by Dan Goldwasser
"South Park" is all synthesized, whereas "Hercules" is performed with an orchestra. What can you tell me about working with a live orchestra?
It's great! "Hercules" has a minimum of 11 players every time we record. We have the brass and wind section of the orchestra, and the wind players are capable of playing the standard orchestral instruments as well as saxophones and ethnic wind instruments.
Strangely enough, the music is mixed live onto a DAT - when I first got the job it seemed odd to me, and I was willing to take money out of my pocket to do a mixing session afterwards. But we do it on the fly, so in a 2-minute cue, if there were an error, we would have to redo the cue and tell the editors where to cut and splice the different takes to come up with an ideal take.
It's a very tight schedule - for a recent episode that we scored, the tape went out the door at lunch time, and was immediately delivered to the screening for the show mix - it can be very quick!
What's the average turnaround on the show?
We have this very regimented schedule which we've stuck to ever since July:
Spotting two weeks before a session, and then recording. We record on Thursdays, and then we spot the next day. By the time the spotting notes come to me from the music editor, it's really about 12 days. Usually I have the full time to write the music.
While all this is going on, you are also writing "South Park"
South Park takes a minimum of two days to write. Usually that's all I get - there is so much editing taking place. On a recent show they finished the telecine on Tuesday - and of course the show was to air on Wednesday! Trey and Matt work on the episodes to the last second. Trey is always tweaking and editing. I'll get a tape two weeks before it needs to go out the door, but by the time the final version is done the editing is completely different. So I'll usually hold off, and hold off until I know that what I've gotten from them is relatively close to the final product.
How did you get into film scoring?
I was working in the Unified School District as speech aid, and scoring trailers for Roger Corman's film company and student films at USC and Loyola Marymount. After getting all of the basic music and general education classes out of the way at a community college I went to the USC school of composition and received a degree in composition with an emphasis in film scoring. Since most of my school credits were taken care of at community college I was able to focus solely on more advanced musical concepts. My thinking at the time was that I would start out as an orchestrator, and then work my way up to being a composer - but I've changed my thoughts on that.
What prompted you to change your mind?
I think that people get known for what they do well, and if you're a great orchestrator, people will know you as an orchestrator and it becomes difficult to break out of that role - you can get pigeonholed. The first job I had was orchestrating and conducting a film called Little Death for Christopher Tyng. After working for Chris I scored a number of Roger Corman films and did a fair amount of ghostwriting. Ghostwriting is a great way to get your own show - you get a lot of experience without all the pressure being on your head, and hopefully you're working with a composer that you respect and is more experienced. If that's the case, then you come out of the situation much better for it. Working for Jon Ehrlich and Christophe Beck, I learned about production, composition, spotting, and interacting with clients. All of the information that I learned from them is relevant now. A lot of the instructors at USC were people who had been very busy as composers, but back in the 70s. Or they were already so well established that what they had to say wasn't very relevant to a beginning film composer.
Was there ever a time when you thought of doing something other than film scoring?
While at USC I was thinking of getting my Ph.D. in Composition and becoming a professor. I talked with one of my composition teachers, who was somewhat upset that he hadn't pursued film scoring, and asked him what he thought. He told me, "I'm glad you're thinking about it, but you still have to go to the right parties, and sleep with the conductors, and do all the schmoozing to get all your pieces performed by the orchestras." I then realized how difficult it is to get a good position at a university. As a composition professor, the goal is to work at a school that has a great orchestra, so you're writing the pieces and they're playing the music.
There are so few positions available, and the qualifications for people getting those jobs are amazing. I realized that it would be much better and in fact easier to succeed in the world of film scoring than to get a professorship at a good university. Every two weeks the best players in town are performing my music.
Since many successful composers don't have degrees in composition, what motivated you to get one?
It was a decision I came to after I had been studying on my own for several years, I decided that I wanted to know how to write for an orchestra. I tried doing it on my own, but found that I could only get so far. I needed to be in an environment where there were people I could ask questions of, and would guide me down a certain path.
So USC also helped get connections in the industry?
Yes, it did. The first job I had with Christopher Tyng was the result of a referral from the Head of the Film Scoring Program, Buddy Baker. Jon Ehrlich and Chris Beck went to USC as well. It's very difficult to find qualified people to help you out if you don't have the money to pay top dollar, and of course in the beginning you don't! So there's this little network and we all refer each other to one another. This network consists primarily of people who are affiliated with USC in one way or another.
Was "South Park" your first animated show? How did you get the job?
Yes it was my first animated show. I actually got it through my wife, Nina. She studies acting at Playhouse West. One of Nina's friends from Playhouse had a roommate who knew a production assistant at the "South Park" offices. This production assistant happened to be assigned the task of finding a composer for the show. So my name came up, and I went in for an interview, and then wrote a demo for the show - and that's what got me the job! At that time, I had no idea what "South Park" was at all, and I took the videotape of the pilot episode home, watched it 10 times, and was struck that this was something unusual and fun to work on. If I had known it had a huge following before the show even came along, I probably would have been a lot more nervous.
Then "Hercules" came along
Yes, it came about because of my agents, and because of "South Park". My agent was talking with Bambi Moe at Disney. She's the Vice-President of Music for Animation over there for television and direct to video. I interviewed on a Tuesday, got the job two hours later, we spotted the show on Thursday, and I had two weeks to write the first batch of music!
