Sunday, October 30, 2005
Save it with the music
In general, the process of making a movie is a difficult one, but some genres are more difficult than others. Horror (and science fiction), in particular, require certain leaps of faith that are more difficult to accomplish than other, more conventional, genres. This places more importance on all aspects of the film. For a good horror movie, everything needs to be there, including the writing (important for any movie, but horror films usually require a little more imagination), cinematography (very important in horror), and the music, amongst other aspects.
I'm going to focus on the music because while music is important in all films, it is even moreso in horror. Films depend on music to help set the mood, and good composers are often able to do so without calling too much attention to themselves. Perhaps it's just me, but music is often able to evoke an understated emotional response, one that sometimes isn't recognizable until after the film has ended. As such, the auditory aspects of a film are often overlooked in favor of the other, more overt, features of the film. Yet any good horror film will rely almost as much on the sound as the visuals to provide the scares.
"Music in horror films is probably more powerful than in any other genre, so it's good for a composer to do them because he can be very influential on the action."That quote is from composer Simon Boswell (found via this excellent article on sound and horror films), notable for his work on many horror films (including several by the infamous Italian director Dario Argento), and I think he's right. Some great examples of how composers really shape the action can be heard in Jaws (courtesy of John Williams) and John Carpenter's Halloween. John Williams' ominous searching cue steadily builds on itself, brilliantly setting the tone for the viewer. Perhaps even more evokative is John Carpenter's score for his seminal slasher flick, Halloween. He describes the process of writing the music for Halloween:
I shot Halloween in the spring of 1978. It was my third feature and my first out-and-out horror film. I had three weeks of pre-production planning, twenty days of principle photography, and then Tommy Lee Wallace spent the rest of the spring and summer cutting the picture, assisted by Charles Bornstein and myself. I screened the final cut minus sound effects and music, for a young executive from 20th Century-Fox (I was interviewing for another possible directing job). She wasn’t scared at all. I then became determined to "save it with the music."And she was right. Just try watching halloween with the sound off and you'll see what I mean. Most of the tension fades away, and while there are certainly some creepy visuals, it's the music that truly cements the scares in the film. The simplistic three-note piano melody that Carpenter composed for the main theme (mp3) is truly haunting. It stays with you, and plays in your head whenever the lights go out.
The scoring sessions took two weeks because that’s all the budget would allow. Halloween was dubbed in late July and I finally saw the picture with an audience in the fall. My plan to "save it with the music" seemed to work. About six months later I ran into the same young executive who had been with 20th Century-Fox (she was now with MGM). Now she too loved the movie and all I had done was add music. But she really was quite justified in her initial reaction.There are some techniques which are more obvious than others, but if they're done well, there's nothing wrong with that. The aformentioned Jaws theme is an excellent example of a long musical build-up that also builds tension in the audience, who becomes convinced that something is going to happen. In Jaws, it does, but many composers have subverted that convention by using the musical build-up as misdirection (i.e. instead of a giant monster, it turns out that the ominous sounds were just caused by the family cat).
Another obvious technique is what Roger Ebert describes as the "boo" moment (or what Carpenter calls the "stingers"), where a sudden sharp noise startles the audience, which is also often used to emphasise a visual surprise. This is sometimes referred to as a "cheap" technique, but I think it's fine if it's used sparingly.
However, even in films that have striking themes and stingers, the music ultimately serves as a medium for subliminal suggestion, setting the mood and subtlety evoking an emotional response. In a horror film, this is of paramount importance, and that's why most great horror films have notable soundtracks. John Carpenter had resolved to "save it with the music," but I don't think there was anything unique about that experience. I think most horror films need to have that musical base to truly be effective.
Update: This post has been featured in the Carnival of Music! Check it out for lots more music goodness.
Sunday, October 23, 2005
MP3 Player Update
About a month ago, I wrote about MP3 Players in an attempt to figure out which player was best for me. At the time, I was leaning towards the 20GB iPod Photo, but the Cowon iAudio X5 was giving me serious pause. As such, I sort of just spun my wheels until I heard that Apple was going to announce another change to their iPod line, which ended up being the new iPod Video. This upgrade to the iPod line made my decision a lot easier, and I bought one the night it was announced. It seems that procrastination actually paid off for me.
