Scoring Session With Composer Bear McCreary

By • March 14, 2011

This week’s Scoring Session was written by David Raiklen. David began studying keyboard and composing at age 5. He wrote, directed and scored his first film at age 9. He attended, then taught at UCLA, USC and CalArts. He has worked for Fox, Sony, Disney, PBS and Sprint.

The Cape
Bear McCreary
February 10, 2011 – Newman Scoring Stage

Bear McCreary is changing the way television is made.

We’re standing in the hallway adjacent to the sound stage computer room, talking about the upcoming session.

Bear is also in four other locations via his team members. Simultaneously recording percussion, soloists, rock band, and electronics for the same episode. McCreary is conducting a 90 piece orchestra comprised of LA’s top performers. It’s a Thursday, it will all be mixed Friday by Steve Kaplan, who’s also recording the orchestra session.

David Raiklen: I love your video blogs, but now it’s a reality.

Bear McCreary: Exactly.

You’re making a movie score on TV, that’s been a dream for a while.

I think this is coming back, live scoring for television. Anything I can do to get the word out about this. It’s something producers are more aware of, and it’s possible. They value that.

How did you find this show?

The producers found me, because I did shows likes Battlestar Gallactica and Caprica, where the music got to say a lot. It makes me attractive to people who are doing shows that want something similar.

When they called me for The Cape, initially the producers didn’t think it would be with live orchestra. But at the first meeting, I suggested what we ought to do for a superhero show, and they said “Yeah, that’s a good idea, let’s do it”. We figured out the budget and how to show the studio a way to make it financially possible. Creatively, the producers knew it was worth doing and got involved in the process from the very beginning.

The music seems to elevate the show.

That’s what I keep telling all the TV producers I work with: You can subconsciously raise the production value of your entire show with music. If you spend your money on a needle drop? It may make a montage cool, but ultimately, people know what typical TV sounds like and they know what a feature film sounds like. There’s no faster way to lower your production value than with low quality music.

You can look away, but you can’t listen away.

Exactly. If it looks big and sounds small, people automatically put it in the category of small.

Your using a lot of low register instruments, like contrabass clarinet, that I can clearly hear, even on my laptop speakers.

The producers chose to mix the music of The Cape loud, to showcase it as a character on the show. I’ve never been happier with the final mix of a series I’ve scored. For example, there was an explosion in the beginning of the pilot, that really shook the whole dub stage. Compared to it, the opening orchestral hit of the Main Title felt a little small. I suggested raising the level of the orchestra so that it was as massive as the explosion, and the producers agreed with me!

The Cape is human, but he does a lot of superhuman things.

The score elevates the character.

Now Bear is off to prepare to conduct, and I go to the large, wood paneled scoring stage. This is the room where Alfred Newman set the standard of excellence during the golden age of movies. The engineers and stage manager are fine tuning 60 microphones, mostly Neumanns. The orchestra is filling the stage, the video screens are tested.

The control room is humming with activity: orchestrators, engineers, copyists, assistants, photo and videographer, guests. Bear visits and has a kind word for all.

Then he goes to the stage and gives the downbeat, right on schedule. It sounds overwhelming. They’re running down a 4 minute action cue, with many changes in texture and orchestration. McCreary is detailed in his instructions, going through cues several times in sections, to get the performance he wants.

In the booth, the visiting cast, crew and family are mightily impressed by the orchestra, and by Bear. They care about music.

The cues range from a dreamy wedding to action-horror, a string quartet to huge clusters. The sound is big, intricate and wonderful. Feels like a feature film.

At the first break, there’s a bit of a surprise: RMA board member Alex Iles presents Bear McCreary with a trophy: For His Outstanding Contribution to Film Scoring. A touching moment that Bear shares with his scoring team. Then back to work.

We spoke again after the session.

I was struck by the amazing variety of music.

I like to use every project I work on as a chance to be a better writer. I’m fortunate also in that the show justifies this. Most TV is about establishing a tone and not deviating from it. And there is a tone on all my series. There’s also a sense of exploration that I really enjoy. I try to work with orchestral sounds and solos that I haven’t worked with before, to expand my toolkit.

I think if you go back to Battlestar Gallactica, which was my first professional gig, the use of orchestra was very minimal, very restrained and then when I got into Caprica and especially Human Target I was able to explore more. That has continued through the Cape- every week I’m trying to find new sounds.

I take a moment to pull aside a player and say “show me your instrument, show me how it works.” Then I get to go home and write a new episode and hear them play again in a week. There’s no experience in an academic environment that’s like that, so it’s a unique opportunity to get better at composing.

It’s unique to television actually.

It is and that experience transcends just working with musicians, it’s working with the writers, actors, producers. You build relationships with them and they trust you more. In all of my experiences in television, you can look at my soundtrack albums and look at the earliest cues and then look at the end. There’s always an evolution that happens because producers trust you a little more, they respond to what you do, then you get to go back and repeat that process. I feel that it’s different from video games and movies where you can work with the same people again, maybe once in a year, but working with them once a week, going through this process accelerates that learning curve.

I also notice that you’re taking time to perfect each cue.

