Sunday, October 14, 2012

How to Train Your Dragon

Score Review by Annie Wills

The composer – John Powell
Born in London in 1963, John Powell took up the violin at a young age. After graduating with a composition degree from London’s Trinity College of Music, Powell began scoring commercials and helped out on a few projects for Hans Zimmer and Patrick Doyle. Powell scored his first feature film in 1994 and moved to the U.S. in 1997 where he became a part of Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control Productions team along with other well-known composers such as Harry Gregon-Williams and Klaus Badelt. Here, he helped arrange music for The Prince of Egypt, and co-wrote Dreamworks’ Antz with Gregson-Williams in 1998. John Powell is known for his ingenuity and creativity and has written over 50 film scores including Happy Feet, Shrek (with Harry Gregson-Williams), all three Bourne films, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and all three Ice Age films.

The movie - Directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, Produced by Bonnie Arnold
With directors who have worked on The Lion King, Lilo & Stitch, and Mulan; and a producer who produced Toy Story and Tarzan, you know this movie is going to be good. Nominated for two Oscars, this film is loved by many. Although on the outset it seems be a movie about a boy and his pet (very dangerous pet, mind you), it really is a movie about a father and son. This film has some wonderful characters, a fantastic script, and is full of imagination. The animation is wonderfully done and the lighting was created differently than most animated films. This beautiful film tells the story of a young Viking named Hiccup who is desperately trying to win his father, Stoick’s, approval. The best way to do this would be to kill a dragon, the Viking’s sworn enemy. After managing to down a dragon with a net, Hiccup finds he is incapable of killing it. Not because he doesn’t have the strength, but because he doesn’t have the heart to kill this frightened creature. Now having befriended a creature his entire village wants to kill, Hiccup struggles to be the Viking his father wants him to be. This movie will definitely make you laugh, and might make you cry. Entertaining for both children and adults, this is a story of strength, courage, trust and love.

The listening CD - Released by Varese Sarabande
This is a fantastic CD with plenty of activity to keep your attention through the end. The first five notes grab the listener from the start with their deep and awe inspiring melody, and from then on, the listener is kept wanting to hear more. This score is mostly written for standard orchestra, but adds some bagpipes and mallet instruments to show location and to add some variation.

The CD has been beautifully edited to include every theme in the movie, but takes out some of the smaller transitions, helping to move the CD along. There are a few parts that are on the CD but are not in the movie. A few seconds here and there throughout the CD will not be found in the movie, but the entire last track (The Vikings Have Their Tea) is not in the movie either.

The only song on this CD that was not written by John Powell is Track 14, Sticks and Stones by Jónsi, the singer of the Icelandic band Sigur Rós. The directors thought that Jónsi’s work is so “bright and infectious and happy” that they decided to ask him if he would be interested in writing a piece for the end credits. Jónsi watched the film in London while Powell was finishing up the score and had such a positive response to the film that he wrote Sticks and Stones in just a few days.

This CD has 25 tracks, in film order, and is just over 72 minutes long.

Track Number, Length, Title
1. 4:10, This is Berk
2. 1:55, Dragon Battle
3. 4:17, The Downed Dragon (0-0:48 not in movie)
4. 3:11, Dragon Training
5. 1:26, Wounded
6. 2:23, The Dragon Book
7. 2:06, Focus, Hiccup!
8. 4:11, Forbidden Friendship
9. 2:48, New Tail
10. 3:54, See You Tomorrow
11. 2:36, Test Drive
12. 1:13, Not So Fireproof (0-0:39 not in movie)
13. 0:44, This Time For Sure (0:40-0:44 not in movie)
14. 0:43, Astrid Goes For A Spin
15. 1:57, Romantic Flight
16. 2:29, Dragon's Den (0-0:40 not in movie)
17. 1:11, The Cove
18. 4:29, The Kill Ring
19. 5:14, Ready The Ships (1:22-2:23 and 4:33-5:14 not in movie)
20. 6:19, Battling The Green Death
21. 3:05, Counter Attack
22. 2:44, Where's Hiccup?
23. 2:51, Coming Back Around (2:40-2:51 in credits only)
24. 4:18, Sticks and Stones (Jónsi)
25. 2:04, The Vikings Have Their Tea (not in movie)

