Sam Cardon

An Interview with Sam Cardon by Rudy Koppl
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.21/No.81, 2002
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Rudy Koppl

Sam CardonWhen scoring motion pictures, the exclusivity of living at the heart of the scoring industry in Los Angeles makes all the difference in the world. Composer Sam Cardon’s scenario did not pose this luxury and presented his film scoring career with a challenge. This very situation led Cardon into getting endless scoring assignments by becoming one of the major IMAX film composers in the US today. Sam, who lives in Orem, Utah, with his wife and four children, has been scoring films for fourteen years. After listening to Cardon’s sensitive, moody treatment of WHALES, I discovered that his musical roots were based in creating environmental landscapes as well as his new age / jazz influences that can be heard on his other recordings such as Impulse, Serious Leisure, Digability, and Earth Cinema. However, it’s his scores to WHALES, OLYMPIC GLORY, ZION CANYON: TREASURE OF THE GODS, HEARST CASTLE, MYSTERIES OF EGYPT, and SHACKLETON’S ANTARCTIC ADVENTURE that have become the primary focus of Sam’s film scoring career in the IMAX format.

Since his first film ON OUR OWN in 1987, Cardon has won an Emmy and scored over ten motion pictures in his diverse musical career. It’s amazing that a composer located in the middle of Utah keeps getting major IMAX scoring projects and they never seem to end. After my initiation into Sam’s world with WHALES, I took the aural journey through MYSTERIES OF EGYPT and ZION CANYON: TREASURE OF THE GODS. Both are overwhelming symphonic experiences with Cardon’s special blend of voices, esoteric instrumentation, and electronics mixed within. It his strong compositional work and unique symphonic visions that have left a deep impression with me over the years, so when it came time to do an IMAX section on composers, it was a pleasure contacting Sam Cardon in Utah to discover his views and techniques on scoring IMAX films.

“The most satisfying part of scoring is having a blank canvas and trying to capture the essence of what the film is about. Whether it’s a character, place, feeling, or a certain magical atmosphere to the film. It’s really fun to get to whatever the essence is and it’s my favorite part of the process” Sam Cardon

What led you into film scoring?
Two things, it’s one of the only ways you can make a good living writing for an orchestra and I love writing for an orchestra. Secondly, it’s something you can do till you’re 90, as evidenced by Elmer Bernstein and many other composers. A lot of the other areas of contemporary music seem to have a bit less of a shelf life. You can continually uncover layers and develop a greater understanding of the craft; you can never really wear out the possibilities. That’s intriguing to me, so it seems like a really deep well that you can go back to over and over again. It’s also something that requires effort and there’s a certain satisfaction when it’s all over with, especially if there’s some kind of perceived level of achievement.

How and why did you get involved in scoring IMAX films?
The biggest reason is I don’t live in Hollywood. My demo reel was sent to director Keith Merrill, who’s one of the pioneers of IMAX. He’s done some really successful IMAX films over the years. I had a way to get my material to Keith and he gave me an opportunity to score my first IMAX film, ZION CANYON: TREASURE OF THE GODS in 1993.

Did the prospect of scoring an IMAX film fascinate you?
It scared me to death first and foremost! This really was the first time I used a full orchestra. Keith Merrill said, “You can’t be too big for this film.” So I’ve got an IMAX film, the director telling me “I can’t be too big,” and not feeling particularly confident in my skills with the orchestra yet, this all really scared me to death. In retrospect there are parts in TREASURE OF THE GODS that are too big and I’ve learned since then that there’s a lot more room for nuance in IMAX. I’m proud of this as my first effort and it was a great opportunity, but I’ve definitely learned some things since then.

Why has IMAX scoring been the primary focus of your film scoring career?
On a practical level, the IMAX filmmakers are a relatively small circle of people. I really like their approach because they have a real sense of mission about what they do. It’s a less glamorous outlet for filmmaking. It has certain educational and motivational components to it that normal film making doesn’t. There’s a real emphasis on the artistic component as well and it attracts a certain kind of people. These are people that I very much enjoy working with.