After 5 days of steady use, I'm quite pleased with the iPod. It's easy to use, elegant, and it does everything I need it to do (and more). ArsTechnica has a thorough review, and I won't bother repeating most of it. The one thing I'll talk about is the "scratching" issue (as the Ars reviewer didn't mention much about that), which seems to be so bad with the iPod nano that many are assuming that the new black iPods will suffer from the same issue. So far, I've yet to get any scratches on my shiny new black iPod, but I have to admit that I'm a careful guy and I generally keep it in the soft carrying case that came with it when I'm not using it. The black model does seem to make fingerprints and the like much more visable, but that's not that big of a deal to me, as it cleans up easy.
The battery life seems excellent for playing music, but it may be a bit lacking when it comes to video. The 30GB model only has 2 hours of video playback, which would be enough for a short movie during a flight, but that's a mixed blessing in my mind, as I wouldn't then be able to listen to music for the remainder of a longer flight... I did download an episode of Lost, and the video itself does appear crisp and clear and surprisingly watchable (considering the relatively small size of the screen). It only plays .m4v files, which is mildly annoying, as most applications (by which I mean the ones I was able to find with 2 minutes research) that encode in .m4v are only for the Mac. Evan Kirchhoff did an interesting comparison on his blog: Video ITunes vs. Piracy. The ITunes version downloaded faster and took up less space, but was also lower quality (in terms of both video and audio) and the compression wasn't as good either (and the pirated version was also widescreen). I think this is indicative of the fact that the new iPod isn't really the Video iPod, it's an iPod with video. Because of the small screen size, tiny CPU, and limited storage, I think the ITunes downloads make sense right now. As time goes on, I'm sure we'll see more advanced offerings, including higher quality downloads (perhaps even multiple encodings). In any case, the video functionality wasn't that important to me, but it is quite a nice perk (and it may come in useful at some point).
As for getting the iPod up and running in my car, I chose the Monster Cable iCarPlay Wireless FM Transmitter. I've had less time to evaluate this, but so far I've gotten a mediocre and uneven performance out of this. Sometimes it's excellent, but sometimes there is a lot of static (and changing stations doesn't seem to help). Part of the problem is that I'm in the Philadelphia area, so there aren't very many available stations (so far, 105.9 seems to work best for me). I suspect this is about as good as a FM transmitter of any kind would get for me, and I like the Monster's setup (3 preset stations) and when it's working well, it works really well. Naturally, one of those hard-wired systems that ties the ipod into your stereo controls would be ideal, but they're a bit too expensive ($200+) right now.
All in all, I'm quite happy with my new iPod...
Sunday, October 16, 2005
Operation Solar Eagle
One of the major challenges faced in Iraq is electricity generation. Even before the war, neglect of an aging infrastructure forced scheduled blackouts. To compensate for the outages, Saddam distributed power to desired areas, while denying power to other areas. The war naturally worsened the situation (especially in the immediate aftermath, as there was no security at all), and the coalition and fledgling Iraqi government have been struggling to restore and upgrade power generation facilities since the end of major combat. Many improvements have been made, but attacks on the infrastructure have kept generation at or around pre-war levels for most areas (even if overall generation has increased, the equitable distribution of power means that some people are getting more than they used to, while others are not - ironic, isn't it?).
Attacks on the infrastructure have presented a significant problem, especially because some members of the insurgency seem to be familiar enough with Iraq's power network to attack key nodes, thus increasing the effects of their attacks. Consequently, security costs have gone through the roof. The ongoing disruption and inconsistency of power generation puts the new government under a lot of pressure. The inability to provide basic services like electricity delegitimizes the government and makes it more difficult to prevent future attacks and restore services.
When presented with this problem, my first thought was that solar power may actually help. There are many non-trivial problems with a solar power generation network, but Iraq's security situation combined with lowered expectations and an already insufficient infrastructure does much to mitigate the shortcomings of solar power.
In America, solar power is usually passed over as a large scale power generation system, but things that are problems in America may not be so problematic in Iraq. What are the considerations?
As shown above, there are obviously many challenges to completing such a project, most specifically with respect to economic feasibility, but it seems to me to be an interesting idea. I'm glad that there are others thinking about it as well, though at this point it would be really nice to see something a little more concrete (or at least an explanation as to why this wouldn't work).
Sunday, October 09, 2005
Not much time this week, so here are some interesting links:
Sunday, October 02, 2005
Recent events have placed me in a position where I will be interviewing people for open positions on my team. Not having experience with such a thing, my first reaction was to set the monkey research squad loose on the subject. As usual, they didn't disappoint.
Where am I?
This page contains entries posted to the Kaedrin Weblog in October 2005.
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Disgruntled, Freakish Reflections
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The Dark Tower
Weird Book of the Week
Weird Movie of the Week
Copyright © 1999 - 2012 by Mark Ciocco.