Scoring the moment refers to the practice of just trying to make the most out of individual scenes. Far too many film composers do it and incompetent directors love it (mostly because many of them wouldn’t know how else to score a movie), but you’ve guessed by now that the phrase has quite a negative ring to it. That’s mainly because the short-sighted focus on one individual scene after another makes storytellers forget what they’re actually doing: telling a story. And a story, as you will most certainly understand, is much more than a sequence of moments.
Ever since the ancient Greeks (yes, that far back!) and before they even knew how to name it, writers have adhered to the principle of what is now commonly known as the three-act story. At its center is a protagonist with any number of flaws. In the first act, he seems to be cruising along pleasantly enough, but there’s always that nagging feeling that his life is somehow incomplete; that’s because he is not coming to terms with his flaws, or to put it differently, it’s because he is not facing his inner demons. In the second act, he is propelled into an upside-down world, or his own world is turned on its head. Anyway, everything is different now: the new situation invariably forces the protagonist to confront his deep insecurities, which he first tries to deal with using the old ways, the ways of the first world. This, of course, does not work. Worse, things degrade to a point where all will be lost if the protagonist does not conquer his inner demons. In short, the protagonist has to change. That transformation (all good stories are about transformation) occurs in the third act, leading to a happy ending (or any of just three other endings, but that would lead us too far.)
Too theoretical for you? Here’s an example: Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) has moved from the big city to the small island community of Amity to fill a post as chief of police. He is perfectly happy, apart from the fact that he is afraid of water. In the second act, everything changes: a big white starts terrorizing the coastal waters just as the tourist season arrives. The shark, of course, is the vehicle of choice for Brody’s full-on confrontation with his aqua phobia. During all of the second act, he tries to solve the situation by staying out of the water (the ways of the old world). This, of course, does not work, and when Brody’s son escapes death by a shave, our protagonist realizes that he must conquer his inner demons if he’s ever going to deal with the external threat. And that kicks off the long shark chase that makes up the movie’s third act. At the end of it, Brody is literally in the water (Quint’s dead and Hooper is down on the bottom of the ocean in a wrecked shark cage), and from Quint’s sinking boat, he kills the shark by shooting a bullet into an oxygen tank the beast is chewing on. In doing so, he rescues Hooper and conquers his aqua phobia.
Final image: Hooper and Brody swimming back to the shore. (Yeah, the shark is just the catalyst, which means that Jaws is not a story about a shark, but about a man who gets over his fear of water.) This three-act pattern is the basis of every standard Hollywood movie you’ve ever seen – well, perhaps not all of them, but if screenwriters or directors have the audacity to stray from the model, they’d better know what they’re doing…
What’s all of this got to do with film music, you may wonder. Well, everything, really. Because of course, any composer worth his salt is not going to score just individual moments, but make sure his score concentrates first and foremost on the arc of the story. And the arc of the story is the slow but complete transformation of the protagonist. Have a badly written protagonist, or a protagonist that doesn’t transform over the course of the story, and you’re going to run into serious trouble as a storyteller. Focus on your protagonist, and you’ll find a way around most if not all of your story’s problems.
Like the editor, the director, the actors and pretty much everyone else on the crew, the film composer is nothing if not a dramatist: a storyteller. His first and only responsibility is (or rather, should be) to the story and to the protagonist. The transformation story of this protagonist is told with staging by the director, with light, framing and imaginative camera work by the director of photography, with meaningful cuts by the editor, with thoughtful play by the actors and with musical notes by the composer. Note that the film composer is not here because of music per se: rather, music is a means to an end, and that end is of a dramatic, story-telling nature. Want an example? When John Scott was hired to score the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Lionheart (I’m not aiming for the stars here), he decided on a scoring approach that was as simple as it was brilliant (and risky). Since the protagonist progresses from zero to hero over the course of ninety-five minutes, Scott affords him a couple of notes at the start and keeps adding notes along the way until they form the (brilliant) main theme, which the composer only states in full at the end of the story. The end title cue is the definitive presentation of the idea (and I’ve had it on my iPod for as long as I’ve had an iPod, bless the folks of Intrada records).
