Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Mambo Meltdown: Web Series Composer Process #4

Part 4 of my thread detailing the process of creating an original musical score for the web series Theater People. This week: Mambo meltdown!

Episode 4, The Unkindest Cut, portrays callback auditions for Theater Unhinged's production of "Romeo and Juliet". Co-artistic director Dave (Steve Sweere) stacks the deck such that callbacks for Juliet require each actress to read a scene wherein they kiss him passionately, more than once, while his ex-wife (Stacia Rice as Elise, the director) looks on. Nothin' but class, this guy.

I knew there was a lot of action to cover in this episode, so it made sense to spice things up with something tense and energetic. Hence: Mambo Madness!

As with the DNA of most cues on this show, the chord structure harkens back to that of the main title theme.

At the cast viewing, somebody totally busted me on the "Sex and the City" vibe. Ha... didn't think of that consciously, but I guess so. Works for me.

Here's the music in context with the scene:


Watch the web series

Index of "Theater People" web series composer process entries:

1: Main Title

2: Crowley Theme

3: Day Job Waltz/ Melodramatic Theme

4: Mambo Madness

5: Dream Rock

666: Devil Worship Music


Mike Hallenbeck home page

For Exposure

My new favorite account on Twitter is For Exposure. Tagline: "Some people expect artists to work for free. These are real quotes from real people who want you to work for exposure."

Great stuff, right up there with Clients from Hell.

So follow For Exposure if it suits you-- and follow me while you're at it!

Keep your eye on Twitter, by the way. I have a feeling they're going to become very popular one of these days.

Mike Hallenbeck home page

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Day Job Waltz/ Melodramatic Theme: Web Series Composer Process #3

The latest in a series exploring my process composing an original musical score for the comedy web series Theater People.

Here's some more material from the pilot episode, Day Jobs. Director Matthew Anderson wanted to contrast the actor characters' humdrum work days with the catharsis of their onstage personae, so it made sense to underscore this contrast musically.

First we'll look at the dichotomy of a day care provider who portrays Medea after hours. To embody the tedium of the day care job, the grinding repetition of music box gears came to mind. So I put together this "Day Job Waltz" as a plunking music box melody:

For the Medea shot I got bombastic:

Here's the interplay of the two contrasting cues in the final edit, spliced in with the main title theme during the credits at the end of the episode:

The same contrast plays out earlier in the episode, this time between the daytime occupation of shoe sales versus the declamatory pathos of classic Russian drama by night. To help create the atmosphere of the shoetique, I recast the Day Job Waltz as a schmaltzy chamber piece featuring piano and strings.

The Russian sequence warranted quieter, more introspective underscoring to emphasize its existential torment. Hence a folkier version of the bombastic Medea cue above:

Here's the finished edit featuring the juxtaposition of both cues:


Watch the web series

Index of "Theater People" web series composer process entries:

1: Main Title

2: Crowley Theme

3: Day Job Waltz/ Melodramatic Theme

4: Mambo Madness

5: Dream Rock

666: Devil Worship Music


Mike Hallenbeck home page

Monday, July 22, 2013

Pacific Rim: The Monsters At Our Door

I like me some monsters. When I was but a lad, I couldn't get enough of 'em: the besitary of Ray Harryhausen, Mercer Mayer's One Monster After Another, assorted incarnations of Swamp Thing, giant insects, you name it.

In the intervening years that special place in my heart has expanded to make room not only for the aforementioned but also for Grendel, Frankenstein's creation, the xenomorph of the "Alien" movies (as long as the Predator isn't involved), the undead, the encyclopedias of Carol Rose, Courtney Crumrin graphic novels... you get the picture. I've long wondered why monsters have kept such a hold on me, and I think I've at least started to understand (more on this later).

And so, while I've admittedly never been a genuine kaiju afficionado, I could be forgiven for being really damn excited about "Pacific Rim". If nothing else, I can confirm that this movie is a true visual marvel. The sense of color in particular I found particularly inspiring; the film eschews today's blockbuster vogue of blanched, monochromatic palettes and is not, as they say on HGTV, afraid of color.

I think it's pretty cool that the monsters in the movie turn out to be genetically engineered bio-weapons from another dimension, not so far removed from the Jaegers (giant robots) we humans develop to fight them. And it's a nice touch that global warming circa 2020 has created the prefect atmosphere for the monsters' overlords to survive on our planet after they conquer it. Just a hint that we have, in a sense, created these monsters...

