Tree House of Horror XXIV

Longtime fans of THE SIMPSONS will probably remember that “Tree House of Horror” was the first episode Alf Clausen scored back in 1990. After Richard Gibbs had scored the first 13 episodes of the series, the producers wanted to make a musical change and went on a search for a new composer. After trying three other composers, Alf was given his “shot” at becoming the new composer. He was assigned the first-ever Halloween episode. The episode was, of course, unlike any of the others that had come before and would require three different scores for the three different stories being told. It would also require a slightly larger orchestra than we had used up to that point, and a 6-hour recording session instead of the standard 3-hour session. The producers agreed to everything and Alf went on to compose and record one of the iconic scores in the show’s history. Alf was awarded the permanent role of composer. 23 years, 23 “Tree Houses”, and 514 episodes later, we’ve added another chapter in the long musical history of the show.

In the last couple of years, the show has invited other artists to produce, design, or animate a couch gag for our Main Title sequence. For “Tree House of Horror XXIV” feature film director Guillermo del Toro (“Pacific Rim”, “Pan’s Labyrinth”) joined our list of guest artists. While everyone has been calling this a special “couch gag”, it really is a full-blown Main Title sequence PLUS the couch gag. It is a total reimagining of our full-length HD Main Title dressed up with classic horror/sci-fi/fantasy characters from movie and television history.

As for the music for this fantastic Main Title, it traveled an interesting road to the final version. Back in late June of this year, I received an email from Animation Co-Producer Richard Chung telling me that the del Toro Main Title would be part of a surprise screening at Comic Con 2013 and my job was to edit a temporary score for the clip. The cut I was sent had temp music already in it, mostly pulled from the movies “Frankenweenie” and “Beetlejuice”. I got a list of all the specific cues that had been used, then went to work reworking, re-timing, and generally polishing the existing temp music. I thought the temp score created at Film Roman was quite good, it just need a little “smoothing around the edges”.

I sent my version back to Film Roman and got positive feedback. Then it was forwarded over to Al Jean and he approved it as well. Job done – so I thought. A couple of days later I hear from Supervising Producer Larina Adamson that FOX says we cannot use the temp score with the “Frankenweenie” and “Beetlejuice” music in it because they were not going to license the music. At first I was rather surprised by this because it was a “temp score” for a “work in progress” that was being screened for what was essentially a private audience at Comic Con. If you live in Southern California, you have most likely attended – or been invited to – a test screening of a movie still in the editing stage. At these screenings it is explained to the audience that the film is being shown in a unfinished form, with some scenes possibly missing, most visual effects either missing or still in their temporary form, and with a temporary music score. It has been a common practice in Hollywood for many years now to use any music the director or film editor or music editor wants to put into the film as temp for test screenings. Everybody does it, so everybody gets away with using this music for free during the test screening process. Once the movie is final and released to the paying public, all music is paid for, either by hiring a composer and musicians or licensing existing music or both.

I couldn’t understand why FOX wasn’t treating this Comic Con screening the same way that they treated a test screening. But the more I thought about it, the more I understood it. This wasn’t a test screening where opinions were being sought. At Comic Con people were going to have cell phones with still and video cameras and would posting photos and video clips on social media. FOX just didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes so the Main Title got bounced back to me with instructions to dump the entire temp score and to replace it with music from our vast library of Clausen-composed Simpsons cues.

First I had a long conversation with Al Jean telling him that while I’d be happy to redo the score and would give it my best effort, I firmly asserted that the new score might not be as powerful and dramatic as the first temp score. Those scores from “Frankenweenie” and “Beetlejuice” were recorded with 90+ piece orchestras and choirs and had long melodic development. Our orchestra is about one-third the size and many of our cues are under 15 seconds long – this Main Title is 2:45, and would be the longest single musical sequence in the history of the show. Al said he understood, and trusted my judgment to produce a good temp score. Off to work I went.

In the end, I used snippets from eleven different scores going back twelve years in our show’s history. I submitted the new temp to Al, he had two small changes that I addressed, and that was that. That was the version of the temp score that the Comic Con audience heard on Saturday, July 20, 2013. Job done – so I thought.

Fast forward to music spotting for the final version of “Tree House of Horror XXIV” on August 22, 2013. At the session, I was fully prepared to discuss how Alf would now write a totally original score for the sequence, but instead Al Jean told me that he and everyone else really liked the temp and that they wanted Alf to recreate the temp with a few slight modifications.

