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Bruce Broughton’s Film Scoring Dialogs, UCLA Extension

by Bob Safir

UCLA Extension offered a class on March 24, 2007 called “Film Scoring Dialogs, with Bruce Broughton.” Bruce has a ton of credits that span both film and television, not to mention theme park rides. He has the experience of old school, traditional orchestration, combined with the awareness of new school, do-it-on-the-computer, film music. He is professional in every sense of the word, and being his student for one Saturday in March was truly a pleasure.

Bruce started out by saying that the class went from noon to 5 p.m. and he didn’t see how anyone could talk for five straight hours on this topic. As it turned out, five hours was not nearly enough.

While many emerging composers are constantly looking for the ultimate educational reward – the topic of “how to find work” – Bruce’s class revolved more around the truly essential part of the process – the music.

He covered a variety of topics and mentioned a few gems. Writer’s block – something that everyone experiences one time or another – is simply fear. He went through the internal mental process that occurs with writer’s block, and it sounded like my own inner voice when writer’s block happens to me. The remedy? Simple: you don’t have time for writer’s block. Put some music, no matter what it is, in the score as a placeholder…you can always change it later.

Bruce went on to say that as a composer, you must keep writing. Keep writing all the time. And when you’re done with that, keep writing. And then keep writing.

I was fascinated to hear that when Bruce gets a writing assignment, he starts off by just thinking about what the music should be like. He then gets his best ideas in, well, for lack of a better word, the twilight zone…that strange little hallway between being asleep and awake. It was interesting to me because I have experienced the same thing from time to time. Once, I wrote an entire song (with lyrics) without an instrument, hanging out somewhere in the twilight zone.

Bruce recounted that Jerry Goldsmith wrote a theme for each and every film he worked on, even though it was likely he wouldn’t use it. It was a repository for all of his ideas – he extracted his material from the root theme. What a great idea.

Bernard Hermann, he said, often talked about the color – or timbre – of the music. He would design unusual orchestrations that did not necessarily follow the layout of a typical orchestra. If there were to be ten piccolos, then so be it.

Broughton said that John Williams is likely most responsible for the large orchestrations we have today. In his Star Wars scores, he doubles many of the parts so that they can cut through the sound effects. (Naturally, this would be in places in which there was no dialog.) When you’re John Williams, you’ve earned the right to dominate the sound effects track if that’s what you want to do. (Don’t try this unless you’re convinced you have the same clout as John Williams.)

Bruce went on to say that it’s not the idea, it’s what you do with it. A perfect illustration of this is Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Those first four notes are a sleeper, but what he does with those notes after that is pure genius.

Discussing the rhythm of the scene is something I have heard discussed in several different venues, and Bruce talked about this as well as the details of stop watches, click tracks, and frames per beat.

Right now, he states, sound effects and dialog rule. Bruce is also of the opinion that there is simply too much music in film scores today.

One of the highlights of the day was listening to his film music while looking over the scores that he handed out. Equally enlightening was watching a scene without the music first and then seeing what he did with it. And boy was he right about this: when there is no music, the scene seems to drag on and on and on.

Many other topics were discussed and the fifth hour, usually reserved for Q&A, was eaten up by more engaging stories from Bruce Broughton. This was a day well spent, and if you ever get the opportunity to sit in on his class, it comes highly recommended…just like I highly recommend a book by a good friend of his, Richard Bellis’ “The Emerging Film Composer.” Both of these experienced film composers have a ton of valuable lessons to teach us.