Well I am a perfectionist and so is everyone else on my team. We’re recording for the album too. I want every one of these cues to stand up when you put on a great pair of earphones or speakers, sit back and listen. We might be able to get another cue or two done if I didn’t do that, but that’s just not what I find creatively satisfying.

I know that you’re also into electronics for their own beauty, their own value. I’m wondering how that works in this concept. Have you already recorded electronic tracks?

There are electronic layers, there are symphonic layers and there are soloists. So we’re recording live percussion at another studio as we speak. My other guys are over there producing. Sometimes we’ll be recording up to 4 or 5 studios at a time, when you look at the number of sessions that need to happen. I’m conducting the orchestra, we’ve got percussion sessions, electric guitar sessions, Mike Valerio electric bass. We do additional solos, ethnic woodwinds, get a trio together, get a little brass quartet to fill out some of the sessions.

We have to record it all on one day. I’m done writing Wednesday, we have to record it on Thursday, on Friday Steve starts mixing, to meet our deadline. So my team is kind of split up, everyone’s not even here, and that’s because everything you’re hearing in my music that’s meant to be live a live instrument is a live instrument. If you hear snare drums, then percussionist MB Gordy is playing snare drums. A clarinet solo, someone comes into the studio and plays a clarinet solo, so everything is always acoustic and always live.

The electronics are an interesting layer in and of it itself, I would say that all the electronic sounds I make are 95% custom made. I have a guy on my team, I will describe a sound I want, he will design a sound and put in the parameters that I need. Often I’ll record stuff on my own, create my sound on my own. I’ve always been a purist about never having sample library sounds in my music. I never use sounds from sample libraries in my music. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with samples, they’re useful and there’s a place for them especially in the television world, but for me personally it’s not interesting.

What’s fun for me is to use the technology to create a sound that a live instrument cannot create. On this show there was some of that. On The Walking Dead I used a lot more electronic textures, to blend in with the smaller string orchestra we recorded each week.

Do you have any advice on how to start approaching producers, let’s say I want to sell my producer on doing things live and I understand that they may not have much budget.

I can only say what’s worked for me: Once you’ve got the job and a relationship with the producer or director, I think it’s important for composers to not be afraid to bring up live musicians and really take a stand and really make a case that a mock up or emulated live orchestral score that’s done with samples is not going to be what they want it to be. When working with student filmmakers who temped their film with Raiders of the Lost Ark, I would say to them “I’d rather score this movie with spoons, violin and a cello. let’s do a little trio. It’ll be better than trying to emulate something you’re never going to afford because you’re working with actual musicians who are bringing their energy and talent to your film.

And I found that I started winning those battles. I found that you can really make the case. Battlestar Galactica started off with maybe three or four live musicians for the first episode. By the end of the season, we had a little orchestra. And by the end of the show we had a 70 piece orchestra and ethnic ensemble every week. The producers didn’t want to hear sample horns and sample strings.

I hear people say this to me a lot “What do you say when someone wants a sample orchestra, they don’t want to spend the money.” and at the end of the day, you might have to just say no. If you’re not going to be able to do something that’s going to be creatively satisfying to you, you’re not going to be able to satisfy your client, they’re wanting to hear John Williams and you’ve got samples to work with. Most of the time, 95% of the time, you can get a filmmaker excited about live, give them options say “what if I bring in this little string trio, I know this guy who plays this incredible instrument, I’ve never heard anything like it, come check it out!”

What about small budgets, If you only have a few players, do the union rules work.

Yes. I think it’s important to fight for that, just because you have access to the best musicians in the world. They want to work on interesting musical projects.

Yes, that’s why we got into this, we love music, we love films. One more question: I’ve noticed there’s a great team and it’s not a team of three people, it’s a big team.

Only half the team, the other half are recording other things elsewhere.

Maybe people feel a bit overwhelmed. I don’t know if that’s the right word, but I think people who are used to working with their Mac at home with samples don’t feel comfortable doing this on their own. How do you start?

Here’s the thing. I never did it on my own. I worked with Steve Kaplan on my first student film. And for years, even on Battlestar Season 3, I’m not kidding, when we did orchestral sessions I did all my own orchestrating, I taped the parts, I walked them out here and put them on stands myself, it’s because that’s the way I always did it in college. When things started getting really busy, a team is something you know when you need it. And I knew people I could call.

The guys who are orchestrating and copying for me are great composers too and one of my co-producers, it looks like he’s about to get his first credit on a feature film, because it came through me and I didn’t have time to do it and I said, let this guy do it cause there are composers on my team. Composers, as counterintuitive as it may be sometimes, can help each other out.

It’s important to find other people your age that are hungry, and if you’re a composer that plays an instrument, find another composer and say, if you orchestrate for me on this one, I’ll play cello on your score. I think that’s essential.

Get your team together now, when the phone rings you know whom you’re going to call, you don’t have to worry about it.

That’s great advice. Thank you for taking the time to talk, and inviting me to this extraordinary event.

Thank you for being here.

 

See Bear McCreary’s fun, lavishly illustrated blog at www.bearmccreary.com

Contact David at www.davidraiklen.com

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