Thank you, Gene

So, it’s been MANY weeks since my last post (it’s been a very busy 2014 on THE SIMSPONS, but more on that in another post), and I’m bummed that my “comeback” post has sad news in it.

Music Editor Gene L. Gillette passed away this past January, but I only learned of it today reading CineMontage, the magazine published by the Motion Picture Editors Guild for its members.

My first blog post – and the motto of my career – is titled “Luck is When Preparation Meets Opportunity”. I tell students and aspiring show bizzers ALL THE TIME: “Your number-one job is to study, and learn, and ask questions, and do everything in your power to be ready to seize an opportunity when it comes your way. You have no control over the opportunity, but you have total control over the preparation.” Gene was my second, but my best, opportunity.

When I was a tour guide at Universal Studios Hollywood back in 1984-1986, I would spend all my free time down on the scoring stage (sadly, Universal no longer has a scoring stage – the spot where the stage used to sit now holds the Jurassic Park ride) observing scoring sessions and pestering any music editor who would give me the time of day with questions about the craft. Many of the music editors did share time and wisdom with me, but Gene shared the most. Then, one day, Gene left Universal after many years at the studio. I didn’t know where he went.

My first big break (opportunity) came in 1986 when Dan Carlin, then owner and President of Segue Music helped me get into the Editors Guild (union) and gave me my first job. For more detail on that story, click here. For a variety of reasons, that job only lasted one year. Just when I thought I was headed back to the tour full-time, I got a call from another music editing company, Music Design Group. The owner of Music Design Group, Roy Prendergast, asked his music editors if they knew of any new, up-and-coming music editors who wanted to jump in and learn the new music editing techniques that were coming down the line. Film was on the way out and editing on audio and video tape – this was still a decade before digital would take a firm hold of our industry – was on the way in. Roy wanted to expand his staff with editors who would be flexible and willing to take on the challenge of learning the new media. Little did I know, Gene had landed at Music Design Group when he left Universal and he thought of me.

When last we spoke in 1985, I was still a tour guide trying to get into the union and land my first job. When Gene called me to tell me about Roy’s search for new music editors I had accomplished both. I came in for an interview on Gene’s recommendation and got the job. Two years later it was Roy who assigned me to work on the final season of “The Tracey Ullman Show” with the understanding that when “Tracey” wrapped, I would just transition over to the “little cartoon show” from “Tracey” that FOX was planning to launch as its own series later that year. Needless to say, the rest is history.

About the time “The Simpsons” started, Gene retired and I never saw him again. As I write this I’m trying to remember if we ever spoke again. I don’t think we did. A few years ago, I stumbled across a blog he had been writing and I left him a comment saying hi and thanking him for all he had done for me so many years ago. I didn’t get a reply for a long time, but eventually did just last year through LinkedIn.

That was my last correspondence with Gene.

He was a patient, gentle, thoughtful man who always had time for me and my annoying questions. I am forever grateful that he saw some smidgen of potential in me and, more importantly, that he acted on his belief and made a phone call that changed my life.

Thank you, Gene.

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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.

Another Season Comes To An End

24 years on any job these days feels like a mini-miracle. 24 years on a single, scripted, prime-time television series is unprecedented. I’ve stated many times on this blog (sorry if I’m boring you) how lucky I am to be a part of this amazing experience. I’m happy to report (as I’m sure you already know) that season 25 is already underway and we will be back on the air with new episodes sometime in September, 2013.

The final few weeks of this season, just like every year at this time, were a flurry of many musical projects happening all at once.

For RABF12 THE FABULOUS FAKER BOY there was the final editing and polish on Jane Krakowski’s performance of “Makin’ Whoopee” (in Russian, no less!), as well as preparing all the Chopin pieces played throughout the episode. I got to direct Jane’s singing about six months ago and I was blown away by her ability to phonetically sing the Russian lyrics. She laughed and said she had no idea what she was singing. I’d love to hear from anyone who speaks Russian to let me know how she did. We hired amazing pianist Robert Thies to play all the Chopin works and he was an absolute pro and a joy to work with. I did all the pre-editing of the pieces on paper (on digital?) while mapping out the placement and tempos. It all worked out great. Alf was very generous in giving me the arranger credit on those pieces so I could earn a little royalty when the show airs. Thanks, Alf!

As if there wasn’t enough music going on in this episode, we were paid a visit from the producers of Robot Chicken. Continuing our new tradition of surprise couch gags by guest animators, the Robot Chicken crew did a crazy, extended couch gag for us. All the music was composed by Alf Clausen & Dell Hake incorporating new music with the SIMPSONS theme and the ROBOT CHICKEN theme.

For RABF14 (premiering tonight, May 19, 2013) THE SAGA OF CARL, about half of the score was provided by the Icelandic band Sigur Ros. Once again, the magic of the Internet allowed us to audition, sample, score, and edit their music from half-way around the world.

