The mad brilliance of Hans Zimmer

Tony Zhou, professional video editor from Vancouver, runs a fantastic Youtube series called Every Frame a Painting. His video essay on Marvel’s cinematic universe begins with a great demonstration about the blandness of Marvel’s music. Everyone can sing Star Wars, or Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings, or James Bond. Marvel, on the other hand, is totally different.

It’s in the first two minutes:

Zhou hits upon a lot of important things in his video. He criticizes Marvel’s music for lacking to invoke an emotional response, its existence as something that’s not supposed to be noticed, and the downward spiral of the use of temp tracks.

But Zhou is not a musician and misses the core part of why we can sing Harry Potter and not Iron Man, and it really has nothing to do with temp tracks: Harry Potter uses melodic letimotifs and Iron Man does not.

It’s easy to conflate an easily hum-able, melodic approach with ‘good’ scoring. That’s what Zhou does, in part. But it’s just not accurate. A good score does not necessarily need to be melodic, or have a recurring motif, or even consist of an orchestra.

Indeed, none of those things were requirements for film music, according to legendary American composer Aaron Copland in a 1949 article for the New York Times titled “Tip to Moviegoers: Take off those Ear-Muffs.” Copland wrote that film music serves the screen by

Creating a more convincing atmosphere of time and place, underlining psychological refinements—the unspoken thoughts of a character or the unseen implications of a situation, serving as a kind of neutral background filler, building a sense of continuity, [and] underpinning the theatrical build-up of a scene, and rounding it off with a sense of finality.

Couching each of those ideas in a repeating melody or melodic structure is a simple way to do so, but it is not necessary.

Enter Hans Zimmer, the Academy Award-winning German composer of film and television.

If you conducted similar interviews to Zhou’s and subbed out Marvel’s movies for Zimmer’s, you could come up with a similar result. Singing Zimmer’s scores requires one to actually be a trombone with a synthesizer fused to your face; melody isn’t exactly a focus for him.

But unlike Marvel’s unmemorable melodies, Zimmer’s scores are memorable. Why is that?

It’s certainly not because of subtlety. Subtlety is technically a tool in Zimmer’s arsenal inasmuch as tact is a tool in Donald Trump’s arsenal. Zimmer approaches subtlety the same way most people approach and deal with spiders. Subtlety once dated Zimmer but then dumped him for another composer, and Zimmer has never forgiven her.

I mean, come on:

For years, I poo-poo’d Zimmer for this reason. John Williams and his style was so obviously better. I can sing Williams tunes. I can sing Howard Shore melodies from Middle-Earth. Zimmer is bleeehhhh.

But what I didn’t really realize until Marvel started crystallizing this thought was that most movie scores aren’t memorable nowadays. The traversal through temp track valley and background music bend yields a lot of those.

Zimmer’s music, though? It’s always been memorable. Despite his lack of subtlety, Zimmer works in the new framework of film music in a way no one else does.

We remember the crashing chords of Inception. We remember the thunderous organ of Interstellar. We remember the terrible tension of The Dark Knight. And we will remember the haunting Shepard tones of Dunkirk.

Zimmer isn’t usually particularly melodic, but he succeeds because his soundscapes are creative, unique, memorable, and match perfectly with the movie’s overall aesthetic. And we often remember Zimmer’s scores because they breathe within the film, playing a specific role that can’t be matched by anything else.

You wouldn’t think that a billion brass instruments, some percussion, and a mad German on the synth would come up with brilliant film scores, but that’s what happens. While the industry is zigging when it used to zag, Zimmer is zigging more than anyone else, and it’s a hoot to hear.

My favorite movies of 2016

Look: I’m not a film buff. My knowledge of film-making is superficial, I’ve never made a creative film, and my bar for enjoying movies is very low.

That being said, I like lists, I like good entertainment, and while I don’t have any film training, I have an analytical mind that can’t stop thinking about the ‘how’ or ‘why’ of something. So…I’ve a list!

I self-select for movies a lot, meaning I don’t go and see something I might like; I value my time and I am risk averse when trying new things. That being said, I still saw a dozen movies released this year, all in the theaters. Doing a top ten would be silly with that number, so I’ll stick with the tried-and-true method of assigning differently-colored metallic alloys to my top three films, with an honorable mention because this is my blog and I have that power.

Lacking ados of the further variety, etc.:

HONORABLE MENTION – Rogue One

Rogue One is most definitely a Star Wars movie, but you get the distinct feeling that it doesn’t really believe that. There are an awful lot of sly references to the other movies, some of which are pretty neat, and others of which are the equivalent of a kid in school boasting about how his uncle knows Kevin Bacon (said uncle actually just ran into K-Bac one time at Denny’s).

The film also can’t really decide if it wants to be spy thriller, buddy comedy, or action movie, and it juggles some great characters (Jyn, K-2SO) with some that just sort of feel like they are just there because why not (everyone else).

If it feels like I’m harping on this a lot, since this is a Star Wars movie, I have to explain why it’s not one of my favorite movies and not the other way around.

