Tuesday, August 9, 2016

In Depth: Original Musical Score for the Short Film "Breathless"

"Breathless" is a short film that celebrates the romantic relationship between Batman villains Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn, an affair "canonized" by DC comics as having commenced on the date of June 12th. Featuring an original musical score I composed, the film duly premiered on June 12th, 2016. And while it was saddening to share the date with the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, releasing a film honoring a same-sex relationship was a counterpoint I took pride in.

In this entry, I'll examine the composition process in detail. First of all, here's the finished film:

Producer/ director Ben Enke told me the instrumentation should generally be very light. He also said the music didn't have to acknowledge specific beats in the story-- which directive I disregarded-- and that it should build into something inspirational at the end. He gave me the following clip from the score of the film "Amelie" to demonstrate the sensibility they were looking for:

I assimilated the waltz feel of the "Amelie" music-- appropriate here, since Quinn's involvement with The Joker and then Poison Ivy sets up a love triangle of sorts-- as well as the instrumental voices evoking chimes and harpsichord. The 60s TV show has always been my favorite screen interpretation of Batman, and the stylistic elements I'd absorbed so far lent themselves well to scoring in a mysterious, pseudo-psychedelic pop style. Morricone, Link Wray, "Meddle"-era Pink Floyd, "Future Days"-era Can, and "Pet Sounds"-era Beach Boys served as inspirations.

Once I'd accepted the mission, melodic passages bubbled up in my brain while I rode around on my bike. I pulled over occasionally to hum fragments into my phone's memo app.

We open on Poison Ivy (Helena Steele, above) working her botanical mojo to a repetitive Rhodes arpeggiation. (Or rather, the simulation thereof; to be clear, this composition was achieved using 100% virtual instrumentation.) Some crotales accents ding in the background-- as it turns out, I used these same elements in director Enke's Enke Films logo animation (directly preceding the opening of the film) a few years back. "It must be the sound you hear every time you see me", he joked when I pointed that out.

Bass and drums kick in eventually as well, and an electric guitar sneaks in as a rougher-textured harbinger of Harley Quinn (Aradia Tombes, above)-- who, it turns out, Ivy's thinking about right now. At 1:15 we see Harley for the first time. The guitar switches from chordal backup to a lead voice, carving a jagged theme that evokes a sinister circus to reference her association with the Joker. An accordion takes over the chordal lines here, for an ersatz/ anachronistic link to the Commedia dell'arte tradition conjured by Harley Quinn's name (a pun on "harlequin").

At 1:51 The Joker (Mr. J, below) makes his first appearance; I acknowledged him with an ominous, fuzzy synth line that occupies the same the same chord structure as Harley Quinn's theme as if competing for her attention.

From 2:34 to 3:15 we see Ivy and Quinn nervous and giddy about getting together, as well as Ivy finalizing and setting out with her plant to give to Harley. I felt like a transitional theme made sense to herald their impending union. Then at 3:15 I brought back Joker and Quinn's themes simultaneously-- easy, since they're both set to the same chord progression-- given that while we see Harley doing her thing, we also see Ivy in the foreground troubled by Quinn's involvement with the Joker, who appears again at 3:43.

At 3:48, noticing Ivy's chagrin/ jealousy, Harley moves over to sit with Poison Ivy. I chose this point to move into the final theme that accompanied the two women getting together. The previous section's Joker synth hangs over the top of this new theme for a bit of a dissonant transition, which I left unpolished to highlight the break Quinn is making with Joker.

The rest of the score develops the arrangement of this final theme until Ivy and Harley's climactic embrace at the end of the film. Ivy's celeste and Harley's guitar dance around each other until they finally join in unison at 4:54, when Quinn answers the door to receive Ivy's gift. Enke asked for a pause at 5:00, to build suspense as we wait to see if Harley accepts the gift or not; when she does at 5:06, the music starts up again and concludes the score. The credits are accompanied by various solo instrument lines from the piece, flipped around backwards and dipped in a bit of reverb.

Thanks again to producer/ director Ben Enke, co-DP Steven Hoff, and performers Helena Steele (Poison Ivy + writer), Aradia Tombes (Harley Quinn), and Mr. J (The Joker) for inviting me to collaborate on this project.

The soundtrack for "Breathless" is available as a download from Bandcamp, here. Listen for free; throw me a couple bucks if you like it.

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