SIDEBAR: The “temp score” in film & TV is a huge blessing and curse in our business. Ever since CDs and digital media made it very easy to put any music a director or producer’s heart desires into a soundtrack, they just grab anything by John Williams or Hans Zimmer or The Beatles or Lady Gaga and drop it in to a scene to “see how it plays”. When it plays great is when the problems begin. In the case of using an existing score, the composer hired to write the new score has now had a huge amount of their creativity stripped from them. Their job is now to compose something in the style of the temp that treads a delicate line between originality and plagiarism. In the case of using a song from a popular band or artist, the licensing of the song or artist may be cost prohibitive or simply unavailable because some artists don’t license their music for any reason. As a music editor, I’m often called upon to create a temp score and it always puts me in an awkward position. On the one hand, I am tasked with doing the best job possible, essentially “scoring” the film with existing cues – my main job is to please the producer or director in charge. On the other hand, the better the job I do at creating the temp score, the harder it becomes for the composer to lend his or her own voice to their score. The composer often ends up being a musical mimic, rather than an original contributor to the final product. There’s no good solution to this problem – it’s just the way things are done these days.

At least Alf was being asked to mimic himself in scoring the del Toro Main Title. So now I had to go back to my original edit of the temp score for Comic Con and reverse-engineer it. You see, when I was editing it, I did it all purely by sound. That means I listened to various cues, chose the ones that I thought would work for each scene in the sequence, then edited the music as need be to make it fit and highlight various moments. While I do all this with the greatest regard and respect for the music, I didn’t edit the temp score by referring to the printed music scores. Now I had to go back through the archives, pull the printed scores for each bit that I used, and try to figure out what I did editorially and translate it to bars and beats so that the score could be recreated on paper for our orchestra to record. That was a big task that took a few days, but I was able to do it. Alf & orchestrator Dell Hake then organized everything – which included writing a few new bits that Al Jean wanted to change from my temp score – and we broke it all down into 14 separate cues to be recorded then stitched together into one, seamless finished product.

All in all, I’m very proud of the final result. It plays beautifully, hit’s all the emotional notes perfectly, and sounds like it was recorded by a 90+ piece orchestra.

There’s no time for the music department to rest. No sooner did we finish this longest-most-complex-musical-sequence-ever than another, equally-complex-and-exciting-musical-sequence was presented to us. We’re working on it now and I’ll tell you all about it in the near future. Mark your calendars to watch for it when it airs on FOX on Sunday, November 24, 2013 (schedule subject to change).

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Starting Season 25 (whodathunkit?)

Simpsons fans were treated to the start of our 25th season this past Sunday, September 29, 2013 but we folks in the music dept. were back at it starting on August 14. Of course, those of us fortunate enough to work on the music for the show enjoy having summer off – and I certainly did enjoy time spent travelling with my family this summer – but it’s nice to get back to work and a familiar routine and hearing some fabulous music performed by some of the greatest musicians in the world.

We kicked off the new season with episode RABF20 “HOMƎRLAND”. Written by Stephanie Gillis, it’s a parody of the popular, Emmy Award-winning Showtime series “Homeland”. The first cue of the episode is my edited version of the actual “Homeland” theme by Sean Callery, but for the rest of the episode Alf crafted his own take on Sean’s theme and that motif is woven throughout the rest of the episode. Alf is right at home writing and arranging jazz music – it really is his forté – and the musicians are always happy to sink their teeth into some great jazz charts. In addition to Alf’s original theme, he also arranged and recorded music by two legendary jazz artists: we covered Thelonious Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser” and “Terminal 7” by Tomasz Stanko.

If you’d like to listen to the originals, here they are:

“Straight, No Chaser” [audio https://sites.google.com/site/simpmx500mp3/audio/Straight%20No%20Chaser%20-Thelonious%20Monk.mp3]

“Terminal 7” [audio https://sites.google.com/site/simpmx500mp3/audio/tomasz%20stanko%20quintet%20-%20terminal%207.mp3]

I’ve already received a few inquiries about where to find and download Alf’s cues from this episode. Alas, as I have explained in other posts and comment replies on this blog, the only cues from the show that are currently commercially available are the ones that were released on our three CDs “Songs in the Key of Springfield”, “Go Simpsonic with The Simpsons”, and “Testify”. Until FOX can figure out a way to pay all the musicians and composers and publishers involved with the music from our show, don’t hold your breath for individual downloads from iTunes or the like. Maybe someday, but not just yet.

Kristen Wiig guest starred in “HOMƎRLAND” doing her very funny take on the Carrie character from “Homeland”. Another nice performance for our show where a guest star gets to play a part and not just do a quick, one-line “walk-on”.