This tells us a couple of things about film music. One: as a viewer, you should never ever leave the auditorium before the end credit crawl is completely over (or, alternatively, you should sue the broadcasting channels that cut to commercials right when the credits start rolling – that’s most of them, by the way, and pretty much all over the world). Two: as a composer, you should never ever just focus on individual scenes, or at the very least not before you’ve scored the arc of the story, which is – I’ll write it one more time – the transformation story of the protagonist. That’s the narrative arc of the score, that’s the story the composer tells, and he tells it not with words, but with notes. Well, to be more precise: with rhythm, harmony and themes. To quote film composer Bill Conti (from the booklet of Varese Sarabande’s fine Gloria album), bang a drum and you’ll see a bunch of kids starting to dance. Work with different harmonies, and you’ve got atmosphere. Throw in themes, ah, now you’re telling a story! I’ll try to clarify using an example from the Horner canon. Late in Project X (1987), grounded pilot Matthew Broderick helps the tortured monkeys escape in a plane they are piloting themselves (which is what they were trained to do all along). Horner has separate themes for the monkeys, for flying, for Broderick’s character, you name it. When in a brilliant burst of victory the monkeys take off, Horner uses Broderick’s theme to accompany their triumphant escape. That’s the composer paying tribute to the story’s protagonist and saying this is his moment of glory, too. Now that’s telling a story! That’s adding a layer of meaning that was not in the visuals! That’s a score that is not just painting white on white!
Again, far too many composers just score moments. More often than not, it’s either what they’re asked to do by directors (well, more likely by producers, because a fair lot of directors never even have a sit-down with their composers since they have to spend all day every day with the special effects guys) or it’s the only thing their increasingly insane composing schedule allows for. The result is invariably the same: a weak score with perhaps a couple of decent cues that never come together as anything, not in the movie and most certainly not on the soundtrack album, where the problem is amplified ten times over.
James Horner never just scored the moment. As soon as he started penning a score, in fact, as soon as he started talking to the director (or to whomever he had to report to), he was all about storytelling and all about structure. Uniquely, Horner went beyond even individual stories and tied his whole oeuvre together through the continued use of references to his own or to other composers’ work. As you can imagine, those other composers were never the ones that just scored moments, either. We’re obviously talking about the classical masters here.
Horner’s tendency to create one gigantic patchwork or canvas all during his career is the stuff Jean-Baptiste writes about in his series of articles It’s Logical. This series is about the opposite. While I have just made it clear that Horner was a master storyteller and dramatist, he was also a great scorer of individual moments. And while those individual moments should never be seen as anything other than pieces of the bigger puzzle, it’s highly interesting to look at how he handled them. That’s why this series of articles should perhaps be called Scoring The Moment For Those Who Have Earned The Right To Do So (STMFTWHETRTDS, pretty much the most useless acronym ever invented, but you catch my drift).
So here’s what I’ll do: I’ll try to explain why the individual cues discussed below are so incredibly brilliant as standalone set pieces (timings mentioned are always as in the film, not the album) and as an afterthought, I’ll do what’s actually the more important thing, which is to show how these standout cues fit into the general architecture of the score. I apologize to James Horner if this series of articles makes him look like a guy who just scored the moment.
He didn’t, far from it.
Still, he was damn great at it.
The Launch from Apollo 13
0 Bringing you up to speed
Astronauts Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) embark on the fateful Apollo 13 mission to the Moon. Astronaut Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise), diagnosed with the flu and thought to get really sick at some point during the mission, is ousted from the team and witnesses the launch from a distance. Ed Harris plays Gene Kranz, chief of Mission Control in Houston. In the crowd gathered for the launch are Marilyn Lovell (Kathleen Quinlan) and Mary Haise (Tracey Reiner). As for the rest, chances are you know what it’s about…
1 On long cues
It’s no secret that James Horner liked to write long cues – The Launch goes on for more than ten minutes. He did this for a good reason: even if it means having to resort to some filler music every once and a while in between the moments that absolutely need music, it was Horner’s way of creating sequences out of scenes and it allowed him to work on a subconscious level. Let me explain. There’s something of a rule that says film music has to be heard rather than listened to. These days, this rule is sadly used as an excuse for cranking out lame music, but Horner understood what it really meant: the focus of the audience should always be on the story and the characters, not on the music – nor, for that matter, on the camera work, the editing, or whatever, because again, these are all just tools to tell the story. Given the fact that all drama is manipulation and that film music is by definition emotional manipulation (almost always of the best kind in this composer’s case), James Horner liked to compose long cues because it meant that at some point, audiences would shift their attention away from the music and experience its effects on a subconscious rather than a conscious level. Once he had found a way into our subconscious, Horner was in a place where he could manipulate us at will.
Also, long cues are a composer’s way of tying individual scenes together into longer sequences, creating greater cohesion within the broader fabric of the film. It’s one of those things only film music can do, and again, it shows film music not as a musical but as a storytelling tool.
