James Horner Workflow
If you’re wondering why film music of the last 25 years just isn’t as interesting or detailed or well-written as it used to be, certainly through the 1980s—well, there are a lot of reasons.
Styles have changed: movies need different kinds of scores. And composers have different educational backgrounds, so they’re more likely to be well-versed in technology and social skills (to win the jobs in the first place), not composition.
But the biggest—when it comes to the A-list composers who have worked in both eras—is probably the reduced schedules.
When composers had 8–12 weeks to write a score—they wrote the score, every note.
When they have 4–6, they need to rely more on orchestrators, to copy-and-paste cues from different parts of the movie, and flesh out the detail.
When they have 2–3, or sometimes only a matter of days, it’s “all hands on deck,” and they’re basically supervising a team to get the job done.
Movies today are more likely to be on the short end of those schedules, for a variety of reasons (digital editing technology, film financing models)—and the filmmakers may make picture changes throughout post-production, which, as anybody who has ever dealt with music creation knows, totally scrambles the process.
Read J.A.C. Redford explain how his work for Horner would fall in a kind of continuum: from working from a detailed sketch, like the old days, to Horner improvising on a piano and generally narrating what he wanted a cue to do.
I remember when Horner did Troy (2004) as a hasty replacement score: a DAT found its way to a friend of mind who played me some examples of exactly what Redford describes, Horner playing a piano and saying, “And then something like this here.”
If there’s no time, there’s just no other way to do it.
Whenever you see four, five, six, seven or more orchestrators in the end credits roll (and it’s good they get screen credit): that’s what you’re listening to.
So when it sounds like every other score, generic and unsubtle—is it at all a surprise?
With Horner, I probably started to notice this in the mid-1990s. For whatever reason, A Far Off Place comes to mind. The music still sounded like Horner...but I found I had little interest in listening to it.
If you read Redford’s interview, you’ll see the person who seemed the most distressed about it...was James Horner.