Another route to the interiority of this film's antagonists is the "neural handshake" required to operate the Jaegers; since the task is too much for just one pilot, two humans must mind-meld to drive a giant robot (one for each hemisphere of its mecha-brain). In doing so, each pilot must sail back though his/ her individual memories and allow the imagery to bounce off without affecting them (again, more on this later); there's a clear link with meditation/ mindfulness practice here, punctuated by the "mudra" position the robot's hands achieve once the hemispheres are aligned.

But before I get to what I imagine is my more valuable contribution to "Pacific Rim" discourse, I'll mention that I do think the human element of the story could have innovated a little more. Despite the fact that two of the leads are of African and Asian descent, this Pacific Rim seems overly represented by Caucasians, especially if demographic and political realities continue on their current trajectories into the near future we're supposedly witnessing. Wouldn't the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans be more involved? Wouldn't there be at least a few more women in command positions by then, except for this one Russian lady who dies after a few minutes of mostly silent screen time? Wouldn't the guys who are actually from Hong Kong, where about half the movie takes place, get some actual lines? And why is this British guy talking so much during the teleconference? The UK isn't anywhere near the kaiju danger zone.

To be sure, Rinko Kikuchi's performance as Mako Mori is one of the film's highlights. But despite her character's agency as an eventual Jaeger pilot, Kikuchi's role is eroticized to the point where her attraction to Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) overshadows her ambitions to copilot his machine. This movie fails the Bechdel test with flying colors, mostly because the only other female character of note dies long before the two can converse.

To some degree, I'm happy to set all that aside in light of the fact that "Pacific Rim" is, after all, a movie about giant robots fighting giant monsters, and that this is, in fact, why I'm on board. But the prospect of accepting that lowered expectation is mitigated by what I'd call the film's insightful engagement of monstrosity. Returning to my earlier musings, I was struck by the scene where we witness Mako Mori's childhood trauma as a kaiju rampages through Tokyo years ago, when she was a little girl. She weeps and wails as the monster comes closer and closer. It's heartbreaking.

This connected with some recent thinking I've done about why monsters resonate with us so much. Anxieties manifest as mental constructs rather than as plausible models of situations we're likely to encounter. So it stands to reason that they'd take shape as fantastical beings-- and yet they influence the reality of our emotional lives. It's fitting that this scene emerges as a dream sequence while Mori is attempting the neural handshake with Becket, and that a dream-Becket eventually steps into the scene to right her course: "It's only a memory. It isn't real."

As far as I'm concerned, this scene imbues the film with the resonance it needs to tap into a profound mythic and psychological realm. Later on, when we get Idris Elba's much-trailered "We are canceling the apocalypse" monologue, I'm able to connect in a very personal way. As the anthropomorphic robots battle the kaiju, I feel a surge of fist-pump energy at the prospect of conquering my own monsters, whenever and wherever they appear. Take that, beastie! Idris Elba said so.

Mike Hallenbeck home page

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Audiobook: If on a winter's night a traveler

And as the day grew bright enough for me to see the other side of the chasm, I realized that a road ran along there, too, and a man on horseback was proceeding parallel to me... What had seemed to me the irregular echo of my mare's hoofs resounding from the rough limestone of the other bank was, in reality, the clatter of those hoofs accompanying me.

--Italo Calvino, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler

Monday, July 15, 2013

Crowley Theme: Web Series Composer Process #2

The second in a planned progression of pieces exploring my original musical score for the web series Theater People.

For Episode 2, director Matt Anderson wanted a theme underscoring a monologue by Jamy (Mark Mattison), a pretentious director who plans to mount a production of a lost play by Aleister Crowley. Here's the first scene in which this music appears, wherein Jamy seduces Jill (Jane Froiland) with some big talk about the show:

Now let's rewind to the first draft. I thought it'd be nice for this piece to grow chordally out of the main title theme, as did another theme I created for the callbacks of the "Romeo and Juliet" production. I wanted to highlight Jamy's sense of menace and tie it in with the Satanist he's talking about. I did my best to channel something Morricone might write to underscore a villain's appearance in a Western, filtered through a kind of Giant Sand/ Friends of Dean Martinez filter:

Crowley Theme (First Draft)

Matt and I both thought this was a nice piece of music, but it seemed a little too heavy on the menace-- "too real", as he put it. So I set about to sanding the edges off a little, making it somehow a little more bufoonish and friendlier to make Jamy seem like more of a poseur and less of a predator. I nixed the distorted droney guitar, added the organ, changed the bass sound from its previously aggro setting to something rounder, made the lead guitar less jagged, and came up with a more accessible melody. Here's the result, out of context from the scene. This has actually been tweaked a bit since that episode, for future use in the series and for demonstration purposes; the lead guitar is still pretty low in the mix so it won't compete with dialog, but I added some string bends:

Crowley Theme Friendlier (Revision)

I also mixed down a version featuring only the guitar, a version with only the drums, and the entire mix without the lead guitar to give Matt some more options down the line.

