Keeping it personal
Perhaps due to his eclectic musical background encompassing trombone, Dixieland jazz, and the soundtracks of 1970s Westerns - or perhaps due to his self-professed inability to say no to anything - Frank Ilfman’s movie-scoring resume is fascinatingly varied, from orchestrating the Legendary Pictures logo fanfare, to scoring more than 40 films and numerous TV shows including the award-winning Cupcakes and Big Bad Wolves to the most recent Ghost Stories and The Etruscan Smile. Ilfman regards composing music as a deeply personal process, continuing to execute all his own writing himself. And one of the most prized tools in his personal toolbox is Video Slave: he explains to us the freedom of being able to use the program to create streamers in his scoring, allowing an organic approach he has found absolutely liberating.
How did it all start for you – what was it in your family or your childhood that inspired such a dedication to film music?
“Well, I grew up in family where my parents were always big on music and films, but we were quite poor so we could never afford an instrument or anything like that. I used to go with my dad to see lot of Westerns and Kung Fu movies. All the Hollywood musicals were shown in the main cinemas but there weren’t that many in Tel Aviv in the 70s, so the Westerns and Kung Fu movies and old pirate movies were shown in porn cinemas! We would go and see all these classics - with Douglas Fairbanks and Eric Korngold and all of them. And that’s more or less what I grew up on.”
“I went to see The Good, The Bad and the Ugly at the age of eight and I really enjoyed the music, so as a present my dad got me an edition of the soundtrack, where the B-side was The Big Gun Down. That was I think for me where I really fell in love with music. I didn’t have any ‘I want to be a film composer’ revelation at the age of 8 or anything like that…I guess the film world was just kind of an escape, where you go and dive into a different world, and music was a big part of it, but the connection to pursuing it as a career was never made. I just had a strong feeling that I really love music.”
“That love developed when I listened to more and more music. I listened to everything I could, and when I was about 11 I told my parents I want to learn an instrument. We couldn’t afford anything ourselves so we went to the Conservatorium [the Jaffa Conservatorium of Music in Tel Aviv] which wasn’t far from where we lived. But we went in the middle of the year so they said the only thing they had to rent was a trombone. So I said ‘Ok, we’ll do that!’ So I started on the trombone, funnily enough. I loved the playing, all of that, but I hated theory lessons; I used to run away. For me learning was a very intuitive thing; I would practise with a trombone for a while then I would start playing music I had heard anywhere, repeat it and learn as I go. I played with the Tel Aviv Dixieland band too –we used to do all this Dixieland music, ‘Oh when the saints go marching in’ and all that. But this was the early 80s and I was a big fan of the Thompson Twins and Howard Jones, using electronics and synthesizers – Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk and all these. I came one time to a rehearsal of the band, and I just kind of scribbled chords for the bass player, the drums, the trumpets and all that, gave them some Thompson Twins songs to play and just started jamming. The conductor came in and everyone’s playing this song. He looks at me giving instructions to the players, and said ‘Did you arrange this?’ and I said ‘Yeah, I just scribbled the chords and told them what to play and they played and we all jammed’. So he then said ‘maybe you should play the piano for a while with the band instead of the trombone’. So I would switch between them. I never studied piano or anything, just played the keys knowing where things go. Then after a while I decided I don’t want to play trombone any more – partly because I didn’t want Dizzy Gillespie lips! So we managed to buy a second-hand organ, like some weird Farfisa fake. I had private teachers because it was cheaper for them to come home and teach me to play keyboards. And it just went from there. I practised some pieces and I would get it wrong and they would smack me on the hands with a ruler, but then I would say ‘Listen to this!’ and I would play a tune I had composed! I had this really old-school Russian teacher and he said ‘You’re doing really great with composition, why don’t you go to some music college?’ But we just couldn’t afford it. He said ‘If you can’t get in, just keep on writing and if you can, record it’. That was when I was around 14, so I kept at it from there. I taught myself to orchestrate, and conduct, how to compose.
And by the age of 17 you were working for Jan Hammer! How on earth does that happen?
