[mix tape] Jessica Mae Stover of Artemis Eternal & the Dos and Don’ts of Movie Scoring

May 12, 2010

In 1937, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, an anthropologist who published a fascinating study regarding belief systems of the Azande of north central Africa, suggested that African peoples possessed reason and logic capabilities that equaled that of Westerners (i.e. white Europeans and Americans). His stance was controversial because the dominant theories of the time claimed that people of Africa did not possess reason and logic capabilities beyond that of nonhuman animals. Evidence cited for this was often the religious beliefs and practices, which were labeled witchcraft, cults, or paganism.

While observing one particular village, Evans-Pritchard was dumbfounded at the frequency the villagers blamed accidents or other unfortunate events on witchcraft; things Evans-Pritchard would blame on coincidence or bad luck. The most lucid example he provided was regarding storage structures the villagers used to store their harvests. Over the generations, they had observed that storing the harvests on the ground made them susceptible to pests and mold and mildew. So they built their storage structures on stilts, creating raised storerooms. This made it difficult for large pests to reach the harvests and kept the harvests dry for a longer period of time as well. However, the stilts were susceptible to ants and termites so the villagers would have to replace the stilts regularly. Evans-Pritchard attributed this type of planning to basic reasoning and a simple form of logic and so concluded that the Azande were indeed capable of basic logic and reason.

During the farming season, when the sun was its hottest the farmers would in the shade under the raised storage rooms. One day, a man was crushed and killed when his storage structure collapsed on him. When asked what happened, the villagers claimed witchcraft caused the structure to collapse on the man. Evans-Pritchard was dumbfounded. He asked the villagers why they thought this when they were aware that the stilts are weakened by termites and ants and thus would eventually collapse if not replaced in a timely manner. Wasn’t it simply that this man did not replace the stilts of his storeroom in time and, in unfortunate coincidence, was underneath the structure when it collapsed? The villagers replied that yes, they were aware why store rooms collapse, but they had no logical explanation for why this particular store room collapsed at this particular time on this particular man. It could only be witchcraft that caused this structure to collapse that day at that time and no other.

What is important to note is that what Evans-Pritchard called coincidence the villagers called witchcraft. It is also what we might call bad luck, or fate, or magic, or a miracle, or destiny, or God’s will. These are terms that we, supposedly the most logical and reason-capable creatures on Earth, use to explain the unexplainable. Evans-Pritchard went on to conclude that the Azande were no less capable of logic and reasoned thought than Westerners. His thinking became the foundations of Structural-functionalism, a theory that in its most rudimentary form claims that we, humans, are incapable of thinking (or reasoning) outside the limits of our own thoughts. And thus, for the unexplainable, we rely on terms that acknowledge our lack of understanding and control.

For the most part, I agree with Evans-Pritchard. But I think there a few individuals who are not hampered by the limits of their own thoughts. They envision limits as speed bumps, not walls. These are people we call geniuses, visionaries, revolutionaries, innovators, creators, and dreamers. These are the people we rely on to create things, ideas, and concepts that do not yet exist. These people have Eureka! moments.

Jessica Mae Stover is one of these people. She is an actor, a writer, a producer, a director. She has embarked on a journey that has never been undertaken.

Artemis Eternal is a film. But before you ask what it is about, Stover asks you to “forget everything you know about filmmaking.” Stover and her Wingmen are attempting (quite successfully) to create a Hollywood quality film without the input and funding of Hollywood studios (of which there are currently six who control content and distribution of nearly all the films we see). Using only crowd-funding, fueled by film fans and makers alike, upon a cyber-nexus (a rebel base station, if you will) at artemiseternal.com, Stover et. al. are doing what even independent film makers cannot do, and that is to completely redefine how quality films can be funded and distributed on a large scale. They are not viral, they are not YouTube phenomena, here this morning gone this afternoon. This is an acknowledgement of how things were and are and a complete disavowal of it.

The WINGMEN: Distortion from JSto on Vimeo.

As Stover says in one interview, it is difficult to tell you what Artemis Eternal as a film and journey is succinctly; simply because there is no previous referent to compare it to. Instead, we here at nonpretentious invite you to discover for yourself what Artemis Eternal is. We cannot tell you what Artemis Eternal is, we can only show you. But we warn you now, we are not responsible for what might happen to you. So if you like status quo, if you despise originality, innovation, and creativity, we advise you to take the blue pill and for you “the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe.” We have taken the red pill and are prepared to see just how deep the rabbit hole goes.  No wimps are wanted here. So what’s it going to be?

