Music & Sound: Striking A Responsive Chord During Awards Show Season
A lower-profile, Oscar-winning “silent” film was spurred on by an artful score from Breed Music, Dallas
March 23, 2012, Robert Goldrich – Artisans with commercialmaking ties fared well at last month’s Academy Awards (SHOOTonline, 2/27). And the spot music/sound community contributed to that performance—at the Oscars and for that matter, the Grammys—this awards season.
For one, consider accomplished composer Mark Foster whose commercials/branded content roost is music/sound house Mophonics.
The singer-songwriter and his band, Foster the People, were nominated for two Grammy Awards this year, including Best Alternative Album honors for “Torches.”
Meanwhile another two-time nominee—this one for the Academy Awards—was Ren Klyce whose company Mit Out Sound is well known in the ad industry. Klyce has handled audio and sound design for assorted commercials over the years, working with a number of directors, including David Fincher.
On the strength of his work for Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Klyce was nominated this year for a Best Sound Editing Oscar and was part of the team—also consisting of David Parker, Michael Semanick and Bo Persson—in the running for the Sound Mixing Oscar.
Moving over from the nominees’ field to the winner’s circle, consider the musical contributions to The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, which earned the Academy Award last month for Best Animated Short Film.
Though he didn’t receive a golden statuette, composer/arranger/producer John Hunter of Breed Music, Dallas, feels like an Oscar winner given that he scored the film, the success of which relied significantly on music and sound elements, particularly since the short had no dialogue. Seems like the resurrection of the silent film era goes beyond just the higher profile The Artist, which topped this year’s Academy Awards derby.
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore—directed by author/illustrator William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg who are with Moonbot Studios in Shreveport, Louisiana—shows us a young man whisked off by a powerful storm to a place where books are living entities, depicting a fanciful world to which book lovers everywhere can relate.
“It’s one of those dream projects,” said Hunter whose background is steeped in commercials, with a smattering of features.
“It’s ironic,” continued Hunter. “I had to move from Los Angeles to work with these guys in Shreveport in order to get closer to the movie industry and the Oscars. The short winning the Academy Award means a lot to me because with no dialogue, music was the voice of this film.”
Finding one’s voice
The responsibility for creating such a voice was both incredibly daunting and inspiring.
“The biggest creative challenge was internal,” observed Hunter. “If at the end the film had lacked emotional content, the composer would get the blame. I was kind of entrusted with writing the dialogue with music, which can be a lot of pressure. But once I got over that hurdle, I realized that there’s no better showcase for the music than this kind of project.”
Another built-in challenge was the directors’ mandate that the tune “Pop Goes The Weasel” represent the title character Morris Lessmore’s identity. The directors also mandated that “Pop Goes The Weasel” couldn’t be too cutesy.
“That second prerequisite was the hardest part,” assessed Hunter. “I had to manipulate and arrange the melody, hinting at different versions. I didn’t want the viewer in the end to hear ‘Pop Goes The Weasel.’ You weave the versions or suggestions of the melody in and out at times, balanced with original music.
Hunter cobbled together a 50-piece orchestra piecemeal, finding local players and having groups of them perform in separate studio sessions—strings, small brass, large brass.
“We recorded them, overdubbed them, used every trick in the book to make it sound as big as possible, all on a tight budget,” said Hunter who spent two months at Moonbot in Shreveport so that he could work directly on the short and collaborate with the artisans there.
“Shreveport is about a three-hour drive from my Dallas studio but it made sense for me to be right at Moonbot, being included in a lot of conversations, getting a feel for what they wanted the music to do,” explained Hunter. “I’d go to the next room, do some music and they would animate to that. Then once they were finished, I would adjust and tweak the music further. That made all the difference in the world. With most films, I get a final cut and start working from there. Here I had access to the animators as the short was being animated. I could noodle around with ‘Pop Goes The Weasel’ and present it to them on the spot. I think that’s why the score fit so well for this film. It was an ideal way in which to work.”
Hunter also collaborated closely with Joyce and Oldenburg on the short film’s accompanying app for iPad which garnered positive feedback, sales and reviews. The app allows the reader to participate in and throughout the Morris Lessmore story on various levels.
Collaborative track record
The composer and the directors have a track record that goes back a number of years, especially Hunter and Oldenburg who first collaborated in the mid-1990s when the latter was at Reel FX in Dallas and Hunter was partnered with composer Jon Slott in Dallas-based Juniper Music.
“That’s where we first cut our teeth together on commercials and then Brandon introduced me in ’97 to Bill [William Joyce] who’s written and created famous children’s works like ‘Rolie Polie Olie’ and ‘Meet the Robinsons.’ We first worked on a film based on Bill’s picture book ‘The Man In The Moon.’ From there we all get to know each other, which laid the groundwork for our being able to collaborate successfully.”
Indeed Juniper and Reel FX went on to team on various jobs, including GI Joe commercials for Hasbro from Dallas ad agency Uproar! and DVD movies GI Joe: Spy Troops (featuring the first CG-animated GI Joe) and then GI Joe: Valor vs. Venom.
For a stretch at Juniper, Hunter worked out of Los Angeles, composing, producing and arranging for commercials as well as such theatrical feature films as Big Stan, American Virgin and Tekken.
Fast forward to the summer of 2010 when Oldenburg approached Hunter about scoring Morris Lessmore.
“We were both starting new chapters in our careers at that time—Brandon had moved to Louisiana and started Moonbot with Bill, and John and I had merged our company, Juniper, with a competitor in Dallas, composer Brian Flores’ The Listening Chair, to form Breed Music.
“Brandon told me they had this great project which they envisioned as being the definitive calling card for Moonbot,” recalled Hunter. “They knew they had something special and now it’s won an Oscar.”
Heading the sound design team for Breed Music on The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore was sound designer Oliver Benevidez. The 5.1 audio post mix was done by Scottie Richardson at another mainstay commercial house in Dallas, Fast Cuts Edits.
Breed’s spot clients include Budweiser, ESPN, McDonald’s, HBO, BMW, Ford, Comcast and Coca-Cola.