But if you’re going to compose long cues, you might as well do them right. Many composers break down long cues into shorter ones and paste the different takes together later on. Not James Horner. This guy liked to compose long cues with literally dozens of sync points and record them in one take! It makes it a lot harder on the musicians and it probably takes a heck of a lot more rehearsal time, but the benefits are undeniable, because the flow of the cue ends up being that much more natural and organic.
Even though The Launch was recorded in a single take, the lengthy cue still divides into three chunks, per the needs of the film sequence. Part 1 (duration 3:30) focuses on the preparations, the astronauts getting into their spacesuits all the way up to them being lowered into the space rocket and the hatch closing on them. I have dubbed Part 2 “the long wait” (2:40). It ends with lift-off, at which point the score kicks into the adventurous third part (4:00) – exhilaration, glitch, wonderment and all.
2 The Launch
2.1 Part 1: preparations (29:06 – 32:36)
Spotting refers to the composer and the director agreeing which scenes to score and exactly when to start and end a cue. These are always delicate decisions, but they are potentially a source of inspired storytelling. There’s a completely wordless scene in Braveheart that sees William Wallace hunting in the forest. He is followed by two men, one of whom will try to kill him. In an inspired move, Horner decided to start the cue with ominous music on the one that ends up saving Wallace’s life, which is a very nice piece of misdirection: it sets the audience up for a surprise, because the music has led us to believe we know who the bad guy is.
In The Launch, Horner starts not on the cut to the astronauts getting ready, but just before, on Marilyn Lovell losing her wedding ring in a motel room shower (at 29:06 into the movie). The tone of the lead-in for low strings is obviously foreboding, and it nicely sets up the trouble ahead well before the space rocket even launches.
This first part is all about the astronauts, so it is only fitting that Horner should tie the bits and pieces together with the space exploration theme. The build-up of the thematic statements is deliberate and very effective: the main theme starts in the horns, reflecting the nobility of the endeavor, segues into strings, pauses for the seven-note NASA motif in the trumpet as we meet the wives in the crowd, and returns to the main theme in the strings, after which Horner thickens the orchestrations, raises the decibel level and cranks out one gorgeous statement of the noble theme after the other, the only hard sync point coming at 31:03 as we see the astronauts walking in slow-motion across the access ramp. That last moment is arguably a bit too much on the nose, but hey, it’s Hollywood, right?
Horner makes liberal use of the main theme here and that is sound judgment, from an emotional, a musical and a structural point of view: the composer instills in the listener the idealism felt by the astronauts, he allows himself a bit of through-composing (freeing himself from sync points and just presenting statement after statement of the main theme in purely musical fashion) and he lends greater cohesion to the goings-on.
Regarding the musical aspect of the cue, have you ever wondered why Horner did not use triumphant fanfares for this grand launch sequence? To quote the excellent critic Christian Clemmensen from filmtracks.com, the music “never dances and twirls, nor does it try to get cute or bloated, as many believe a score like Independence Day to be. As Horner stated in early 1995, 'If you start off with a big score, it sets an audience up for just another sci-fi movie… except Apollo 13 is a documentary; you know where it's going to end. What I'm trying to get out of the story is the idealism.'
Serving as an undercurrent during these first three and a half minutes is an ostinato of pulsating electronics. Christian Clemmensen tells us why:
“The pulsating electronics build the momentum as the launch sequence nears lift-off, and represents the technically sophisticated nature of what we are watching. It also establishes the strong beat and determination that the marching snare drums cannot achieve alone.”
At 31:12, Horner makes sure the last note of the main theme coincides with the cut to Mission Control, Houston. This is where the first bit of filler music occurs, inoffensive horn phrasings with only hints of a theme. As the action returns to the astronauts, the music briefly soars, and at 32:05, Horner again ends the thematic line on a neat little accent as Gene Kranz is seen adjusting the waistcoat his wife made for him. Horner again fills the moment until another triumphant statement of the main theme, and then, all of a sudden, the music comes to a complete standstill save for a suspended high string note. It is the pause that precedes the start of part 2: Gene Kranz exhales cigarette smoke and drinks a sip of coffee.
2.2 Part 2: the long wait (32:36 – 35:16)
The exact second Kranz starts talking to the ground personnel, Horner starts building momentum again, now trading in electronic pulsations for acoustic instruments, low percussion and most prominently snare drums, the change in orchestration effectively marking the transition to a new section of the sequence. The rhythm has picked up slightly now that we are getting closer to lift-off. A lateral move of the camera sweeping over a row of control panels must have inspired Horner to compose a short crescendo, its momentum created less by the snare drums than, cleverly, by the ascending movement up the scales of a thematic snippet that plays on top. The crescendo starts not at the first camera movement, but at the green “Booster” light and only stops when Kranz is done calling out every control panel operator. At this point (33:07), Ron Howard cuts to Launch Control Center in Florida, and the music takes a step back. There are a few sync points (for Kranz tapping his pen, for instance), but by and large, Horner is content to keep up the momentum with a stationary snare drum and percussion ostinato without resorting to any thematic material: the long wait has now started. At 33:18, he does insert some soft and sympathetic children’s choir for Ken Mattingly, who witnesses the launch from a great distance.
