Human Target: Lockdown

SPOILERS AHEAD: Lockdown was the most challenging episode of “Human Target” yet. Like most, it has enough action scenes to be its own little feature film. However, I also stretched myself creatively and found new ways of approaching composition and orchestration, refining general musical philosophies and techniques that proved incredibly effective.  In fact, this score may end up being one of those occasional creative turning points that forever change the way I approach my music.

Each episode of “Human Target” begins with a unique orchestration and arrangement of the main theme.  Until now, the one element in common between each intro music has been the mood: generally ambient, spooky and mysterious.  However, Lockdown begins with an unusually thrilling intro, as we cut directly to Chance in a freefall from thirty thousand feet.  This time, I wrote a title card that feels more like the beginning of an action cue, because that’s exactly what it is:

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The first six minutes of Lockdown were especially challenging.  We cut back and forth between essential exposition in the past and a dangerous skydive in the present.  The cross-cutting between tension, action and dialog was a tricky balancing act for me.  I couldn’t simply plaster the entire teaser with music, because it would lose its effectiveness.  However, I also couldn’t score only the skydive because the constant back-and-forth in the editing would become obnoxious if the music constantly leapt from intense action to generic underscore.

I found a compromise by not scoring the first two conversations between Winston and Chance.  In these early dialog scenes, we haven’t yet learned what’s at stake and Chance’s demeanour is more casual, so it made sense to leave the scenes dry.  However, once Chance really gets interested in taking the case on (after he learns a little more about Martin and can relate to his situation), music enters and stays in for the rest of the teaser, weaving in and out of important exposition and action for a solid five minutes.

The editors used the skydive as a framing device for the introduction of the story, and I chose to reflect this idea in the music.  I wanted the score to continually remind the audience that Chance is falling into a dangerous situation, perhaps even his doom.

But what constitutes the musical equivalent of falling?  The best example I could think of came from classic animation scoring, especially the incredible work of composers Scott Bradley and Carl Stalling (check out this blog entry for more on their influence on my work).  Anytime a cartoon character was falling, the strings and winds would cascade from their highest registers down to their lowest, while the pianist and harpist gliss down as well.  Yeah, it’s a cliché, but because it works!

Unfortunately, this technique would not work for me here.  String, piano and harp glissandi are effective but unfortunately short.  How long could you possibly stretch this effect out before you run out notes?  10 seconds?  20 seconds?  The longer the gliss lasts, the slower it has to be.  By 30 seconds it would be a better musical depiction of dripping molasses.  And the timing of this sequence was not in my favor.  It takes Chance six minutes of screen time to reach his destination!

Instead, I created the impression of descent on multiple levels within the music.  First, the key of the music constantly drops by a half step throughout the course of the entire teaser, starting in E major and modulating downward 16 times to finally end in C Major (the same key as the Main Title begins, to ensure a smooth transition).  The result is subtle, but effective.  Every time we see a cut in the montage, the music shifts ever downward.

The key changes create a general sense of falling on a macro level, but I also implied descent on smaller levels as well.  The violins play dissonant cascading clusters, completely outside of the key signature.  The harmonic clash adds tension to the music, but also makes it feel like the music is somehow getting lower and lower.  Every time we cut to the skydive, I began the descending string cluster a little bit lower than the previous cut, so that the general contour of the sequence goes from high to low, but I could avoid the “Looney-Toons Gliss” problem of running out of notes.

You can hear all of these techniques at work in this next clip, taken from the point in the sequence when Chance decides to try landing on the rooftop out of the camera’s view.  Listen for the cascading dissonant string clusters, multiple downward modulations and a general increase in intensity and volume, all of which create the sensation of falling, suspense and impending peril:

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Getting my harmonic structure in place was only the first step to writing this massive teaser.  Next, I had to actually shape the score to the ebb and flow of the montage.  With the upper violins often allotted to the descending cluster, I was forced to become more creative with my orchestration and use other sections more effectively than I had in the past.

If you watched this week’s video blog, you already know that I changed my approach to composition and orchestration in Lockdown.  This wasn’t a sudden decision, but the result of a natural evolution in my music.  Doing weekly orchestral sessions has been an incredible education for me, and sharpened my skills as a writer of orchestral music.  I was also, to put it bluntly, getting bored with my compositions.  I would listen back the final mixes and realize that there was much more I could be doing with the ensemble, especially the winds and brass.

One of my biggest philosophical shifts (it came almost as an epiphany) was when I realized that the strings were doubling nearly everything in the music.  This was a result of my years writing on “Battlestar Galactica,” where I generally only had strings at my disposal.  The entire idea of BSG strings was that they take a supportive role to the more important taikos, ethnic soloists and rock elements (with a few notable and obvious exceptions of course).

However, this approach stayed with me and has influenced how I wrote on other projects.  In the earlier episodes of “Human Target” you could mute the winds and brass and not notice anything missing.  Take, for example, the Train Fight from the pilot:

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It’s not a bad cue by any means.  But, the strings playing the aggressive ostinato along with the winds and brass creates a kind of sonic mush.  (My mentor and supervising orchestrator Jim Hopkins has a great cooking metaphor for this concept in the video blog that is worth checking out.)  Its simply not as effective as it could be.  This realization hit me like a ton of bricks and I set out on Lockdown to write more efficient, more effective orchestral music.  Specifically, I began writing distinct and unique parts for the various sections of the orchestra.

