In Part I we talked about the tropes involved in writing for characters. Since character themes are — well — themes it makes sense that you would want the music to be more melodic in nature. Maybe not necessarily “hummable” but definitely differentiated from just basic underscore. A nice melody to associate with the character in question isn’t always necessary though. In The Dark Knight Hans Zimmer uses a long distorted droning note with building ostinato underneath it to signify the Joker. It’s very effective due to it’s stripped down and almost primal sound. What Zimmer does is essentially create a mood that ties to the character — it may not be a traditional theme but when has Hans Zimmer ever done anything traditional? Tonally the Joker’s music is pretty different from the rest of the movie as well so it helps to separate the character even further. Every time I watch The Dark Knight I get the impression that Joker is an inch away from breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly. The music assists this imbalance greatly. So tone, it seems, is just as important as melody. We touched on this a little bit in part I but that was more geared towards using tone to assist the melodic intent. You can just as easily use tonal ideas to establish a character’s motivations. Tone is also used to establish the world but we’ll get into that some other time.
One simple thing to remember is that not every character needs a theme. It might be tempting to give a theme to everyone but that can be a little damaging to the narrative itself. Take a look at Star Wars: Han Solo doesn’t have a theme. He gets a joint theme with Leia eventually but there’s never one for just him. Going back to The Lord of the Rings, the Hobbits as a unit all share the same theme usually called “The Shire.” They don’t need a dedicated theme because the overlying bravery and innocence associated with them is shared among all of them. You can hear Howard Shore branch out from his central idea depending on who the focus is but there’s never a truly dedicated alternate melody for say, Samwise Gamgee. Even on the cue named “Samwise” the melody present is used elsewhere during a scene with Frodo. There are plenty of moments with new sweeping melodies but tonality is where Shore establishes who’s there and what’s happening.
As a composer, it’s important to not be afraid of digging deeper into the character and what you feel is happening. Perhaps they may be thinking of someone else in the film so hinting to a different theme is appropriate. If you’re a film composer theres a good chance you love the art of film. Use this to your advantage! You know films and you get to watch the character’s on screen hundreds of times. Try to consider what’s going on in their head — internal conflicts and emotions. If you’re really stumped, ask the director. We’re collaborators after all. Too many composers are afraid to approach the film makers with the idea that they’ll look unprofessional but I ask you: What looks more unprofessional, asking a question about a sequence you’re unsure about or turning in a “soon-to-be-rejected” score?
You could easily argue that theme writing is the most difficult part of the job and, to an extent, that’s true. Ignoring the orchestration side of things and focusing on the actual composing makes it an absolute truth in my opinion. The audience should be aware that a certain piece of music is being associated with someone but not so awake that they’re distracted. It needs to be well defined where appropriate and its your (our) job to find those moments. It is very easy to just float a theme over every instance of said character but that actually detracts from the overall narrative and severely bloats an otherwise fine score. My advice to other composers would be to watch as many movies as you can and pay attention! Listening to symphonies or other film scores is half the battle, you need to develop that sense of drama so your own work can breathe and evolve with the picture.
Next time: I don’t know what the topic is yet so I guess we’ll find out together.