Posts tagged USC
My $50,000 Harmonica

In 2013, I received one of the most unusual and yet coolest graduation gifts that I could never think of: a C-Major diatonic harmonica. It wasn't from my mother, grandfather, or any other blood relative. No, this harmonica came from my Alma Mater, the USC Thornton School of Music as a gift for my graduation from the Scoring for Motion Picture & Television Program (SMPTV). My wife and I joked that it was a $50,000 instrument because of the cost of the program. And yet despite the joking, I held onto that harmonica like it was actually worth that much. 

It was a fun and quirky gift. It sat on my desk for a few weeks, made its rounds around our home after dinner and at random intervals when boredom set in, really functioning more as a novelty piece in our home than something functional for my career, which, is probably how it was intended to be used. (I can't imagine the Thornton administration sitting around and thinking "one day, one of our graduates will actually use this to make a living.") After a few weeks, the harmonica went back in its case, packed up, and moved across town to our new home, and then packed into a box and moved again 1 year later to the new studio location. The novelty gradually became forgotten. 

In the last 12 months, I was fortunate to be connected with Graham Kelley of Naknek Design. We hit it off as pals immediately, and have since collaborated on several projects together that have both paid the bills and satisfied our creative tendencies, most of these projects being corporate gigs helping businesses grow their brands through visual storytelling. And then, in January of this year, Graham told me that he was going with Ryan Francis (his business partner) to a small town in north central California to start work on what would be a multi-part narrative short series on hard work. He said that he'd love for me to help score it. I didn't object.

Months went by, life happened, and I completely forgot about the project until Graham asked me if I'd take a look at the temp that they had for their final cut of the first episode about three weeks ago. I'm now scoring the first short in this series called "Sweat of Thy Brow", releasing later this summer. Without giving any spoilers, I'll just say that it's been a blast creating an Americana-esque score that's based around a une. A real, fleshed out, 16 bar tune with a B section! The little things in life... 

As I was scoring today, I was fiddling with various textures and couldn't quite get the right balance between reediness, gritty earthiness, warmth, breathiness, and humanity. I tried building synth patches. I tried over 100 patches in Omnisphere (I mean, c'mon! No one built a patch with ALL of those tags I needed??). I tried singing. Nothing fit. Frustrated, I took a lunch break and then came back up to the studio to file a few pieces of mail that had arrived. Much to my surprise, the solution to my texture problem stared me down from my score-taping table. At some point in the last month, my wife had come across the harmonica again and placed it neatly next to a lamp in the studio, almost as if it was begging to be used again. I thought "what the heck" and brushed up on my harmonica chops (which are minimal), then started playing along to the B section of my tune for Naknek. It was absolutely perfect. The texture, the warmth, the grit, the humanity... it was all there. 

It's been said that live instruments increases the production value of a score. Well, as of today, this small budget project just got a $50,000 score. Fight on! 

"Work hard, be nice, get lucky." [Dan Carlin] 

I recently had the privilege of lunching with Dan Carlin, the chair of USC's Scoring for Motion Picture and Television Program, my alma mater. Dan is an all-around great guy, great listener, and has been around the block in this town enough to know who's who, what's what, and what to say (or not) to said who's. I was reminded when I spent some time with him of how many different collaborations I've had in this town, many of which seem to be because of the above principles (I'd substitute "get lucky" with "trust God."). 

Hard work is hard to come by these days. Nice people are hard to come by. Nice people who work hard are even harder to find. So, by simply being nice and working hard (that's an understatement), it's amazing to see how  relationships are grown (and kept). And, by being in the right place at the right time, you never know... you might get lucky. 

Also, if you've never been to Tam O'Shanter in Glendale, it's worth the trip. Their Corned Beef is spectacular. And their horseradish is hotter than Hades. 

Ophelia! Ophelia!

Almost exactly two years ago, my incredibly humble and visionary friend Caress Reeves approached me about scoring her thesis for her Masters in Fine Art Animation at USC. Caress and I had collaborated on several projects prior to this, so I knew that it'd be extremely out of the box and terribly creative. She didn't disappoint. Her idea? Create a space-opera animated musical.... without any spoken dialogue. Yes, opera in the truest sense. (I would also like to point out that Caress is the only director that I've ever worked with who has temped at least part of EVERY one of her projects with something by Stravinsky. Talk about great taste!)

We brainstormed for several months and as things progressed, Caress ended up with this idea that would manifest as a funk-opera. Yes. Funk-Opera. Without giving away any spoilers, I'll just say that we had a TON of fun. And so, before a single frame was rendered, we started working on the music and libretto with lyricist JJ Bassette. Over the next several months, I worked to create themes and orchestrations that were reminiscent of The Magic Flute and Rigoletto, throwing us into the heart of an opera house but in a far-fetched enough manner that our audience still found things comic. We were, in a way, making fun of the dramatic (in a true dramatic, not musical dramatic sense) soprano divas of opera. And my, what fun we had. I've never done as much score study for a project as I did for this little film, but the end result was worth it. After hours of studying Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Aloe Blacc, Mingus, and even some Ella, writing, throwing things out, writing, and re-writing again, we were finally ready to hit the studio.

"Ophelia! Ophelia! God's hand-picked chosen queen!"

"Ophelia! Ophelia! God's hand-picked chosen queen!"

After auditioning over 50 women for the three lead roles, we ended up hiring the extremely talented Christin Hunt (Ophelia), Candace Coles (Maria), and Ashley Sirls (Daphne). (I might add that Ashley sent me the COOLEST Michael Jackson cover recorded on her iPhone while she was on Choir tour for part of her audition! Totally impressed!) After a day of tracking vocals, we brought in a 30 voice choir.... while Caress filmed the entire thing to model the eventually animated characters after facial expressions, body movements, and Adam's Apple movements (true story).  These three women COMPLETELY brought these characters to life, and incredibly, NONE of them had previous experience as voice actors. Absolutely brilliant. Trust me, when you watch Caress's animation of Ophelia, it's like a completely startlingly hilarious (and at times disturbing) version of Christin bringing her to life! 

One of Caress' photos from our day tracking choirs and soloists. 

One of Caress' photos from our day tracking choirs and soloists. 

After two years of sitting on this score, Caress and I are happy to share a portion of it with you. In celebration of Mothership Opera returning home to Los Angeles in Festival this Friday night, I present you with the Miserable Opening Act from our short funk-space-opera. (For the record, you won't hear any funk in this bit....)