Dan Carlin discusses the pivotal role of the music editor in creating a finished film score
Interview by David Kraft – Originally published in CinemaScore #11/12, 1983
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher, Randall D. Larson
Most film music buffs can rattle off the top composers’ filmographies and discographies, or can hum every note of a favorite score, but few know about all that is involved with the actual scoring of a film. While composers deservedly get the lion’s share of attention, other talented individuals contribute to the success (or failure) of a film score. Directors and producers often have much input when working with a composer and countless stories are told about scores ruined by insensitive or musically ignorant filmmakers. (And, to be fair, often times good musical concepts and suggestions are made by them.) The recording mixer and music editor can greatly affect a film’s music. My interest in spotlighting these “unsung heroes” led to my conversation with one of the busiest film music editors currently working, Dan Carlin. Carlin is president of LA DA Productions, an independent company that employs 12 music editors. In Hollywood, music editors either work for a studio and are assigned by that studio to specific film or television projects, or they can work independently and are hired by individual producers for specific films. Dan Carlin’s father, the highly respected veteran film music editor Dan Carlin Sr., formed LA DA in 1972, after working for years at major studios. The company’s name was derived from Dan Sr.’s wife’s first name, Lavony, and his own, Dan – hence LA DA (a title which makes musical sense as well).
Although the younger Carlin grew up in a film music environment, and is now, at age 35, a successful music editor, he started his professional life as an anthropology lecturer at the University of Connecticut. It wasn’t until 1976 that he decided to follow in his father’s music editing footsteps. Dan Sr. trained his son, and Dan Jr. began his new career editing the music for television, later “graduating” to feature films with DAYS OF HEAVEN in 1978. He has since worked extensively with composers such as Georges Delerue, Lalo Schifrin, Jack Nitzsche, and others. Dan is an extremely personable, easy going and likeable fellow – qualities that are especially well suited to his job, which requires diplomacy and cool-headedness in stressful situations. For example, at a recent scoring session, the director and producer were at odds with each other concerning a musical cue which one felt should he played strictly instrumentally, while the other felt a female voice should be added. When the tension started to mount, Dan’s personality and professional talents calmed both men down and the scoring session continued without ever upsetting the composer. After the incident was over, a studio musician – a 30-year veteran who has worked with both Carlins, Sr. and Jr. – told me, “Dan Jr. is certainly a chip off the old block.”
The following interview was conducted in Dan’s Burbank, California, office.
Let’s say you, as a film editor, have been hired for a film. Would you explain exactly what you do as a film music editor; how you work with the composer and your involvement with that film until its final release?
The music editor’s role has changed in the past few years. With the growth of independent productions, music editors, especially those of us who work independently, have become more involved. For major feature films, the director and producer select and hire the composer. Then the composer requests a specific music editor, and hopefully that request is honored. Once the music editor has been hired, he or she, the composer, and the director and/or producer will screen and “spot” the film together. At this spotting session we determine where, what type, and how long each musical cue will be in the film.
It depends on the specific composer and producer or director as to what extent the music editor will become involved in this spotting session. Sometimes we are asked to simply sit and take notes for the composer, while at other times, in addition to taking the notes, we take a very active role in the decision-making process.
Some composers, such as Fred Karlin, have a complete handle on a film — he’s usually screened the film already and knows what he wants to do. In that type of situation we wouldn’t be asked to participate much. On the other hand, a composer like Georges Delerue wants to hear differing opinions on ideas for scoring, in which case we’d participate much more.
So, we spot the film and take notes on the starts and stops for each cue. Spotting might take a whole day, or even two, depending on how much conversation goes on. John Addison and Paul Chihara, for example, usually take a longer time to spot a film. On the other hand, Patrick Williams and John Cacavas move quite swiftly through a spotting session. But that’s a generality and it oftentimes depends on the type of project. If the director or producer wants to be particularly innovative with the placement of music, it’s going to take longer to spot. But other times it’s fast and easy because the starts are quite obvious. Interestingly, if a film is not edited well it makes it very difficult to spot. Film editing has a rhythm, and when the film is cut well, the starts are easier to determine.
