Music plays an integral role in creating the audible world of every film. Directors look to the composer to take the audience through every possible emotion while they watch the action unfold on screen. Mike Chance knew that in order to build the tension of Project Arbiter, he would need a composer that shared his passion to take audiences on a wild ride. Ryan Leach is just that composer. He’s been working very hard to create the audible world of Project Arbiter and he graciously took a few moments to give us some insight in what went in to the Project Arbiter score.
What inspired you to start a career in composing original music for television and film?
Film music was a pretty natural fit for me because it was the perfect way to blend my passions for both movies and music. I started playing guitar when I was 8. While I was in high school I started a rock band and became involved with the school bands: marching band, jazz band, orchestra, choir, etc. But at the same time I was completely obsessed with movies. My friends and I were always making little movies and my school projects would often turn into overly ambitious video productions. I didn’t have the first clue about video editing and I would sit there on the living room floor, one hand on the video camera and the other on the VCR, editing these videos with the pause button! I always had a particular interest in the music, though. Even on these little high school projects I was very particular about what music was in the scene (which in our case usually meant playing classical music or film scores on the stereo in the background while filming).
It’s a little embarrassing to say, because most people’s first influential score is something masculine like Star Wars, but the movie that really turned me on to film scoring was Titanic. It was a scene towards the end when everyone is freezing in the water and all you can hear from the score is this deep bass drum. I don’t know why it clicked for me but I had this incredible sense of amazement at how that one bass drum was affecting the emotion of the scene with such power. That’s when I first became truly aware of the significance of film music, and the idea that writing music for film could be a career started to form. Not long after that I saw Amadeus, and that’s when I thought “Yes, I am going to be a composer.”
What were your initial thoughts after being approached to work on the film and what made you join Project Arbiter?
I first heard about the project from producer Vicki de Mey. Vicki and I had already worked together previously, when I wrote the score for her feature film The Dead Sleep. She sent me an e-mail with a little information about the project, a link to the website, and the question “are you interested?”.
I clicked on the link and immediately thought “YES!” Just the image alone of the Arbiter on the homepage got me hooked, even before I dove in and watched the trailer. And of course that’s when I got really excited. I immediately knew that this was right up my alley and would be so much fun to score.
What was your approach to creating the score for Project Arbiter?
Project Arbiter actually changed the way I approach scoring. Previously I would almost always score directly to the picture. In many ways the color and feel of the visual have a profound impact on the tone and texture of the mood, and I usually use that as my guide for initial ideas. After I received the first copy of the film I tried scoring the first scene directly to picture, and it came out pretty bad! Mike and I went back and forth on a lot of different versions but nothing was working. It was like there was a certain “pop” missing, like everything was kind of falling flat.
At the time that we were working on this The Social Network had recently come out, and Mike and I talked about the method that Trent Reznor took for the score. He wrote a whole pile of underscore tracks away from the picture, just based on the script and some ideas he took away from talking to David Fincher. So we realized that maybe that would be the right approach to take, to step away from the picture and just write a piece of music that really says “This is Project Arbiter”.
I turned off the video and just wrote what I felt like summarized the tone of the film. I sent it to Mike, we put it up against picture, and it worked! With a few adjustments for timing, that away-from-picture track ended up being the opening cue of the film.
After the tone of the film had been found the rest of the score came about much more traditionally, written to picture. By coming up with the main tone and pallet of the score first, it allowed us to approach the rest of the scenes from a purely dramatic standpoint and not worry about what the music would sound like.
I’ve used that method a few times since and it seems to be a good approach.
Please tell us about the opportunities you encountered in writing the score. What were some of the challenges you faced when working towards the final product?
The greatest challenge for this score was coming up with the right tone. There were many issues to balance, such as “How Sci-Fi do we make it?” “How massive a sound are we going for?” “Is this modern or WWII?”, etc.
There were three points that Mike kept emphasizing: Arbiter is an army of one; there should be a certain sense of the grim reaper present; and that the score should reflect the gritty metallic aspects of the technology. “Chains” was a word we kept coming back to. The Arbiter suit isn’t some sleek, polished iPod. It has grease stains and took real labor to construct.
The army of one and grim reaper points were both solved with the lead instrument, a moaning and groaning electric cello. In the context of the rest of the orchestra, that solo cello is isolated and alone, but just as powerful as the entire ensemble (if not more so). The sound was a perfect fit because we were able to take advantage of a cold, distant timbre when needed, but could still use the lyrical qualities of the cello for more emotional moments.
The grittiness we came upon with some loose elements, a mix of sound design and synthesis. I used many raw sounds to construct pads, ostinatos and percussion effects. For example one of the main “snare drum” sounds is actually a metal gate slamming shut. I even used the sound of airplanes to create an ominous pad. A lot of real sounds became distorted and ill-treated to form the textures you hear in the score.
What sort of “tools of the trade” do you use? Feel free to “geek out.”
My sequencer of choice is Logic, mostly because my first job in LA was at a very Logic-intensive studio. Like most composers I have a pretty random collection of different samples and synths. I rely pretty heavily on LA Scoring Strings for sampled strings, when I’m not recording live strings (my wife Lydia is a violinist). Another composer recently recommended the Tonehammer Emotional Piano to me and I absolutely love it, it has a great mellow and reverby sound which is perfect for film scoring.
All that technology aside, the single best item I ever bought for my studio was an old upright piano. I found it on Craigslist for around $400 – it has a pretty terrible sound that I never intend to record but it’s so much more inspiring to play than a keyboard. There’s something about the overtones of a real piano that just makes everything you play feel richer, so your ideas sound better. So I often will sit at that piano and write out themes and ideas with pencil and paper, before switching over to the computer and fully fleshing an idea out.
Here is an exclusive sample of the score from Project Arbiter on Sound Cloud. The track is titled “Death Dealers”.
~David Bettencourt, Co-Producer