Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

Filtering by Tag: film

Scoring the film "Preheated"

My daughter Sarah’s animated short “Preheated,” which she collaborated on with classmate Luke Snedecor, currently has over 1.7 million hits on YouTube, which means that my film score has now been heard over 1,699,000 times more frequently than all of my other original compositions combined.  That’s the power of getting behind the right project!

Composing my first score was a challenge, and it’s the existence of digital recording that made it even remotely possible.  How the old-timers Franz Waxman, Bernard Hermann and the like were able to compose and record amazing scores for live orchestras, all within tight budgets and timelines, is mind-boggling.  I simply don’t understand how they did it.  The advent of soft synths and sequencers has opened up the world of scoring to countless composers who may not even know how to play an instrument, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy process, at least not for a newbie; the six minutes of music for “Preheated” took me about three months to compose and record.

Part of the challenge was getting up to speed on four new pieces of software: the new version of Cakewalk (now free!) by BandLab, Native Instrument’s Komplete 11, Passion Flute by Orange Tree Samples, and ProjectSam’s Swing More.  Sarah, Luke and I had all agreed that the score should incorporate jazzy and big-band elements, so the latter two pieces of software really came in handy, though I learned quickly that even really good software has its limitations.  I sometimes wanted more punch from the trumpets and I had to find workarounds to get the sounds I wanted, but Swing More provided me with a great pallet to choose from, and I was particularly happy with the Dixieland music for the film’s end credits.  Passion Flute was perfect for this project – very easy to use and it responded just the way I needed.

Another challenge was timing.  Sarah and Luke needed every minute of available time to complete the movie, so the final rendering of the film wouldn’t be available until just a few days prior to its debut on May 9th.  I clearly needed to start composing well in advance of this deadline, and this fact led to a lot of editing, as I’d complete a section of music only to find that timing had shifted or had been extended or condensed.  New music had to be created or deleted quickly when three or four seconds were added to or subtracted from the film late in the game. 

The one bit of software that didn’t cut it were the lead string instruments.  Soft synths manage to provide fairly realistic wind instruments sounds, but the expressiveness of viola and violin are really difficult to emulate on a computer, so my friend Uli Widmaier brought over his instruments, spent an hour recording his parts, and we inserted the real thing for a much better product.

Overall, scoring for film was a hell of a lot of fun, and I’m generally pleased with the final result.  I’m even more pleased with the way the film turned out and the wonderful response its garnered.  It’ll be neat to see where the careers of Luke and Sarah lead and whether this short film will one day be looked back on as the beginning of something special.

 Shortly after “Preheated” was made available online, I received an email from a high school music student asking me to describe the process of scoring “Preheated” for her class project.  In case you’re interested, some of my response follows:

I saw the original storyboards for “Preheated” as far back as last fall, and this led me to first compose the film’s climax, the moving theme in 3/4 when the father and boy work together to light the candle.  I incorporated the same theme for the end credits, but switched to a Dixieland band and changed the timing to 4/4 and modulated the key to give it a fun, bouncy lift.

From there I tackled the beginning motif, which then helped guide the rest of the score.  Luke and Sarah decided that the clarinet should more or less represent the boy, and the violin and viola more or less represent the father.  For the first 30 seconds or so, I established an easy-going introductory tune that includes a 7-note motif that’s used throughout the score:  G G# E D E D C#, first with violin in the opening segment, and then with clarinet as the boy comes into full view.

When the downtrodden father enters the frame, the viola begins with an entirely different theme: a weepy, melodramatic tune to represent melancholy, but the 7-note clarinet motif comes into play when the boy tries to get his father's attention, and once again at the end of the section, this time with piano.  None of the other melodies in the section appear again because this is the only section of the film that has a melancholy feel.

When the boy has an idea to make a big birthday celebration, the music picks up into a sort of flute/big-band Latin piece, but because the boy is constantly met with obstacles, the music has to break rhythm regularly.  These were the most difficult sections for me.  For instance, the curiosity at 0:32 conveyed with pizzicato strings, the curiosity at 1:35 expressed with bass and flute primarily, or the confusion conveyed at 2:30 with piano and bass.  These little transitional pieces of music were challenging.  The main sections were much easier.