After the spotting, we’re given a black and white dupe of the film. Let’s say we’ve decided at the spotting session that, for example, music should start in a specific scene underneath a character’s dialog at a certain point where he’s in the house. The music editor then takes that particular reel, puts it on a moviola and finds that point in the film — we determine the precise frame at which the music should begin. Perhaps the start will be on a cut, or a beat after the end of dialog, or a beat after a sigh – we try to apply a natural rhythm in selecting the music start. We then mark the start on the film frame itself. We write down the footage and then calculate the time of the action to the point where the music cue ends. In addition to noting the precise time, we make notes on what exactly is happening on the screen during the course of the cue (e.g.: “In this scene music starts under Gail’s dialog in the house when John enters and they decide they’re going outside to the boats. The music continues through their drive and the music tails [ends] when they enter the dock”). We do this for all the cues in the film. When we are finished we type up and distribute these Spotting Notes to the composer, producer and film editor. (These notes can help the editor so he/she doesn’t end a reel in the middle of a music cue, which can cause a technical problem. Incidentally, the composer doesn’t actually write the score from these notes, they’re not specific enough.)
Now that everybody has a copy of these notes and can quickly review where the music is going to occur, cues can be added, shortened, deleted, or even corrected. The notes are designed to help avoid confusion (although they are frequently ignored).
We then go back to the moviola and begin the most tedious task of music editing. We re-locate the start of each cue on the film reel, set the second-hand timer of the moviola at :00.0 and then describe each cue in tenths of seconds.
Each scene is described very specifically at this point (e. g.,’ :00.0 Music starts to fade up to Gail in her bedroom. :01. 4 Telephone rings. :01. 6 Gail looks at the telephone. :02.4 Walks over to the phone. :02.8 Picks up the phone.) We type all of this up and give it to the composer who needs this information in laying out a cue. He/she needs to know where dialog starts, when the car screeches, when the gun fires –, all the things which effect or will be effected by the musical sounds and action. (The smart composer, for example, will attempt to avoid writing the lead line in the same frequency range in which some other sound is occurring on the screen.)
The breakdown or timing process takes several days. Once the notes are completed and delivered, inevitably the film editor calls and says “We’ve made a slight change in this scene and cut out a couple seconds.” Well, usually it isn’t just two seconds even, it might be :02.36 seconds, and so we have to go back and re-calculate all the timings for that cue (which, hopefully, has not already been written by the composer).
While the composer is writing and orchestrating, the music editor figures out any musical problems in the film: finding source music, cutting down production tracks, figuring out “click tracks” (a digital metronome based on film frames rather than seconds), etc.
As the composer gradually completes cues, we get a copy of the sketch on which the composer has indicated whether he/she wants to conduct the cue to a click track or use streamers (physical notations the music editor scrapes and punches on the film itself. At the recording session, the composer/conductor can see these streamers as the film goes through the projector. This aids him/her in effectively starting, accenting, changing and ending the music.)
This brings us to what the majority of us would agree is the most enjoyable part of our work: the scoring session. If we’ve done our job correctly, there is nothing to be concerned about, and we can enjoy the music – it’s a very “hyper” time. But if there is a problem – if the director doesn’t like the themes, or the scenes have been changed and the film editor forgot to forward the changes to us – it can be a nightmare.
Okay, let’s assume there are no problems.
At the session, the music editor operates the clock and the digital metronome, and makes notes on each cue as it is performed. The scoring usually involves two sessions a day, of three or four hours each, and can last two or three days.
Often we record the music onto 24 channels (the piano on one track, 1st trumpets on another, 2nd trumpets on another, and so on). Then, with the input of the composer and sometimes the director and music editor, the engineer mixes the music down to three channels — for example, the low end on one channel, the highs on another and the rhythm on the third. After this we end up with the music of 35mm mag film which we bring back to the cutting room and prepare what we call “music units” for the final dubbing of the film.
