SEATTLE — It’s midafternoon at Studio X in Belltown and students of Seattle Film Institute’s film-scoring program are crafting their own compositions in a recording session. On one side of a glass partition, the instructor, Emmy Award-winning composer Hummie Mann, leads a room of orchestral artists through pages of sheet music.
On the other side, in the recording booth, sound engineers surrounded by a grid of knobs and switches fiddle with microphone levels, change tone quality and account for reverb.
The result could someday wind up in a commercial, a video game or even a feature film, bringing an emotional dimension to an otherwise flat, visual experience.
“Writing music for movies is the ability to bring out what you can’t actually see,” said Sarah Huslig, a student at SFI. “It lets the audience realize an emotion not portrayed in gestures and dialogue.”
In part because of SFI’s unique training program — along with local labor and cost considerations — Seattle has become a hotbed for scoring in recent years.
Scoring is the process of composing music for all manner of media, from movies and video games to TV series and commercials. A successful score helps define characters and scenes, just as costumes evoke a period film or dialogue sustains a drama.
“If you saw a piece about medieval knights and when they met in the street, they said to each other ‘Dude, what’s happening,’ you’d laugh because it’s incongruous,” explained Mann, creator of the program. “You have to figure out what musical language will work with the film.”
Mann began teaching students to write music for movies in 1997, a year after moving to Seattle from L.A. A renowned composer, he’s scored everything from “Robin Hood: Men in Tights,” to the opening number of the 1992 Academy Awards.
His first teaching gig was an extension class offered through Bellevue Community College, which Mann later expanded into the Pacific Northwest Film Scoring Program. Last September, that program merged with SFI to create one of the first certification programs of its kind. A 10-month-long Master of Music (MM) curriculum equips students with the skills they need to write professionally.
Mann was attracted to scoring because it appealed to his inner problem-solver. He relished the opportunity to work with every genre of music and to evoke all ranges of emotion.
Students split their class time between lectures and technology lessons with additional recording sessions supplemented by a live orchestra. They have the chance to work with their filmmaking peers to further develop their musical vocabulary. Before graduation, they will collaborate with film students to score a picture from start to finish.
Before enrolling, student Del Engen was an engineer at Microsoft and wrote a music column for MSNBC. Engen had always been drawn to the drama and energy of cinematic music. When he heard about the newly accredited program, he decided to commit himself to his dream.
“A film school like SFI is a great asset to train and develop creative talent,” said Engen, “it provides a nucleus for an industry to coalesce around.”
Seattle may not be an obvious locale for a scoring industry. Though the city has pockets of independent filmmakers, they rarely have the budget to afford a composer and live orchestra.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Seattle’s orchestral musicians formed a labor union, allowing them to compete with performers in Los Angeles and New York. Directors began seeking out cities like Seattle, London and Prague to record their film scores. It was cost-efficient and allowed them to keep many of the rights to their music.
Production teams won’t often use local composers — Hollywood remains the hub of the industry — but it does mean business for Seattle musicians and a growing culture around film music.
David Sabee, founder of Seattle Music, brings together some of the region’s most talented musicians for scoring productions, concerts and studio recordings.
Most recently he oversaw a six-day recording session for Alan Menken’s “Mirror Mirror,” an adaptation of the Snow White fairy tale, featuring Julia Roberts.
Everything happening on the screen has an address: a door opening, a kiss, an interaction between two characters. After several viewings and a series of conversations with the director, it’s the composer’s job to determine what type of music fits each of these moments.
It’s a tedious process, and one that’s evolving rapidly as fewer composers are classically trained. Technology has, in some ways, also undermined the artistry of scoring. Anyone with a sound library can produce musical mock-ups.
Mann acknowledges that Seattle’s industry lies mostly in composing for industrial films, video games and other mediums. And yet, it’s on the upswing, he insists. Successful composers can make anywhere from $20,000 to $1.4 million for a film assignment.
“There is more of a need for music for media than ever before. There are more cable stations, more video games. Even your cellphone uses music,” said Mann. “Somebody has to write that.”
Information from: The Seattle Times, http://www.seattletimes.com