The "spooky music" section at 1:57 was originally overdone, and I threw in the 7-note theme again – this time with flute – just to keep the audience grounded.  This isn't a horror film after all, and we wanted to keep things anchored in playfulness.

As the boy realizes his predicament, the tempo increases and the instrumentation gets slightly more complicated to increase the tension as he opens the refrigerator and scrounges for something to cool off his hands, once again using a variation of the 7-note them from before, and culminating in a diminished 7th chord run as he struggles to figure out where to put the melted butter.  The piano does a sort of "ah ha!" moment as he discovers that the recipe calls for melted butter, and then again as he sees the melted butter in the bowl.

The boy seems back on track!  I returned to the fun Latin big-band motif, but the boy immediately hits another barrier, ending the music abruptly, and I used an aggressive flute sound to depict frustration (and to add a dose of comedy).  Once again the boy needs to think for a moment, so I composed a quick flute and piano section, playing a sort of flat 2 diminished 7 interval that resolves to the one chord, a phrase that will be used again when the father walks in to see the mess.

Instead of going back to the same Latin big-band theme, I kept the same feel but changed the melody, altered the time signature to 6/4 and made the acoustic guitar the lead instrument.  I can't say why I decided on this except it kept things from getting too repetitive, and the 6/4 rhythm gave it a sort of unsettled feel, like the boy was going to really have to focus to overcome his obstacles.  Even when he hits barriers within this section, I kept the rhythm going to keep the music from having too much of a start/stop start/stop pattern.

As the boy proceeds, things become more hectic and loud, with a few modulations until the boy achieves his goal of making the cake, and then halts abruptly as the father comes back in the room.  The sheepish looking boy is supported by the same 7-note motif with clarinet.  The father's anger is conveyed with the same flat 2 diminished 7 motif discussed a few paragraphs ago.

So there you are!I hope I get another change to score for film one day, and with any luck, it will once again be for my daughter’s creation.Thanks Sarah and Luke for the opportunity

Watching Vertigo in a Theater

Can you still be moved after watching a film for the twelfth time?  I’ve learned that you can, but It helps to experience it the way it was originally intended: on a big screen in a packed theater. 

Last Sunday I watched Vertigo with my daughter as part of a mini Hitchcock festival in Louisville, and I wasn’t sure I really wanted to see it.  I’d rented it just a year or two ago and didn’t think another viewing in such close proximity would be all that enjoyable.  Boy, was I wrong!  Seeing the movie again with a few hundred others was absolutely thrilling, reinvigorating my appreciation for the film many believe – Martin Scorsese among them – to be Hitchcock’s best (my favorite is still Rear Window), and reinforcing my belief that watching film in a theater still gives you the best opportunity for an amazing experience.  Yes, there will be those times when you get a buffoon seated right behind you, wrestling with his crackling candy wrappers (as happened to me just last month while watching First Reformed), but when I look back on my favorite movie experiences, most entail seeing it with a large group of people.  Imagine that; humanity can actually enhance art created to make people feel.

Especially fun for me was the audience’s laughter.  I’ve always appreciated the banter between Jimmy Stewart’s “Scottie” and Barbara Bel Geddes’s “Midge,” but I don’t know that I’ve ever laughed at it.  Last Sunday, the laughter around me was infectious, and I grew a new appreciation for the screenplay penned by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor.  So much of this film is silent – Stewart shadowing Kim Novak’s character – that it’s easy to forget the dialogue, but much of it is brilliant.  The audience absolutely howled with laughter when Midge unveiled her joke painting to Scottie – a scene that I’ve always found to be heartbreaking, as Midge immediately regrets her actions – but who can argue with a laughing crowd? 

Because the people in the theater seemed to be invested in what was happening on screen, I was eager to get to the film’s big payoffs.  I knew what was going to happen of course, but it was akin to watching a film with your child, when the real fun is watching his reaction.  On Sunday, I awaited with pleasure the gasps I was sure to hear upon the film’s climax.  The audience didn’t let me down, and I enjoyed hearing people’s banter after the film had ended.