It’s a bit hard to describe this process non-visually, but what we essentially have to do is keep the music in sync with the visuals and other elements (sound effects, dialog). We take reels of blank film and match them foot by foot, frame by frame, with the actual picture reel of the film. We run the blank film in sync with the actual film to the spot where the first music cue should begin, say at 131 feet plus 9 frames. We mark the blank film at this point and set it aside. We then run the 35mm mag of music along with the film in the moviola. We move it around, making any adjustments necessary. Sometimes, due to performance difficulties, two versions of the same cue need to be edited together, using, say, the first half of one and the second half of the other. Or, perhaps the director has asked that a cue be shortened, so we’ll need to edit it down. When it looks good to us, we mark the correct footage on the mag (e. g., 131 +11) and then cut it into the blank film that we had earlier set aside. We then wind it through the sync machine to the end of the music cue, splice more blank film after, it and then continue winding until we come to where the next music cue begins. We repeat the process and continue for all the reels of the film. We call this “building units”.
So the blank film has the same footage as the actual picture reel? You’ll end up with music on the 35mm mag film, then some blank film, then more mag film, and so on, all corresponding in footage and frames to the picture?
Exactly. You need that blank film there to keep it running in sync so the music will appear at just the right spot.
We go to the dubbing stage where we tape these reels on music units we’ve built and run them in perfect sync with the film projector. If we’ve done our job correctly, the music will start where it is supposed to start, and then it is dubbed onto the soundtrack of the film.
The talents of the music editor are really tested at the dubbing stage. Let’s say the director wants to rearrange an already recorded cue. He or she may want to use the music written for one scene to be played under another scene. Our challenge is this: the cue in question runs 2 minutes but the scene the director wants to run it in is 1 minute 33 seconds. We have to cut 27 seconds out of the cue and make it sound like no cut has been made, and we must do this quickly. The producer is paying $500.00 an hour for the dubbing stage, so we can’t spend hours making the change. We must be creative, quick and keep our cool. Sometimes this is difficult when a cue that we’ve changed to our satisfaction does not please the director who now wants us to try all over again; but, it’s his or her money, not ours, so we go back and try it again.
So, after lengthening some cues, shortening others, and finishing the dub, we usually take the film to preview. In response to the audience’s reaction to that screening, the producer and director decide to make more changes in the film and sound track. Since it’s too expensive to go back and re-score scenes after they’ve been re-cut, we have to edit and move the existing cues around again. We then re-dub, and perhaps after one more preview, the film goes to answer print, and we are finished.
That’s generally what we do. In addition, often before a composer writes a score, we are asked to make a “temp track” for a film where we’ll take existing sound tracks and other record sources and place them in the film in order to preview it. No director wants to show an uninformed audience a “dry” film with no music, so we are asked to put temporary music in until the composer writes his or her score. The danger with temp music is that a filmmaker frequently falls in love with the temp track. He or she might hear the temp music several times before the composer comes in, so the composer has a difficult time writing original music that will please the director.
We recently made a temp track for THE BLACK STALLION RETURNS using existing music by Jerry Goldsmith, Maurice Jarre, Philippe Sarde, Georges Delerue and a little Bernard Herrmann. So, now Georges Delerue, who is going to compose the score for the film, must in essence compete with the score we’ve designed. It puts him in an awkward position.
In talking to several composers, they’ve told me problems can often result between director’s musical ignorance…
Yes. Throughout pre-production and production the director has had control, being able to make changes in the script, making changes on the set and in the editing room; but, given the situation on a scoring stage where you have 70 musicians sitting out there playing – if there are problems and the director doesn’t like something, there isn’t much he personally can do about it at the time. Asking the composer to make a major change at that point involves a literal shutdown in that the composer must change his or her sketch and then all the musicians’ parts need to be changed. Anything more than a minor change causes great problems. Directors know this going in and they are frequently scared – scared to death of hiring a composer and scared going to the score. It’s usually a very tough time for them since it’s the one area over which they can’t have a great deal of control.
It’s still a touchy issue, but it all started when a very talented symphonic composer, Bill Russo, was hired to score the film (his first). I had been working on the TV series, LOU GRANT and had met Russo when he observed my work at a recording session. Upon his request and on the recommendation of the film editor, I was hired to edit the music for THE BLACK STALLION.
When I first saw the film (a 3-hour version) I knew that it would be special and I was very excited to be able to work on it. Russo and the director, Carroll Ballard, had already been working on the project before I arrived, and they had developed communication problems which led to Russo’s departure. The director and producer were then faced with the problem of hiring someone else. The producers, including Francis Coppola, selected Carmine Coppola who was already in San Francisco working on APOCALYPSE NOW. After Carmine was hired, I became the “music producer” of the film, in charge of all musical aspects including budgeting, pay rolling, hiring musicians, arranging recording stage time, and generally working as a creative mediary between the director and the composer.