Do you remember your first IMAX viewing experience?
Before I ever had anything to do with scoring film, I’d go out of my way to seek out these films. I saw HISTORY OF FLIGHT at the Smithsonian in 1978. I was overwhelmed by the look of the film; it gave you a sense that you were experiencing what you were visualizing on the screen. I loved being wrapped around this whole visual experience. You could almost touch and smell your environment; it was such a realistic experience. I had no idea I’d even score an IMAX film, but at the time thought, “Wouldn’t this be cool” Once I was in Las Vegas and sought out the OMNIMAX, they had a couple of features there and then I had a couple of other opportunities to go back to the Smithsonian, so I’d spend the day there and watch everyone of their IMAX films. This was something I was really into, not knowing that I’d ever have the opportunity to be involved.

What is the key element that usually opens the door to create each one of your IMAX scores?
I think in IMAX, more than in feature films, the music really has a chance to be a character because you can’t tell everything in forty minutes, you can’t really complete it. It’s really difficult to try and tell a story in that much time. One of the really fun things about IMAX scoring is that you really have an opportunity to become part of the fabric of the whole film experience. In each case I will try and glean something from the main character, something about his spirit, personality, or his motivation. In the case of WHALES there was a relationship between a mother and a baby calf, they take this journey together. The filmmakers were so passionate about that relationship, they were talking about these animals as if they were family. That touched me that they cared that much about these characters and that was reflected in the score.
In the case of HEARST CASTLE: BUILDING THE DREAM everybody knows the CITIZEN KANE version of Hearst, but in this film they choose to take a look at the more inspirational parts of William Randolph Hearst’s character, which was also real inspirational for me.
In MYSTERIES OF EGYPT I went to Egypt and soaked up the atmosphere there, which was compelling to me. It’s a place unlike any other and you can sense the mystery and other worldliness of this place and it doesn’t feel ancient because this civilization was so sophisticated. There’s this immediate intrigue with the place, so I tried to capture that in the music.
In TREASURE OF THE GODS I tried to capture the spirit of the place, this incredibly magnificent landscape and rock formations you can’t see anywhere else on a grand scale. I try to seek out a little bit of the spirituality in each one of the films and there seems like there’s always something that lends itself to that. There’s always something beyond the screen that seems to be the germ for inspiration. My favorite part of the job is trying to find out what that is.

How long does it usually take to score one of your IMAX projects?
Unfortunately there’s never enough time. Maybe that’s a good thing, because it forces people to go with their first instincts, which are generally the best. It seems like there’s always the same three to six week window. I love getting scripts early on, so my subconscious can be percolating on an idea before I even see the picture. That happened with SHACKLETON’S ANTARCTIC ADVENTURE, which I just finished. I had read the story and was fascinated with it, so I already had my ideas. I’d written a main theme that I ended up using in the film before I ever saw it. That’s fun; it was really interesting to see that it worked when I finally saw the film. That was a case where my vision and the filmmakers’ vision of it were on target.
In terms of the time constraints and how that has impact, I really enjoyed working on MYSTERIES OF EGYPT because I had enough ramp up time to actually go there to watch the filmmaking process to try and distil what has become an Arabic culture, to try to get beyond that into the original Egyptian culture, which was reflected in the Goptic church music. It took time to actually go there and realize that the Arabic culture is relatively a new phenomenon and to try and get back beyond that before that influence was so pervasive. Get to the original part, which was a far different thing. I did use some Arabic music in this film, but I really tried hard to dig a little bit deeper, go back a little bit further and try to be influenced by what is perceived now as original sources.