So without further ado, I turn the mic over to Jessica Mae Stover. Enjoy!

This is a preview player from Amazon. You may have to turn off ad-block to view it.  It is missing one song, however.

The subject I receive the most mail about—not solely from the population involved with the project, but from civilians, too—is my plans for the scoring of Artemis Eternal. A selection from the latest letter, for example:

“So many scores are awful or by one of the same three composers and they all sound the same. I don’t know what your plans are, but music is an integral part of film so I hope you’ll take it seriously.”

Seriously, serious fans are serious. And, greatly concerned! While it’s amusing that they’d tell me something that every professional filmmaker ought to know (and act upon), they’re absolutely right about the importance of music in a motion picture and the fact that studio scoring is often predictable while independent film scoring is sometimes sub par.

Thus, in harmony with those interests and concerns, I thought it wise to create a mix tape themed around the techniques found in modern film scoring and soundtrack.

The majority of these songs were on the playlist that I listened to while writing the screenplay for The Silver Legacy (the exceptions being those that were not yet released at the time of writing), as well as Artemis Eternal. Other compositions are points of study and frustration, or curiosities in cinematic trending that attracted my attention. Headphones on, if you please, and off we go!

Kothbiroby Ayub Ogada Ayub Ogada, Gavyn Wright & London Session Orchestra - The Constant Gardener (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) - Kothbiro

This graceful, prayer-like traditional Kenyan song scored the audiences’ exodus during the end credits of The Constant Gardener. Mr. Ogada is a Kenyan musician and his elegant, haunting voice has a cultural authenticity that matches the world of the film. Kothbiro caps the final moments of the picture with an eerie sense of warning.

Great filmmakers set the stage from beginning to end, including the end credits, which are the transitional moments the audience experiences as they leave the world of the theater and reenter reality, carrying the themes of the film into their own world.

Translations to Kothbiro are available online but, much like the fictional “Hopelandic” in Sigur Rós lyrics, this is a song that does not require translation in order to be meaningful. In fact, I suggest that deriving your own meaning is more meaningful than seeking the artist’s literal translation.

Speaking of Sigur Rós, those darlings of cinematic vision—for their music has been used fairly often, and even their music videos double as wonderful short films:

Untitled #4 by Sigur Rós Sigur Rós - ( ) - Track 4

There was a tricky scene that, as I worked to capture it in written form, I stumbled throughout repeatedly; a scene that I needed to be gentle-hearted and intimate, yet innocent, with distant hints of timelessness and monomyth. Essentially I was crafting a brief respite in the hero’s road of trials. #4 accompanied me on loop for days as I steadily solved the delicate beats of that scene.

Roslin and Adama by Bear McCreary Bear McCreary - Battlestar Galactica: Season 2 (Original Soundtrack from the TV Series) - Roslin and Adama

How often in epic genre motion picture do we see a key romantic story between two protagonists over fifty? The Ronald D. Moore helmed re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica was full of delightful surprises and higher-minded dramatic craft usually not found on television, and the scoring reflected the best qualities of the series.  Both youthful and playful, which I associate contextually with new love, and dignified, which I associate with the characters’ life experience, this instrumental paces through a slower movement weighted with worry and burden and then lightly progresses, floating into a glimpse of hope, like winter melting into spring.

Beyond Mr. McCreary’s excellent militaristic work with drums, and perhaps in contrast with those tracks, this is my favorite of the series’ score. Every listen brings back memories of moments between President Roslin and Admiral Adama wherein rank was set aside and they found themselves considering a simpler life.

Nara by E.S. Posthumus E.S. Posthumus - Unearthed - Nara  (Theme to  Cold Case)

In Nara we find quintessential popular, modern instrumental trailer music that has been licensed and deployed frequently by studios. Most major composers of Hollywood trailers have a knockoff of this song in their licensing library. What is widely appealing about now-familiar Nara is that, even in its most climactic movements, it is subtler than typical big trailer music and yet remains swooping and bombastic throughout. Watch how the score makes a rather unimportant event (a housewife having an affair) seem epic (i.e. as though the events between the characters are important to the fate of the larger world they inhabit).

