Inside the world of film and TV music editors


In May, when Fox's animated juggernaut "The Simpsons" was generating the kind of media buzz one would expect to accompany its 400th episode, a similar, albeit less celebrated, milestone was occurring behind the scenes: In the scoring sessions leading up to that landmark episode, the show recorded its 23,000th take of orchestral music cues. Perhaps even more incredible, considering the transient nature of employment in Hollywood, over the past 19 years one man has been keeping track of every one of those takes -- music editor Chris Ledesma.

"When we rolled the first cue -- take one on day one of the first episode -- I decided to let the numbers proceed consecutively," Ledesma explains. "I had no idea we were headed towards five figures worth of takes, but it's nice now to have a distinct individual number for every piece of music on the show. And since I've been around for all of it, unofficially I've become 'The Simpsons' musical archivist."   

Keeping track of accumulated music is just one of the roles that can fall to a film or television music editor, a position crucial in the scoring process but one that is little understood to those outside recording studio control rooms and dub stages. A music editor's work combines an artistic sense of music and picture with high-level technological knowledge and some uncanny organizational skills. And since an editor's work might begin prior to preview screenings and end in the last days of postproduction, the editor is often the member of the music team who spends the most time with a particular project.

A music editor's job typically begins at music spotting sessions, when a project's composer, music editor and filmmakers discuss where music is needed and how the music should work with the picture. From there, the editor's basic tasks include overseeing the recording of a composer's work, keeping that work meticulously organized and available (by way of a Pro Tools rig) and delivering the finished music to the dub stage, where it is laid against picture and mixed with dialogue and sound effects.

In Los Angeles, music editors are generally members of the Local 700 of the Motion Picture Editors Guild and are employed with hours, wages and benefits set according to union guidelines.

"Music editing is a classic craftsman's job," says Erich Stratmann, whose credits include 2005's "Rent," 2006's "Scary Movie 4," and Warner Bros. Pictures' upcoming comedy "Mama's Boy." "You have to have the artistic sensibility, but you also have to have the technical ability. And you have the responsibility of being the last person to deal with the music. You take everything that's been scored and recorded and created by the composer and make sure it works in the final mix."

Many music editors develop long-running relationships with particular composers, but depending on the point in which editors are brought into a project, they might also be hired by a director, producer, picture editor or postproduction supervisor. That puts a premium on a music editor's communication skills.

"You're really there to facilitate the scoring process and keep things moving forward to their conclusion," says Bob Badami, a highly respected editor and music supervisor whose long list of credits include 1986's "Top Gun," 1998's "Bulworth" and Buena Vista's "Pirates of the Caribbean" films. "It's ultimately a support job, and part of the job is to provide the emotional support that's necessary for all parties because you're dealing with people on the directorial side that don't really understand music, and you're dealing with composers who generally operate in their own world. It's important to foster a really natural communication process so that everyone's working to serve the film."

For the music editor, the process might begin with a call to create a temp score for an early cut of a film, so that preview screenings can be done before or while a composer is working on a final score. If a composer already has worked out sketches or demos, the editor might use those to build a soundtrack, but he or she also might use cues and pieces of music from other scores and sources.

"It's basically composing with Legos," explains editor Ernie Mannix, who's worked on 2005's "Herbie: Fully Loaded," 2006's "How to Eat Fried Worms" and the HBO series "Big Love." "You're creating a score from pieces of pre-existing music and creating a 'score architecture' for how the music might work with the picture. That architecture can give a composer a good way to get into his work or can be completely dismissed once he starts writing."

When a composer joins the production, he might continue to work with the temp score editor or might bring in his own music editor for the rest of the work. For music editors who work consistently with a composer, the editor's role might take on some extra responsibilities. Jim Henrikson has enjoyed one of the longest careers of any working music editor, with credits that stretch back to "I Love Lucy" and the original "Star Trek." More recently, he has been James Horner's editor of choice.

"I'd describe myself as James' 'consigliere,' " Henrikson jokes. "I have his ear, and I'm there to be a liaison to the studio, the director, the contractor, the copyist. I'm staying on top of recording dates and communicating James' wishes to the orchestrators. I become the one guy that he can come to and ask his questions and hear that everything's been taken care of. I'm the field marshal to his commander."

