Seated behind a digital mixer, production director Brian King walks students through an audio editing assignment that involves remixing a cue.

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Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television program

HOW ROMANTIC WOULD A CELLULOID HEROINE BE without a lush theme to sweep her through the final credits? Just how thrilling would an uncadenced car chase feel? Without squeaks and theremin shrieks, how horrific would a horror movie be? How funny the pratfalls of a tuneless ’toon? ¶ Not very. “Music can say things on a subliminal level. Music can focus, point up,” claims film composer David Raksin, who has taught at the USC Thornton School of Music since 1956 and has scored more than 450 films and TV shows in his time. “What you can’t do with a camera or dialogue, music has a way of taking care of. It gets at the deeper emotions that aren’t always expressible on film. ¶ “People who are skeptical about [the value of] film music,” he says, “should be condemned to watch films without it.”
f that doesn’t make the point, a visit to Music Building 207 should do the trick. This is the headquarters of the Thornton School’s Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television Program, where the art of making aural movie-magic is imparted by the industry’s masters to their apprentices.
Started in 1984 by composer-director David Wheatley, MM ’77, MM ’79, and Thornton School theory and composition chair Morten Lauridsen, this advanced studies certificate program is an intensive, intimate, year-long immersion into scoring for 15 to 20 students.

David Raksin

Among them are a few under-graduates looking to specialize early and a few doctoral composition students pursuing a minor. But the bulk of scoring students are post-baccalaureate professionals who, besides having a passion for the film medium, have also come – in the words of 1990 alumnus and faculty member Ed Kalnins, who left a “glorious Broad-way career” to enroll in the program – to the pragmatic realization that they “don’t want to be making 20 grand a year playing bar mitzvahs.”
Though practical techniques are taught – how, for instance, to “spot” a film and decide which scenes need “cues,” how to write in-sync music without making it metronomic, or how to make a 30-piece orchestra sound like 90 pieces – the program is not a trade school. Nor is it an academic program, despite courses in film music history and criticism. Rather, says 1996 graduate Lee Sanders, “it’s a very accurate simulation of the real world as an active film composer.”
Since 1988, the program has been directed by ASCAP Lifetime Achieve-ment Award-winner and designated “Disney Legend” Buddy Baker who, besides scoring more than 200 Disney features and TV shows, composed nearly all the music heard in Disney theme parks.
Classes are held five days a week, with students doing what any professional might: analyzing “locked work prints” (edited versions of a film only missing the music and sound effects/ foley); recording with professional orchestras as well as with the USC Thornton Symphony and Thornton Wind Symphony; and conducting their own cues in scoring sessions at Paramount Studios.
The rest of their time is spent in lectures and conversations with working composers, often in the composers’ own music studios. Instructors range from such legendary USC faculty composers as Elmer Bernstein (The Magnificent Seven, 1960; To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962; The Age of Innocence, 1993), Raksin (Laura, 1944; Forever Amber, 1947; The Bad and the Beautiful, 1952), David Spear (Rainbow War, 1985) and Christopher Young (Sliver, 1993; Virtuosity, 1995; The Hurricane, 1999) to such guest composers as Leonard Rosenman (East of Eden, 1955; Rebel Without a Cause, 1955; Barry Lyndon, 1975) as well as Thornton School-educated film scoring titans Jerry Goldsmith (Chinatown, 1974; L.A. Confidential, 1997; Mulan, 1998), James Horner (The Name of the Rose, 1986; Titanic, 1997; The Perfect Storm, 2000) and Tom Newman (Fried Green Tomatoes, 1991; The Player, 1992; American Beauty, 1999).

Alum Tom Newman's score for 1999's American Beauty earned him his fourth Oscar nomination.

“From a learning perspective,” says Kalnins, “it’s the only program of its kind. You get to witness how several very active professionals do it. The program is a living, breathing thing that changes with the people teaching every year.”
Recently, it’s been changing in a tactile way, too, with the hiring of 1998 alumnus Brian King, a recording industry professional from Atlanta. As the program’s director of production, King hasn’t just set up a high-tech production lab at USC. He’s also established a connection with Skywalker Ranch, considered by many in the industry to be the finest scoring stage in the world. Last year, King took the students for a working weekend to the Marin County facility, owned by Star Wars director George Lucas ’66.
But like the truism about real estate, the strengths of the USC program all come back to location, location, location. Being situated in the world’s entertainment capital means having access to some of the world’s best musicians and scoring facilities. Location also fosters the relationships critical to success, whether with USC School of Cinema-Tele-vision students at the start of their careers, or with
faculty members who, if they don’t hire you themselves, can (and often do) refer you to their colleagues.
“No doubt we’re the No. 1 film music program anywhere,” Baker sums up. “We’re in the greatest spot for students to network with the people who work [in the industry]. It takes five, six, seven years off what it would take to get into the business cold.”
Bernstein and Young have both used students on projects. Sanders (Show and Prove, 1997), who got his first professional gig before graduating, is now working as a synthesizer programmer/producer for composer and Thorn-ton School instructor Ron Jones (Real Bullets, 1990) on the Fox TV series, “Family Guy.” Kalnins, a composer and “synthestrator,” has worked with instructor Bruce Broughton ’67 (Silverado, 1985; Lost in Space, 1998) and, by his own account, has in recent years “been joined at the hip” with Richard Bellis, another faculty member and popular composer for television.
“All my jobs since graduation have in one way or another been connected to USC. It opens a lot of doors,” says Kalnins.
In his first year out, Kalnins began working on the television series “Tarzan,” ghostwriting along with fellow grads Jennifer Wilson and Christophe Beck (“Angel,” 1999; “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” 1997). This fall, Kalnins returns to the WB TV series “Dawson’s Creek” after a two-season hiatus, to compose with another fellow grad: Adam Fields (The Sky Is Falling, 2000; Meeting Daddy, 2000).