“Back then there were all these people coming to Israel, all these bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Cure coming to perform. We used to go to all these new clubs and I had my own rock band at the time, and I had started working as a runner in a studio as a tea boy, just to learn how you do sound, how you get reverb going. I didn’t want to rely on someone else, I wanted to create my own sound, so I started working there to see how they did it. I met a guy who was working with the British composer Colin Towns; he was a programmer and we started chatting about synthesizers – I was into sampling and how to manipulate sounds. We kept in touch – back in the days of letters and phonecalls – and one day he calls me up and says ‘Listen, I’m working on this TV series with this legendary composer from America, who did Miami Vice and all of that’ (back then Miami Vice was really big). He said they were doing some tracks - some additional music to match the picture - and he had to go on tour but if I wanted to do it I had a similar set-up to what they were using, so he’d supervise but I could do the work and send it off to Jan in the States. I never had any contact with Jan himself though…”
Fast forward to the modern day, and you’ve just finished working on Ghost Stories with Martin Freeman and Andy Nyman, and before that The Etruscan Smile with a full live orchestra – how do you choose your projects?
“I basically always have a problem saying no! I’ve never been a person to wait for the phone to ring. I didn’t grow up in an artistic family with connections, so it’s always been a case of going out and getting the job, making the connections. So when I grew up I was meeting people like Earle Hagen who gave me the click book. I studied film music the old-fashioned way, through work and getting into sessions with Klaus Doldinger. I managed to work writing film music when they were still working on 35mm and Steenbecks and click books: I had the pleasure of growing up doing it the old-school way. And for me that’s still how I work.” “Choosing the project is first of all seeing if the script is good, if the movie is good. You can’t necessarily tell from the script as that can change later on, but if it seems good and if musically it’s challenging. I think also it’s who are the actors, the crew, the editor, the directors: I always try to have a chat with the directors, to see if you get along as a person, that’s very important, same with the editor. I think it’s more about the people you work with. That’s what makes the result of what I bring to the project better. A bit of that old-school thinking, rather than doing whatever film comes along. But then because that’s the way I think and how I steer, I think the projects that I get are more or less in the vein of what I want to do. There’s the odd project where you look at it and you think that’s not going to be good. I always find it tough thing to say no, but sometimes you do need to.” “I’m not a big believer in taking everything and having a crew of five people writing for you. I do all my own writing, I only have like one assistant. I don’t have a crew of additional writers. I think music is very personal so when I do a movie it’s very personal. For me it’s important that my music is done by me, not having someone else doing it. I don’t want to write the themes and tell someone ‘Ok just do it and I’ll produce it.’ Music is very personal, it’s my voice. Sometimes you have clashes in the calendar and it gets a bit mental with things co-existing but I try not to do two films at the same time as nobody will benefit from that.”
Coming onto technology, what drew you to Video Slave?
“When I first started working on films it was all about click book, streamers and punches, but I think these days besides programmes like the Oracle, unless it’s the high end you’d never have anything that creates streamers. Especially in Europe they don’t really use streamers, it’s more an American approach, and these days it’s more an approach you use on live-to-picture concerts; I don’t think they’re used that much anymore for recording. But being able to use streamers is what drew me to Video Slave: there is something so visual and freeing, where once you lay all your punches and streamers and flutters in a movie, a lot of your work is done. It’s much more of a visual way of working and it’s just so much easier because you don’t need to concentrate on ‘where am I coming to on my marker?’ or ‘where is the time code?’; you can just write and if you see it’s coming then it’s coming. If you need to align things up to your hit points it’s so easy to see the hit points. Once the picture is locked and we re-do the streamers just to see if things have shifted, then we export the file used when we recorded, we have all our sync points there with the markers and streamers on the video file. When we bring it to the stage the conductor has the streamers, so even though he is conducting with a click he is able see if something comes up or if we decide to change something. And when we are editing we see exactly where things have to fall. It just makes it so much easier when you hear the music and you know that you hit the point or the orchestra didn’t hit the point well. It makes it so much easier, I cannot see myself working without streamers.”
And as well as process, is it technically a benefit having Video Slave as a separate programme away from Pro Tools?
“Yes, it’s very beneficial. Even with the most powerful computers and everything, we use Pro Tools more or less as a recording rig, as an Op tape that replaced the 2-inch tapes. We do the mixing in Pro Tools but it’s used more in the process as a tape because I work more in Cubase. A lot of the video files today are fairly big, and if you have a big template or even a medium size template on a machine, with all the RAM and all the power it takes up so much space. Cubase has a lot of video programmes with it, but it just makes it so much easier to host the video outside, kind of like Pro Tools did with Satellite Link. It’s so much easier to have Video Slave either on the same machine or on another Mac Mini or laptop, to sync it with MIDI timecode, and have it either running live or export the movie later and bring it into Pro Tools for the recording. It makes it so much easier to have the video separate, not using up so many resources on the same machine.”
