Unsung heroes

Often overlooked and frequently misunderstood, orchestrators play a pivotal role in bringing film music to life.

There are the crushing time constraints, looming deadlines and the responsibility of pleasing composers, directors, musicians and studios. But perhaps one of the biggest challenges a professional orchestrator faces is getting people to understand exactly what it is he or she actually does.

"Like many supportive roles in moviemaking, the orchestrator role is (shrouded) in some mystery," says Mark McKenzie, who works as both a composer and orchestrator. "In part, that's because if one claims the orchestrator contributes a great deal, you run the risk of undermining the contribution of a composer. But if one claims the orchestrator doesn't contribute much, you run the risk of not quite justifying their need to exist."

The orchestrator's role has existed for as long as films have been scored, and the job always has served as a crucial creative and technical link in the musicmaking process. Fundamentally, it is the orchestrator's task to take the music a composer creates and translate it into a form that can be read and understood by the individual players of an orchestra.

There are certainly composers capable of writing their own orchestrations, but when composers are in the process of developing themes and melodies for a score's cues, they might not have the time or the detailed technical knowledge to figure out which notes should go to the oboes and which to the second violins. That's where an orchestrator steps in, providing the kind of creative support and assistance that a cinematographer or an editor might bring to a director's vision for a film, or that an associate architect might bring to the nuts-and-bolts execution of a master architect's overall design.

Technological advances haven't exactly eliminated the confusion. Today, virtually all composers write by creating mock-ups -- demo versions of cues that are created on synthesizers using samples of orchestral instruments. So, when a director or producer previews a composer's work, it might sound to them as though the orchestration already has been done.

"There was a time when the composers mostly wrote piano scores, and the orchestrator's job was clear," says Conrad Pope, a longtime orchestrator for John Williams who also has worked with James Horner, Mark Isham and Alan Silvestri. "Now, I think there are a lot of studios that wonder what it is exactly that we do because the mock-ups and electronics are so complete. To them, it feels like the music's all there already.

"The problem is that we may be in the 21st century in terms of the technology of the mock-ups, but we're still 19th century when the music moves to the scoring stage and has to be performed," Pope continues. "Unlike synthesizers, real wind players have to breathe, and everybody has to read from a musical notation system that's been around a few hundred years. Sorting all that out is our job."

Typically, an orchestrator joins a project two or three weeks before scoring sessions begin. He or she will receive from a composer the mock-ups of cues in the form of a computer audio file -- a written "sketch" of the score -- and often video clips of the film that the cues are to accompany. "A sketch can be just about anything," McKenzie says. "It might be a squiggly line saying 'energetic,' a single melodic line with chord symbols that comes with a verbal description, a MIDI printout of an electronic mock-up minus expression indications for the orchestra or a 'miniature score' with every note, dynamic, articulation, voicing, percussion and instrumental color indicated in the greatest detail. A sketch can be any of these things or something in between."

The orchestrator works with the materials received to create an intricately detailed, fully realized orchestral score. If the sketch is almost complete, the job of orchestrating is more technical. "When I work with John Williams," Pope says, "I'm a secretary -- a very grateful secretary."

Relying on a keen understanding of the range and tonal qualities of every instrument, the orchestrator puzzles out how to achieve the colors, textures and emotions the composer wants. Chords are voiced with various blends of instruments. Themes and subthemes are balanced for dynamic and dramatic effect. Parts are blended or doubled with various combinations of instruments.

"People who don't know the process would say that you could get a monkey to do the orchestrator's job," says Pete Anthony, a top orchestrator and also one of Los Angeles' most in-demand scoring session conductors. "But it would have to be a highly trained monkey."

In fact, given today's often abbreviated postproduction schedules, it can require a team of trained orchestrators to finish a single score. "I used to do a few films a year and do every cue for each film," Anthony says. "Now, I work on many more films a year but only do a small part of them. The turnaround is so fast -- what we used to do in four to six weeks now gets done in five to 10 days. As a supervising orchestrator, you have to put together a team of people to get the work done, and every job becomes a five-alarm fire."