ilm composers are birds of a feather, and their flocking to-gether is hardly a surprise. Composers and directors, however, are two different animals who speak very different languages. Their interactions can be difficult and tense.
Not that music- and picture-makers are implacable foes. Some directors are noted for their musical sensibilities and good working relations with composers. Alfred Hitchcock placed great trust in composer Bernard Herrmann.

Scoring program grad Christophe Beck won an "outstanding score" Emmy for his work on the stylish TV series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

The famous shower scene in Psycho, set to the sound of slicing violins, was originally envisioned by Hitch without music – until advised otherwise by Herrmann. The opposite is true of the crop duster scene in North by Northwest, which is made haunting by its silence; it was slated to have a musical cue but Herrmann advocated using none.
Raksin, who came to Hollywood in 1935 to work on the score for Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, describes Chaplin, too, as having very solid musical ideas. And Buddy Baker, who arrived at Disney studios in 1954 and stayed for 28 years, says Walt Disney had impeccable taste. “ ‘Don’t you think a big symphonic sound would go here?’ he’d ask. Disney would never tell you what to do,” Baker says, “but I can’t think of a time he was wrong.”
Contemporary directors Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola are among those known to appreciate film composers. Spielberg, for example, gives John Williams 50 percent of the credit for the success of Jaws.
“The best directors,” Raksin says, echoing most of his colleagues and students, “work with you to figure out what will work and then let you alone.”
Unfortunately, that’s not the norm. In composing circles, most directors are notorious for intrusiveness and a tin ear. Addressing that problem is David Bondelevitch, MFA ’89 – an Emmy-nominated music editor and USC cinema-TV faculty member who has formal training in both film and music. In his capacity as music editor (Passion of the Mind, 2000), Bondelevitch often serves as a translator and mediator between composers and directors. At USC, he created a course for filmmakers called “Directing the Composer.”
“I take people who know nothing about music and teach them enough to communicate with composers,” he says. “I teach the types of things you should and shouldn’t say to a composer. Don’t, for instance, say ‘copy this.’ Explain what it is you like [about that piece].”
On the other hand, though music is important to movies, composers tend to overemphasize its power, he says. Curiously, directors sometimes share this delusion. All too often a director will turn to the composer and say: “save this scene.” Bondelevitch warns his students that music can’t be a film’s
salvation. If a scene stinks, it stinks, and no amount of sound and fury will cover the stench.
George Burt (Secret Honor, 1984; Fool for Love, 1985) knows this from personal experience. The Thornton School faculty member and author of the highly regarded The Art of Film Music thoroughly enjoyed working with director Robert Altman, but he still shudders when recalling another project for a less gifted director.

Thornton School alum James Horner scored a collossal hit with his music for the 1997 blockbuster Titanic.

“The acting was terrible,” he says, “and I didn’t know what to do. If a film is wooden or off-the-point or silly, then it’s terrible [composing]. Your music will be the same way. You can’t save it.”
The “save” request is most often made when directors feel unsure of a scene’s efficacy or power. Perhaps, say composers, it’s an indication of the quality of contemporary movies that they’re often cluttered with wall-to-wall music. Consider this: North by Northwest contains approximately 40 to 45 minutes of music. A blockbuster thriller today may be bursting with 60, 70 if not 90 minutes of loud and louder sound. It defies logic, but some films have more minutes of music than their total running time, says Kalnins. How is this possible? Cues packed on top of cues, an underscore over source music, and so on.
Knowing where to pause, hold back and economize is just as important. Burt points to Milos Forman’s 1975 classic, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In the scene where McMurphy tries, unsuccessfully, to organize a vote in favor of watching the World Series, there is no music – until a gloating Nurse Ratched turns on Mantovani’s music for 100 strings. The scene turns one’s stomach, Burt says, because of the contrast.
Bondelevitch points to the extreme Blair Witch Project, which has no music at all. “If they’d scored that like a [low-budget] horror film,” Bondelevitch says, “then it would not have been horrific. It would have been just horrible.”

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"People who are skeptical about the value of FILM MUSIC should be condemned to watch films without it."
An oboe (“sad horn”) solo doesn’t work under dialogue, according to USC film composer Buddy Baker. Nor does any other double reed. The audience will listen to the music instead of the actors. Yet, strangely, a choir of double reeds – two oboes, an English horn and bassoons, for example – blends just fine with words.
Trailer music is often written by someone other than the film’s composer and may bear little or no resemblance to the actual film score.
Los Angeles film musicians are among the best sight-readers in the world. These versatile players get zero practice time on cues they’ve never seen before the scoring session.
Digital mixer photographs by Steven A. Heller / David Raksin photo courtesy of USC Thornton School of music

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