Yesterday I posted an album of John Williams pictures to Facebook that we collected over the years. It was, naturally, well-received, and I’m happy to share these images.
One of the things you learn publishing an entertainment magazine—or being involved in entertainment, generally—is that some things are just hugely popular: Star Wars, Star Trek, James Bond, Batman.
They touch people on an elemental level, enter the culture and become a part of it.
Put them on the cover of your magazine or album or whatever—and you get more sales.
Despite this, it’s fascinating to hear how some of the most popular things in the world only barely got made. Harry Potter was infamously rejected by over a dozen publishers before the chairman of a small British publisher gave the first chapter to his eight-year-old daughter—who read it and immediately asked for the rest of the book. Can you imagine? A multi-billion dollar franchise was launched because of somebody’s kid!
It makes it maddening to try to get your own movies and television shows made when everybody is running scared and trying to predict how “the herd” will react.
When I started this blog, I didn’t purposefully set the “number of views” to appear on the menu pages—it was a default—but I’ve left it that way, because it’s interesting to me.
Sure enough, the posts with the highest number of views are about major film composers—Williams, Goldsmith, Barry—as the word went out to film-score land that I was telling funny and interesting (I hope) stories about our heroes.
Why are these composers so popular? Well, just listen to their music! They are objectively better than just about any of the others (of course, there are other greats too).
Memorable themes. Interesting sounds. A knack for drama. Simplicity when it counts, complexity when it is needed.
What was J.J. Abrams’ mantra making the new Star Wars films? “Make it delightful.” Say what you will about the movies, but J.J. knows how to make things delightful.
So do our favorite composers. Their greatness is the product of a lot of skill sets combining: compositional dexterity, experience with live players, ability to communicate, process and interpret drama. It comes from both talent and experience—and a ton of hard work.
We love to listen to their music. So, of course, we’re fascinated to learn who they are (and were) as people, behind the notes.
To that end, Caleb Nelson sent me a couple of interesting YouTube links of John Williams interviews. Check out this one from 2014:
For those who don’t know, the loss he is referring to (the part starting around a minute in) is the sudden death of his first wife, actress/singer Barbara Ruick, from a ruptured aneurysm while on location shooting California Split in 1974.
He is very honest here, but also circumspect. You’ll have to make your own judgment about what he means; my interpretation is that losing somebody so close to him gave him a certain clarity to pursue his work without inhibitions—life is such a gift, and can be taken away so suddenly and arbitrarily, that we owe it to ourselves to live our dreams and do the best we can at any moment. (Sounds fair to infer, right?)
Also, courtesy Caleb, check out the end (at 8:39) of this CBS Sunday Morning piece from 2019 where he talks about the all-consuming nature of music composition—“you can neglect things, you can neglect people, you can neglect family.”
As always, he is so ultra-articulate—but emotionally, this would be anybody else’s nervous breakdown on national television!
For any of us trying to pursue a creative career, it’s inspiring but also humbling to work in the shadow of these giants.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned...it’s that the devil is in the details.
I have a random Williams anecdote but it’s like 25 years and two people removed from the source. But it has to do with somebody who was doing an orchestration or an arrangement—I totally forget. This person was, I believe, sitting with Williams to go over the piece (standard operating procedure, and in fact, you can see it here with Herbert Spencer—)
The person at one point suggested orchestrating a chord with, for example, a D in an inner voice. And Williams was like, “Yes, that’s good, but an F is better”—and played it on the piano—and there was a very specific harmonic reason why.
What I remember is the person who doing the chart was like, “Hey...that is better.”
It’s always the details!
I was lucky to make a sci-fi short film that got a lot of views (over two million across platforms—way more than most) and I like to think we made a good film...but a lot of it was because I knew to ask a fairly savvy question.
I asked the rep at the platform, DUST, “Let me guess, the videos with the most views have a thumbnail image that’s a bikini babe, or a movie star?”
Seriously—this is the thumbnail image of a short film with 37 million views at DUST:
I watched this short, and it’s plenty good, but let me just say—and I truly do not want to insult any other filmmaker—this film is not 20 times better than the one I made.
But no doubt about it—that’s one hot babe in her underwear.
At one point the top-rated comment on either this video or one with a similar thumbnail was:
Roses are red
Violets are blue
I came for the thumbnail
And you did too!
So, look, human nature (and male nature) is what it is.
Back to my question to the DUST rep: She said, “Close! A bikini babe—or a spaceship.”
And I said, “Oh great, I’ve got the spaceship!”
So I asked our VFX designer, Tobias Richter, to custom-generate a thumbnail (it’s representative of a shot in the short, but not an actual frame grab) that I knew would be catnip to the sci-fi fans:
That image was probably responsible for...well, I don’t know exactly. Maybe a million views?
Why? Spaceships are popular. Explosions are popular. To the DUST audience, exploding spaceships are very popular.
So a lot of the success of my short had nothing to do with the film itself, it was all about the fact that I had been around the block long enough to ask somebody what works for their marketing.
It could have been the exact same short with this thumbnail—
—and gotten maybe 25% of the views.
Details, my friend!
I actually find it liberating to get involved in details because you realize it’s not about genius or even luck (though luck is unavoidable)—it’s about the work.
The work can be learned, and you can get better...if you have the discipline and open mind to pursue improvement, without letting your ego getting the way.
Just listen to Ed Wood:
“Really? Worst film you ever saw. Well, my next one will be better. Hello? Hello?”
See you tomorrow!