Composer Spotlight: Bear McCrearyCREATING SOUNDSCAPES FOR FILM AND TELEVISION 8/01/2008 8:00 AM Eastern
He helps choreograph spectacular intergalactic dogfights and provides emotional support to a powerful woman fending off robot attacks from the future. He has also been a first-hand witness to crazed serial-killer attacks and regularly interacts with the denizens of a quirky town inhabited by wacky inventors. And he rarely has to leave the studio. He is perhaps the ultimate armchair adventurer.
Los Angeles-based Bear McCreary is an indefatigable composer who juggles multiple film and television projects and seemingly thrives on creative pandemonium. His exotic Eastern sounds, tribal percussion and symphonic strings elegantly accompany the outer-space drama of Battlestar Galactica. His music is the militant propulsion behind, and the atmospheric grace beneath, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. His eclectic, brooding soundscapes have provided the creepy backdrop to fear flicks such as Rest Stop and Wrong Turn 2. He's even played the accordion on a season of the Sci Fi Channel series Eureka.
While McCreary's creative prowess has kept him very active, the composer readily acknowledges the assistance of engineer, mixer and producer Steve Kaplan — McCreary's musical co-pilot — who sits in on our interview. “The sound of my music is so much influenced by his work that I don't think I could do it with anyone else,” remarks McCreary of Kaplan. “At the same time, I'm the one that gets to have my name plastered on the CD and gets to take credit for that, so anytime I can point out that there are other people who work on the music and really help bring it to life, I will.”
McCreary and Kaplan first worked together in January 1998 during the composer's freshman year at University of Southern California, where he studied with Elmer Bernstein and Joseph Harnell. Kaplan was the “go-to” engineer for student films at the school.
“In college, Steve and I were, and still are, workaholics,” McCreary says. “With the number of movies that I was doing, it was inevitable that he and I would work together. However, it was helpful that he and I can handle all the abuse that comes with working on a schedule like this. We ended up working together a lot.
“When new projects come down the pipeline now, we know exactly how we're going to handle it,” he continues. “When I got Battlestar [in 2004], I knew immediately that I was going to hire Steve, and we knew that there were certain people that we were going to call upon, especially the percussionist we work with, M.B. Gordy. Doing all those little student films and independent projects helped me put together a group of people that I could call upon when real gigs started happening.”
McCreary and Kaplan have been friends long enough to subvert their egos and approach mutual criticism as a necessary conduit to creating the strongest possible projects. Their chemistry has become increasingly important, especially during a hectic 2007, when they went from working on one show (Battlestar) to two more (Sarah Connor and Eureka). What began as a two-man operation evolved into something bigger. It was the only way they could survive the onslaught of deadlines.
“We brought in some more orchestrators, some assistant engineers, a couple other assistants and engineers for recording additional sessions,” McCreary says. “At the same time, Steve will be off mixing a cue while I'll be off writing another cue.” It has been a liberating and rewarding process because McCreary can get away from producing chores and dive full-time into “writing music full-time and churning out music that I'm really pleased with.”
That music is inspired by character emotions and story arcs more than particular events in Battlestar and Sarah Connor. Many of the Battlestar cues are four or five minutes long. “Both of these shows have long character arcs, and that's one of the things that makes them really challenging,” says McCreary. “I can't just look at a scene, and say, ‘The monster jumps out of this door there, so this is where you do scary music.’” He focuses on the subtleties and ambiguities of the characters on the shows to guide his musical choices.
Many casual viewers of Battlestar might not be able to readily identify themes for individual characters like Apollo or Starbuck, but that is because the music does not follow a conventional Hollywood formula. “There actually are themes for each character in Battlestar,” McCreary clarifies. “I think that I counted 50-plus themes that I've written. They're not themes in the traditional John Williams orchestral sense. Sometimes they'll be motific ideas, sometimes they'll just be an instrumental color. Certain ethnic instruments are associated with certain characters, so it's a very subtle, understated approach.”
The duo has done most of their orchestra dates at Warner Bros. — McCreary really enjoys the sound of the string section at the Eastwood Stage — and they also record at Kaplan's studio, Gordy's Studio, and their guitarist's studio. “Many times we'll rent out their studios because we'll have multiple sessions going on at one time,” the composer says.
McCreary has a simple writing studio without any recording or mixing capabilities. Once he has finished writing, the composer passes off the music to an orchestrator while the audio goes off to Kaplan at his studio, which has a small overdub room and a mixing room. “It's mostly Pro Tools, and I purchased some large ATC 150 speakers,” remarks Kaplan. “Bear gives me all his tracks, and we'll record overdubs here or we'll go over to the percussionist's house and record there. Then I'll bring it all back home. Bear usually comes over at the end once I get it all mixed.”
At his studio, the producer has four Pro Tools HD cards in a Mac G5. He also owns two other Pro Tools rigs, one “that I listen to and print mixes through,” explains Kaplan. “There are so many stems going to the dub stage that I gave up trying to print them one by one. I use the second Pro Tools rig to print off the different passes like drums, bass, guitars or tabla. Then I have another computer to run [Audio Ease] Altiverb, which is just reverb. I have enough reverbs for each of the surround stems that I print for the show. It's a three-computer setup.” Kaplan keeps everything in the box, eschewing a traditional console — the better for working with 200 to 300 tracks in an average action cue.
McCreary acknowledges they do a lot of multitracking. Every MIDI instrument and synth is split out to its own audio track. Then, with an orchestra session alone adding at least 48 tracks, drums filling up 10 to 15, and vocals, guitar and bass swallowing up 40 or more, the soundtrack gets crowded fast. “When you have everything going, those are the cues that become massive and almost unwieldy,” says McCreary. “But Steve gets it all together and gets it all done.”
On certain episodes of Battlestar, McCreary and Kaplan have been asked to assimilate psychedelic rock, bagpipes and classic rock tunes like Jimi Hendrix's “All Along the Watchtower” into a sonic framework that also includes Taiko drums and Middle Eastern soloists. Working in the compressed-time medium of episodic TV, they have come to accept that they do not always have the time they need to try every idea they'd like, or fix things after the fact or create a better mix — but they get the opportunity to do that with the soundtrack CD that's released for each season, presenting slightly different versions of music heard in the show.
It is a point of pride for the composer that most of his sounds are custom-made, and he will usually spend the first couple of weeks on any new project designing new sounds by working with musicians and sampling sounds. He says he has phased out commercially available synths because he wants to make the sounds he wants. A childhood friend named Jonathan Snipes also assists him.
“He does a lot with synth sound design and a lot of the crazy synth work on Terminator,” states McCreary of Snipes' work. “He does a lot of analog stuff. It looks like Dr. Frankenstein's lab in his garage. He'll create all these incredible analog sounds and sample them for me. He'll send them back to me, and I'll manipulate them further.
“[I have] a library that I have been working on for years and continually expand,” he continues. “It's amazing some of the useful sounds you can get out of household sounds. I even sampled my dishwasher that had a creaky door. I've used that in horror movies. It's a lot of fun.”
When he started work on the Sci Fi series, McCreary was not allowed to create “themes” and was barred from using orchestral instruments or any melodic instruments other than the duduk and the bansuri. “I had this extremely limited palette of Taiko drums, pads, the duduk and a couple of other percussion instruments to make the music work,” he recalls. “I had to make it communicate all the emotions that the show needed, so I really started falling back on some simple melodic and rhythmic ideas. From there, it has grown and become a very elaborate monster.”