[Interview - Douglas Pipes]

Douglas Pipes is not a name that you're likely to have heard of - yet. This relatively new composer dives head-first into the Hollywood film music scene with his adventurous orchestral score to the Steven Spielberg / Robert Zemeckis-produced 3D animated film Monster House. SoundtrackNet had a chance to speak with this up-and-coming talent about his work on the film.

How did you first become involved with Monster House director Gil Kenan?

I met Gil while we were both in school. I went to the UCLA film and animation departments to look on the message boards for filmmakers in need of a composer. He had posted a flyer for his short, Shoot the Moon. Unfortunately, when I called he said he had a composer already lined up, so I offered my eight-track recording set-up figuring I would get the short and just score it for practice. On the day we were set to record, the person who was to score the film, a cellist friend of his, had arrived with the intention of improvising the score. I mentioned that I had charted some things for the cello, which I was going to later couple with my piano for a demo. Turns out the cellist was somewhat relieved to be "off the hook", and said we should go ahead and recorded my charts. I immediately scratched out some additional parts for her to layer the cello, recorded some piano that night and pulled together a score for the short. Gil still talks about that experience, and I think the impression that it left on him has a lot to do with me scoring all of his films since then.

What was your working process like?

After discussions with Gil about the general overall approach to the music, I wrote a piece that was almost a one-cue version of the movie, meant to present thematic ideas in a few different contexts. Not to picture, just to capture the right feeling. The main theme from that is heard throughout the score in various permutations from the main titles through the battle scene. [Play "The Battle" MP3]

Did you end up recording this "suite" with the orchestra, or was it just a synth demo?

It was recorded with samplers, same as the other mock-ups. It was never used as written, but it was the starting point from where we could listen to the theme and discuss how it could work in various situations. This was before shooting was completed, very preliminary discussions of tone.

So how did the writing procedure take place, given that it was animation...

As the movie was put together, I would work on things as they came in. The film was rendered out of sequence, and I might write a cue only to revisit it weeks later as the film was further along the rendering process and scenes were re-edited. The only scene that really stayed pretty much as it was from day one (in terms of length of the scene) was "Eliza's Song", the 'la la la' song the little girl sings while riding her tricycle. After filming was completed we worked this way: I would get a scene or sequence of scenes, score it, meet with Gil to play it for him, make adjustments based on his notes, and once he was happy with the mock-up I would deliver it to the editors would then place it into the working edit of the film. When a scene was changed, I would get the new scene and either adjust the cue or re-score it, depending on how it worked with the new edit of the film. [Play "Eliza's Song" MP3]

How involved were Spielberg/Zemeckis in the music process?

All of my musical interaction was with Gil. If they had thoughts about music they would have discussed them with Gil, and he would work out his ideas from those discussions with me. The producers showed an incredible amount of trust in Gil to help bring me on to score this film.

Did you encounter any stumbling blocks along the way?

The biggest obstacle was getting an unknown composer on a big Sony film. It didn't help that my demo at that point included nothing that really translated to Monster House. To Sony, I was coming out of nowhere, and although I've been working hard toward this goal for some time, I didn't have a body of work that could tell them that I could pull it off. [Play "Cop Car Gets Eaten" MP3]

What kind of music was on your demo reel at that point, stylistically speaking?

My demo consisted mostly of music I had done for student films, and those were typically a couple players, more on the serious/dramatic side.

So Gil gave me some early scenes cut from the motion capture performances to score, about 10 minutes, and from that a DVD demo was made. Then one of the producers, Steve Starkey, set up a meeting with Lia Vollack at Sony. At that point a deal was put into place where I would demo the entire movie, and Sony would then decide whether I would remain as composer.


How long did it take to demo the whole film, and how much of that remained in your final score?

The demos were composed as soon as scenes were delivered, and then continually refined as the picture was edited. So it was not a case of getting a "locked" version of the entire film with some weeks to put it together, it was more spread out. Almost all of the demos were pretty much the basis for the final cue, but as the visuals were more fleshed out and the sound effects came in, I would rework things to better fit the final versions of each scene. Also as the film was put together in longer sequences adjustments were made for start and stop points.

But it was still all synth...

In the very beginning, I created some mock-ups of theme ideas for Gil using a fairly low-cost orchestra sample library I owned at the time. When I played the music, it lacked so much in terms of translating the true intention of the music, that I freaked out and went straight out and bought a top-of-the-line orchestra sample library. The next time I brought music in he had that look in his eye like he did on all of our previous projects, so I felt a lot better!

What hardware/software/tools do you use to do the mockups?