I still like it a ton, of course. The music is fantastic and surpassed all my expectations (it’s the first and hitherto only Star Wars film without the legendary John Williams at the helm). It ends brilliantly. It’s fun and exciting. Darth Vader is in it and does things. It is consistently beautiful, not in the “nice CG” way but the “wow, this is fantastic art direction” way.

It’s a Star Wars movie. But it’s not a STAR WARS MOVIE.

BRONZE MEDAL – Arrival

Arrival is the rare science fiction movie that’s also a critical darling – it’s got a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and has a pair of Golden Globe nominations (one for Amy Adams for Best Actress, the other for Johan Johannsson for Best Original Score).

You know why? It’s amazing, that’s why.

To elaborate: it’s thrilling despite a lack of use of violence, thought-provoking without being haughty, personal at the same time as grandiose. It’s got an excellent score and, most importantly, feels unique, an extraordinary achievement in the land of big-budget science fiction glut.

Science fiction, at its best, offers a glimpse into humanity in a way that literally nothing else can do. Arrival is science fiction at its best. It’s a beautiful movie, too, on a micro and a macro level. It’s never cheesy, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and presents bizarre circumstances in believable ways. Go see it.

SILVER MEDAL – Zootopia

There was a moment in Zootopia where I sort of looked around the theater and thought to myself, “Gee, Disney, this is awfully on the nose.” The film tackles themes like prejudice, racism, redemption, and adjusting to a place where you are completely on your own and nobody believes in you.

At this point I would like to reiterate that, yes, Zootopia is an animated movie and, yes, it’s still a hilarious blast.

Zootopia has a great world filled with interesting characters and a story it needs, and wants, to tell. It’s funny when it needs to be, serious when it has to be, and is always charming.

It’s so confident of itself that its main trailer (embedded above) was just a clip of the movie. That was, in and of itself, a brilliant move.

Zootopia is so good, I hope it never gets a sequel. It will. But one can dream.

GOLD MEDAL – La La Land

Why do we watch movies? To get away from it all? To see spectacle? To emotionally engage with relatable characters and get swept off our feet?

La La Land does it all, a modern musical movie where that just doesn’t happen in live action film anymore. La La Land, or L3 if you want to be really annoying and hipster, wins the Gold for many reasons. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are fantastic. The music is superb. I’m a sucker for unconventional and/or bittersweet endings, which the movie provides.

The biggest, though, is that it captivates and it never lets go. It reaches for the stars, knowing full well that reaching for the stars is impractical and impossible, but it does so anyway. It succeeds.

 

Science Fiction: The Great Divide Part 2

On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon. The ship was, for its time, technologically brilliant. It served as a vessel for the 238,900 mile trip to Earth’s only natural satellite and functioned properly for the whole 8 days of the mission. There were no major issues; Apollo 11 brought back with it moon rocks and dust, along with the sheer wonder of being an object that made the longest round-trip in history.

Yet, none of this matters if the human element is not there. If Kennedy does not make the bold claim that the moon landing will occur within the decade. If Armstrong does not proclaim “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” If the pure amazement of transcending the only planet the human race has ever known is not experienced by the world. If the astronauts don’t return home and fill out the most amusing paperwork that has ever existed. Regardless of the technological breakthroughs, wonder, and achievement, the moon landing does not matter save for what it means to us both individually and as a human race.

In Part 1, I discussed the curious and often significant demarcation between television and other forms of media in regards to the success of science fiction. To recap: science fiction releases are some of the most profitable and hyped in film, video games, and books; meanwhile, science fiction TV shows struggle to succeed, and even the hyped ones rarely achieve commercial success. But why? Why is it like this?

1) Content
Movies are roughly two hours long. The most expensive movies in the world have a built-in limit on the final product; furthermore, movie releases are a singular event. A film needs only to enthrall the audience once for a short time, and it need not actually be good to be successful. Moviegoers enjoy spectacle. How else do you explain the performance of the Transformers films compared to their Metacritic scores? Meanwhile, a science fiction novel costs no more to write than any other type of novel, and again is a singular event. A video game is also one entity. Furthermore, for video games, it is important to have gameplay that is fun and interesting. Story is a secondary consideration for many video games (it often shows), but shooting lasers at people is fun, so science fiction is an easy genre to utilize.

A television show is made up of a legion of entities. Its success depends on retaining viewership across a wide number of episodes. If a person sits down and watches Star Explosion 5: Furtive Reconnaissance Disaster at the cinema and doesn’t like it, they can go home and never think of it again (though Star Explosion 5 is my favorite). If that person watches CSI: Mars Colony and doesn’t like it, that’s a problem for the show, as it must retain viewership to succeed. Furthermore, the CGI and effects for Mars Colony and other sci-fi shows make them very expensive. Sci-fi shows must gather a larger audience compared to other shows to stay profitable.

2) Character
The best science fiction stories are not those with the most and biggest explosions, or the craziest time traveling, or the weirdest aliens, though all of these things are good to include. The best stories are ones about people. Characters drive fiction. Star Wars has become a cultural icon because its characters are strong and memorable: Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, Yoda, Han Solo. Star Trek has done a similar thing through Captain Kirk and Spock; Stargate through Jack O’Neill, Fringe through Walter–the list goes on.

