Sounds like a Summer Movie: How 'Star Trek' uses music to move you (and made you cry)

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Image Credit: Zade Rosenthal

After exploring how children’s electric cars and remote-controlled jets were instrumental for creating the sounds of Iron Man’s suit in Iron Man 3, the second installment of our new series Sounds Like a Summer Movie takes a look at how music is used for dramatic impact in Star Trek Into Darkness. And it is used a lot: Sound mixer Will Files, who first worked with director J.J. Abrams on Cloverfield, estimates there’s music over 75 to 80 percent of the film. Once again, Abrams used longtime collaborator Michael Giacchino, who won an Oscar for scoring Up. “J.J. and Michael take a pretty classic approach to scoring a film in that it’s more about the emotional beats in a scene and trying to figure out which character’s perspective you are trying to play in that moment, who you are trying to connect the audience with,” Files says. “Because of that, you end up with something that is not quite as generically action movie-oriented. You have a score that’s much more lyrical because it’s playing these broader strokes of emotion rather than the minutia of the actual action that’s happening on the screen.” 

Part of Files’ job is to change the relative balance of sound effects to music so there’s an ebb and flow and the film never feels stagnant. “You hear a lot of moments in the film where sound effects are really driving the moment, but then they’ll take a step back and let the music drive it. For example, the section when the Enterprise is rising out of the ocean,” he says. “If you really examine that, what you’ll hear is that within the span of a 40-second event, the music and the sound effects are trading off in dominance every few seconds: there’s enough of the theme to hear that the music is going in one direction, and then enough of the sound effects to understand what’s happening and the size and enormity of the event. The music will come back in to play the wonder of the tribesman, and then it will come back to sound effects to hear the raining down of the water and put you back in the moment. If you do it right, the audience never realizes that you’re giving and taking these things constantly, but it’s really highly manipulated.”

SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t you seen the film, stop reading now.

But above all, Files is there to make sure the final mix serves the story. The scene we wanted him to break down was Kirk’s death. (You know you cried.)

Files: It’s primarily a music scene, and it was designed that way from the beginning. But there was a lot of discussion about how to get into it and out of it in a way that the audience didn’t realize we were manipulating them as much as we were. Going into the scene, you hear the sounds of Spock’s feet on the floor, and the sound of the machinery in engineering, and the radiation tone that’s in the chamber where Kirk is stuck. You hear all these very realistic sounds of what it might be like for the characters to be there, and then we slowly start peeling them away and letting them fall away into not being there. Because you want the audience to emotionally connect more with the characters, what they’re feeling, and in that moment, those characters wouldn’t think at all about what’s happening in the world because all they’re thinking about is each other. So I think it has this effect of focusing the audience emotionally on what’s happening between the characters instead of what’s happening around the characters. There was also a lot of discussion about how exactly to structure the music: Should it be a big sweeping orchestra? Should it be a solo instrument, very singular? What I believe you end up hearing in the film is that Michael Giacchino opted to start the scene with a very small solo piano part, which I think allows you to understand how isolated and alone Kirk feels in that moment. And then when the emotions really start to swell in the scene, you hear the orchestra fill in around that piano to help give it the gravity of losing this big character that you love so much.

The scene they spent the most amount of time on, Files says, was the one in which the Starfleet top brass meet in a conference room to talk about what’s happened with John Harrison/Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) in London.
Again, the balance leads the audience through the story:

Files: Suddenly, he shows up outside the room in a ship with guns pointing at them and starts blowing the place up. There was a lot of discussion about how to approach that scene in terms of where should the music take over? What we ended on was this idea that when it first starts happening, you want to feel like you’re there with the characters — you’re under fire and you can’t get out. The best way to illustrate that for the audience is to play the sounds very naturally, to hear the lasers bouncing off debris and clanging on metal, hearing glass falling and people screaming, and making it really chaotic. Rather than synthesized Star Trek-y sounds, we actually settled on something that was much more like an anti-aircraft gun — it was big, and boomy, and percussive, and it almost had a mechanical element to it, which I think we all felt gave it much more reality and much more grit than just the simple pew-pew, zing-zing kind of sound. And then once that Kirk resolves to try to stop the bad guy, the music kicks in and is playing his hero moment. Sound effects can’t really give it that same emotional oomph, so at that point, you hear the soundtrack really change gears.

Another scene Files points to illustrates how Abrams enjoys using sound to surprise the audience:

Files: He loves to do things like take all the sound away at a moment for dramatic impact, or only featuring the music in one section or only featuring the sound effects in one section, because he thinks, rightly so, that it keeps the audience on their toes a little bit. There’s a wonderful moment in the film when Kirk and the villain are getting ready to do a space jump between two of the spaceships. There’s all this intercutting of them walking through the hallways, Spock on the bridge, them getting in the chute to get shot out. It’s building up in speed, and the sound is elevating, and then at the very moment when you think there’s gonna be a big, loud sound of them being shot out the side of the ship, it goes to silence — because they enter the vacuum of space. It’s one of those things that dramatically is so effective because the audience is expecting one thing, and we give them something else instead. It’s a little sleight of hand, because we build the sound up to be so big before that moment that when the sound drops to near silence, it feels like the quietest thing in the world. A lot of people in the audience gasp at that moment because it’s so shocking.

Like Abrams and Giacchino, Files is very aware of trying not to put too much music in a film. “Every now and then, we’d find a place where maybe it worked better without score for a little while, but in general, I think J.J. built the movie to have score in a lot of these places because he is a musician and I think that’s just the way he thinks,” Files says. “So taking music out often felt empty, like it didn’t quite function the same way.”

So how do you know when you have it right? “There’s always that moment of suddenly the movie has to be done in a couple of days, and you realize you’ll never have the chance to do all the notes that you want to do,” he says, with a laugh. “But in general, you know when a scene’s working when you sit back and try to put your audience hat on for a minute, and it feels good. If it feels like you’re telling the story, you’re hitting the emotional beats, and it’s big, fun, and exciting, then you know that your job’s done — even if there are 100 little things that you’d like to tweak.”

Read more:
Sounds like a Summer Movie: Why the ‘Iron Man 3′ sound department went to Toys ‘R’ Us
12 Signs You’re Watching a J.J. Abrams Movie
Ranking the ‘Star Trek’ Brands: Sleek or Weak?

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