Have you ever watched an animated film and while watching the film thought, “This is great music!” Have you then wondered how that music came to be, and which came first, the animation, or the music? After all, something had to come first.
If the music came first, then the animators would have a timeline to fill, perhaps forcing the story to stretch, or to shrink, to match the music. On the other hand, if the animation came first, then the music would have to fit like a glove, leaving no room for error.
The latter would put a heavier load on the composer, the conductor, and the musicians. The composer would need to align the music with the story, something musical theatre composers are well aware of. The conductor would need to keep tempos rock-solid, not varying in the slightest from the story streaming around him. The musicians would have to do what they always do (or at least should always do), follow the conductor wherever he took them, with one caveat which will be mentioned a bit later.
In early 2013, Michael Repper invited me to be a part of his studio orchestra for an upcoming animated short film that eventually became entitled: Driven. This was a-once-in-a-lifetime experience for everyone involved, although we weren’t allowed to share the result until recently. Here’s a look at the official final film cut (be sure to turn up your speakers):
Driven was part of Cogswell College’s Project X Productions. As described on their website, Project X is an intense program where students are immersed in all aspects of animated film production, and they create some truly amazing results.
Given this was something I had never done before, I eagerly accepted the invitation. Maestro Repper was finishing his master’s work in conducting at Stanford University that spring, and he had arranged for the orchestra to both rehearse and record the soundtrack on campus. While most of the musicians were from Stanford’s Music Department, the maestro also pulled in a few folks from the outside.
Cogswell’s Professor Timothy Duncan composed the Driven score, and it was some of the most challenging music I’ve ever played. Professor Duncan was at every rehearsal, so we benefited from his explanations of his intention with each section of the music. The score was written in three movements, and although the music we played is only about six minutes long, it’s very complex and interesting to play (and fortunately, fascinating to listen to).
The orchestra rehearsed weekly for a month prior to the recording session in parallel with a portion of the film’s animation process. The storyline had already been finalized, as had the bulk of the animation’s timeline. When it was time to record the final soundtrack, a very solid rough cut of the film had been completed. The music had to align with it, though there were some changes to the music up through the day before the recording session.
On 27 May 2013 (Memorial Day that year), the stage at Stanford’s Dinkelspiel Auditorium was transformed into a recording studio, with Cogswell students and advisors supplying the recording equipment and expertise. All the orchestra members had to do was play their parts as perfectly as possible to get a clean take.
For classically trained musicians, playing the ink (i.e., playing exactly what is written on the page) is a way of life, but sometimes that ink can be daunting. It’s occasionally necessary to quickly adjust a passage to make it sound as clean as possible with the effect the music director desires, even when that can mean slightly modifying the ink to make it playable. For live performance, that works. For a soundtrack recording, not only can you not cheat on tempos, you can’t fake the ink.
The need for precision, combined with the musical challenges, made for a very long, but satisfying day. The maestro worked with a click track in his ear and kept an eye on the rough cut animation streaming behind the orchestra as we played.
We started with the first movement of the music, which took several hours. In a live performance, there are always some minor imperfections, but for a studio recording, it had to be clean. Any extraneous noise was enough to force yet another take, be it a noticeable misplaced note, a dropped mute, or even a breath in the wrong place.
Along the way, mikes were moved based on the instrumental balance needed, and adjustments were made based on the intermediate recordings captured. Unlike a full studio, each player was not individually miked. Instead, there were several area mikes for featured parts and a few standing mikes that the recording engineers positioned appropriately for the given section of music. That added one more reason to break the movements into segments for recording purposes – the recording engineers were continually repositioning the mikes.
Once we finally got clean takes of each section of the first movement, we moved on to the second. The animation changed scene, and the music did as well. The first movement ended with a flourish, but the second movement began the flashback sequence in the film and changed mood.
At the top of the second movement, the tempo alternates between a slower, lyrical statement, and a mocking chase. The oboe and strings provided the lyrical portion, and the mocking section was a vigorous clarinet solo. Maestro Repper and Professor Duncan made the decision to record the rest of the orchestra that day, and brought me into the studio later in the week to dissect the short solo section (a total of 17 measures) toward the beginning of the movement. I still played several other featured portions during the full recording session, just not that troublesome solo.
The all-day session broke for dinner after about five hours which allowed us to rest our chops and relax for a bit before getting back to work to tackle the most difficult movement overall.
The third movement was the most chaotic sequence. It started at a breakneck tempo. A few seconds into the movement, the orchestra had about 14 seconds of silence where a bit of country music would be inserted in post-production. Following that silence, there was more frantic chase music, though it was more complex than that. There was another short silent section into which sound effects would be inserted before the most frenetic music ensued.
The third movement was the most interesting of the three, and it also had the most changes along the way making it the least consistent from rehearsal to rehearsal. Professor Duncan had to adjust the timing as the animation development progressed during our rehearsal process, so some of the third movement wasn’t rehearsed until the day before the recording session. Still, the musicians were up to the challenge and learned very quickly.
In the completed film, a rock music section, not recorded by the full symphonic ensemble, was used for the credits. Probably the most satisfying frame for the group at Stanford that warm Memorial Day in 2013 was the final credit before the end title showing the full orchestra roster.
The added session later in the week to nail down the clarinet solo at the top of the second movement was probably a little closer to a more traditional recording session. Cogswell College has a small recording studio on site, so that session was much more compact. For that one, I ended up playing directly with the click track, and we broke the passage into four parts, two for each section of the solo. While we recorded several clean takes that day, because I was in the studio, and it was a short passage, we had the opportunity to play with phrasing a bit more than the full orchestra session allowed.
After we finished the recording session, the sound engineer did a rough cut overdubbing the solo onto the best of the orchestra recordings he’d assembled. It was very satisfying to hear what was pretty close to the final musical portion of the soundtrack. The sound effects hadn’t yet been added, so it was a pure music recording. Alas, the musical soundtrack isn’t available as a separate recording. Even with the sound effects, the music remains both compelling and very exciting.
In November of 2013, we were invited to the first public screening of Driven, along with several other films created at Cogswell College. Only a couple of us from the orchestra were able to attend that screening, but the rest of the production team was there in force, greatly outnumbering the full orchestra. Driven has many fingerprints on the final product, each one important to making it a quality production.
The film later went through a few more editing cycles as it made its way through the international film festival circuit, but it only became generally available in mid-2015, both on the Cogswell College website and directly on YouTube. The film that is now available is only subtly different from the version that was screened in the fall of 2013. The one thing that didn’t change was the recording of Maestro Repper’s orchestra. Some sound effects might obscure a few notes, but the music is there, as bold and as colorful as it was the week it was recorded.
Driven is all of six minutes and 45 seconds in length, but for the musicians who contributed to the music making for the effort, it will provide memories for a lifetime.
Update: Cogswell College is now University of Silicon Valley (USV)