Step Up 3D

STEP UP 3D, my theatrical film debut, hits theaters this Friday, August 6th!

Making the leap from gritty, dark television science fiction to the brightly lit, energetic romance of a Disney hip-hop dance franchise might seem odd to some composers.  But for me, scoring Step Up 3D was a welcome change of pace and an exciting opportunity to explore musical story-telling within the context of a movie dominated by songs.

Like a good martial arts movie, a dance movie is all about the moves.  Returning from Step Up 2: The Streets, director Jon M. Chu has once again delivered inventive and exciting dance numbers, made all the more impressive because the entire film was conceived for 3D and shot with stereoscopic cameras.  Yes, this is one of those rare contemporary films that genuinely earned its “3D” in the title, and the difference in the visual quality literally leaps off the screen.

In fact, the choreography and dance sequences are so viscerally exciting and beautifully shot in 3D they are worth the ticket price alone.  Seeing this on the big screen was one of the best experiences I’ve had with 3D yet.

While I would end up contributing musical arrangements to several hip hop tunes, the majority of my work on the film involved the dramatic score.  Despite containing more than 50 dance tracks, Step Up 3D required a significant amount of orchestral score, which is unusual for the genre.  With over 45 minutes of music to play with, I was able to craft character themes and develop them much in the same way I did on “Human Target” or “Battlestar Galactica.”

However, in the final film mix, some of my more gentle score cues have been understandably nudged a bit into the background.  The themes can be hard to pick up on, but they’re there.  Hopefully we can release a score album soon where you can really hear all the detail.

(Cast, director and composer at the Sony Scoring Stage during orchestral sessions for SU3D.  Session photos courtesy of Jon M. Chu)

So, how did the “Battlestar Galactica” guy end up scoring Step Up 3D??  This is actually not my first collaboration with director Jon M. Chu.  Far from it in fact. Jon and I went to the University of Southern Calfornia together and met during our junior year, when we both entered a school-sponsored arts competition.  Jon had submitted his first film, Silent Beats and I submitted my first orchestral work, “The Collapse of Saint Francis.”  Both works were, if I do say so myself, pretty damn good and sophisticated for guys our age.  There were many other entries, but the judges decided that I would win first prize and Jon second (an outcome he still likes to prod me with).

From that chance meeting, Jon and I worked together on two very ambitious student films: Gwai Lo and When the Kids are Away.  Gwai Lo was my first score working with Asian ethnic instrumentation, an experience that I’ve drawn from frequently since (See BSG, Dark Void or SOCOM 4).  When the Kids are Away, sponsored by the Princess Grace Foundation, was a full-fledged song and dance musical  and the first film ever shot on the fledgling 24p high-def cameras.  For both films, Jon and I co-wrote the lyrics, and I wrote the music and score.

(dir. Jon M. Chu, featured vocalist Amy Keys, me with crazy short hair and Steve Kaplan with crazy long hair!)

The music budget for these movies was literally $100, enough to cover pizza and soda at sessions.  Yet, we still had a 60-piece orchestra and 20-voice choir, plus rock band and ethnic soloists, all recorded live and professionally mixed.  At that time, I scored films by assembling my friends and classmates into an ensemble, and then I would write for that group, regardless of the instrumentation.  This approach had worked for years, so by the time we did WTKAA there was a pretty large group of crazy kids that knew if they came to my sessions they’d have free food, great music and a fun experience.  Little did I know how well this would prepare me for working on cable television budgets!

(Conducting one of the smaller WTKAA orchestras)

Despite my years of formal training, working with these student film orchestras is where I truly learned how to orchestrate, conduct and manage a recording session.  Several of the musicians you’ve heard on my scores were already working with me on these student films, including my co-producer and engineer Steve Kaplan, vocalist / accordionist Doug Lacy, vocalists Raya Yarbrough and Brendan McCreary and BSG percussion maestro M.B. Gordy.

(Vatos, me, Avila & Bartek)

A year out of school, I wrote and produced some new songs for Jon Chu, and for that session I called upon the Oingo Boingo rhythm section of Steve Bartek (guitar), John Avila (bass) and Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez (drums).  That session marked the first time they’d played together as a band since the break-up of Oingo Boingo in 1995.  However, it would not be their last.  To this day, they continue to play on virtually every score I write, including “Battlestar Galactica,” “Eureka,” “Dark Void,” “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” and “SOCOM 4” among others.

(Left: Jon and I at the premiere of “When the Kids Are Away” in 2002.
Right: Jon and I at the premiere of “Step Up 3D” last night, photo courtesy of LIFE)

After graduating, Jon and I forged ahead into the entertainment industry.  Jon found his big break with Step Up 2: The Streets and I ended up on a cable sci fi show that you’ve probably heard of if you’re reading this blog.  At last, with Step Up 3D, we had the opportunity to collaborate once again.

Though technically my first feature score, Step Up 3D was really not a logistical challenge at all.  Having consistently delivered feature-quality music on television series, games and straight-to-DVD features my entire career, my music team and I were ready for all logistical issues that can arise when delivering a score to a studio on a tight timeline.