Henrikson has seen the technology of editing change from the days of slicing mag stock and running Moviolas through the advent of digital tape to today's completely computerized work. But he says perhaps the most significant change for editors has come not in the machines but in the dynamics of the workspace.

"A lot of times the studio people and the filmmakers we're working with are like slightly spoiled children who want what they want and want it now, and it's our job to keep them happy," he says. "The old cutting room with Moviolas and racks of film were unpleasant places -- the director and producer didn't want to hang out there all day. Now if they come into a cutting room, they can see the edits instantly. There's a nice couch, a place to make your phone calls, air conditioning, coffee. They never leave."

Editor Bill Bernstein has teamed with composer Thomas Newman since the late 1980s -- their friendship has evolved to the point where they even go on family vacations together. In addition to the usual editor roles, Bernstein is counted on for the earliest feedback Newman gets.

"I'll be sitting with him when he's writing, and he'll say, 'What do you think of this?' and play something on the piano," Bernstein says. "I know that I'm hearing for the first time some beautiful piece of music that millions of people will eventually hear. It's always an amazing moment, but I'm expected to be very honest and tell him if a chord or a melody doesn't sound right. He trusts my musical sense, and I try to take on the role of the director or producer and come up with what their critiques might be before we have to hear it from them. I want to be supportive and protective of what this great artist, who is also a great friend, is creating. I like to say my job is 5% editing and 95% suicide prevention."

An editor's protective skills can become equally important in the hectic pace of a TV series schedule. "We're happy when we have five days to work on the 25 minutes of music in the underscore," says music editor Stephen Rowe, who works with composer Brian Kirk on the CBS series "NCIS." "Usually, the composer's writing the last act while I'm already on the dubbing stage, and a big aspect of my role is to let the composer spend as much time as possible writing without having to worry about the minutiae and timing complexities and other bothersome stuff."

On the dubbing stage, the music editor again makes use of both an artistic sensibility and technical know-how to perfectly marry music and picture. Cues might be shortened or lengthened or moved a fraction of a second to improve timing; music might linger over a scene change or hit an event square-on for maximum emphasis. The editor might even work within a cue, adding a percussive element for effect or toning down a melody that seems too prominent.

"Even after the music is completely written and done, there's a lot of shuffling that happens on a dubbing stage these days," says music editor Chris McGeary, whose credits include the CW's "Smallville" and the upcoming CBS miniseries "Comanche Moon." "At that point, the director is always going to have some different ideas about how the music should lay in, and getting that work done is always a rewarding part of the job because you're really helping a filmmaker get what he's after."

One of the odd twists of music editors' work is that the better the editing job, the more invisible it is. In fact, the editors themselves sometimes appreciate how well their work disappears into a completed production.

"I really do enjoy the moment when you see a section of a film with music that has been so thought about and so worked over so many times, (but) you forget all of that because it just works," says Jim Schultz, whose credits include the Weinstein Co.'s "Grindhouse" and Lionsgate's upcoming Western, "3:10 to Yuma." "You might have done 130 edits across a couple minutes of music, but if it works, it works. You don't sit there thinking about your Pro Tools rig -- you're just moved by the film and the music working together."

While music editors are recognized as part of the sound awards at the Emmys, and the Motion Picture Sound Editors present annual Golden Reel Awards for exceptional sound and music editing, as of yet music editors go unheralded at the Academy Awards (though there's a music editor working hard in the sound truck on the night of any Oscar broadcast).

"I think the main reason we're not recognized by the Academy is that no one knows what we've done," says Dan Pinder, who most recently completed editing work on "The Simpsons Movie" for Fox. "Nobody has a sense for what went on behind the scenes except the people who were there. It's very hard to quantify the individual work and the level of creativity involved and judge it against some other situation. But the sound editorial community in general is made up of some amazingly talented people, and it's a pleasure to be a part of it. I think we all understand that if you got into music editing for the glamour of it, you picked the wrong job."