In order to create a great show, you need to get people to care about the characters. A movie, book, or videogame can survive on a premise, on technology, on a gimmick, even. A television show can’t do that. Science fiction is great because it allows the creator to put characters into situations that we will never be in and under fascinating stresses that highlight humanity;s struggles in a truly unique light. It takes truly great vision and execution to do so. However, TV shows must also be accessible, or else you don’t retain viewership.

Conclusion
In many ways, TV sci-fi must be perfect in a way that other media do not need to be. A successful sci-fi show emphasizes character, emphasizes lore, emphasizes plot, is marketed well, consistent, able to change, different, accessible, full of wonder, full of normality, culturally relevant, culturally transcendent, fun, intellectual, and lucky. Other science fiction media needs far less of those qualities to succeed.

I do think part of this odd lack of science fiction on television is a result of the radically changing industry. TV is changing faster than movies, books, or video games. Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, and others have fundamentally altered our consumption of TV, and the whole medium is going through a violent upheaval. Former subscribers are leaving cable in droves; the only thing I watch on cable, KC Royals games, I can get–you guessed it–on the internet, if I ever need to. Science fiction shows have met resounding success in the past, with Stargate SG-1, Smallville, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and X-Files leading the pack with a huge amount of episodes. Here’s to hoping that some good ones come back. I already miss Fringe.

Science Fiction: The Great Divide Part 1

In 2009, James Cameron’s science fiction epic, Avatar, was released into movie theaters everywhere. A whirlwind force of unparalleled 3D accomplishment, visual splendor, art direction, and sheer spectacle, the movie boasts a score of 83 (out of 100) on the review amalgamation site Metacritic.com. That was not Avatar’s only success. The movie raked in an absolutely ridiculous amount of money–once it was all said and done, Avatar earned $2,782,275,172 worldwide. According to the International Monetary Fund, this is essentially the entire GDP of the South American country of Guyana from 2012. If you prefer a more concrete analogy, Avatar grossed 114,970 Toyota Prius hybrid cars.

In 2001, Microsoft Studios and Bungie released Halo: Combat Evolved, a sci-fi first person shooter, for the brand new Xbox. Halo was unanimously received as the best console FPS to date; its aggregate score on Gamerankings.com is an impressive 95.54%. For a console which only sold 25 million units, Halo itself sold 6.43 million discs. Halo 2, released in 2004, sold even better at 8.49 million and was also critically praised. The narrative repeated itself with Halo 3 in 2007 and Halo 4 in 2012; these titles sold 11.78 and 8.35 million, respectively. The Halo franchise is arguably the most important new franchise in video games since the turn of the millennium, and the franchise also includes best-selling spinoffs Halo: Reach, Halo 3: ODST, Halo Wars, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, and PC releases for Halo 1 and 2.

In 2008, Suzanne Collins’ book The Hunger Games, published by Scholastic, hit the shelves. The book, a science-fiction story of a post-apocalyptic society, was positively received by many, including commercially successful authors such as Stephen King and Stephanie Meyer. It hit the New York Times Best Seller list in November and has spent time there for 148 weeks, or roughly the amount of time it takes to receive a package via the US Postal Service. The following books, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, were released the following two years and have met similar success.

In 2011, Terra Nova, Fox Network’s greatly hyped and highly anticipated sci-fi time-travel epic, premiered. It didn’t even last until 2012. After its initial 13 episode season, declining viewership, expensive production costs, and mounting impatience from top management prompted Fox to cancel the show.

One of these things is not like the others.

There is a curious thing going on in media nowadays. As I have shown, science fiction is a hugely profitable enterprise in movies, games, and books. Yet, this does not seem to be the case for television. Sure, there have been recent television successes in the sci-fi genre (Lost, Fringe, and Doctor Who), and there have been failures in the movie/game/book sections of sci-fi too (Will Smith’s After Earth comes to mind). There are two things to consider, though. First is that sci-fi is routinely a moneymaker for the other media–in addition to Avatar, there were the Star Trek reboots, District 9, Star Wars; in addition to Halo, there was Gears of War, Mass Effect, Borderlands. The same cannot be said for television–the biggest shows are House, CSI, How I Met Your Mother, and the like.

The second thing is that there is a decent list of recent sci-fi shows that were flops. Here are some other shows, in addition to Terra Nova, which didn’t last very long themselves:

Alphas-19 episodes, 2010
Bionic Woman-8 episodes, 2007
Caprica-24 episodes, 2011-2012
Dollhouse-27 episodes, 2009-2010
Firefly-14 episodes, 2002
Flash Forward-22 episodes, 2009-2010
Stargate Universe–44 episodes, 2009-2011
V-22 episodes, 2009-2011

Even the most successful of this list, Stargate Universe, was a huge disappointment. It lasted for two seasons as opposed to 5 for Stargate Atlantis and 10 for Stargate SG-1; its total was less than half of Atlantis (100) and about a fifth of that of SG-1 (214).

The rift between television and other media regarding sci-fi is fascinating. I do think there are reasons for this, though. These will be explained in part 2.