Instead, the biggest challenge of this film, for me, was creative.  I needed to find a musical language that would fit squarely in the genre, not distract from the songs, not over-inflate the drama into melodrama, and yet simultaneously offer a voice and emotional depth that would be uniquely my own.  Any composer in town could deliver a competent underscore for a romantic dance movie.  I wanted to write an interesting and emotionally rewarding one, with clearly developed melodic themes.

Did I succeed in that lofty goal?  (Probably not.  But its good to have a direction in mind when writing music.)  Still, I leave that determination to you guys.  Nevertheless, I am proud of the score because it has strong character themes written in a lush orchestral language that blends seamlessly into the hip hop soundtrack.  In fact, there are several cues that sound so convincingly like a genuine hip-hop track, you will probably not even recognize it’s my music.  For that, I owe an extra special thanks to my frequent collaborator Jonathan Snipes, of Captain Ahab, who worked with me on the hip hop and dance elements in the score.

I focused on the two parallel love stories in the film, with three distinct themes.  My goal was to infuse the drama with the necessary emotional power to keep us involved and invested with the characters.

The first theme you will hear is the Main Title Theme, which starts right as the credits roll.  An analog synth arpeggiator (designed by Snipes) begins a simple ostinato that builds intensity before ultimately being passed off to the piano:

The opening statement of this theme is interesting because the analog synths were set up to play only the harmonic frequencies of this line, without the actual pitches being played.  As it repeats, the fundamental pitches begin to get louder.  This is a sound that only a synthesizer can create, because it’s physically impossible in nature.  The result is an ethereal sound, that feels like this simple arpeggio is materializing out of thin air.

This theme represents the feeling of family and community that bonds our young heroes, the House of Pirates.  Though only used in one other pivotal scene, it helps unify our main characters and remind the audience of their shared passion for dancing.

This piece was a bit of struggle, because I kept having to simplify it harmonically, against my usual instincts.  Originally, it modulated into various related minor and augmented chords.  While musically interesting, these chords felt inappropriately complex.  I continued thinning the ostinato down until it was essentially C major and F major.  No primary theme for any project I’ve scored has ever been as harmonically simple as I and IV (although major I and minor IV pop up a hell of a lot).  However, here it creates an innocent simplicity that feels genuine.  This sounds like music that any of our dancing heroes might have written themselves, and as such, helps bring us into their world.

The most important theme in the film is the Natalie and Luke Love Theme:

This one is a bit more harmonically interesting, as its constructed over D major and F major, two chords that don’t fit together in typical hip hop music.  At first, their theme is heard primarily on acoustic guitars, evoking a simple pop language.  As the film goes on, and their relationship hits some bumps in the road, the arrangement becomes darker and more purely orchestral.

The secondary theme represents Moose and Camille:

Played primarily on piano and harp, this melody is noticeably more innocent and heartfelt, where the Luke and Natalie Theme is sexy and smoldering.

These two themes are woven throughout the score and function as the unifying threads for the bigger, more dramatic sequences.  My orchestral writing in Step Up 3D, while more restrained than my gung-ho approach of “Human Target” Season 1, is still very lush and emotional.  In fact, this score may be my most shamelessly beautiful since the “Caprica” pilot.

(Jon Chu and I at Sony, recording the score for SU3D)

We had the great fortune of recording a full orchestra at the Sony Scoring Stage, a room where I’ve had the privilege of witnessing Elmer Bernstein, Randy Newman and Alan Silvestri conduct, and where posters for Close Encounters and countless other film score classics line the walls.  To record my first feature film score there was an amazing experience.  And the physical sound of the orchestra in that room instantly brought to mind a classic Hollywood sound. The experience was simply electrifying.

However, there was more to the music than a simple romantic score.  Our heroes are training to win a competition called WORLD JAM, competing against dance teams from around the world, so I was able to incorporate a lot of percussive and ethnic instrumentation into the whole score.

Several cues sound like they could almost be dance remixes of my “SOCOM 4” or “Battlestar Galactica” score (hey, that’s not a bad idea, actually!).  Like those projects, this score features many of my usual musicians, including M.B. Gordy on taikos and ethnic percussion, and Chris Bleth on ethnic woodwinds.

Listen, particularly during the scene when the Santiago Twins reveal the Wall of Sneakers, for Chris’ blistering Chinese membrane flute solo and MB’s pounding taikos that immediately bring to mind the myth and majesty of old martial arts films… or “Battlestar Galactica” to anyone hip enough to catch the reference.

During an especially amazing dance sequence involving lasers and LEDs, the dance track needed to be uniquely “tribal.”  Jon Chu and I produced a similar sequence in When the Kids are Away, but it goes without saying that my “tribal percussion” chops have improved greatly since then.  So, I wrote a kick-ass percussive dance cue that would land somewhere between “Fight Night” and “Storming New Caprica” from the “BSG” Season 3 album.  The result was pretty awesome, and I think anyone familiar with my percussive writing will notice the track, although even I must admit its hard to pay attention to the drums when the dance visuals are so jaw-dropping.

Definitely check this movie out, for the stunning and genuine 3D visuals and the original score.  Speaking of which, would you be interested in a score album if it were available as a download?  I know these types of movies rarely get such releases, but I’m trying to convince the good folks at Disney that there are some die-hard soundtrack fans out there who want this.  Leave a comment below and let us know!