Of course the effect is amplified when viewed in theater. Ah, listen—here it is again! And again it appears in the second movement of a trailer! Yes, those concerned fans are right to be concerned: When in doubt, Hollywood goes for familiar elements, template filmmaking and whatever’s easily bankable. Neither scoring nor marketing, nor scoring in marketing, is an exception. On that note,

Orchestral Choir Demo by X-Ray Dog

X-Ray Dog is a company that composes score that is consequently licensed for movie trailers and marketing. Their orchestral choral sampler, which is not available to the public for purchase, is used even more frequently than Nara. If you listen to this, then you will never look at movie trailers the same afterward: Every studio uses and reuses these trailer cues to the point that it’s become cliché to anyone who’s paying attention.

If you see a girl with long dark hair and her feet propped up in the back of the theater, rolling her eyes conspicuously and laughing uncontrollably at a bombastic movie trailer during an intense epic-styled montage, then you can assume that girl is me and the music is probably one of these overused “Choir Demo” tracks.

Example One | Example Two

Titled Here Comes The King, this specific X-Ray Dog cue is in extra-heavy rotation and, now that you’ve been alerted, you will notice it everywhere. I find the over-usage hilarious. On the other hand, it’s a fun bit of music to run and drive to. Just beware that it creates momentary delusions of immortality.

Since I mentioned The Other Boleyn Girl, guess which gentler bombastic cue was featured in the movie’s TV ads?

Lux Aeterna by Clint Mansell Clint Mansell - Requiem for a Dream - Lux Aeterna

Even if you haven’t experienced the film yet, you will very likely recognize the original thematic score from Requiem for a Dream. Mr. Mansell is my favorite composer. Here is a composition that draws together the themes and storylines in the film, and plays a strong part in unfolding the climax of the film. The original score to Requiem was an interesting and unpredictable choice (typically modern independent films use already produced songs as soundtrack), and it works so incredibly well due to a masterful collaboration between the filmmaker and composer.

Requiem For A Tower by Corner Stone Cues Corner Stone Cues - Corner Stone Cues Presents: Requiem for a Tower

I include this short trailer composition in the interest of understanding trends in scoring film and film marketing, and in the interest of comparing and contrasting higher caliber score with the more bombastic and overproduced take on motion picture music. Lux Aeterna was remixed by a trailer composer and licensed for the Return of the King adverts as well as the theatrical trailer and, among other appearances, has since been heard in the trailer for Sunshine.

Death Is The Road To Awe by Clint Mansell Clint Mansell - The Fountain - Death Is the Road to Awe

Promontory by Randy Edelman & Trevor Jones Randy Edelman & Trevor Jones - The Last of the Mohicans - Promontory

As with Requiem for a Dream’s Lux Aeterna, these songs are found at the climaxes of their films (The Fountain and Last Of The Mohicans, respectively). When next you watch these movies notice: What’s joining all storylines together and carrying them through to the thematic climax? Dialogue? No: It’s music! Fabulous, epic music crafted just for the particular picture!

In the wake of both films, these compositions are licensed repeatedly in film marketing. Interestingly, I recently discovered that the key musical theme found in Promontory was arranged based on a Scottish composition titled The Gael. That music came from a Scottish musician much like Kothbiro came from an Kenyan musician. Although The Gael was rearranged to be appropriate for The Last of the Mohicans, the authenticity is not lost.

Rolling Sea by Eliza Carthy Eliza Carthy - Rogue's Gallery - Pirate Ballads, Sea Song and Chanteys - Rolling Sea

Johnny Depp and the director for Pirates of the Caribbean were inspired to produce an album titled Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Song And Chanteys. When I actually heard the album, on which this song appears, my jaw dropped. “Holy shit, you studio assholes, I WANT TO SEE THAT MOVIE!,” I shouted at my computer screen. Imagine: A more authentic, less-Jerry-Bruckheimer-esque pirate movie worthy of this music!

These are the choices that the studios are making for you, because you can’t really watch or listen to what you don’t know about, or what isn’t produced. After all, there’s McDonald’s, and then there’s a gourmet steak dinner, just like there are McMovies, and then there are Films. An interesting thing about cinema is that, no matter the quality, all movies cost you the same. Of course the caliber of the score is usually reflective of the picture. In context of what could have been, Ms. McCarthy’s Rolling Sea reminds me of the “quality over quantity” argument in terms of “bigger is not always better,” nor is broader and generic more flavorful or filling. The entire album serves as yet another reminder of why I’m working independent of the studio system.