And do you get a lot of use out of the playlists function to bring in different cuts of movie?
“Yeah, I use the playlists a lot because they make it much easier to change events. Just click, put in new time codes and move the markers and the syncs. Because I work in reels, I usually put the reel in then we’ll have the different audio tracks from the movie – the dialogue, the effects, the temp music. And you can always see where the temp music is so it’s easy to see where it comes from, and you can mute what you don’t want. Or when you do a certain export, for instance, you can take exactly what you want. I hope they will improve it further in so that when you bounce an audio track into Video Slave it will spot it to the right place based on the broadcast time signature - like spotting in Pro Tools - then you’d be able to export just that part. You can already export cues from Video Slave but if you bring in an audio file you have to then align it yourself to the right place, whereas if they had that as an automatic spotting function that would be great because it would save so much time, you could put everything there and just bounce that cue out to send to the director. Also, if they could develop a MIDI function where you could export your media file and bring it into Video Slave with the markers intact, so you could create your markers within Video Slave based on markers from your DAW, that would be another great function.”
Anything else you really rate about Video Slave?
“I love that it has updates all the time. I recommend it to many people, when they ask what I’m using. Even my conductor in the past year since I discovered Video Slave says it’s so much nicer to conduct when you can see where your hit comes and you know whether your orchestra was on the mark or not. It just makes such a difference to work this way. I find it very freeing because it’s much more visual than just looking for the timecode or the small marker on Cubase; you know where you’re going to have a crescendo because you see your streamer coming in. Makes it so much easier, and so much more organic than working with clicks where it’s like following a mechanical metronome. Click tracks are important in film music. You do a lot of editing and punching in and out with the orchestra all the time - if you have tempo changes, especially in action scenes, you would do loads of punching in and out and then there’s editing to be done, so if they didn’t play in time with clicks that would make the editing process much harder. But it’s very freeing sometimes to not be constrained by them. We did a movie recorded at Air, called Coward. The end credits music is almost like its own piece, even though it was written to click. It made so much sense to say to the orchestra ‘Drop the headphones, let’s do it as if it was a concert piece’: we had the streamers running for the conductor Matt Slater to see, to know where he needed to hit, where the crescendos came and such, and it made it so flowing and so un-mechanical compared to playing it with headphones and click. It was a great way of doing it, just following the streamers. We still do it that way sometimes – like with one cue in Ghost Stories where it was pure orchestra, with no electronics to layer in. Makes it a self-contained piece, much more flowing. A great tool to have.”
Looking back on your career, what advice would you give to people starting out in the business of film music?
“I think if you love what you do, the thing is just keep on doing it: be persistent. At some point before you know it, it will happen, you won’t even feel it happening - you’ll just look back and go ‘Oh my God, I’m doing it’. It’s a hard journey though. I think people these days actually have it much easier than when I started; you have social media now and people are more approachable and there’s so much knowledge out there. Though I think technology is dangerous as well in a sense; people do the mock-ups and all the samples and they think if they print it out from their DAW they can just go and record, but actually a lot of stuff you print out from your computer doesn’t translate straight to orchestra; you need to learn to craft an orchestration or get a good orchestrator and conductor - a lot of people don’t realise that. There’s good and bad in all this technology; people depend too much on technology these days. I don’t really do pen and paper but I still scribble my stuff sometimes. Even on my mock-ups I don’t rely completely on programming; I play it as a player would play it and if it sounds right I move on, I don’t spend a lot of time programming.”
“But it is about persistence: if you love what you do keep doing it. But also keep learning: learn what the old people did; what the classics, the masters did, because that’s more or less where all of it starts, that’s the foundations. If you have that, you can progress as much as you want, and before you know it, you’re doing it. People ask me if I still get excited that I’m there in the studio, when I do it all the time. My answer is if I come in the morning to a session and meet the musicians and we start running; if I don’t get the goose-bumps once they start playing, then why am I here? You got to have that all the time, it’s not just a job. Funnily enough my very first orchestral session that I got to see when I was 14 was The Never-Ending Story, which was my eye-opener to movie-music being bound together; it’s something I’ll never forget. Then with the last movie I was doing last December, The Etruscan Smile, some of the producers were the producers of The Never-Ending Story, which was unbelievable, closing the circle in a way. From my first experience of watching something like that happen and having the seed planted in my head, to actually doing it with the same producers twenty-something years later. That was very emotional.”