Isn’t it harder scoring to a video tape when the actual film is so much larger?
You can’t see everything. A good example is in TREASURE OF THE GODS. I was scoring this scene that looked like a grand vista and I didn’t realize until the screening that there was an Indian brave running in the picture. Fortunately I had put a little bit of motion in the music just out of instinct, so it captured the scene, but the first time I ever saw this runner was at the screening. You cannot see everything on the video screen. The other thing is what looks like a long shot in IMAX can be a close up and that makes a huge difference from a score standpoint on how intimate you’re going to be. Whether you’re inside a person’s head or whether you’re looking at something from the outside, it’s a completely different musical perspective.
Another time was when I was working for Keith Merrill and I scored the film without having seen the script until later in the process. There was this beautiful scene where the camera panned up to a lighthouse, there was this gorgeous sunset and this really beautiful lighthouse. I scored this with some really beautiful sunset type music. When I read the script that part said “Mysterious Lighthouse” (laughter). The only way that you’re going to know that that’s a mysterious lighthouse is if the music tells you that. Once the music was superimposed with that kind of an attitude, and then you really had the feeling that there was something more to it than just that image, but there’s no way of feeling that without music. Those kinds of things happen all the time and I have to be really careful and communicate with the director to make sure I have all the information. There’s not a lot of character development in IMAX films, that’s the reason why music becomes as vital as a character. You can’t do close ups of eight-story heads talking to each other. In normal film you can do a close up, show a reaction, facial expressions tell a lot. In IMAX you can’t really do that, it’s a different process. You can still have the same kind of emotion, but the technical process is different and that’s hard getting used to.

Do you write your scores out and orchestrate them?
I still write with a pencil on paper, although I have technology to electronically model the scores. I use the synthesizers to model the cues for the directors, but there’s something about pencil to the score that feels good to me. I like to be able to look at everything all at once, to see four or five pages and the entire group of instruments there. You can’t get a look at everything on a computer screen; you can still only see half the score at any given time. I like being able to look at something and know that those four bars are done before I move on. I can glance at everything at once and kind of hear what the orchestra’s doing as I see it on the page. I still haven’t graduated to the ‘Finale’ program, but at some point I’ll have to do that. As far as orchestrating, I love that process still, so I’m not willing to give it up. So far I’ve had adequate time on my projects to write and orchestrate and not feel pinched. I still enjoy the process too much to give it over to someone else. As a conductor I feel that I do it poorly, so almost always I’ll have someone else conduct. My friend Kurt Bestor, who’s been a frequent collaborator of mine over the years, is a terrific conductor, so I’ve used him on a number of films. In the end overall, it’s a thrill after all my weeks of work to go in and hear what the orchestra does.

Are your IMAX films temped in any way or does everything come from your scoring process?
A little bit of both. Temp is a two edged sword, one way it’s like having the same frame of reference with the director or at least getting inside their head and knowing what they want beforehand. I’d much prefer not to have to deal with that because some people get married to it. At least early on in your career, when you’re still learning the process, all of a sudden you find yourself competing with John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith, it’s very intimidating. In some cases the temp can be very helpful or show me a point of view that I may have never thought of. When I write a particular scene with my own music, especially with something I wouldn’t have thought of, I end up really liking that. There’s an approach I would have never taken, but since I’m taking this now, wow I like this, this is really cool. That’s happened a lot, where I’ve been guided by a temp to an area where I might not have gone, left to my own devices. MYSTERIES OF EGYPT was probably the closest to being a pure score experience, where there was very little temp beforehand. I actually wrote the melody that they used in the trailer, they really loved it early on, so this was part of the fabric of the film from the get go. The filmmakers were already aware of my thematic material early on in the process and that was really helpful.

How do you deal with the structure of your score when doing an IMAX film?
I like building from the theme up because it gives a common thread throughout the film. If you’re successful capturing the essence of the film in a theme early on, it gives you a jumping off point for the rest of the film. If you’ve done good job, there’s always a way to integrate that main theme into other material. There are so many different ways to execute that main theme that sometimes you won’t even recognize that you’re listening to it. It can be put in different keys, major or minor keys that can be expanded, contracted, distorted, inverted, there are all kinds of manipulations that can be done, but it maintains a certain kind of essence when you listen to it. I’ll generally try and get to my main theme and then have a couple of other secondary things around it because it tends to give the score a shape. With the textural material, we all know what chase or suspense music sounds like, we’ve developed a certain expectation about what these things are. The way these things have their own original flair is by superimposing thematic material over them. If I feel like I’ve really nailed the thematic material and the filmmakers are pleased, it gives me a feeling of confidence as I go forwards, that we have an anchor there and there’s something I know they like.