For RABF15 (also premiering tonight, May 19, 2013) DANGERS ON A TRAIN, Seth MacFarlane is our guest voice and he even gets to do a little singing. He sang his part a capella, so I didn’t get to direct him, but we did put a cool big band track behind him in post-production. You’d never guess from listening how piece-meal this song was assembled.

The last few episodes this season had a slightly accelerated schedule because, for the first time, we are airing back-to-back new episodes for the season finale.** THE SAGA OF CARL airs first at 8e/p, 7c, then DANGERS ON A TRAIN at 8:303/p, 7:30c on FOX.

While all the above was going on, voice recording for Season 25 is underway and we’ve already pre-recorded three new songs for which I did direct vocals. I’ll blog more about those later in the year.

So, if you haven’t seen enough blogging from me these past few weeks, now you know why. Now that the post-production part of the show is on hiatus (writing and recording of new episodes continues though), I’m going to take a little break. I’ll be back here in a few weeks with more on the show and my various random musical thoughts.

Thanks to all who take the time to stop by here. You seem to enjoy reading, and I certainly enjoy writing.

**UPDATE on May 31, 2013
After I posted this entry, I received a comment from SOLAR DRAGON asking “But weren’t ‘Homerpalooza’ and ‘Summer of 4 Ft. 2’ of season 7, ‘The Bart of War’ and’“Moe Baby Blues’ of season 14, ‘Home Away from Homer’ and ‘The Father, the Son and the Holy Guest Star’ of season 16 and ’24 Minutes’ and ‘You Kent Always Say What You Want’ of season 18 all back-to-back season finales as well?” The answer to all of the above is YES. Happy to set the record straight.

Couch Gags

In the last month, I’ve put in a lot of extra effort on our couch gags.

I remember seeing the first couch gag way back in late 1989 as part of the opening for episode 7G02 “Bart the Genius”. It was clever and funny, but I had no idea what the long-term plan for the couch gags was until I went to music spotting for episode 7G03 “Homer’s Odyssey” and noticed that there was a different gag in the Main Title. I asked Matt Groening and Sam Simon if the plan was to animate a new gag every week and they told me yes. I was amazed that on top of everything else that goes into producing a weekly animated series that they were going to put fresh content into the Main Title every week (of course this also included new smart-alecky things for Bart to write on the chalkboard every week). If you haven’t seen it in a while – or maybe ever – here is couch gag #1.

We do about two-thirds new and one-third recycled couch gags each season. I don’t have an exact number (maybe an über fan will help out in the comments), but this would mean that to date we’ve done about 350 different couch gags. But even the reruns aren’t always verbatim repeats of what aired previously. There will often be small tweaks of sound effects or music, or if there was any dialog in the gag, it might be changed. Hyper-observant fans of the show are rewarded for their attention to the details.

I wrote in great detail about a recent couch gag that was slipped in at the last minute and how I had to come up with a score for the gag using just library music. You can relive that tale here, if you’d like to. Well, the couch gag that was pulled from episode RABF03 back in January will finally get to air on FOX this Sunday, March 10, 2013 at the opening of RABF09 “Black-Eyed, Please”. Normally, I wouldn’t tell you much about it in advance, wanting to keep the details a surprise for everyone, but FOX put the couch gag up on YouTube this morning. So here it is and I’ll talk more about it after you’ve watched it.

The animation is by Bill Plympton who produced another brilliant couch gag for us last season. This isn’t a sequel to this first effort, just another new take on the characters. As we were watching it last week during dubbing, Matt Groening commented on how wonderful it was to see other artists’ visions of the characters. I understand there are plans to have more guest animators produce couch gags.

The decision was made to pull this couch gag off the show in January because the gun violence in it might be considered too insensitive in light of the still fresh (at the time) memory of the tragic shootings in Newtown, CT. I’m glad everyone will finally get to enjoy this very different look at our favorite yellow family.

But just a week earlier … DO THE HOMER SHAKE! At music spotting for RABF09 “Black-Eyed, Please”, Al Jean told me that we would need to have a knock-off version of the “Harlem Shake” music by Tuesday – that was only four days away. At that moment I thought, “How are we going to pull this one off?” and “What the !@#$% is the Harlem Shake?” (I hadn’t seen nor heard of the phenomenon at that point – now I’m a quasi-expert on the subject – kill me now!) The job fell to both Scott Clausen (Alf’s son) and me to come up with a suitable “Harlem Shake” score – two scores, actually … a 30-second and a 20-second version. The 30 would be for Internet viewing, the 20 would be inserted into RABF06 “Gorgeous Grampa” as the couch gag. Scott went off trying to compose something that sounded like “Harlem Shake” but was original. I headed off to music libraries to see if there were any cues that fit the general groove and mood and could do the job. All of Scott’s and my initial work was rejected as not being close enough.