Most top orchestrators have long-term associations with a few composers, and they can communicate in a kind of composercentric musical shorthand that helps get the job done efficiently and effectively. One of the most enduring of these relationships is that of Steve Bartek and Danny Elfman, whose partnership dates back to their years as bandmates in Oingo Boingo (for which Bartek often wrote arrangements and horn charts for Elfman's songs).

"My friendship with Danny has been the basis for my career," Bartek says. "We've always had odd common interests, even back in the band days -- Balinese music, Kurt Weill, Nino Rota -- and from the beginning, we've had the same kind of stylistic vocabulary. I think I was there as a bit of a crutch for Danny on his first film (1985's 'Pee-wee's Big Adventure') because I had the degree in composition from UCLA and I was used to translating Danny's ideas onto paper. We went through some trial by fire and a lot of 'learn as we earn,' but as we started doing more films together, it was easy to understand what he wanted.

"Basically, that's what I think an orchestrator's job is: to translate what the composer is writing and make it work for the orchestra," Bartek adds. "I know what Danny wants, and I know what makes sense to an orchestra."

As Elfman's primary orchestrator, Bartek follows a score through to its recording at the scoring sessions, where the crucial second phase of an orchestrator's job takes place. "You don't really finish writing a score until you're recording it," he says. "At that point, you hear a lot of, 'That was a good idea, but it's not working,' and some very fast adjustments have to be made -- things don't work with the film the way they were supposed to, or a director changes his mind about how a scene should play. There's a lot of hit-and-miss and quick-fixing when the orchestra plays. That's a high-pressure part of the job, but it's also very satisfying. Part of the joy of the work for me is having the responsibility on the scoring stage of being the problem solver and the facilitator. I thrive on those moments."

Brad Dechter, who has long-term working relationships with composers John Debney and John Powell and is in his 20th year of working together with James Newton Howard, agrees that an orchestrator's job can encompass a variety of distinct roles.

"The basic part of the job is when you're alone with the composer's sketches and mock-ups, getting engrossed in the music," he says. "If you're in the zone and you can forget about deadlines and distractions, you get about four bars of music done in an hour, and it's a feeling of great accomplishment. At some point on every film, there's a moment at 2 in the morning when I'm just totally caught up in the music, and I love those moments. But if you're working as a supervising orchestrator, there's a second part to the job that makes it a little harder to get into that zone. You may have eight or nine orchestrators working on a film, and then you can find yourself spending time on the phone, or sending e-mails, or making to-do lists or contacting composers' assistants and copyists -- doing everything but orchestrating.

If the job of the orchestrator remains mysterious to those outside of the scoring process, it is, consequently, sometimes difficult for orchestrators to earn credit for a job well-done. "There are so many things an orchestrator does that people aren't really going to know about," says Jeff Atmajian, who has worked with Dechter as one of Howard's longtime orchestrators and also works with Rachel Portman, Marc Shaiman and Gabriel Yared.

"It's like looking at a beautiful building -- you don't know exactly what's inside the walls holding it up, but you know it's probably important that it's there," Atmajian explains. "When we do our job well, you rarely get credit for the fact that a scoring session might have finished early because everything was so properly thought out and well written, and the orchestra was used well. You will hear it from the players, though. When things fit well for them and the voicings are right and they aren't being tired out or thrown into left field, they really appreciate it, and they go for a day without doing a bad take. Nobody else would ever think of giving an orchestrator credit for that, but a tremendous amount of money is actually being saved on those days. We're a small part of the process, but we can be a very important part of the process."

Some of the greatest rewards of that process are in the ephemeral, mysterious moments when film and music, helped along by an orchestrator, become greater than the sum of their parts. "As detailed and technical as orchestrations get and as much as things are measured out in time code, there's still a magic to music," Dechter says. "There's still an unquantifiable quality to it. For all the very precise work we do, there are things that occur when music comes together with an image and a story that are a complete surprise. You get a feeling that you just could never have predicted. With all the hard work that goes into scoring a film, there's still something wonderful there that can't be explained."
comments powered by Disqus