There was an interesting article in the LA times yesterday, an interview with composer James Horner concerning his collaboration with “Titanic’s” James Cameron on his new film “Avatar. It is a very expensive film, and James Horner, an Oscar -winning composer, is most likely making at least a million dollars on it.
In the interview, Horner explains what he is doing to create a memorable, unique, and completely different sounding score to go with the film:
From the LA times, below:
JH: I had to create a sound world that was really quite different than anything I had used before. It wasn’t simply a matter of using instruments from New Zealand or Iceland or Lapland; I had to create new instruments, too, a whole library of instruments and sounds. I also found indigenous instruments and digitized them and changed them slightly. I used a lot of voice and digitized that to create a sound world for myself, a palette of colors so that I was able to create worlds that satisfied [James Cameron] and his need for this new world to sound appropriate as a place that you had never been to. It had to be different and alien yet at same time to have a very warm quality and an organic quality. The score needed to be very grounded, too, as I said. The score is very thematic even though the colors are very exotic.
GB: That’s interesting about the created or altered instruments. Could you be more specific?
JH: There were a lot of vocal sounds I took from various places. These were odd vocal sounds that I would manipulate digitally and there were interesting flutes, for instance, from South America and Finland that I wanted to be more abstract. I also have instruments invented from scratch. They were programmed. There were a lot of instruments that sound like flutes of different sorts, but they were combined with gamelan-sounding instruments. The gamelan is Balinese. The word itself means “orchestra.” The individual gamelan instruments are these bell-like sounds. A lot of the percussion for “Avatar” is gamelan-based or sounds gamelan-based. So this has this sort of quality of ringing bells, like Indonesian music. It’s a very pretty fusion of different worlds that gives the place itself a quality that is magical. Using it for percussion, rather than drums or other things, gives a sort of magical glow to everything. And as I said there were a lot of instruments that I invented and worked on with my programs. I was very particular.
James Horner describes the process that Tomas does on every film very eloquently. The irony is, Tomas used to be the guy that was creating the sounds for other composers, who then took the created instrumental sounds and wrote the music. We decided many years ago that Tomas should be writing with his own sounds and stop working for other composers. (Let it be known here that Tomas never worked with James Horner). James Horner has a guy, or many guys, working day and night on whichever is Horner’s sample-based software/hardware/computer system of choice to create this world. James gets to listen, choose his favorite, and write with it.
Tomas, working on Independent Films, does all of the creation work himself, which can take weeks, sometimes months, then he gets the luxuty of sitting back and writing the score. This takes much more time, as he is one man doing the job of five men. The ultimate irony is, a small film that does not pay much, is going to get a score that can rival any million dollar Oscar winner’s score, any day.
The only drawback for a director is the score can take a little more time. But, once it is finished, as always happens to Tomas, people will be blown away by what they hear, and wonder where “this guy” has been and how come they never heard of him?
I am not writing to give Tomas a big head, or justify why a film takes so long. This has been his track record, and every director he has scored a film for will tell you that. Perhaps someday that budget of a million dollars will come along, and Tomas can hire an assistant, and the film will be finished faster. Until that day, he works tirelessly, no matter how much he is paid, to give the director everything he has inside of himself, and more. He comes perilously close to making himself physically ill, from overwork, lack of sleep, too many cigarettes – that is where I come in, to try and get him to rest, eat better, drink less coffee, smoke a little bit less. It causes us to bicker sometimes, but I can never really be angry with him, as I see the work ethic he has, and the relentless drive for perfection, and when all is said and done, his music blows me, and everybody else away, every film, every time.