Carroll Ballard was not pleased with everything Carmine was writing, so we found two composer-musicians, Shirley Walker and Nyle Steiner, to work together on the music for certain scenes – essentially for the first five reels (the “island music”). Carmine orchestrated these cues along with his own and conducted the first scoring session at the Burbank Studios. Problems developed immediately because Carroll didn’t like what he heard. He and Carmine disagreed on potential changes, some of which we made.
Following the scoring and initial dub, we previewed the film in Seattle. It was then decided that Shirley Walker would re-compose/re-orchestrate the major cues. I conducted the re-score, we re-dubbed and quickly went into release. All this was done without Carmine, whose removal was not handled in a professional manner.
The fact is that real creative people, under real pressure, get real crazy. In this case the results were: 1) Carmine was mistreated, 2) the score, although great in sections, lacks a musical thread that should run throughout, 3) we finished on time with a truly wonderful film, and 4) the picture made a profit. In this community, the people who will invest in future films only want to hear about #4.
How do most music editors get their start? Are they frustrated composers, or perhaps editors at heart?
Traditionally, music editors start as editorial apprentices, progressing to assistant editors. There is no distinction between sound, music or film editors at the assistant level. A lot of music editors were assistant editors who took music jobs because they were able to move up quickly as opposed to film editor positions which require more seniority. Music editors get paid more than assistant editors, but they make less than comparably talented film editors.
A musical background isn’t necessary, but most good music editors do have that background. A couple of guys here at LA DA are frustrated composers who have in fact orchestrated some scores. Music editing is a nice way to develop their craft, to provide a steady income, and to make contacts until that “break” comes.
But it’s always a tremendous asset to have a musical background. There are exceptions… another editor came here as a go-fer and had never played an instrument. He was a hard worker, and he took classes in sight-reading music. He must be a good listener and have a good ear as he’s now a semi-great music editor, he recently completed ANNIE, MY FAVORITE YEAR and THE TOY.
My sister Kathy (Durning) sang and played the piano, and is now a music editor (working a lot with Elmer Bernstein – STRIPES, THE CHOSEN, AIRPLANE). My brother Tom is a fine guitarist and music editor working on TV’s CHIPS. He recently recorded two songs which were used in one of their episodes. My sister Patty is currently working in a recording studio making albums for children. And of course, our father, the music editor extraordinaire, plays a mean piano (circa 1957, but really great stuff).
Originally published in CinemaScore #13/14, 1984
In our last Interview we discussed some of the technical aspects of what a film music editor does. Now let’s discuss some specific films and’ composers you’ve worked with. What are some of your best experiences?
Despite all of its problems I really enjoyed working on THE BLACK STALLION because I felt mine was an important contribution. But DAYS OF HEAVEN was the first real provocative project for me. I was dubbing THE MAGIC OF LASSIE in the daytime, which was pleasant enough. But, after all, it was a Lassie movie – not real stimulating. Then director Terrence Malick called and asked me to help out with DAYS OF HEAVEN which was in a real mess. Ennio Morricone had recorded the score (mostly adaptations of Saint-Saens music) in Italy, and Malick kept moving the music around in the movie trying to make things work better. He asked me to work on the film at night with him and essentially “track” the film using the music Morricone had recorded. I loved both the film and the music, and Terry and I had a good time doing it. There are other film projects I’ve enjoyed, but I can’t really say that I had a lot to do with the success of their scores. As music editors, we are always proud of the jobs where, despite massive post-scoring film changes, we’ve managed to make the music work. For me, CAVEMAN, THE BLACK STALLION and THE MEAN SEASON stand out.
I had a great time with Lalo Schifrin in London where we did CAVEMAN. That was an outstanding score, and we did some fine dining as well.
Why was that score recorded in London?
First of all, it is less expensive to record there than here in the U.S., and you get a comparable sound. They bend over backwards to help you, and the musicians are excellent. But there is an agreement between American producers and the musicians union here that if you shoot a picture in America, you have to record the score in America. Since CAVEMAN was shot in Mexico, it was okay to record in London.