I record all the piano for the demos on my Yamaha C5, and the rest of the orchestral parts using the East/West Platinum Pro Orchestra Sample Library running through Digital Performer. In some cases I would hire some friends to record acoustic parts for the demos where the library didn't get a close enough sound, to help get the point across. Those acoustic elements really helped! The Minimoog and Jupiter 6 stayed in the final recordings.

The mock-ups were generally pretty close to the intended instrumentation, but of course they lack the soul. I worked with Jon Kull (orchestrator), and once he received a sketch score from the mock-ups, we would discuss the instrumentation and intended dynamics, articulations, etc. for each cue. Jon and I clicked right off, and he is fabulous at translating the mock-up sketches and our conversations to the final score, keeping the composer's voice intact while providing some wonderful touches that really enhance the music. [Play "Parents Drive Off" MP3]

Have you worked with an orchestrator before in your previous projects? If not, have you always orchestrated for yourself - and if so, did you provide any additional orchestration on Monster House?

This was my first film with any of the music team. I had always orchestrated, copied, recorded, edited, and mixed the music and sound on the student films. The first features I did were recorded in studios, but I still wrote and copied all the parts. I didn't do additional orchestrations on this, Jon worked with some other fine orchestrators, Bruce Babcock (also the conductor) and Jim Honeyman, as the schedule got tight.

What was the reasoning for putting the album tracks out of film sequence?

I wanted to get to the scary nature of the film sooner. The tracks are not too far from their position in the movie, but I wanted the listening experience to have some of the dynamic shifts that occur in the film as a result of the scenes without music, so the bigger action/adventure cues are not sequenced one after another. And it just felt right putting the dance at the end, so for those who see the movie, that visual memory is a nice ending to the CD. [Play "The Dance" MP3]

Do you write with paper/pencil, or compose in the computer?

I wrote with paper and pencil while in school and on short films where I had time to create the parts. I continue to write initial ideas from the piano down on paper so I don't forget them. But with the process of demo-ing cues with orchestra mock-ups and being able to quickly get an idea into the director's head, the days of playing a theme on the piano, describing the orchestration, then waiting until the recording session to hear the orchestrated cue are quickly fading. The challenge now is to create music that works as a sample mock-up, always mindful of what you can really do on the page for the players. On Monster House, I didn't do a sample mock-up for the scene during the nightmare, I just sent a pencil and paper sketch to Jon.

What is your musical background?

My father taught music in local public schools, and as kid I would go watch his marching bands in parades on Saturdays. At eight, I started playing piano, and at eighteen I took my high-school graduation money, bought a synthesizer, and joined a band. While I was playing around the LA area, a film director, Alan Ruffier, was making his first feature length film asked me to write the score. I was a fan of orchestral film music, but I had never studied composition. That led to three other independent features, each a combination of synths and acoustic instruments. While scoring those films it became clear to me that the best way for me to improve my writing was to study composition. I stopped taking projects, started studying piano full-time again and went to school to earn a degree in music composition. Over the next five years I studied composition and orchestration in Los Angeles, London, and Paris, took film-scoring classes outside my degree, and started doing student films.

Do you have a particular "style" that you prefer over another? (Jazz vs. orchestral, etc.)

I have a strong leaning toward orchestral music, and being a piano player I compose from the piano, but I am equally at home with my old synths. I think of style more as how you use music in a given context.

What were Moonstalker and Grandpa?

Grandpa was actually the second film I did for Alan Ruffier - he had asked me to score his first film Bonneville, Arizona a couple years before. Grandpa is a beautiful film, but unfortunately it wasn't picked up by a major distributor. The music had a folk/Americana feel. Moonstalker was a low-budget horror film with mostly electronics and samples.

Who do you consider your strongest influences in the film score world?

That is always a tough question because my musical influences (orchestral) stem from the classical and contemporary "classical" world. If I had to single out a film composer, I think you would find more Jerry Goldsmith in my collection. His ability to create so many unique film scores, across so many different styles that seem to fit each film just perfectly was pretty remarkable. Also Alex North, Ennio Morricone, Bernard Herrmann.....

Do you have any dream projects?

Dream project....hmmmmm....I think it would be interesting to do a musical from a script that was not intended to be a musical, without changing the dialogue at all, and making it work. Does that sound like a dream project or a nightmare project?

What are you working on now?

Gorfaine/Schwartz has me in meetings for the next possible project. With Monster House being my first film with a full orchestra, we waited until the CD came out last week to start promoting my music.

The soundtrack to Monster House is available from Varese Sarabande Records. The film is currently playing in theaters worldwide, as well as select 3D theaters.

Special thanks to Beth Comstock at the Gorfaine-Schwartz Agency