Thanks for checking this out-- I've had a great time working on this series, and I'm looking forward to updating you on more of its musical content!

Watch the web series

Index of "Theater People" web series composer process entries:

1: Main Title

2: Crowley Theme

3: Day Job Waltz/ Melodramatic Theme

4: Mambo Madness

5: Dream Rock

666: Devil Worship Music


Mike Hallenbeck home page

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Convergence 2013 Wrap-Up

So last weekend was Convergence, and it was good. As ever, the gathering was an opportunity for studious, sober reflection and contemplation.

I had a fine time. Somewhere amidst all the mayhem it appears that Jon Cazares' short film Red and Blue Fly Away Forever, which I scored a while back, screened as part of the film festival programming. Hooray!

I like me some discussion panels, and this year I found myself gravitating toward more fact/ science-based stuff than usual.

Exception: the first panel I attended was "Prometheus Debunked": a terrific reassurance that no, I'm far from the only one who was baffled and disappointed by that movie. "Alien" fan that I am, I don't think I've ever been as excited by a film's impending release, and my befuddlement was rivaled, I daresay, only by the "Phantom Menace" aftermath. So I found solace in the shared confusion of these panelists.

I have no current desire to get a book into the library, nor in fact a book with which to embark on such a project, but I found the "How to Get Your Book Into the Library" panel interesting nonetheless. (Short answer: get it reviewed, or at least blogged about.) Most interesting takeaway: the curating process of libraries appears to be based as much on our societal values as on practical considerations. The issue of how many times a library can check out an e-book before it has to purchase another license, for example, raised a lot of thorny questions.

Not surprisingly, this same issue came up in "E-books: Better Than Print Or Not?" This panel also acquainted me with The Magic Catalog of Project Gutenberg E-Books.

"Third Martian from the Left" was a presentation by Bridget Landry about her work on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Which of course is awesome in and of itself, but my interest was piqued by her mention of "I.R." as a data collection method used by the probes. I'm assuming this is related to the documentation of impulse responses used to program convolution reverbs (probably the origin of same, since I doubt it happened in reverse order). I gotta look into that sometime. Evidently that's why I just linked to it without reading the article first.

"Climate Change and Superstorms" was a knockout. The moderation was clear and focused; the panelists were knowledgeable, well prepared, eloquent, and concise. Some take-aways:

--The bizarre weather patterns that have become more and more common over the past few decades are caused by global warming. The mainstream scientific community is all but unanimous on this point. There is a well-bankrolled lunatic fringe of the scientific community that likes to call global warming a "theory". Insofar as gravity is also a theoretical construct, the fringe is correct.

--Many journalists assist this "theory" obfuscation by perpetuating the myth that "there are two sides to every story". This is false not only because any story has a potentially infinite number of sides, but because some sides of this story are bolstered by scientific inquiry, and some are not.

--Plain and simple, we're roasting the planet to benefit the revenue streams of a few people. In supposedly democratic societies, this is accomplished by finding ways to purchase legislative outcomes. That's all it amounts to.

--Private citizens are footing the bill for global warming; the industries exacerbating the problem are not. This subsidy manifests in the form of increasing health care costs, insurance rates, and disaster relief packages.

--The institutionalized hostility toward hard science endemic in our political and journalistic communities is not reflected in public opinion. Statistically, the public tends not to believe "there are two sides to every story"; it tends to believe the facts.

--And yes, a vegetarian diet is better for the planet.

"Faking It: Psycoacoustics and Sound Design for Audio" reinforced my belief in the phone book as a sound effects tool. As I recounted in a recent interview on Walker Art Center's blog, during one of my first Foley assignments for film I looked up some how-to videos online to figure out how to fake the sound of a punch. I found a video made by an eleven-year-old where he demonstrated how to replicate a punch sound by closing a phone book really hard. It didn’t work for the entire cue—- I wound up mixing in a vocalization to add a little sharpness—- but it got me pretty far along.

Anyway, a couple of the Foley artists on this panel shared techniques on how to simulate bodily impacts on a floor surface (other than throwing yourself on the floor, which I can confirm gets old real quick). Both suggested an article of clothing (one a leather jacket, the other some coveralls), but both recommended filling said clothing with—that’s right—phone books. So the idea’s got legs.

