Fifteen GigaStudio 3 Systems Help Bring the Summer's Biggest Action Film to Life
By Jeff Laity
July 11, 2007
One of the most anticipated films of the summer, Spider-Man 3 broke records for the biggest opening weekend ever. The team that made the first two films such a success - including Tobey Macquire, Kirstin Dunst and director Sam Raimi - was joined by a large new cast of villains. Notably absent from the third installment was composer Danny Elfman, succeeded by veteran composer Christopher Young. Known for horror and suspense scores like The Grudge, Ghost Rider, Swordfish and Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2, Young was under pressure to deliver a score for an already-successful franchise, and possibly the biggest project of his career. We spoke to Christopher and some of his orchestration crew to hear first-hand how GigaStudio makes summer blockbusters sound as big as the computer-generated sandstorms that fill the screen.
"I would have to say the greatest challenge was following in the footsteps of Danny Elfman," said Young. "He had successfully scored both Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 and he wasn't available for part 3. I knew coming on board that I would have to utilize, if nothing else, themes from the first two movies. If you're a composer who has a voice of your own, and you're in a situation where you're being asked to seamlessly incorporate someone else's music, that can be a real challenge. What I tried to do was hopefully honor his themes and somehow retain some of my own personality and sort of wrap myself around them. There were essentially three Elfman themes that I had to use: the Spider-Man Heroic theme, Green Goblin Theme - because the son of the Green Goblin was one of the villains in this movie - and finally what we were calling the Fate theme. So when those moments came, I had to move from my original music to one of Danny's themes, back to one of my material, so that it seemed seamless."
The second challenge was scoring a film with so many bad guys - Son of Green Goblin, Venom and Sandman - as well as Peter turning into Bad Peter, Spider-Man and Venom. "When we spotted the picture, we figured out there were 15 thematic opportunities. Maybe even more, based on different shadings of characters and such, and I said, 'Sam, this is too much. I'm concerned it might fragment the experience for the audience.' Too many themes - and I don't care how wonderful those themes are - and it's going to create dissatisfaction in the audience. Because then the music is going to do the opposite of what it would normally do, which is to sort of wrap the whole thing together into a cohesive whole. We were very worried about that, so we had to be judicious about how we used the themes so they wouldn't blow the picture apart."
One of the new baddies that needed its own sound was a black slime monster that eventually becomes Venom, the Anti-Spider-Man. Christopher said this substance provided a unique challenge, and he found an equally unique technique to give it a voice. "I knew that most of the footage of this slime was so short I couldn't give it a melody. It wouldn't support a pitched motif; it had to be really short. Sam said he wanted the music to represent the slimy nature of it - the fact that it was like a jellyfish, an amoebic glahhhk that's kinda gloopin' around. It had to have a timbre that almost sounded like it was slurring and greasing and slurring itself around. So I had this thought of utilizing flutes in an unusual way. I worked with a flautist who helped me realize this by taking the end of the flute off, and rather than blowing into the hole that a flautist would normally blow into, she blew directly into the interior of the flute while buzzing with her lips. She played as if she was a trumpet player, rapidly moving the keys around randomly. There were three of them that did that, and then the product was put through delay."
After the flute sounds were recorded, synthesizer programmer Max Blomgren created a custom GigaStudio instrument using the samples with added effects. Adam Barber was one of the other synth programmers and orchestrators on Spider-Man 3 who had to play the sound, which the team called 'Flute Goo.' Adam Barber explains, "whenever you saw it in the sketch, 'flute goo,' then you had to look to the picture, see how it was cut and play the flute goo accordingly. We had the sample, and it was effected a bit with delays and a little reverb."
A score as big as Spider-Man 3, with wall-to-wall music and almost daily picture edits up to (and after!) the orchestra recording date, is nearly impossible for one person to do alone anymore. Christopher divides the labor by creating pencil sketches himself, then handing these to an orchestrator. The orchestrator takes the sketches and turns them into 12-line sketch scores, then hands them off to the synth programmers. The programmers play the parts into GigaStudio, allowing the composer to play a fully-realized demo for the director at a meeting they call the show-and-tell. As Chris explains, "When the director is coming over, we do our best job at creating the illusion that what they're hearing at the show-and-tell is exactly what they're gonna hear at the stage. So the quality of the samples and how the samples are manipulated are critical to the success of the show-and-tell. But you always know all the hard work you put into those mockups is all for naught, because they're not going to be used in the final anyway."
"I write out my parts with pencil and paper and the sketches go downstairs to be input. When I come down, I'm waiting to hear this piece sound just like it's going to sound, just like an orchestra. And I can be very painstaking and not easy to be with in order for the mockups to sound perfect. My philosophy is, 'If you guys are forgetting what an orchestra sounds like, put on a CD and listen to an orchestra.' Because often when we get into the synth world, we forget what real orchestras sound like. We get so accustomed to the sample libraries. But GigaStudio has certainly done a miraculous job at making the mockups sound brilliant."