The score
John Powell is known for variety and inventiveness in his scores and How to Train Your Dragon is no exception. Beautifully written and well crafted, this score is constantly changing in instrumentation, timbre, harmony, and many other ways. Powell used many smaller motifs that are mixed together throughout the film, hardly ever following the same pattern twice. Powell also used some specific themes in the movie. For instance, nearly every time you see Toothless (the dragon) or every time Toothless plays an important part, you will hear this beautiful, leaping, D2 sequence which changes in instrumentation, harmony, or rhythm each time you hear it to match the drama. When you first hear this Toothless theme, it is played by strings in octaves giving it this strained quality and depicting the fear in Toothless’ eyes (13:42 into the movie; Track 3, Downed Dragon, 3:15). The next time you hear it is when Hiccup attempts to befriend Toothless (29:15 into the movie; Track 8 Forbidden Friendship, 0:11). This time it is completely changed. Light, beautiful, syncopated at times, and played by mallet instruments and pizzicato strings. Another main theme in the film is the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless. The very first notes you will hear are of this theme, but it’s not heard again until Hiccup has to decide whether or not to kill Toothless. Here, Powell plays the first four notes in tight dissonance, and the fifth and final note in a major key. This is such a beautiful foreshadowing of what will come from this decision. The theme is beautifully realized in the end of the film after Hiccup wakes up from his injury in battle. At this point, Powell plays this theme in the piano. It’s the only time the piano is heard in the entire score and it is completely soloed. This striking contrast characterizes the simple love between Hiccup and Toothless. Although there is no source music in the film, Powell uses instrumentation to show time and place.

In watching the filmmaker’s commentary on the DVD, directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders mention some of their decisions about the music for their film. In this commentary they talk about how music is so important to them, that whenever they create a film, they try to find places where they can eliminate dialogue and feature the music. Chris Sanders said: “It’s something that Dean and I learned a while ago. That we would try to engineer places in our films where we could just let the dialogue… just let it go.” Dean DeBlois continues this thought, “Let the music take over. We’re such fans of the scores of these movies, and to find, on purpose, to find places where the score can carry it. The score and the visuals. I’m very proud the fact that we have three places in this film where that happens.”

As mentioned above, there are a few times where there is music on the CD that is not in the movie. The filmmakers mention this in the commentary as some of the decisions that were made on the mixing stage. For instance, the first 48 seconds of Track 3, The Downed Dragon, are not in the movie. These 48 seconds were written to play under the scene where Stoick and his friend Gobber are talking about what to do with Hiccup and how to keep him safe (10:14 into the movie). In the commentary, one of the directors mentioned that “music is always there to deepen whatever the mood is going to be, but there’s a couple places where removing the music actually made that particular moment feel more serious, and that was one of them.” Another place where music was obviously written and not used is when Hiccup and his friend Astrid are talking about how to save Toothless from the Vikings (1:07:40 into the movie; Track 19, Ready the Ships 1:22-2:23).

These are just a few of the endless examples of ingenious, creative, and inspired work done on the underscore to How to Train Your Dragon. This wonderfully written score truly captures the life of this film, and leads viewers to the heart of its story.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

My Excuses

Snow fell all night and all day. By late afternoon the snow had turned to rain, wiping away all whiteness. My day started off well. I got up, did my banking, paid my bills, backed up my computer, and headed to work in the wintry wetness. No time for a lunch break makes for a long day, but I got through it well enough. I walked the third mile to my car in the rain, wondering if it might be worth buying a parking pass one of these days. After I'd finished waiting for my car to warm up on this third day in April, I headed to the nearest Apple store to surrender my Mac Book Pro to those people in blue shirts they call Geniuses. I must admit, they are pretty genius when it comes to Macs, but I had no need to test their capabilities today; I knew exactly what I was coming for. My CD drive has been broken for quite a while now and it's about time I got it replaced. Oh, the joys of being out of warranty. But even with that obstacle, I couldn't put it off anymore. You see, I really need Logic Pro on my computer. I got Logic Pro as a Christmas present a few years ago (thanks, Mom and Dad) and although I installed it right away, I took it off a while back just to free up some space (47 gigs of space) on my computer. I didn't realize at the time that my CD drive would not let me install it again. My Dad recently wrote a workbook that comes with a CD of guided meditations and he asked me to write the accompanying meditation music. He finished the book five weeks ago, sent me the guided meditations three months ago, and now he wants to publish it. I don't want to hold him back so, hence the immediate necessity of having a working CD drive. Hungry and computerless, I came home from the Apple store (where they have shockingly few apples) and forced myself to go for a run. It's been five days since I've run and, boy, could I feel it. So I came home, had dinner and thought to myself "Let's see. I've backed up my computer, gone to work, sent my computer to be fixed, gone for a run, eaten plenty of tortellini Alfredo to counteract said run... All in all I've had a pretty good day. What should I do next?" I decided to continue my spurt of productivity by watching How To Train Your Dragon. It may not seem like a productive thing to do, but, for me it is. Even though it's been on my list of scores to review for quite a while, I hadn't seen the movie yet. I bought the DVD two weeks ago so that I could start the review process but I hadn't even taken off the wrapping. With my cat curled up in my lap, I sat there, glued to the screen. When the film came to a close, when the boy and his dragon soared up into the sky, I nearly cried. Not because the movie was that good, but because the music was. I sat there, scared into silence as the credits rolled by and thought, who do I think I am? Who am I to even review a score like this, let alone write one someday? I got up, took a shower and started to head to bed; the entire time thinking about that movie. Not only was the music good, but the script, the dialogue, the characters, everything was so well done. I started to think that maybe I could just be in one of those smaller roles like Mix Assistant or Assistant Music Editor but even that sounded daunting. What am I doing? Wait, what AM I doing? Nothing. Well, at least, mostly nothing.