From the beginning, Lalo, David Foster (the producer) and Phlllip Borsos (the director) had agreed on a very stylized score – contemporary orchestrations including synthesizers, but lyrically reminiscent of earlier murder mystery scores. An attempt was made to get Wynton Marsalis to play solo trumpet on the main and end title sequences as well as on some of the source pieces. Orion Pictures, however, was unable to make a deal with the record company carrying Marsalis’ contract, so we brought in Herb Alpert. Borros decided that Alpert’s Interpretation reflected the wrong style, so we re-recorded with Chuck Findley.
The score was recorded prior to editing completion because Lalo had to leave to conduct a symphony in Europe. So, between the changes made by the editor, subsequent changes made at Orion’s request, and preview changes, virtually every cue was altered prior to final release. While difficult, this work was very rewarding.
The film and its score received very good reviews in both Variety and Hollywood Reporter, but was not received well at the Box Office.
You’ve worked several times with Georges Delerue.
I’m very fond of Georges Delerue; we have a great friendship. He’s a warm and talented person who appreciates the treatment he receives in Hollywood. In Europe, or at least Paris, a film composer isn’t recognized and treated as well as a good composer is here. Georges is now getting the praise and financial rewards he didn’t get when he lived and worked in France.
Yes. He wrote a terrific, fabulous score for it – different than what most American composers would do. But, after seeing the director’s cut, the Disney people fired the director and all the post-production staff, including our music editor. After the film was recut, a new composer was brought in to write for that version. A really fine score was lost in the process, but it won’t be the last time that happens. Delerue has written some fine TV-movie scores recently, SILENCE OF THE HEAT and THE EXECUTION, one of the best he’s done. It’s stylistically different from what you normally hear from him.
You and Jack Nitzsche have done several films together.
Yes, and I can’t imagine anyone more the opposite of Georges Delerue than Jack Nitzsche. I liked Jack’s score to HEARTBEAT a lot. One problem, though, that Jack has is that he can easily be distracted from his work. He needs to be isolated and focused to do good work. There is an adagio piece in HEARTBEAT which reflects that certain amount of genius Jack possesses. He doesn’t get to show it that often, but he does in flashes. When recording, Jack prefers to stay in the audio booth with the mixer to make sure he’s getting the sound he wants, so he has someone else conduct. I was able to conduct BREATHLESS, WINDY CITY and AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN, except for some cues that were reorchestrated at the last minute by David Spear who conducted them himself.
Recently’ you worked with Basil Poledouris on CONAN THE DESTROYER and PROTOCOL…
Basil’s a good writer and a very pleasant fellow. I’ve had problems recording in Rome in the past, but we had a good experience on the CONAN film. Usually there is a rivalry between the different musical in Italy that come together for film work. Things go much slower and the orchestra isn’t as deep as elsewhere. The first chair musicians are good musicians, but the further you go back, the quality of the players decreases greatly. It’s not first-rate stuff. Basil had to learn he couldn’t write too challenging or hard-to-play music when scoring In Italy. We did have a good experience at the recording studio outside of Rome – the RCA studio. We’d been told it wasn’t any good, but it was terrific. It turns out the musicians just don’t like the commute.
What about language problems?
They can be difficult, especially if you don’t use an Italian conductor. Francesco De Masi is a wonderful conductor, and it helps to have someone like him.
What about PROTOCOL?
We’re working on that now. There’s a heavy mix of “source” music and original underscore. Basil has written a truly great three minute cue for a coup scene in the Middle East involving Goldie Hawn.
Did you work on BODY DOUBLE with Pino Donaggio?
No. Rich Stone, one of the other music editors here at Segue worked on that score. I was there a couple days during the scoring and dubbing to observe because, as far as we know, it’s the first time on a major feature that they dubbed directly from a digital master to a dub master. They recorded the music digitally. When that happens we normally get our transfers – our mix downs – on magnetic tape from the digital master. Then we build those “mag” tracks into the music units and take those to the dubbing stage. (This way there is less hiss since you’ve eliminated one generation). What they wound up doing on BODY DOUBLE was to take the original digital master and dub directly onto the dubbing master. It’s a fantastic sounding track. Also, Pino’s music was very appropriate and exciting.
Who decided to try this new process?