Of particular note is the clever moment at 34:00, when the noise of the fuel pumps startles Fred Haise and Horner responds to his worried gaze by slowing the crescendo for a moment to insert an eerie string note. It’s a touch so subtle that it only registers in the audience’s subconscious, and at the same time it is integrated so well into the cue that it does not interfere with its musical flow. Something similar occurs at 37:33, when confronted with a center engine cut-off, Jim Lovell’s gaze drifts towards the “Abort” button.
At 34:26, things start building as the countdown starts. During the next forty seconds, Horner keeps building the tension without releasing it. The crescendo continues even as Jim Lovell yells: “The clock is ticking!”, even as the moorings are cleared, and amazingly, even on a worm’s eye view of the rocket actually lifting off.
2.3 Part 3: the adventure (35:16 – 39:18)
There’s a rule in film music that says: wait for it. As a rule of thumb, film composers hold out for as long as they can, delaying the start of cue until the scene absolutely needs it. That applies to spotting as well. Jerry Goldsmith used to love very sparing scores. On Coma, famously, he made the audience wait a full forty-five minutes for the first score cue. The general idea of course is that the longer you wait, the greater the impact of the score is going to be. James Horner often steered another course, preferring the long-cue approach: as soon as the viewer stops paying attention to the music, the film composer as an emotional manipulator can get to work. (If reducing film music to an instrument of emotional manipulation seems a tad cynical to you, keep in mind that in the hands of someone like James Horner, who as a dramatist time and again showed himself to be an expert analyst of the human soul, respectful and careful emotional manipulation can bring out the very best film music has to offer.)
I remember Hans Zimmer scoring Prince of Egypt and worrying about where he should bring in the big theme during the parting of the Red Sea sequence. He decided to call producer Steven Spielberg for help. “Why, on the shot of the sea parting, of course!” Spielberg replied. Zimmer reportedly cringed, because as he later found out, there was not one but three such shots, one after the other, from different points of view. Here, like in Prince of Egypt, there are not one but multiple moments when it would have been appropriate for Horner to release the tension and bring in the big guns. Not surprisingly, he opts to wait as long as he can. Allowing the tension to build for as long as possible, he makes the release that much more effective when it finally comes. Only after a voice from Mission Control is heard yelling: “We have lift-off!” does Horner drop the ostinato and unleash the full glory of his main theme on a cut to a bird’s eye view of the rocket lifting off (35:16).
"All Systems Go" / The Launch – Apollo 13 – Original Soundtrack by James Horner
Here’s another rule in film music: if competing with sound effects and dialogue, the score will always end up at the bottom of the sound mix. The reasoning behind this is that sound effects and dialogue are necessary from a diegetic point of view: they are what an audience needs to follow the story. Since film music is first and foremost of an emotional and not a diegetic nature, underscore mixed too prominently on the movie’s sound track could end up as a distraction. That is sound thinking, of course, until you start realizing how many times this argument has been turned into an excuse for burying brilliant underscore in the sound mix. While it is true that underscore cannot always be expected to save a bad scene (although directors have often begged film composers to do just that), it is also true that good underscore can add momentum, provide a surprising emotional punch or in any other way elevate a scene to unexpected heights if given the chance to have an impact. That’s why composers have to fight to make sure there score is audible in the final film mix.
There’s another way of solving the issue. An experienced film composer will write around the sound effects and make sure he doesn’t interfere with them, knowing he shouldn’t wage a battle he can’t win in the first place.
In the case of Apollo 13, the filmmakers had invested a good deal of money into creating convincing sound effects of a space rocket lifting off. Right off the bat, Horner knew he wasn’t going to get the score to play over those sound effects, so what he did was play around them. He cleverly constructed the main theme to have two parts separated by a short pause, which allowed him to tacit the score for the sound effects without compromising the musical flow of the theme. The film’s sound mixer found there was no need to dial down the music, because it wasn’t interfering with the sound effects.