Nothing Else Matters from S&M (Live With the SFSO) by Metallica Metallica - S&M (Live) - Nothing Else Matters (Live With the SFSO)

Modern rock-metal arranged with an orchestra? It works. Here is one way to cinematically bridge genres in an epic way and create a score to modern life. I immediately think of my audience and our work together when I hear Nothing Else Matters, especially the Metallica version supported by orchestra, which lends to my fondness of that particular incarnation of the song. I find this performance suggestive of something interesting and cinematic that’s not being explored in soundtrack and scoring.

Of note, Finnish band Apocalyptica recorded an earthier, cello version of this song, which has a period-style feel.

Sunday Bloody Sunday by Vitamin String Quartet Vitamin Piano Series - Desire - Piano Tribute to U2 - Sunday Bloody Sunday

As with the Apocalyptica cover of Metallica, here is another example of how a popular song (in this case a work by U2) can be adapted in order to fit the context of a film and the world it encompasses.

Stairway To Heaven by Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin - Led Zeppelin IV (Remastered) - Stairway to Heaven

Classic rock is a filmic treasure trove: There are dozens upon dozens of rad songs that have an epic quality. The musicianship is textured, layered and shines through. By now you have likely noticed that I gravitate toward music that suggests cinematic sequences, drama and story.  Stairway stirs little modern fantasy-epic movies in my head, and I will always associate this song with the time I spent concepting the expanded world of Artemis Eternal.

Wunderkind by Alanis Morissette and Harry Gregson-Williams Alanis Morissette - The Chronicles of Narnia - The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - Wunderkind

Horse And I by Bat for Lashes Bat for Lashes - Fur and Gold - Horse and I

These two songs shall serve as my modern pop nod to the female hero and her discovery of The Quest. Wunderkind was crafted specifically for the first Narnia film soundtrack and is a better example of what can result from the practice of engineering a pop title track for a big genre movie. I was surprised to find that I liked it, mostly thanks to Ms. Morissette’s confident and lovely lyrical wordplay and heroic imagery, which bridges myth and the modern world. Her voice is also an interesting choice and grounds the song somewhat.

Horse and I feels more authentic and independent, and thankfully less overproduced. Here we have similar modern fantasy themes, yet these two songs belong in wholly different films. As a note to the producers and directors who hire composers and music supervisors, and greenlight a film’s musical decisions, if I can move your McScore onto any other McMovie, or McMovie trailer, then I’m far less likely to enjoy or patronize your work.

This Book is So Awesome by Harry and the Potters Harry and the Potters - Harry and the Potters and the Power of Love - This Book Is So Awesome

Let’s end with an absurd, weird choice that cracks me up. Two brothers from Massachusetts dress up like Harry Potter(s) and play indie rock songs about books, rocking libraries coast to coast.

As a fan of the Harry Potter books (not the movies, unfortunately), This Book is So Awesome reminds me in general of how lovely it is to be caught up in a great story and, as a scifi/fantasy filmmaker, I heart that it demonstrates the potential that exists for fans to be caught up in my own work and the worlds I create. I like to imagine J. K. Rowling listening to this as she wrote the latter books in the Potter series. Here we find an example of the cool, wacky creativity that can rush forth after a story captures imaginations.

Truly, great stories do live forever. They inspire, and they deserve inspired scoring well-suited to the picture and authentic to the world of the characters therein. Whether minimalist, quirky and independent, or epic and orchestral, great soundtracks are fabulous on their own, and they bring a well-loved film rushing back to the listener. I can’t wait to share the scoring portion of Artemis Eternal with our audience. Of course I can already tell that they, too, are looking forward to that leg of production. Thank you to all of the concerned e-mailers who inadvertently prompted the theme for this mix. Happy listening!


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4 Responses to “ [mix tape] Jessica Mae Stover of Artemis Eternal & the Dos and Don’ts of Movie Scoring ”

  1. Cindy on May 13, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    I jumped on Wikipedia and read the article, but it was a lot like walking through pudding: slow going and afterward I felt kinda dirty.

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