Checkpoint: Soothing The Savage Breast

Posted Friday, November 6, 2009, 8:52 PM

I don't know much about music. I don't even listen to it as often as most other people do. I prefer working and relaxing in silence.

But I do have a small music collection, which I unearth and play every once in a while, and a lot of it tends to be movie soundtracks. I used to buy quite a lot of it, but recently it's died down somewhat, as not a lot of movie music takes my fancy as being particularly pleasant to hear outside of the context of the visuals.

Movie soundtracks (or "scores" as they are often called, to differentiate them from the myriad of pop song collections that have marred the soundtrack racks in recent times) used to spirit you away back into the story of the film, or allow you to visualise something even more exciting of your own making. But these days the editing of a good action movie can be so erratic that the score has to match that effect, making for something quite unpleasant and jarring.

Rob and I have been churning through the final digital visual effects shots for Checkpoint, and we are almost nearing the end of it all. After the main CG work is done, there are a few composites of bullet hits and similar, followed by the colour grade, and the title and credits captions. We can handle all those ourselves, but there is one side we don't have the talents for, and that's the audio: sound effects and music.

The sound effects will be started soon, as the edit is only a couple of effects shots short of the final cut, so that just leaves the music.

In the past, our team has not had a local composer. There is a guy that Dags uses for his films, but though he has visited Australia frequently, he actually lives in the US someplace, which is not the ideal way to get a soundtrack fine tuned. Dags seems happy using this method, but for us it would not have worked very well, we felt we needed to be able to sit down and go through each part of the film piece by piece.

Unbeknownst to us, one of our general dogsbody and anonymous background extras we use frequently, Andy Scott, has a talent that had been hidden from us. He's a pianist. Coupled with his interest in movies, and his willingness to always be a part of the team in whatever capacity that's going, he was an ideal choice. If we could organise a keyboard and a suitable piece of software, we thought we could probably get something that would sound pretty decent out of him, if we sat with him all the way through it.

There are lots of different kinds of music creation software, both simple and elaborate. One that has been around for a long time, and has become quite sophisticated, is Cubase, which allows for MIDI keyboard input to be translated into full realistic orchestral sound samples. A friend of Rob's, Troy, had a copy of this software and a little bit of experience in using it (though not as MIDI, instead for offline track mixing). We corralled him in, and this week we all sat down together to nut out our soundtrack.

At first we struggled, as you might expect for newcomers to this branch of movie making. Partly it was due to learning the software, which had a couple of fundamental bugs we had to work around. But also it was because Andy's piano experience doesn't exactly mirror what is required to get a correctly arranged orchestra. Luckily Troy is a talented violinist, and is familiar enough with orchestras he could provide his own input into what was required.

After searching online and fixing the bugs in the software, and learning the basics of how the software operated, I took over from Troy on the days he wasn't available, and after four days of work, we managed to create six or seven pieces of music, including a few incidental moments, for throughout the film, and though we were muddling along in an unfamiliar environment, I think we came up trumps. There's a consistent style to the music, and it has some evocative melodies. We are justifiably proud of what we've achieved so far.

Troy will now take the MIDI tracks away and mix them into a full sounding orchestra, and hopefully it won't be too long before we'll have our completed soundtrack.

It has been very interesting to have to deal with this part of our movie. Though Rob seemed a little bit daunted by our lack of experience, I was nevertheless quite excited. Rob provided suggestions of what he wanted, I was able to relate it in terms that Andy could (almost) understand, while Troy filled in the terminology blanks, and together we made a great team.

I hope that one day soon we can do this again. Perhaps, dare I say it, even for a feature length film.

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