The Spider-Man 3 Technical Crew. From left: Assaf Rinde, Richard Temple, David G. Russell, Adam Barber, Max Blomgren
Back in the studios, the crew used Digital Performer with racks of GigaStudio systems. Programmer Max Blomgren described the equipment configuration: "We bought seven new systems just for this movie. We already had four, so that makes 11." "And I had four in my room," said fellow programmer Adam Barber, "So that makes 15 in total. Without GigaStudio, Spider-Man 3 would not have been possible."
Why did they choose GigaStudio? "It's a powerhouse," explained Adam. "It's efficient, it's simple, and the libraries are great. You can create a huge palette, and the polyphony on the new Vision DAW computers was like 700 voices." Max added, "Especially on a movie like this, where every cue is so massive, you need the power to get all of the notes in."
A major concern on a big-budget film, especially with so much music to write, is that the systems be reliable. "Oh, they were completely reliable," according to Adam. "We got a bunch of computers from Vision DAW and they were fantastic. I will never go to anyone else." Which is a big deal when sleep is a distant memory. "We worked 100 hours a week, maybe more. A 12-hour day is a short day. You can't allow the technology to slow you down."
Though Chris' team buys just about every new library that comes out, many of the sound libraries they use faithfully should sound familiar to GigaStudio users, like Sonic Implants (now SoniVox). "We like Project SAM percussion, that's great stuff," said Adam. Programmer David G. Russell said that they use "a lot of custom stuff, but I could get by with Project SAM and Sonic Implants for 80% of my stuff. Those two are just great." Adam added, "There are also a lot of little proprietary collections that Chris has built throughout the years, and all of us have changed or tweaked a library that already exists."
Some of the sample library edits involve simply stretching the range of a sample to fit the extreme high and low notes that Chris likes to use. David explained: "Chris likes to write a lot of high Ds and Es [in the strings], and some libraries don't go that high, so we fixed them. There's a lot of editing at the last minute because we see pitches outside the range of the sample in our score." Adam agrees, "Chris writes a lot of extreme pitches and extreme techniques. You'll see these all over his scores. And regular sample collections don't often take that into consideration." Sometimes there's no way to adapt an existing sample library into the sound you need and it's time to bring in a player for a late-night session. "We brought a cellist once at 11:00 at night, he just came over. And we recorded him sitting next to a stack of six computers whirring away. And no one will ever know - if you mic the room well, and consider the microphone's pattern, you can take out some of the noise." Max continued, "Now for every movie that's done, we'll build a custom library which gets used again. In some films, like The Grudge 2, quite a bit of the final score was these GigaStudio samples. If there are very specific string effects - if it's so specific that later on the real orchestra cannot match the sound we've gotten used to - then the samples are used. On The Grudge 2, a majority of that score was done here with Giga."
Another need for custom libraries is that Christopher Young enjoys finding new sounds from the orchestra. Many composers use synthesizers for new sounds, but Chris's inspiration often stems from 20th century techniques. "What made certain parts of my earliest stuff the most exciting was when I was able to take acoustic instruments and mutate them in a way that created an entirely different sonic universe, but still retained an acoustic attitude. In a lot of these creepy films I've worked on, there was no better opportunity to work on these kinds of textures in those kinds of movies.
"You see, when I first came out here, my fantasy was to reinvent the sonic world of film music, utilizing my interest in Musique Concréte to turn film music into pure, dramatic sound, where anything goes. I'm talking about for spooky films and thrillers. This was before the whole concept of sound design became popular. As you know, today there are film scores that are really nothing more than what we're talking about. But back in the '80s, that wasn't happening yet. There may be moments, windows, scenes inside of these creepy movies were it made sense to let go, say goodbye to tonality or even traditional orchestral instruments and move into that subterranean place where sounds become the soul of the scene.
"That was my interest, and there was a film I worked on called Invaders From Mars, which was unfortunately the first score of mine that got thrown out. And indeed, I can say retrospectively, they were not looking for music from Mars but about Mars. [laughs] I can't blame them for throwing it out because it was pretty wacky. I went out and got a whole ensemble of different percussion instruments, sampled them, and the whole score was about mutating them into clusters through tape manipulation. But it's my favorite score in a strange way."
Today, Chris continues to push the boundaries of this technique, but uses GigaStudio instead of tape manipulation. "The parts that ultimately get mixed into the score might be anything from sequenced or live percussion to a variety of unusual textural and sonic entities. That's exactly what I use the technology for, and GigaStudio did a brilliant job at it. Without it I would have been lost."