"On Film Scoring" • Hookist
  • “On Film Scoring”

    Ernie Mannix is a music composer, producer, music supervisor, music editor and author. He has scored music for several feature films including: The Deli, Men Lie, The Cottonwood, How to Eat Fried Worms, and Love Comes to The Executioner. Television shows include:  Smallville, Kampung Boy, Eyes, One Tree Hill, Tony and Tina’s Wedding, and Supernatural.  
    His music has been recorded on the Phonogram and CAM labels. Ernie Mannix has received a B.F.A. degree from LIU Post majoring in music.  His further studies include orchestration at The Juilliard School.  Mannix won the “Golden Reel Award” for best Music Editing at the 49th annual Motion Picture Sound Editors Awards.  His first novel, “Six Devils In The San Fernando Valley” was recently published.

    How many times have you left a movie theater humming the movieʼs theme? Not many, I would guess. What has happened to great theme writing? Why can’t we hum themes like the ones from so many wonderful classic movies?

    The great Henry Mancini once said:  “Play them the theme thirty times, because theyʼll only hear it twice.”

    Manciniʼs films repeat a main theme many times, sometimes almost constantly throughout the picture. Why? He certainly was talented enough to write an entire score of non-repetitive themes, but yet he chose to repeat them over and over. The answer is; the long lost art of scoring with thematic integrity. Itʼs a process where you the composer add a living musical character to the picture in the form of a main theme, a theme that is used to color the mood and flavor of the film.

    The Pink Panther – you can hum it.  Breakfast at Tiffanyʼs – you can hear Moon River right now, canʼt you? Mancini didnʼt do this to become famous (although that certainly was the outcome), he did it because it was right for the picture, and it worked amazingly well.

    The composer, Neal Hefti was from the same school. The Odd Couple— who canʼt hum that theme? Unfortunately, today so many young directors, producers and even picture editors are afraid to re-use a theme (that works) over and over. They are afraid that the audience will get bored of it. They say things like:   “Weʼve already heard that, havenʼt we?”

    This is amazing to me, and in a practical sense, very frustrating. When you work with a director that wants a different piece of music for every scene, it can be a challenge. However, at the same time this is an opportune moment to gently suggest and advise that il directore consider the old-school approach of giving the film a more cohesive musical feel, one with musical character and yes indeed; some real thematic integrity.

    Now that being said, the art of arrangement comes into play when employing the Mancini method. Different instruments flavored and layered in different ways can alter a theme drastically. Arrangements can breath new feelings into the same melody, dramatically affecting the characters and their scenes. Even tempo changes to the main theme can enormously alter the perception of the same exact melody.

    Thereʼs a scene in The Odd Couple when Felix Unger is sad and down. Here, the main theme (go ahead, hum it in your head) plays at a much slower tempo. There are muted strings hiding under the emotional radar, tugging softly at your heart, while sparse percussion taps at your soul. The cue affects you… you feel for Felix. It would be a very different scene without those musical choices made by smart film professionals. Felix was basically a comical character, the rearranged theme helps us see and feel the intended pathos.

    I teach a film-scoring course at The School Of Visual Arts in New York City, and usually start off class with a quote told to me by Roland Joffe, director of The Killing Fields:  “Music is the lifeblood in the veins of the film,” he said.

    It took a while to figure out exactly what he meant by that, but I came to realize that Roland perfectly described what music does for a motion picture. Music breathes life, emotion, suspense and most importantly; aesthetic depth, into moving images. Film and television scoring can really turn around a film. It can make you laugh or cry, make you very afraid, or tip you off to a mysterious clue. If you ever have the opportunity to watch a film without its score, then are able to re-watch it with its score in place, you will be amazed at the role the score plays in influencing your perception of what is happening in the picture.

    Sometimes, the best scores are when you donʼt even realize there is any music at all. Thatʼs when itʼs really working, for it has snuck past your ears, and nestled itself into your soul, guiding you through the love, war, sadness or the gripping tension of a given scene.

    Then, there are the moments when a film needs to stand alone, without any support from the score. Silence—sometimes it is the best choice of all. Too many nervous directors want wall-to-wall music. This works great in a cartoon, but usually not in a film or television show. I have come up against this particular problem when directors or producers are in trouble and have lost confidence in their scripts or story lines. They think that constant music will fix or cover-up a broken script or performance. Sorry, it wonʼt. Usually it will only draw attention to the film, especially if it is not a very good film. There are times when you need to tell the director to have confidence in his choices, his actors and script, and let the music take a break. This can be a difficult discussion, for subtlety can be a hard choice when confidence is lacking.

    Scoring can be a hard business filled with emotion and sometimes a lot of stress. Music is added to the picture in the post-production stage. At this time, all of the acting has been done, the scenes have been shot and the film is either “locked” or at the very least, rough-edited together. In postproduction, tempers can run thin, money low, and there may be folks with vast creative differences offering opinions on how to score the film. When a director is under duress, sometimes he or she will use the composer and the music to “fix” the film. A timid director can then make some bad choices, and the composer nuts.   “Use The Beatles for this scene, then do a piece like The Stones for the next scene”.

    It can be maddening and can certainly interrupt the vision that is usually best for the film. Sometimes as composers we can pull it off, but other times the patient is too far-gone.

    Scoring is a dynamic process, one that requires a good knowledge of filmmaking and storytelling. The interplay of the creative forces (in this case, the director and the composer) can make or break a film. Good film scoring take brains, guts and a sensitive soul, but a good film composer will fight for his or her right to create and do not what is best for himself, but what is best for the film.

    When the picture is healthy and the scoring is going well, there is no more wonderful experience for the film composer than to see and hear his good choices up on a giant screen. Hopefully, a theme that has played more than once— and just maybe… a theme that we all can hum.


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    Ernie Mannix novel 150x  Check out Ernie’s new novel, Six Devils In The San Fernando Valley!




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