The show airs five times a week worldwide, plus Saturdays on ABC. The way the show is scored, a lot of it is in a library format. The first few weeks were really crazy because the library was essentially empty, and we had to score everything. Since then, the amount has been getting progressively smaller, and in January the library will near completion, at the end of the season.
Currently, to get the music (21 minutes ever a period of 2 weeks) completed, I usually don't get more than 30 minutes of sleep just before the session. Usually I will sleep about 3 hours two nights beforehand, and deal with no sleep before the session just to get everything done. Once the session is over, I'm back to 7-8 hours of sleep - and then the cycle begins all over again a few days later!
When I first began "Hercules", I was really sleeping in shifts - working until I couldn't work any more, and then sleep for about 2 hours, wake up, go back to work, repeat the cycle - it was grueling! But now I delegate things more - whether it's orchestration, or even a cue - to other people.
Were you at all influenced by Alan Menken's work on the film version of Hercules?
I certainly watched the movie, but I would say that there really aren't many similarities except in the basic approach. The producers and directors of the show wanted a non-animated approach to the scoring - they have me approaching it more like a traditional film, as opposed to the Carl Stalling approach of scoring every tiny action on screen.
South Park" uses a lot of guitar work - do you perform it yourself or is that also sampled?
Most of it is sampled. Recently I have been doing some live guitar and mandolin work. What I'll do is put a DAT tape in the machine, and record a bunch of guitar and mandolin licks and riffs. Then I have a library of licks in my samplers, and I just spit them out. For the sampled guitar cues I first play the part on guitar, transcribe it, and then play it on the synthesizer - it's a round-about-way of doing it, but it sounds like someone actually playing guitar only with the unnatural twang that gives the show its sound.
What can you tell me about the upcoming CD: "Chef Aid: South Park Album"?
I had nothing to do with it! Conceptually, they just wanted an album of South Park inspired music, and not a "cue album", although there are a bunch of cues I can think of that would have been nice to have on it. But it's not really a show where people would go, "Hey look! The music from 'South Park'!" In some cases the music can stand alone, and in other cases people wouldn't really go for it. I don't like to get involved in anything beyond my job of scoring the show, so I really don't want to say, "Hey - put my cues in there!" I like to let Trey, Matt, and the marketing people make those decisions
Are you involved with the South Park Movie?
I just completed work on the teaser-trailer for the South Park Movie which should be out in the Spring of 1999, but I don't know if I'll be scoring it yet. I was requested to submit a demo for the trailer, and they needed it within a week and a half. They loved the demo, and we recorded it with a live orchestra - it sounds great!
I heard that you are in a band with Trey and Matt - do you guys still perform? How did that come about?
Yes, we're in a band together, but the last time we played was about four months ago. I've been playing guitar and piano since I was seven. With this band, I play the bass. In fact, that was one of the first questions Trey asked me: "Do you play bass? We want to have a band and open up at the Coconut Teaser."
We were doing it a lot - it seemed that part of the original job description was to be down there two or three nights a week practicing with the band.
Unfortunately now it's rare that I'll even get a chance to talk to Trey or Matt more than once a week. They are extremely busy with the South Park Movie, Trey's film Orgazmo, and they are always in the studio dubbing the voices for the show, they're always tweaking and revising episodes, and they are also working on the Dumb and Dumber prequel.
It seems to be a mentality of "why delegate when you can get it done faster yourself", which makes sense.
You mentioned that music is temp-tracked into the episode when you receive it - do you find that it limits you as a composer?
While most times they will already have a small amount of music temp-tracked into the show, it's just for me to use as a guide. But there is an immense amount of freedom on one level because I barely have contact with Trey or Matt before they hear the first pass of my music. Trey had studied music, and has a large say in what the score sounds like, but I really make my own creative decisions. We don't spot the show -everything is done away from them. I'll write the music, send it out, and watch the show to see what stuck. Sometimes a cue will be gone, or used elsewhere. It is rare that there is the time or need for revisions.
Are you working on any projects besides "Hercules" and "South Park"?
Yes - I just finished working on film called American Intellectuals, which will be released for the festival circuit. It's a quirky dark comedy about a bunch of kids in the Hamptons doing smart-drugs and a death that takes place. It's definitely not a mainstream movie, but it might get some legs at the festivals. My approach to the music was to do a hybrid of Henry Mancini and some strange techno stuff.
What projects do you have planned for the near future?
I'm really busy with "South Park" and "Hercules", but in February things will free up when "Hercules" finishes the season. I'm really keeping my fingers crossed for the South Park Movie, and I think that having me do the trailer is a step in the right direction; there's no opposition to the idea of me scoring it, but it's not a certainty.
What would your dream project be?
I'm really not sure. On many levels, getting the South Park Movie would be ideal, because I would love to score "South Park" with an eighty-piece orchestra. I'd also like to score a film that was a big character piece with a lot of subtext going on. Something where the music really contributes to the story and you're not competing with the sound effects. Perhaps something along the lines of The English Patient.
"South Park" airs at 10pm on Wednesday on Comedy Central. "Hercules: The Animated Series" airs at 6am on ABC on Saturday mornings, and Monday through Friday on local affiliates. "Chef Aid: The South Park Album" should be out in stores, although there are no cues by Berry presented. The highly anticipated trailer to South Park: The Movie is supposed to be attached to Star Trek: Insurrection, which opens on December 11th.