A few of the students at the law school have been saying that they're not even going to apply for their dream job because it's so unlikely that they'll get it. I tell them that they're ruining ALL chance of getting that job if the don't apply for it. If they just apply, that opens up A chance. No matter how small, it's still worth it. I need to tell myself the same thing. I will never work with film scores if I don't apply myself. It's that simple. Practicing, studying, writing. Every week, every day. It's worth it just to open up that chance, that small possibility of getting there one day. How long have I put off writing? Yes, I've gotten better since I moved here, but it's still nowhere near enough. I've had my Dad's meditations for months and have finished one. One out of ten. I couldn't even get myself to watch the movie I wanted to study for two weeks. I'm too tired. I have too much to do. Watching Psych or Criminal Minds is more fun than studying and paying attention. I'm not even sure which project I should work on right now. I'm just not in the mood.

No more excuses. If I want this, even if all I want is the possibility, then it's worth it. It's always worth it.

"Try not. Do, or do not."

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

My Life

I've just been reading over a few of my past blogs and have realized that quite a few of them are about trusting God and letting go. Even though it seems that I've learned this lesson over and over, I still somehow always find myself trying take the wheel while I sit in the passenger seat. I'm like one of those annoying back-seat drivers trying to tell God where to turn and when to slow down (or, more often, to speed up).

Two days ago, I was having a rough day. I was questioning the purpose of life. Why are we here? Is there really a point? I thought I was supposed to be married and writing breathtaking music around my rockin' awesome family by now. Is that ever going to happen? And, if not, then why am I here? I went to work that morning and my beautiful friend, Kristine, saw that I was having a rough day and asked if I wanted to eat lunch with her on the terrace. Come lunch time, we went down the steps and through the cafe to step into the glowing sunshine. We had barely sat down when she asked me, are you pro-life? Well, yeah, of course. Ok then, what is the value of life?

It was a question I wasn't expecting. We know it's wrong to kill, but why exactly? There's the obvious answer: because God told us not to. But past that, what really is the value of life? Is the value of life measured by success? Is it measured by failure? Is it measured by love, or hate? Is it measured by how many lives you touch, how many cities you've been to, or even how many breaths you take? Can you be good at life? Can you fail at life? No. To all of the above. The answer is much simpler than all that. The value of life is in the fact that God made it. He MADE it. He made you and me and all 6 billion people on earth. Sure, He made a lot of things. He created the mountains and the galaxies, too. But it's you and me that He loves and guides and carries through the life He gave us. Life is valuable because God lives inside us. Life is valuable because God loves us. And life is valuable because God died for us. We are here to love and be loved. We are here to live and work and follow Christ, wherever He might lead.

The next day, I received a phone call containing some very stressful news. I immediately reached out for that wheel, trying to turn into a different direction. I want to control this! I want to fix this! I went straight to Kristine and we went to the break room to talk and pray. The entire day was a blur. By the time I got in my car to drive home, I couldn't even remember being at work that day. But somewhere along the Diagonal Highway, I realized that I have to let go. We all have to let go. Didn't I just find that life is not measured by successes or failures? Didn't I just learn that life is valuable because God lives in us, and loves us and died for us? God MADE us. He's not going to let us fall.

Looking back over my life, I've done a lot of crazy and unplanned things. I bought a horse with barely any training and who hadn't been ridden in years when there were much better prospects out there for me to buy. She ended up winning Horse of the Month many times over at a therapeutic riding academy where she continues to help kids with disabilities learn to love. I up and moved to Disney World when I was 18 and discovered that the world is not such a scary place. I applied to only one undergraduate college simply because I didn't feel like taking the time to do the college search and it turns out it was the best place for me to be at that time. And the biggest jump of all, my move to Colorado. No friends, no family, no job, even my pets were left in KC. But when you follow God and let Him drive, He will guide you to a future you could not even imagine.

Life is valuable. All life is valuable. And even if I never end up writing breathtaking music or I never reach any of my goals, I know my life is still valuable and I will let God guide it to wherever I'm meant to be. Your life is valuable, too. And not because of your successes or failures, your joy or your scars. It is valuable because God made you and He loves you and He died for you. He will not let you fall. He values your life too much to let you fall.