At various points during lift-off, Horner uses cymbal crashes: he makes sure the first one comes right before the roar of the engines, the second one is on Marilyn Lovell watching the spectacle in tears of amazement and pride and only the third one is lost a little on the cut to a now almost horizontal space rocket.
Horner throws in everything but the kitchen sink: choir, new rhythmic material, everything he can think of to play up the exhilaration of the moment. At 36:14, he switches from exhilaration to tension, for no apparent reason, because at this point, everything is going just swimmingly. Working on the viewer’s subconscious level pays off in spades here: Horner does not allow us to let our guards down and hurtles us from one emotional high to another, albeit of a very different nature. In the next three minutes, the score admirably jumps from bursts of glory to frenzied tension and back again, turning the launch into a breathtaking rollercoaster ride of emotions. While there are a fair share of sync points, by and large Horner doesn’t break up the rhythm of the music. Through-composing was definitely the way to go here.
It’s interesting to note that the number five engine alarm light is already blinking before the score responds to it at 37:05. That’s a clever bit of psychology on Horner’s behalf, the composer taking the astronauts’ point of view: they wouldn’t have noticed the light until after it had started blinking.
At 38:06, the score settles down for a solemn horn solo as we see Ken Mattingly getting back into his car, and at 38:42 the booster rocket shuts down and the astronauts have successfully entered an orbit in space.
James Horner once said that when asked to score any battle or action scene, he looked forward to the aftermath more than anything else. And for good reason! It is the moment when sound effects and dialogue subside, so from a technical perspective, that means the composer has the movie’s sound track all to himself. From an emotional perspective, it allows him to reflect about what has happened and guide the audience’s response. In this case, Horner pulls off an especially magical moment. A fan of planes and flying himself, he plays the cue’s final half minute as an ode to the serenity of space, with a noble trumpet line and soft children’s choir.
"All Systems Go" / The Launch – Apollo 13 – Original Soundtrack by James Horner
Horner times the last note of the thematic statement to coincide with the cut back to earth, and for several reasons, that last note is a marvel. From a diegetic (= storytelling) perspective, it straddles the launch sequence and the next scene and ensures a smooth transition between them – the note slowly fades out under a bit of conversation between Marilyn Lovell and Mary Haise. Musically, it is a satisfying conclusion to the lengthy sequence. More than anyone else in the film music business, Horner tried to bring closure to a music cue, which is why so many of his cues feel like self-contained musical movements.
3 The narrative arc and quick re-cap
How does James Horner tie everything up into a neat package? Well, for one thing, “the brass represents the far-reaching aspirations of NASA, though maintains the vast and solitary plight of a small space capsule in such an enormous void. The horns often echo off into the distance (in fact, it's built directly into the main theme), which also signifies the vastness of space.” (Christian Clemmensen, Filmtracks)
Also, Horner looks ahead and back. “The momentous, massively orchestral mounting of theme during the launch sequence can send shivers up a person's spine when combined with the awesome visuals on the screen. The final climactic return to that grand theme unfolds when the capsule emerges from radio silence and the crew is discovered alive. The short choral statement of the theme during Hanks' epilogic dialogue is pure magic.” (Christian Clemmensen, Filmtracks) The choral statement in particular is a structural marker, since it appears in both lengthy cues.
It’s small decisions like these that turn the score into a cohesive whole. But of course, any thematically integrated score will do that, and James Horner composed nothing if not carefully integrated themes. As a storyteller and a dramatist, the overarching narrative was always his first concern.
The best scores are the ones that succeed both as a storytelling tool within the fabric of the movie and as a standalone listening experience away from it. Apollo 13 and The Launch in particular is a fine case in point: James Horner makes sure every note of the cue is tailored to the scene’s needs, hitting sync point after sync point while at the same time preserving the musical flow of the piece and presenting various themes in orderly and musically satisfying fashion.
I hope this analysis inspires you to go back to the movie and watch The Launch again. I am pretty sure you will pick up on stuff you have never noticed before. If all of the above makes one thing clear, it’s that analyzing a piece of underscore is like opening up a Swiss watch: once you start to look at the inside, you see how intricately a film composer has devised his instrument: orchestration and instrumental colors, rhythm and pacing, thematic placement, tonal shifts and so on and so on. You also start to realize that in good filmmaking, nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, is coincidence. From production design to lighting and scoring, it’s all about making sure that you as a viewer get the experience filmmakers have in mind. That in this vast area of expertise the element of score is a world of musical and storytelling grammar in and of itself, bears testament to the level of art that filmmaking has become in a little over a century. James Horner was a master Swiss watch maker, but what made him a true artist was his incredible musical talent, his sharp psychological insight and his deep understanding of the human soul.