Are you ever asked to approach scoring the film differently because it’s IMAX?
Very much so. The good directors and producers of IMAX know it’s different. One of the reasons I’ve done so many of them is because I feel like I understand that it is different. I’m real passionate about it, I love the IMAX format, and it’s a great opportunity for composers because it’s so dependent upon music.

Do you want to do a lot more of these films in the future?
I really enjoy it, so I hope to continue to do IMAX films. The allure of doing feature films is a broader audience and the more exposure that people have to your music the better. I’d love to be doing Hollywood features, but it just isn’t happening right now for me. I love doing IMAX films, so even if I were on a fast track in Hollywood doing features, I would still hope that the IMAX features would come along because I’ve really developed an affinity for them.

Doesn’t where you live have a lot to do with the film projects you get?
Obviously it does, and it’s a compromise that I’ve made because of a particular lifestyle choice. I love the mountains and the environment in Utah; it’s a great place to raise my children. My wife and I early on made four or five trips to Los Angeles and looked at different places to live. I’ll never forget when we were on the freeway in Burbank in ‘86 and I had two and half hours to get to the airport. We were thinking, “Burbank is a half of an hour from LAX, maybe.” We didn’t make it in two and a half hours. I remember being on that freeway and thinking, “I can’t deal with this. If I’m going back and forth, I don’t know if I could deal with this type of congestion”. We made that choice with eyes wide open. Interestingly enough, OLYMPIC GLORY was done for the Kennedy / Marshall Group, who’s done the BACK TO THE FUTURE trilogy and the INDIANA JONES films. I had this great experience with Frank Marshall; he was very complementary of my work and gave me a letter of recommendation that has since created a couple of opportunities. Technology has made the world smaller, initially my location was a bit of a challenge, but I don’t think it matters anymore; I try very hard to keep abreast of what’s going on and to keep myself plugged into all the technological and creative advances out there. I stay on top of what’s really happening in the world of film.

Which of your IMAX films represents your orchestral composing style best?
I like them all for different reasons. MYSTERIES OF EGYPT to date is probably my most successful creative experience because it represents several things that I’ve been in the process of learning how to do. There is electronic music on there, ethnic music, orchestral music, all in one score. I enjoyed that multi-faceted aspect of MYSTERIES OF EGYPT. That represents me as a composer because I’m interested in all those things. There’s almost no area of music that I don’t have some kind of an interest in. I love ethnic or world music, I love electronic music, I love orchestral music, I love rock and roll, I love jazz, so to the extent that I’m able to incorporate all those different things, I love the challenge of being able to integrate all those different influences into one score.

What can you tell us about your latest IMAX film, and any other future projects?
I just finished scoring SHACKLETON’S ANTARCTIC ADVENTURE. When I first heard about this I thought, “What does Antarctica sound like?” That was real intriguing to me, but as it turns out, the film was about Shackleton, so it’s a human drama. That’s my favorite thing to write about, the ol’human struggle. It’s more of a traditional orchestral approach to the scoring, it’s very epic in its content, and I feel good about my effort of trying to capture someone who had achieved something on an epic level and had suffered on an epic level. This is the first kind of thing that I’ve done on this scale. This opens in wide release in April. I’m also going to score LEWIS AND CLARK sometime around late fall. They are Shooting to release this for a significant anniversary’ of some kind in 2002. Amazing footage, I think this is something that people are really going to be intrigued by. I’m also scoring a feature called JUMPING FOR JOY, that’s posting here in the next couple of months.

  • A special note of thanks goes out to Bob Ahlander, June Ahlander, Sam’s agent Jeff Kaufman, and Sam the man himself.

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