Sidebar: Why not use the actual “Harlem Shake” music, you ask? All those videos on YouTube are using the original music without permission from the owners of the song. BUT, as is often the case with digital media these days, the owners don’t seem to be in any hurry to sue because of all the tremendous free publicity, and none of the YouTube posters are making any money off of their homemade “Harlem Shake” videos. THE SIMPSONS would be another story. We would broadcast the song on national TV, put it on a DVD someday, play it in reruns until dinosaurs ruled the earth again. Given the time constraints and the potential licensing costs, we simply could not make a deal to license the song.

So, after show runner (for this episode) Matt Selman rejected Scott’s and my first attempts and learned that the original could not be licensed, he came up with a pretty cool solution. He had Scott compose a sound-alike version that captured the spirit of the original while incorporating Danny Elfman’s SIMPSONS THEME into the work. This had the dual effect of protecting us from any infringement claims – it’s OUR theme – and gave us the creative freedom to parody the “Harlem Shake” and make it a SIMPSONS original. Then Dan Castellaneta was called in for an emergency vocal session where he uttered the opening line: “Homer Calarita!” (total gibberish), the middle line “Do the Homer Shake!”, and the closing pièce de résistance “Homer did a rip-off!”. This final bit of brilliance, besides being funny in its own right, clearly announced to the world that we were not doing the “Harlem Shake” but our own “rip-off”, seemingly dreamed up by Homer. Throughout the rest of the song, you can hear Homer in the background chanting a rhythmic string of “D’ohs”. Dan sang these “wild” – in music editing terms this means that he did not sing them to any rhythm guide or pre-recorded track. He just riffed to his little heart’s content. When I got Scott’s finished tracks, I cut all of Dan’s singing into the song and laid each “D’oh” into the groove with varying rhythms and syncopation.

The Internet version went “live” on YouTube on Friday, March 1, 2013 and, as of this posting, has been viewed 23.5 million times (!) Some people love it, some hate it, but, as you all know, there is no such thing as “bad” publicity. Click here if you’re one of the few who haven’t seen it yet.

What a fun, crazy ride on the couch it’s been since the start of 2013. I’m ceaselessly amazed that the show continues to spark the imagination of our writers, animators, and composers and, in turn, our audience. I’m still one of the proudest members of Team Simpson and how appropriate to sing the show’s praises today, March 7, 2013 – the day the cast sat down at the table read for the first episode of Season 25! Here’s to 25 more!

Lights, Camera…

At the end of last season, the very nice folks over at SEA (School of Audio Engineering) contacted me and asked if they could record a video interview to ask me about my job as Music Editor for THE SIMPSONS. I said “sure” and they dropped by The Bridge Recording to conduct the interview.

As is the case for many people these days, I was “discovered” thanks to social media. Jesse Hagen of SAE contacted former showrunner Bill Oakley via Twitter asking about people to interview and Bill pointed him to my blog.

If you’re a long-time reader of this blog, then much of the info in the interview you already know – newcomers should find it informative and it might motivate them to check out my earlier posts, especially under the “Music Editing 101” tab at the top of the page.

Thanks to Jesse, Bayan, and Sara of SAE for doing such a professional job. It all turned out great.

(email subscribers to my blog need to click the title “Lights, Camera…” to be taken to the page where you can see the video)

The Start of Season 24

Every year at this time for the last 19 years or so, I wake up pinching myself and marveling at the fact that THE SIMPSONS is on the air for another year. Another year of laughs, great music, food, clothing, and shelter. What a life. D’oh! There’s more to read…

The 500th Episode Scoring Session

  • Gunsmoke – Weekly Scripted Prime-Time Drama – 635 episodes
    final episode aired March 31, 1975
  • Meet the Press – Weekly News/Talk – 4991 episodes – still running
  • As the World Turns – Daily scripted Daytime Drama – 13,858 episodes
    final episode aired September 17, 2010
  • The Tonight Show – Daily Late-Night Entertainment-Variety
    10,680 episodes – still running
  • The Today Show – Daily Morning News/Talk/Entertainment
    17,937 episodes – still running
  • The Simpsons – Weekly Scripted Prime-Time comedy – still running
    498 episodes (as of February 5, 2012)

As you can see from the above list, we are the baby of the group and in very lofty company. We spotted PABF07 “At Long Last Leave” on Friday, January 27, 2012. The episode is written by Michael Price and will air as the 500th episode of the series on Sunday, February 19, 2012 on FOX. Music-wise, there are 31 cues in the show including a couple of cues provided by a special musical guest and, as I’m sure you would expect, a special cue for a very special couch gag. D’oh! There’s more to read…