'Cowboys & Aliens'

Aug 1, 2011 9:00 AM, By Blair Jackson



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A Western-Sci-Fi Mash-Up
By Matt Hurwitz

Director Jon Favreau, left, at the console with composer Harry Gregson-Williams

Director Jon Favreau, left, at the console with composer Harry Gregson-Williams

How do you write a score for a movie called Cowboys & Aliens? Is it a Western? Is it a sci-fi movie? In a case like this, it’s best to start simple. “The best path for me is to follow the central character and see what I can find and uncover with him or her,” says award-winning composer Harry Gregson-Williams (Shrek, The Chronicles of Narnia).

In this case, at the beginning of the film, Daniel Craig’s Jake Lonergan finds himself completely disoriented and unsure of who he is or where he is right after what appears to have been an alien spaceship landing in Arizona in 1873. “So initially you think, ‘Okay, here we are on some lonely prairie and this guy seems to be a cowboy; I mean, he’s wearing a cowboy hat and he rides around on a horse! But clearly something bad has happened to him.’ From this point forward, it’s all about discovery for this character. By the very nature of the film, it’s kind of a mash-up: It’s somewhere between Close Encounters and Unforgiven, so musically it was always going to be a hybrid. The score has echoes of what you might perceive a Western to be like, but it’s also firmly grounded in the 21st century.”

The spotting session with director Jon Favreau was also different from most movies. “We spotted the film quite early,” Gregson-Williams says. “The movie still wasn’t anywhere near final cut at that point. Consequently, I started by writing music that wasn’t too scene specific and made sure that I painted with broad brushstrokes at first. As the cut became more finalized, I began to zero in on specific scenes and set pieces.”

Working at his Venice, Calif.–based Wavecrest Music studio, where he has worked since December 2003, Gregson-Williams took several weeks getting a full grasp of the tone he would apply, and then began composing and recording mock-ups of his cues.

Wavecrest has a main composing suite, where Gregson-Williams does his writing, with four additional composing suites occupied by other busy, well-known composers. The building also includes two music editing rooms, a mix room and a recording space. “Our recording space is big enough to get some guitar amps and a bunch of drums in, but not big enough to house an orchestra,” he explains. “That sort of stuff gets done at one of the bigger scoring stages here in L.A. or at Abbey Road in London, for instance.”

The composer records directly into Steinberg Cubase 6, operating on a PC. Gregson-Williams will record many special instrumentalists or smaller groups of players right into Cubase. For this film, instruments included an assortment of acoustic and electric guitars, vocals, a variety of percussion instruments (such as Native American drums) and electric cello (played by a longtime friend, veteran Martin Tillman). He engineers the recordings himself with a selection of mics, including Sennheiser MKH 40s (for close-miking), Brauner FETs (overheads) and VM1s (room mics).

“I’m kind of at the controls for that,” he explains. “That part of the process is really creative for me because that’s an environment I know. And on many occasions, the people I’m recording are friends or people I know and have worked with many times. I’ll put them in a booth or in the recording room, and they’ll have the video running beside them, and I’ll talk them through it.” He is assisted in the recording by music technical engineer Costa Kotselas, who also handles anything to do with Cubase, and by in-house music editor Meri Gavin.

Gregson-Williams also uses an array of synths and samples in his original recordings, an ever-expanding library of sounds housed within Tascam GigaStudio and Native Instruments Kontakt (the latter used inside Vienna Ensemble Pro). “MIDI-wise, he has a huge spectrum of sounds, samples and instruments, which color his scores,” Kotselas explains. He says that these sounds include “a vast orchestral element,” most of which Gregson-Williams will replace with a live orchestra. The composer also uses a variety of VST instruments in Cubase, as well as a number of external hardware synthesizers.

Once a cue has been written and approved by the director, Gavin and Kotselas then create a “pre-record” session in Pro Tools|HD3 48/48 IO, a transfer of the recordings and MIDI samples from Gregson-Williams’ Cubase sequence. “These are basically the master recordings,” the composer explains. “They’re the building blocks of the final recordings, and often contain a lot of live elements already, and any orchestral or choral recordings that follow will be done playing along to these stems.”

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