The teaser of Lockdown was the first cue I wrote and really applied this philosophy.  Some really exciting passages resulted.  The music for where Winston recounts sneaking into the building and scoping it out was one of the best examples:

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An ornamented, exciting melody is passed up through the string sections as the percussion, winds and brass provide stabs and countermelodies.  And again, listen for the constant descending modulations reminding us that, even though we’re witnessing another part of the story, Chance is still falling through the air.  This passage has multiple layers of interesting musical ideas, and feels genuinely orchestral.

Despite all the bombastic cacophony of Chance’s descent, one of the best examples of unique orchestration is in the quiet moment when a solitary guard comes up to the roof to check the camera that Chance accidentally destroyed.  Here, muted brass and a solo clarinet add a unique sneaky, suspenseful character:

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Again, notice here that the strings are playing only a single element of the music, while the winds and brass each play something else.

Once Chance successfully sneaks into the building, the teaser ends, concluding a cue that would be big enough for an episode’s climax.  But, we’re just getting started.

The bulk of the Lockdown score is comprised of action, stealth and suspense cues.  However, none were as exciting to score as the climactic fight scene in the elevator.  First, as Chance gets his ass kicked, a percussive ostinato in the strings accents the punches and kicks.  Then, as he prys the handlebar loose from the wall and the odds shift in his favor, the music swells and the brass take over with alternating triumphant leaps in the trombones, horns and trumpets:

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This passages epitomizes the shift in my orchestral writing taking place.  Previously, I always used the brass in a supportive position, adding power and precision to music that is essentially string dominated.  Here, that role is reversed, as the brass completely takes over the orchestration, underscoring the tension, excitement and adrenaline in the combat.

Of course, using brass for heroic fanfares is nothing new.  In fact, its one of the oldest tricks in the books.  But, its pretty new for me.  This kind of writing would have been devastatingly inappropriate for “Battlestar Galactica” or “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.”  So, I avoided these sounds like the plague for years.  While I know that was the right decision for those projects, I eventually realized that there is a healthy and hip way to use brass and winds without sounding dated and cheesy.  “Human Target” has helped me find the middle ground and take a step back towards the style of orchestral music that made me want to be a composer in the first place.

I also tried this concept out in the first shoot out with armed guards, as Chance first meets Martin.  The gunplay is quick and furious, so the orchestral writing had to match.  The “Bear McCreary from a few weeks ago” would’ve written the whole orchestra playing either ostinato or melody.  ”New Bear” put the ostinato solely in the strings, trills and flourishes in the winds and multiple contrapuntal fanfares in the brass.  The result is a pretty kick ass action cue:

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The concept of using more unique orchestral colors also helped my comedic writing.  One of the funniest comedic moments was when Martin and Chance sneak into the elevtaor shaft and have to repel down the cables.  Like most of the comedic cues in “Human Target,” this one is built out of variations of the main ostinato.  But, this time that idea is passed across various instruments and groups within the orchestra, beginning with muted french horns:

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Lockdown allowed me to stretch my action music chops a bit, but the thematic development of the “Human Target” mythology is always more exciting to me than scoring shit blowing up.  And this episode delivers an important thematic shift that I hope you guys picked up on, one concerning the Mystery Theme:

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This theme was initially introduced in Sanctuary, underscoring Guerrero’s meeting with a shady figure who wanted to steal a file from Chance’s office.  It makes its first appearance in Lockdown as Martin tells Chance about his boss, and how she took advantage of his enthusiasm and energy.  Chance replies, “That’s what bosses like her do.”

At this moment, the strings state two virtually unrecognizable versions of the Mystery Theme in counterpoint.  A solo English horn blends with the second violins to help distinguish them, but to minimal effect.  Unless you’re paying incredibly close attention, this will just sound like a creepy, oddly emotional underscore cue.

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Then, as Chance offers a bit of his own personal backstory, describing how he ran from his own old boss, a solo trumpet plays a harmonically distorted statement of the main theme.  Finally, as he says “You never met my old boss,” the flutes and strings offer a quick statement of the Mystery Theme, but not nearly as ominous as its original version in Sanctuary.

The mood is quickly shattered as armed guards begin cutting into the black room, and their conversation is dropped.   The use of the Mystery Theme in this scene is still pretty subtle, and its meaning intentionally nebulous.

However, the Mystery Theme returns in the episode’s final scene, as Winston describes an untraceable email that was generated automatically and acted as a signal flare when his profile was run through a database.  First, the low string and winds begin the Theme, but break off into an angst-ridden and suspenseful contrapuntal line before the theme is actually completely stated.  The high strings and winds come in with echoing phrases, stating only the first three notes of the theme:

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Just like with the conversation between Martin and Chance, I’m toying with theme but never fully stating it.

Chance walks away, abruptly ending the conversation.  Here, the low winds and strings state an ominous version of the Chance Theme:

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Winston asks Guerrero what’s really going on and Guerrero spells it out for him, and the audience: “There’s a guy out there, been looking for Chance for a while.  Just got one step closer I guess.”  Underneath this line, the full Mystery Theme is finally stated, in the winds, strings and solo trumpet.  Winston asks who it is.  “His old boss,” Guerrero replies.  The orchestration becomes fuller and the Mystery Theme is finally stated without any variation.

The combination of this scene and this theme brings the ending of Sanctuary full circle.  In that episode, Guerrero was trying to figure out who was after Chance, and now we know it is Chance’s old boss.  I can finally call this theme what it truly is: The Old Boss Theme.

The new techniques I explored in Lockdown are just laying the groundwork for an incredible score coming up in a few weeks.  I just finished writing it this week and an definitely say it will blow you guys away.

-Bear

PS: Thanks for all the kind birthday wishes!  I had part of a day off.  I’ll take what I can get.  :)