Actually the sound editor noticed how good the score was and suggested it. I guess Brian De Palma convinced Columbia Pictures to pay the extra money to have it done. It was very expensive.
Except In rare exceptions such as this, music editors are still doing music editing the same way as when sound editing began. There haven’t been the technological advances In sound and music editing that film editors have enjoyed. A film editor only needs to worry about frames–not sprockets. Sound and music editors still are concerned with sprockets. It’ll be great when digital work becomes standard.
Let’s talk about the use of “temp”-tracks. They seem to have a lot of Influence now, more than ever, and It seems a lot of film makers are demanding that composers virtually copy the music that they’ve put In the temporary cuts of their films. I guess since the music editor often puts together these temp-tracks, you are influencing how the final score will sound.
Temp-mixes are mixed blessings.
Directors are entitled to one cut on a film, the “Director’s Cut.” In most cases those cuts are overlong and need to be cut further. When they show this cut to the studio people and producers, they feel the need for temporary music to help the movie flow. If a film is well-edited, I’ve found it’s easy to track with some existing music.
We’ve done a lot more temp-tracks here lately and have found it can often hamper the composer. The director and producers fall in love with the temp-track. They become used to it while the composer is off for six to ten weeks writing his score. Then when the composer finally plays what he’s written, the frequent reaction is “Hmmmm” because the filmmakers want things to sound like the temp-track. I had one composer say to me, “Do me a favor, don’t temp-track this film with a lot of Jerry Goldsmith.” He didn’t want to make his job insurmountable!
After all, we can draw from the best film scores ever written to track a film, and that makes it hard for a composer to live up to. Sometimes, then, the score gets thrown out. One of the dangers is that if temp-tracks are followed too closely, film scores will never change. How will there be any Innovation if we continue to track with old music and composers duplicate it? Pretty soon we’d have only half-a-dozen decent scores!
What new composers do you see with potential for the future?
J.A.C. Redford, the regular composer for the ST. ELSEWHERE TV series, is a very talented writer. He pays attention to his craft and has a good sense of music. He orchestrates his own material, is a good conductor, and I happen to like his music. He’s going to do quite well.
Miles Goodman has a good Instinct and good orchestrational training. He and Redford are Interesting writers who don’t write only “traditional” scores.
Incidentally, the quality of a composer’s music isn’t the measure of his “Hollywood” success. What a composer needs to do is become Involved In a great film. After one or two, he can almost name his price and have his pick of films.
James Horner is a talented composer who has got good breaks and delivered when the pressure was on. He did six films last year! And he’s not one of those guys who hum a tune and has his orchestrator do all the work. He writes fairly complete orchestral sketches.
But getting back to your question, Shirley Walker and Nan Schwartz are two talented women composers who need a “break.” Brad Fiedel, who just did THE TERMINATOR, does some Interesting music. Like other composers, it is difficult for him to break out of the mould he has been placed in. He did great synthesizer scores for the TV-films, HEART OF STEEL and GIRLS OF THE WHITE ORCHID, so now he has been cast as a “synthesist”, making it difficult to be considered for other types of scores.
Peter Bernstein Is another rising talent. He combines the interesting harmonies of Paul Chihara with a very hip notion of contemporary rhythms and electronic sounds. I think Randy Newman writes outstanding film music. As far as I know the only two scores he has written are RAGTIME and THE NATURAL. They both received Academy nominations. Jack Hayes’ orchestrations on those scores are exquisite.
What distinguishes an exceptional music editor from a merely competent one?
Musical training helps a lot but isn’t the most important thing. It can help to read music since you can communicate with the composer better, but what Is really Important Is having a good ear and the sense to know where and how to make a good music edit. You must keep in mind that the music is there to help the film and not the other way around. You can’t get too wrapped up in the pure musicality of it all. You also have to work well and quickly under pressure since you deal with people worried about budgets, and you must deal diplomatically with a lot of insecure people. You have to give up some of your personal life because you frequently work late and on weekends. And when you finally do get home, somebody from the project calls to talk “concept” or “poll tics.”
Nonetheless, I feel very fortunate to work in this business. When I first started, I expected to run into a lot of Hollywood “hacks.” Although I have met a few, I’ve been fortunate to work mainly with people who respect each other’s work. By and large, I’m paid to have a pretty good time.