Today, film audiences will be treated to the latest blockbuster Tom Cruise film. Oblivion, released by Universal Pictures and written, produced and directed by Joseph Kosinski, is a post-apocalyptic story in which Cruise battles to save a ravaged planet Earth and all of mankind.
Hardly small stuff—an epic tale requiring an epic score. The powerful music heard in the film is a collaboration between American composer Joseph Trapanese and French musician Anthony Gonzalez, along with Gonzalez’s band M83. The result is a fusion of electronic sounds and full orchestra. I recently caught up with Joe and veteran music preparer Booker White to learn more about what went into making the score.
Joe had previously worked with Kosinski as the music arranger and orchestrator on Tron: Legacy, and I asked him how that experience informed his work on Oblivion. Joe said, “Ultimately as a film composer I am here to tell the director’s story, and anything that can help me understand that better will make the whole process easier. I try to get in sync with Joe [Kosinski]’s concepts as soon as possible, as he is such a visionary director. I spent several days at the pre-production offices reading scripts, as well as looking at concept artwork and storyboards. Universal was very helpful and in fact flew Anthony and me to the set in Baton Rouge. The scene we watched being shot was one of my favorite to score.”
In addition to traveling to the Oblivion set and reviewing storyboards, Joe found inspiration in other film music. “To me,” Joe said, “Oblivion is almost a modern sci-fi take on Vertigo with hints of Blade Runner, or Total Recall—some of my favorite movies. I listened to these scores for inspiration, and I would be remiss not to thank the staff of JoAnn Kane Music Service for being generous with their time and archives so I could look at some of these original paper scores.”
The biggest difference between Tron and Oblivion was the amount of live music to be recorded. “We also had complicated overdub plans and additional sessions with live rhythm section,” Joe said. Booker had worked previously with Joe on Tron: Legacy, and Joe said that “Booker and his team prepared MIDI cleanups as well as accurate aural takedowns and transcriptions for cues that were made primarily of audio.”
The process of bringing a modern score to life is complicated, and the unique collaboration between Joe and Anthony was a logistical challenge. Joe said, “Anthony began writing demos from his tour bus and would send them to me as Ableton Live sessions. From there it would live in my Logic template created specifically for the film based on early talks between me, Joe Kosinski, and Anthony. The entire first month of writing was spent just wrapping our heads around Joe’s notes and inspirations—figuring out the exact combination of electronics and orchestra as well as what kind of pacing and what kind of colors would properly tell Joe’s story.”
Every composer has their distinct compositional process. Joe initially focuses on sketching a whole cue front to end, using only a simple piano patch in Logic. “This allows me to hone in on the notes rather than getting lost in tweaking sounds and arranging,” Joe said. After that, he takes the cue and arranges and mocks it up to present to the director, which is often only a starting point. “Sometimes it takes just a few round of revisions; other times we don’t nail it until version 18! When working on a big film like Oblivion there are a lot of details and notes to address, not only from the director, but from the producers, studio, and sometimes Tom Cruise himself.”
After the cue is approved, it’s orchestrated (Joe orchestrated the entire score to Oblivion himself), and then it’s time to record. “I make sure to be present at all times,” Joe said, “and I relied on Booker’s presence in the booth to alert me for anything I may have missed while conducting. His presence as well as having his staff on hand for any last second part changes was invaluable. I’m also present throughout the music mix.”
Booker offered some his favorite Sibelius techniques he uses in the orchestrating and music preparation process. “I use the Explode Music plug-in a lot [Sibelius 7: Note Input > Explode; Sibelius 6: Plug-ins > Composing Tools > Explode] when I’m composing and arranging, as I can voice out a soli section and then have it explode to four staves. I’d love it if it would explode to more than four voices; 7-8 voices would be fantastic. Also, my favorite program feature is still the option (alt) key as it clones whatever is selected. This is a fantastic feature.”
Technically speaking, Joe’s advice is to not rush the MIDI cleanup step of the process. “It will save you plenty of time and frustration later on.” He prefers to do MIDI cleanup directly in the sequencer rather than in Sibelius: “Do a ‘Save As’ and create a file specifically for this. Quantize, Force Legato, and Normalize Parameters are your friends!” Once you export the MIDI file, Booker added, “Sibelius’s MIDI file interpretation is pretty good, and I think much better than Finale’s, but it still needs help with tuplets.”
Once he gets to working in Sibelius, Joe is a purist. “I don’t need Sibelius to be anything more than an engraving program. I hope programmers realize that most of us use sequencers for plug-in hosting and mockups; it seems that all the focus [in notation software development] is on bells and whistles while the engraving capabilities are either staying the same or in some cases getting worse. I want the engraving capabilities to continuously get better all the time, but sometimes the bells and whistles get in the way of making a great engraved score.”
To that end, Booker had some suggestions for future versions of Sibelius. “Some articulations need to be a bit fatter, or at least have more options for articulations without having to go through [the current process], which is a bit clunky.” (More detail here.) Also, Booker explained, he’d like to see “more editing ability with changing an instrument within a part (or instrument). When using key signatures and switching a part from say, alto flute to clarinet and then tenor sax, the way key signatures work can be clunky as far as spacing and setting them up with rest bars. A more elegant way of doing this would be great.” Finally, Booker said, he would love to have the ability to have “bar lines at the end of grouped systems but not through the bars in the middle of said system (e.g., for choir parts with lyrics).”
One user tip Booker shared is common among new and not-so-new Sibelius users. “Composers and orchestrators should learn that in creating expressions they should use the Cmd (Ctrl on PC) key for dynamics such as p, mp, mf, f. Many orchestrators just type Cmd-E and then type the “p” but if they use Cmd-P after typing Cmd-E, Sibelius will use the correct Opus dynamic font.” (For a further demonstration of how to do this, see this “Dynamics 101” video.)
“I only use Sibelius for orchestration and music engraving,” Joe explained, although “when in the middle of a long project, I use Sibelius to put together a ‘cheat sheet’ of themes, motives, and ideas. I use a manuscript very early in the writing process when sketching initial themes and sometimes during arranging when working out complex counterpoint.”
That led me to wonder what Joe and Booker thought about Sibelius 7. Joe said that he was still using Sibelius 6. “I have 7 and was really disappointed with the interface,” he said.
Booker agreed: “Sibelius 7 looks like some weird Microsoft toolbar,” he said. “When I receive a Sibelius 7 score I first save it down to Sibelius 6, as that interface is easier for me to work with since it’s set up the same way as all earlier Sibelius versions, and is more Mac-like. As a long-time Sibelius user, Sibelius 7’s interface slows me down because I have to go hunting for certain menu items that were easily found in prior versions. I’d appreciate the option of a preference where I could see the Sibelius interface look like either Sibelius 6 or 7 as the user’s choice.” (To help ease the adjustment to Sibelius 7, see this video on using the Ribbon.)
In terms of his orchestrating setup, Joe said that he usually orchestrates on a 27″ iMac with an attached Thunderbolt display, but is often on the road with an 11″ Macbook Air. Sibelius on the Air “really looks terrible on the small screen for some reason,” he said. “A friend, however, was showing me how to trick it out and all of the new useful features—I’ll have to give it another shot!” To round out his toolbox, Joe currently uses Logic, Plogue Bidule, ProTools, and “lots and lots and lots of plug-ins.”
What can we expect to hear next from Joe? “I have a few cool things cooking but I can’t talk about them yet. I’m very excited!”