(You will find the introduction to this interview in the previous post Film Music and the Art of Manipulation)
Pianoways: Hi Meitar, thank you so much for being here. Could you start off by describing the process of composing film music?
Meitar: Every director and each film are different. Some directors want the music to be written before shooting the film. They may play the music on the set to get the actors into the right emotional environment. Other directors shoot the film and then add the music to emphasize certain elements.
As a composer, your best friend is the editor, who is like the percussionist in a band- the editor dictates the rhythm and speed of the film. Your other best friend is the sound designer (if the film has a large enough budget for both a composer and a sound technician). The sound designer is the only other person who actually listens to the film without focusing on the visual. Technically speaking the composer is under the department of the sound designer, who is the one who pulls it all together and creates the sound track.
Pianoways: What would be the first steps for composing?
Meitar: Once I have the film draft I will watch it through and then sit with an instrument and try playing along with the video, like the live piano player at the theatre in the time of silent movies. Sometimes I’ll start with the rhythmical elements, tapping on the table to capture the beat I want, getting into the groove of the scene, and then I will build the music on that. Other times I’ll go for the atmosphere, using sound color and harmony. In other scenes I’ll start humming a melody that could get the effect I’m looking for. The first step is to get the core idea; to understand how I would like to add to the story in the simplest way.
Pianoways: The element of time in film is different than in reality. How do you support the flow of time through music?
Meitar: As in reality, a minute can be experienced as long or short. It is largely the music that determines whether the viewer will feel laid back or rushed into the happening.
First of all, the speed of the music is crucial to the experience of time with the obvious implications.
Another significant element is how emphasized the beat is. If the beat does not feel steady and solid, the sense of time is affected, creating a dream like feeling.
One more often used technique is to contrast image and sound, pairing a fast and aggressive action scene with slow and laid back music to create more distance, or a quiet scene with intense music for suspense as in horror films.
Music molds the emotions of the viewer but also conveys the inner world of the character, indicating if the character feels more relaxed or anxious.
Pianoways: How is the heartbeat sound used in film?
Meitar: The sound of heartbeats is almost a cliché but this psyche acoustic effect it is very effective. If you succeed in catching the heartbeat of the viewer, you can actually drive their heartbeat up or down as you wish.
As in Trance parties?
It’s the exact same technique. Film music composers actually learned this technique after seeing how effective it can be on the trance scene.
Pianoways: I’ve actually noticed that when I am aware of the music during a film, it is annoying. I feel the illusion is gone, the tools that are manipulating my feelings being exposed, breaking the magical spell. I especially cringe when I am aware of an attempt to make me feel amused or light-hearted. How do you keep the music under the consciousness radar?
Meitar: For keeping under the radar it is very important to enter and to exit unnoticed. I look for moments that grab the viewers’ attention like a door slamming or a gun shot that enable me to slip in with my first note and sneak inside the scene, or exit unnoticed.
Secondly, the volume. If you don’t get too loud you are less noticed.
Melodies draw attention, so if you want to stay unnoticed you will use more harmony and sound effects rather than a clear melody.
Natural images can be used too. Flowing water for instance can be supported by sounds similar to water that can grow or die away. Here the work with the sound designer is especially important.
Pianoways: What about clear themes like Hedwig, Jack Sparrow etc.?
Meitar: Even then, the sneaking in is important, getting in without being noticed. Taking a chord that starts softly, adding layers carefully built on top of it until the heroic moment comes where the music can speak and move to the front stage, taking the lead.
Pianoways: What is the proportion of acoustic instruments versus electronic sound effects?
Meitar: Sometimes it's a budget question but not always. There are also whole Hollywood films created purely with electronic music. The attitude toward electronic music has changed over the last decade; people are a lot more open to it now. Covid also made electronic music more convenient to use versus acoustic.
The film genre determines the music too. Science fiction or dystopian films will use cold and distanced electronic sounds to match the environment of the story.
For a warm and human atmosphere you will tend to use acoustic music.
There are also combinations of sounds recorded acoustically and processed electronically which is becoming more common now.
Pianoways: Favorite film music?
Meitar: My favorites change all the time, but right now I’m impressed with the music to Arrival by Johan Johansson. The film is about the invention of a new language and the music goes through a similar process. Johann Johansson recorded human voices, strings, piano and percussion and then created new, unique sounds.
In the new Dune film Hans Zimmer did the same, inventing new instruments through the combination of acoustic and electronic. Interestingly, both films have the same director, Denis Villeneuve, which proves how much influence the director has on the music in the film.
Pianoways: Thank you Meiter for this fascinating interview! Looking forward to watching the films you compose for in the future.
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-Film Music and the Art of Manipulation
- Wladyslaw Szpilman: "The Pianist"
- Interview with Dr. Andrzej Szpilman
- Movie Themes at the Piano
- Interview with Carol Matz, Composer and Arranger