For our first Main Title sequence of season 25, Lisa gets to play a different instrument in the band room: a harp. During music spotting a few seasons back, Alf suggested to Al Jean that Lisa could play a different instrument in the Main Title now and then. Al thought that was a clever idea and had Lisa animated playing a trumpet. Everyone really enjoyed it, but Al said we probably wouldn’t be doing that again because is was quite expensive to animate. Apparently, the scene was animated with all the elements in a single shot – Lisa, the other students, the band room, etc. It was quite time and labor intensive to re-create that scene. I asked Al why not animate a template background of the students and band room without Lisa in it so that she could be animated separately and then composite her into the background? That way, if we wanted to have Lisa play a different instrument, the crew over at Film Roman would only have to animate Lisa and her instrument and drop her in over the background. This is the same process we use each week for the “fly-by” when a different character or object flies by “THE SIMPSONS” title at the very start of the show. Al said he would think about it. Voila! A few weeks later, we’re at music spotting and there’s Lisa playing a tuba in the Main Title. Since then, Lisa has played classical violin, bluegrass fiddle, and now harp. I have no idea what’s next, but it’s always a pleasant surprise.

Lisa’s harp playing was provided by our magnificent harpist, Gayle Levant. Gayle has worked in Hollywood for many years and you have probably heard her playing on 9 out of 10 movie scores you’ve heard in the last 40 years. For an in-depth interview with photos (including one taken with Alf) click here for a PDF.

Late in the episode, there’s even music from The Grateful Dead. “Shakedown Street” is used as psychological torture against Homer, further solidifying the notion (at least amongst non-fans) that “Dead” music is reaaaaallllly boring.

Once again, my classical music training did not go to waste – at the very end of the episode, when Annie takes her mood-stabilizing meds, the world turns all unicorns and rainbows to the music of Beethoven’s First Symphony, Second Movement. Al wanted some soothing classical music for the scene, but was firm that he did NOT want to use the opening strains of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (The “Pastoral”) as we have used that motif on more than one occasion in the past. I told him I’d find him a more obscure but suitable substitute.

Finally, there was a surprise ending for us on the scoring stage the day we recorded the music for this episode. We were recording the music on a Sunday afternoon – rather unusual for us, but that’s the way the schedule worked out – so Al Jean dropped by the stage with his wife and daughter and some family friends of theirs – also unusual as we have recorded music for more than 530 episodes and a producer has stopped by the scoring session probably fewer than 25 times. They all sat in the booth and enjoyed the music, marveling at how it sounded and the kids ooh-ing and ahh-ing at all the cool knobs and buttons on the recording console. The original musical plan for this show was to start Act 4 (the final scene of the show when Burns and the other SNPP workers have to go through the new security check point) with one more iteration of Alf’s “HOMƎRLAND” theme that would end as the End Credits started, at which time we would switch to our usual “Simpsons” End Credit theme music. But when Al heard Alf’s “HOMƎRLAND” theme, he really loved it and thought it should be used for Act 4 as planned, and then continue all the way through the End Credits up to the start of the Gracie Films logo. We immediately went into a mode lovingly known in our business as “open chart surgery”. Alf and conductor/orchestrator Dell hake started figuring out musically how to extend the 18 second cue into a 58 second cue. They put their heads together, figuring out which bars to repeat, which instruments would play in some bars while “laying out” of other bars. Meanwhile, I’m calculating the timing. Each bar of the original cue had been timed to fit the original 18 second length. Now we were slightly more than tripling the bar count by repeating certain sections, but you can see that 3 x 18 = less than 58, so a little more adjusting had to be made – the tempo was slowed down slightly and a few beats were added. And there we had it! A new End Credits cue that sounded perfect and as if it had been planned that way all along.

It’s truly and blessing and a curse to have a producer show up on the scoring stage (and in this case not just any producer). One the one hand, we really enjoy our autonomy, not having to answer to anyone asking questions or making musical suggestions. We get our recording done quite efficiently week in and week out. On the other hand, what we were able to accomplish on the scoring stage by rewriting and re-timing the End Credits cue could not have been accomplished on the dubbing stage. The live performance had great nuance and variety and an emotional build from start to finish. The final trumpet solo even added a few improvised notes. I couldn’t have just “looped” the 18 second version 3 times and expect the same musical results. An edited version would have sounded repetitive and emotionless. Al’s suggestion was great; Alf’s, Dell’s, and my reworking of the cue was expertly crafted; the musicians’ performance brought it all to life. A day’s work well done.

Tree House of Horror XXIV airs tomorrow night (Sunday, October 6, 2013) on FOX and I’m anxious to tell you about that episode and in particular about working on the Guillermo del Toro Main Title.