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September 27, 2012

Nathan Johnson on Looper

By Nathan Johnson

Nathan Johnson

Nathan Johnson

Time past and time future What might have been and what has been point to one end, which is always present.
-T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

I. Past

My cousin Rian and I grew up making music and movies together. Every time we gathered as a family, our job was simple: ditch the adults and make something. Anything. From the first time as young children when we discovered the record button on our tape decks, we would mimic and copy and create. I recently found hand-drawn posters for our first musical endeavor, circa 1980. It was a passion-fueled and brilliantly short-lived band called "Weirder Than Al," which basically consisted of us changing the words to Weird Al songs. Somewhere, in a cardboard box, there is damning evidence of all this.

Nathan and Rian

Nathan (l) and Rian Johnson

I remember making a music video for one of our early songs with a camera the size of a small school bus. Rian's dad was the kind of father who brought home new gadgets a year before anybody else on the block, and eventually he got his hands on a camera that was portable and battery operated. Best of all, it was self-contained, severing the link from the luggable VCR. A new passion was born, and our projects expanded from afternoon videos in the basement to multi-location shoots that took weeks to complete. As fans of Star Wars, we were obsessed with camera tricks and special effects, but once we figured out how to edit with multiple machines and RCA jacks, a whole new doorway opened up to us: film music.

Our grandparents had a high-end VCR with stereo audio inputs, and we began our first experiments with split channel dialogue and music in front of their TV. Now, bear with me, because this is old, distant technology, but we discovered that if one cousin played the source video at just the right time (with the audio connected to the VCR's left channel input), and the second cousin played a CD at just the right time (with one channel of the CD's audio going into the VCR's right channel input), and yet a third cousin pressed record on the VCR at just the right time (and then told everyone just the right time to pause all the machines simultaneously in preparation for the next cut), then we could create a final edit with a MUSICAL SCORE.

Our lives had changed, and our special effects paled in comparison to the kind of impact we achieved by pumping John Williams through the right channel of our movies. But as much as we loved the newfound combination of movies and music, we never tried to actually record an original score. We were in the middle of the consumer tech revolution, but recording options were still scarce. In the eighties, as far as I could tell, there were only two options to record sound: a full-on magical studio or a single, scratchy boom-box from the past.





II. Future

It's just been announced. Not only is it theoretically possible, but the technology actually exists. I don't know when it will hit the market, but I know that it is coming, and it will change the way I make music forever.

I'm talking about the very first M-Box: a simple audio interface that can be carried in a backpack and connected to a home computer. Editable. Non-destructive. Home. Multi-track. Recording. I still remember exactly where I was when I heard the news because I had been dreaming about it, and then suddenly, it existed. But the best part was that it ran the same core software that powered every professional studio in the world. As a kid in the nineties and early aughts, coming up with the cash to truly experiment in a studio was prohibitive, but the M-Box was cheaper than book fees. It was cheaper than prom.

Finally, the world of audio recording had become available to everyone, and not long after, Rian and I started working on Brick. We had an almost non-existent budget, but none of that mattered. The year was 2004 and we were living in the future! Rian edited the movie on his bedroom computer and, since I was living in a different city at the time, we completed entire the scoring process via iChat.
But it's weird living in the future. With access to so many innovations, it can be difficult as a composer to know what to spend your time focusing on. At my core, I'm not really a tech guy, so I tend to center back to the creative idea, and I try to find a way for the technology to serve that idea. Of course, the technology I'm talking about is groundbreaking at one level, but it's easily accessible to everyone, which is important to me. And as far as I'm concerned, I don't want the creative vision to play second fiddle to the tools.

Thankfully, Rian's aesthetic in Brick suited this approach perfectly. He didn't want it to sound perfect, and his creative direction consisted of words like "broken," "rusted" and "out-of-tune." When I think about it, I'm pretty sure he was conjuring his ideal high school world where all the kids listened to Tom Waits instead of pop radio.

So that was the path we set out on. I worked with a rag-tag crew of musicians and instead of an orchestra, we used filing cabinets, kitchen utensils and the slightly detuned piano in my hallway. By this point, I had become fairly adept at recording with my limited setup, and that was how we captured all of the music for Brick: one microphone, one laptop and the magic of the M-Box.

That was all we needed. It was 2004 and it felt like we were living in the future.





III. Present

It's present day, 2012, and everyone is talking about technology: The death of the music industry, the impending doom of film, ownership, streaming, analog, digital, samples, live, PT, FCP, 3D, HD, 48p, 60hz, 1080p, LED, IMAX, 70mm.

We've come a long way from Brick's bedroom editing and junkyard orchestra, and It's safe to say that Looper is operating on a totally different level: its a full-fledged, sci-fi action movie. But one of the things I love about this film is the way Rian stays so true to the movie's emotional core. The technology in the story and the technology he used to make the story sets it up and then gets out of the way. If you watch the embedded score featurettes, you can see the weird way we created the music for Looper, but we were always aiming to use any technical innovations to serve and enhance the creative ideas.

When Rian and I began talking about the sound of this world, we wanted to create something that felt like a big action movie score while hitting the ear slightly differently. Part of our reasoning for this was driven by the story itself: Looper isn't "slick" sci-fi; It's grounded in our real world, and it's messy. When we sat down to create the music, it was important to approach it from a different angle. I spent weeks with a field recorder gathering found-sounds and then we custom-built our instruments out of those real-world sounds and space.

In a way, it still harkens back to the same approach we used for Brick, and it reminds me of a story I heard about Tom Waits. Supposedly, he decided to record in a barn instead of a studio, but even that was too clean for his taste, so he told the engineers to open the doors and let the world in. If the anecdote is true, it speaks to something I really appreciate about music, which is imperfection. Today, our technology makes perfection almost achievable, but to my ear, the results can fall flat. There's a big difference between a perfectly-sampled instrument and a real-live beast with its own quirks and blooms. The room you record in matters, and sometimes you don't want that room to be a studio. Sometimes, it works just fine if that room is a parking garage.





You can hear this all throughout the score for Looper because we recorded so many of the sounds in their natural environments, and it colors the music in a way that is unique. We used a lot of technology, but our underlying goal was to create an organic score with the cycles and rhythms and textures of an imperfect world. I hope, at the core, that it feels like the world of the film: familiar but slightly different and dangerous; creaking, groaning and falling apart.

And I hope that whatever new technology comes along, it serves us and then gets out of the way of the stories we tell in the present.

********

Looper was released in theaters on September 28th, 2012. Find out more at www.loopermovie.com

Read Nathan Johnson's musings at his Tumblr page: nathanjohnson.tumblr.com

Follow him on Twitter: @NTJohnson