There are two points to Vertigo that still don’t hold up for me.  Yes, many films require a certain suspension of disbelief, and for the most part I’m able to dive into Vertigo without much skepticism, but there are two sticking points (SPOILER ALERT):

1)      If Kim Novak’s character is pretending to be Elster’s wife during the first half of the film, how does she manage to play unconscious even when Scottie undresses her at his apartment after fishing her out of San Francisco Bay?  Wouldn’t she have played along until just before he undressed her and pretend to wake up?  If not, does this imply that she was particularly titillated with the prospect of a having a man undress her?

2)     Where does Kim Novak’s character disappear to when she enters the McKittrick Hotel, and why doesn’t the hotel manager claim to have seen her enter?  There are several explanations for this on-line – none of them very satisfying except for Hitchcock’s definition of an “icebox” scene, meaning – in effect – that there is no explanation.  You just have to accept it.

3)     Oh!  I just thought of a third.  How does Scottie get both cars back to his apartment after Novak’s fake suicide attempt?

None this doesn’t matters all that much.  The film is beautiful, heartbreaking, creepy, thrilling and entertaining.  What else do you want?  During the film, I whispered to my daughter during one of my favorite shots, just after Scottie says to Midge, “We were engaged once, though, weren’t we?”  Hitchcock points the camera down on Midge while she’s working at an easel, and Midget’s eyes shift.  We never hear about exactly what happened between her and Scottie, but that shot is absolute perfection.  It speaks a thousand words even if you don’t know exactly what story those words would tell.  Check out minute 1:42 below:

Perfect.

How Accurate Do Historical Films Need to Be?

Journalist Christian Caryl recently wrote a commentary in the New York Review about the movie, The Imitation Game, highlighting many of the film’s historical inaccuracies that he feels aren't trivial.  On the contrary, he contends that the film cooks up a portrayal of Alan Turing—the gay, wartime, British mathmetician who is the film’s subject—that is so far off-base, it crosses the line of artistic license and leaps into a world of artistic negligence.  He writes that the film “not only fatally miscasts Turing as a character—it also completely destroys any coherent telling of what he and his colleagues were trying to do.”  The film, he concludes, sends an “extremely distorted picture of history.”

I was intrigued to hear Caryl articulately make his point last week on NPR’s radio show, "Worldview,” along with show host Jerome McDonnell and film contributor Milos Stehlik.  At the crux of the debate was this: how accurate should historical films be, is there a line that should not be crossed, and does it really matter?

Whatever integrity Caryl built up for the first half of the show—during which he skillfully pointed out the problems with The Immitation Game—was quickly obliterated when asked about Selma, a film that's suffering similar scrutiny for its portrayal of Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King.  Caryl admits that the latter film takes “a lot of liberties with the history, some of which I found a little tough to swallow” and claims that people’s view of Martin Luther King with be “strongly shaped” by the movie.  Oddly, Caryl still recommends Selma.  Why?  “I thought it was just a damn good story.”

So, presumably, if the makers of The Immitation Game had simply made a better movie, then the historical errors could be overlooked?

During the show, host McDonnell didn't initially let Caryl’s inconsistencies off the hook, and asked him why he was okay with Selma.  Again Caryl answered, “You know, it’s a crackin’ good story…The Imitation Game I think is a bad story. A stupid story.”

Hmmm.  I personally don’t care what Caryl thinks is a good story vs. a bad story, and I’m thankful he’s not in a position of determining which films get made and which do not.  Whatever valid points he made in his essay were completely erased by his own inane argument on the radio.

But more distrubing to me is the following remark Caryl made: “A lot of people nowadays get their history from movies.  It’s that simple."

Excactly where he collected the data to formulate such a far-reaching claim is unknown, but it must be a sad, sad world Caryl lives in when most people with whom he interacts are clueless nincompoops.  Who are these people Caryl speaks of whose intellects are so flimsy that a two hour film can completely mold their viewpoints?  It’s true that I lean left politically and generally hate the right-wing attack on liberalism as “elitist,” but you know what?  In this case they would be correct to cry foul.  How much more elitist can one be to presume that most filmgoers (but not Caryl himself, of course) will have their sense of world history shaped by a movie?

Caryl's inconsistency and unsubstantiated claim notwithstanding, the question still lingers:  Does any of this matter?  Do films need to follow a guideline and be careful to portray history accurately? 