(H.G. Wells panel. L to R: Panelists The Reverend Matt Kessen, Mike Hallenbeck, Pat Harrigan, Jody Wurl)

And as announced previously, I sat on a couple of panels myself: "Kubrick's The Shining In-Depth" and "H.G. Wells". Both went swimmingly; I was honored by opportunity to collaborate with such great folks, trade ideas, and learn.

I was particularly pleased to share with the "Shining" audience that Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landing. It's true! I read it on the Internet.

Mike Hallenbeck home page

Friday, July 12, 2013

Interview: World Listening Day

I was recently interviewed by Abbie Anderson for Walker Art Center's blog in preparation for the Walker's observance of World Listening Day. We touch on the light rail, biking, skateboarders, schizophonia, rickrolling, Auto Tune, and learning Foley sound techniques from youtube videos by eleven-year-olds. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Field Recording: Pipe Belching Water

Finally getting around to reviewing some (relatively) recent field recordings. This one is a standout from the Crex Meadows workshop I attended in 2012.

I don't even remember how we found this thing, but I find it to be a really satisfying document. It's a very large pipe just barely protruding horizontally into a lake. Water alternately fills it and falls away, gurgling massively as it does so.

I forgot to take a photo. As far as I recall, the recording kit was an Audio Technica AT8022 stereo mic into a Zoom H2 recorder.

Mike Hallenbeck home page

Convergence 2013 preview

Looking forward to Convergence this weekend. I'm honored to appear on two panels with some great folks. More info below. Keep in mind that the Sofitel, across the way from the DoubleTree mothership, is also hosting events this year.

Kubrick's 'The Shining' In Depth
A look at Stanely Kubrick's adaptation of Stephen King's novel. We'll deconstruct the film and the effect it has had on the language of film.
Panelists: Melissa Kaercher, Tim Wick, Romeo Azar, Jon Cazares, Mike Hallenbeck
Friday July 5, 2013 12:30pm - 1:30pm
Sofitel Bordeaux

H. G. Wells
A discussion of Wells' impact on his world and the lasting effects to today.
Panelists: Pat Harrigan, Mike Hallenbeck, Jody Wurl, Matt Kessen
Sunday July 7, 2013 2:00pm - 3:00pm
Sofitel Dijon

I've had a lot of fun doing research for these panels. The H.G. Wells group got together the other night to put together an outline for the discussion. Then we watched the 1936 screen adaptation of "Things to Come", for which Wells adapted his own novel as a screenplay. I'd never taken the time to watch this film before, and I have to say it's definitely a touchstone of sci cinema that I'd heretofore missed:

I'm hoping the above gives an idea of just how amazing the sets and art direction are, even by today's standards. It also offers a glimpse at Wells' bizarrely elitist utopian impulses, which we'll be delving into on the panel.

For my other panel, I've watched "The Shining" four, count'em four times in the past couple of months to make sure I'm intimate with the material. As I've written previously, the conventional wisdom is that Kubrick films improve with multiple viewings, and though I was skeptical in this case I found that to be quite true-- the specificity sought by his gazillion-take approach really shines through (sorry).

I watched "The Shining" three times on my own: once straight up, the next time with commentary partially by Steadicam inventor Garret Brown (who seems like a good guy, and obviously has a lot of insight into filmmaking, but damn he says the word "astonishing" a lot), and then another time straight up again to explore what I'd learned. Then another viewing together with my panel-mates, followed by some discussion and divvying up of subject matter to present. If there's a "Shining" edition of Trivial Pursuit coming out any time soon, I'll do quite well at it.

I was shocked-- shocked!-- to find that it fell to me to deliver a presentation on the music and sound design of the film. I've been tracking down as much of the music as I can, falling further and further down the Penderecki rabbit hole as I do so. I love his music, and it's been great to have an excuse to immerse myself in it for a while.

I want to thank "Shining" panel-mate Melissa Kaercher for hooking me up with the image that appears a couple paragraphs above; it's part of a collection of charts made by Kubrick and music editor Gordon Stainforth to plot out the appearances of assorted music cues during the film.

Don't expect this panel to be entirely laudatory though-- we all have some pet peeves about the movie, and you'll be hearing about those too.

When I'm not on panels this weekend, I plan on sitting by the pool, offering a dollar to anyone who's willing to scream "IMPERIUS REX!!!" as they jump in.

Mike Hallenbeck home page