage".
He couldn't start scoring until film was done, though music editor Bob Badami
created a tem track for screening purposes.
Because Elfman had already composed 30 minutes of songs for the
70 minute movie, half of his job was already done, and he had three years to
work on it, as compared to the usual six to eight weeks. Moreover the main music
themes already existed in song form, so he could adapt those themes to the dramatic
needs of the underscore. The orchestra was midsized, of about 50 to 60 pieces.
"I wanted a very punchy, old-fashioned sound on this" Elfman says.
"I wanted it to sound as if it were recorded in 1951, even though it was
While working with the orchestra, it was important to keep the
music in close sync with the picture, so a computer was used to develop a sophisticated
metronome the musicians could follow, creating the illusion that the sound and
images were made together.
Elfman often describes the score's function in "narrative storytelling".
This is clearly the primary function of his score for Sleepy Hollow.
There is one main theme for the horseman, but Ichabod's memories of his mother
and his reliving of her death generates a second theme which is used as contrast.
As in Batman, the two themes are sometimes used interchangeably, underlining
the connections between the two sets of events.
As Halfyard notes:
It is quite possible to read this use of the 'wrong' theme in a logical and
meaningful manner. Both the main plot and the subplot are bound up with dark
forces, witchcraft, and death. The Horseman theme is used for the Horseman,
the supernatural threat he poses, and the fear he inspires. The second theme
is associated specifically with Ichabod's memory of his mother's death but more
generally with memory and mystery: things unknown and needing explanation, things
that are not understood by those who see them, and things that are remembered
and recalled, especially when those memories are not entirely revealing. As
a result, it tends to be found in flashback sequences, but it also occurs in
relation to the Horseman because the reason for the murders he is committing
are mysterious, while the truth of his death is concealed, just as the circumstances
surrounding how and why Ichabod's mother died are a mystery. The music is working
to link narrative ideas at a level rather more sophisticated than simply having
a theme to represent the Horseman and one to represent Ichabod, although they
do work as character themes in relation to their orchestration. The Horseman's
music, regardless of which theme is being used, is characterized by male-voice
choir, brass, pipe organ, and low strings. When the memory theme is used for
him personally, it tends to be delivered with a brass fortissimo, compared to
the delicate, ethereal orchestration and children's voices used for Ichabod's
memories of his mother. There are some strong narrative ideas underlying why
it makes musical sense to use the second theme for the Horseman's character.
Elfman used the same kind of connection to narrative in Men
in Black (1997) which was nominated for an Oscar.
Sleepy Hollow is also typical of Elfman's work from this
period in that he had a typical orchestra, but giving particular weight to a
certain instrument, in this case children's voices.
Planet of the Apes (2001)
The orchestra for Planet of the Apes, on the other hand, is highly unusual,
consisting of a large brass section, no woodwind, no violins, six violas, four
double basses, and twelve cellos. This ensemble is then augmented with an enormous
amount of percussion, similar to Jerry Goldsmith's percussion-based textures
in the original film of 1968.
Elfman usually lays down about 20% of his scores in the form
of percussion himself. The instruments include drums, hollow bamboos, pbc tubes,
bass drums and timpani (which he played with his fingers to the point where
the timpani breaks, one reason why he did it himself). His first two weeks of
work on the project consisted of laying out a palette of percussion for the
ape marches, which he then recorded on analog synthesizers. He has "rooms
and rooms" full of percussion instruments, originally inspired by percussionist
Harry Partch, who also built all of his own instruments.
For Apes he laid down much more than usual, seventy-two tracks
or 50% of the score, leaving the percussionists (who included Emil Richards,
who had done percussion on the original), very little to do. The orchestra could
not hear his tracks, as Elfman does not let them hear everything, and were forced
to play his tracks rhythmically, as they had to hit the beat very precisely
in order for their tracks to work with the percussion tracks.
For Apes Elfman returned to the connection between action and marches.
His first visual inspiration for the film was seeing apes in
battle gear on set. Elfman used to record his tracks onto tape, but now he records
them digitally so that he can make changes either at the studio or at home (he
has duplicated his home studio at the recording studio).
In spite of the change in instrumentation, the film is still
scored narratively: "if you just watch the picture and hear the music,
or close your eyes and listen to the music you know what it going on - the classical
Hollywood approach. The music was expected to carry everything and tell everything."
Elfman also discusses "exposed scenes", by which he means scenes where
the music is foregrounded, such as in action scenes like the charge of the apes,
where he switched tempos and went to percussion, and the camp raid.
Another favorite cue was Leo and the other prisoner's first arrival
into Ape City. There were various different layers of diegetic music all going
on at the same time, great fun to write, as was the boombox music of the ape
teenagers in the scene where Leo and his friends escape, which gave Elfman the
opportunity to write "a corny hip teenage bad ape music." The scene
where Ari tries to exchanger her favors for Thade's mercy for her human friends
is a "sick, twisted version of the romantic music for the romantic scene,"
an inversion that Elfman loves.
Stretching the boundaries of the frequency range
In addition to considering the various aspects of the music itself, Elfman must
also be conscious of the fact that his music shares a frequency range with human
voices and the sound effects.
This is a technical aspect of Elfman's writing that breaks with some long-standing
traditions relating to instrumental pitches and the voices of the actors. One
of the reasons that it is more usual to find melodies in the higher ranges in
classical Hollywood scores is the fact that they are further removed from the
pitch of the actor's and actresses' speaking voices, so avoiding the possibility
that the music might either obscure the dialogue or be obscured by it. Concentrating
on lower-pitched melodic lines effectively gives an alternative solution to
the same problem, in that the melodic line is usually removed from the pitch
area occupied by the voices but in the opposite direction to that dictated by
convention. However, this is not always the case: in Batman's "Descent
into Mystery", the musical material, in particular the choir, is pitched
at exactly the same level as Kim Basinger's voice, and Elfman thins the texture
considerably when she speaks to prevent one interfering with the other.
As the trend towards denser soundtracks, begun with Batman,
continues, sound effects play a larger and larger role in the soundscape, to
the point where the sound designers have to consciously work for moments of
quiet, especially in comic films which have a lot of "wham-bam-pow"
sounds. In addition, these films tend to be so noisy that not all the sounds
can be foleyed (recreated in the studio for the soundtrack), as there would
be too many; the sound effect designers focus only on the sounds that we need
to hear for greatest emotional impact.
For Spiderman 2 Elfman created a "template"
of sounds before he started really composing. He names these sounds, sometimes
with texture names such as "metal." As Kevin O'Connell, the sound
re-recording mixer on the film, pointed out, in a comic book film there are
no rules as to what things should actually sound like. For this particular film
sound effects carry about fifty percent of the emotional drive, with the rest
carried by the music; a stark contrast to the practice of even the recent past
where most of the emotional impact was carried by the music. We must wait and
see before we can know if this is a development unique to comic book films or
if it is an industry trend.