I'll answer the question with a series of additional questions: Is Amadeus an accurate portrayal of Mozart and Salieri?  Did Oliver Stone and Anthony Hopkins depict Nixon accurately in the film Nixon?  How about the character of Thatcher in The Iron Lady?  Or J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland?  Oscar Schindler in Schlinder's List?  How about Hitler in Downfall?  Or Muhammad Ali in Ali?  The list goes on and on and on of films that were not meant to be the final say in a person’s life, but rather an entertaining interpretation. 

In other words, artistic. 

Huh.  Go figure.

Caryl overlooks a few other important points:

1)     All art is slanted, be it film, photographs, paintings, and yes, even documentaries (I doubt even Caryl would claim that Michael Moore’s films are objective).   And funnily enough, a film like Zero Dark Thirty which some blasted for supporting the use of torture, I found to be a film steadfastly against torture.   What?  A piece of art can conjure up multiple viewpoints?  Nah!

2)     People are not as dumb as Caryl presumably believes.  I have seen Nixon the movie.  It does not shape my viewpoint of Nixon the man in any way, shape or form.  I have not yet seen Selma, but I gotta believe it won’t shape my view of MLK more than the words and images of the Man Himself.  This brings me to my last and most important point...

3)     Historical films provide a gateway for learning more about the subject.  I knew nothing about Turing before seeing The Imitation Game (which I quite liked, by the way).  I still know little about him, but I at least have the salient facts down: Turing was a brilliant, gay man who—along with many others—helped crack the code to the Nazi’s Enigma Machine and was later arrested for having an affair with another man.  Now, that isn’t much to go on.  But you know what?  Because of the film, I may now choose to investigate further so that in time I’ll have a more complete picture of Alan Turing, The Man, instead of Alan Turing, The Character

In that sense, we owe a great debt to The Imitation Game.

Let's allow filmmakers do what they do best: entertainment us.

Life on Film: Every Seven Years

The recent release of the film “56 Up” served as a reminder for me to catch up on the seven films that preceded it.  A magnificent achievement and a gift to those who are curious about life and all that comes with it, this documentary series began in 1964 and continues to record the lives of fourteen English people from various backgrounds every seven years.   I’d caught a bit of “42 Up” on PBS some years back, but with the advent of Netflix and Instant Watch, all are now available for immediate viewing, with the exception of “7 Plus 7” (though many clips from that episode are reviewed in the latter films, and it’s also available on DVD).  Remarkably, all fourteen people are still alive, and most are doing well with their lives despite the challenges that so many them – and so many of all of us – face: divorce, mental and physical illness, lack of money, losing parents, raising kids and career disappointments.

The premise of the movie is a quote attributed to St. Francis Xavier: “Give me the boy until he is seven, and I will give you the man,” and indeed, upon watching the film “7 Up,” it’s not difficult to forecast the lives of some of the kids with a degree of accuracy.  And as I continue to make my through the series (I’m midway through watching “42 Up”) I can’t help but put myself in the shoes of the subjects of these movies and wonder how my life would have looked on film at age seven (and every seven years after).  I’m quite glad it wasn’t, but I’m grateful to the people who’ve agreed to be filmed, for they’ve helped to reveal the humanity in all of us.

Making my way through the series, I find myself captivated with these rather ordinary lives and rooting for the happy endings of every one of them.  When we are shown a happily married couple in one film, only to discover that they’ve divorced by the next film, it’s a heartbreaking revelation.  This isn’t “The Bachelorette” or “Survivor”; these are real lives of common people doing the best they can with what they have.

It reminds me of my twentieth high school reunion, the last one I attended, when so many people came together with seemingly one collective thought: I hope you’re doing okay.  No longer did it matter who had been friends with whom, who had been a jock or a band nerd, or who had been cocky or humble.  Life has a way of humbling everyone, even the most successful among us, and it was gratifying to discover that so many of us had survived, had persevered, had found happiness, lost it, and then found it again, had endured the unimaginable only to come out of the other side stronger and more grateful.

Perhaps Roger Ebert said it best in the last paragraph of his review for “56 Up”It is a mystery, this business of life.  I can’t think of any cinematic undertaking that allows us to realize that more deeply.

I couldn’t agree more.  I’m rooting for the class of 1986 from Brookfield East High School, and I’m rooting for the fourteen people who have given so much of themselves to the study of life.  Not just their lives, but all of ours.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved