Comparing The Film Scoring Processes of John Williams and Hans Zimmer

John Williams and Hans Zimmer are both brilliant composers of iconic blockbuster scores, but they have very different processes by which they craft their scores. 

John Williams considers himself “Old School” when it comes to how he goes about actually writing his scores.  He still uses pencil and paper to actually write out the score. He also prefers to score his films based on his initial emotional reaction to the film itself as he explains at 0:55 in the interview below. 

He prefers to experience the film the way an audience member would, so that he can feel what they would feel, so that he can then know how best to accentuate those emotions with his score. 

His first viewing of the film would typically be with the film’s director and there will be some general discussion about what type of music to use where.  This is called a spotting session, where the composer and the director pick which spots in the film need music. Music composition is a very time consuming process, so typically the cut of the film John Williams will initially see will still be in the refinement process editing wise and won’t have all of the special effects or sound effects finished. 

Hans Zimmer, by contrast, sees himself as not just creating a score for the film but as creating a “Sound World” for the film. He tends to start working on the score while the film is still in production so that he can have time to experiment with what types of sounds he wants to use in the film.  In one particular case he started working on the score before the script had even been completed and knew almost nothing about what the film would be.  For Interstellar, director Christopher Nolan wanted to free Hans Zimmer from the genre of the film so that he could compose something for its emotional core.  Nolan only gave Hans Zimmer a page of dialog to work off of and the idea that the film would be about a father and child.  From that Hans Zimmer wrote what would become the central theme of the film. 

In creating his “Sound Worlds”, Hans Zimmer also often collaborates with the film’s sound designers and the result can be a bit of blurring of the lines between score and sound effects. For example in the score for Man of Steel he incorporated the musical sculptures of Chas Smith into the score (which you can hear at 3:18)

For Star Wars, Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones and many other films, John Williams uses a style of composition called Leitmotif.  Leitmotif simply means the use of repeated themes and cues or “motifs” to musically represent characters, places, objects, ideas, etc. Motifs can also be used as foreshadowing or to express thought or memory or to show that past events are affecting what is happening presently.  For the motifs to be effective, they have to be very precisely synchronized with the film.  John Williams describes the process a bit at the beginning of this video. 

What he’s talking about when he says “take measurements from the film” is a painstaking process by which he goes through the entire film and picks out, down to fractions of a second, where the music will start and stop, where certain motifs need to align, where musical beats need to hit to punctuate the action of the scene, etc.   

To get some idea of just how important the precise alignment of the music can be, imagine a horror movie scene that is building to a jump scare.  The music is quiet and ominous then suddenly becomes loud when the monster appears.  The combination of the sudden appearance of the monster and the music suddenly increasing in volume both serve to startle the audience.  If, however, the music gets loud a fraction of a second too early then it acts as a spoiler that the monster is about to appear and the audience’s shock at actually seeing it is lessened.  If the music is a fraction of a second too late then the audience has already jumped from seeing the monster before the music hits.  The music can only serve to amplify the scare if the musical cue that corresponds with the monster hits at just the right moment. 

In the Old School way of film scoring, typically, it’s entirely up to the composer (and the conductor of the orchestra, if that happens to be a different person) to ensure that the music lines up with the film.  It’s very rare that a director will go back and re-edit the film to the music.  In all their collaborations, Steven Spielberg only did that for John Williams once in E.T. as he explains at 4:26 in the video below.  Even then, it was only because John Williams, as a conductor, was having difficulty getting the orchestra to hit all of the necessary sync points for the music to line up with the film. 

After the score for a scene is written, small changes to the film made to polish things up can be compensated for with minor changes to the score or even conducting the piece slightly differently.  Sometimes the director will present the composer with multiple cuts of the same scene because they want to watch the scene with its score before deciding whether to use a longer or shorter version of the scene.  (This was the case in the first Harry Potter film where the director ultimately chose to use a longer cut of the scene where the first year students take the boats across the lake to Hogwarts because Williams’ score absolutely brought the scene to life.) 

Hans Zimmer represents a more modern way of composing film scores.  He uses computers and synthesizers extensively to create his music before the score is ever placed in front of an orchestra. This allows him to have a close collaboration with the film’s editor and they can work together on cutting the film and reshaping the score to match each other because the director and editors can hear how the score will sound from the score that is generated electronically before ever having a recording session with an orchestra. For Gladiator, Zimmer worked very closely with the film’s editor. He wanted to write music that captured the paradox of Rome as both civilized and brutal so he came up with the idea to write the music for the film’s battle scenes as waltzes and he actually worked with the editors to cut the battle scenes from the film so they would match the rhythm of the waltz. He talks about it and you can see how the music and scene line up at 3:26 below.  

Hans Zimmer writes themes for his films but he uses them a bit differently than John Williams.  John Williams tends to write a variety of different themes and shorter cues for different characters, places, relationships, etc. and recombine variations of those themes depending on the what’s going on in the scene and what emotions he wants to convey.  Hans Zimmer tends to write comparatively fewer themes but conveys the same breadth of emotion by applying variations on those themes to a wider range of things.  John Williams might write a heroic theme for the main character in the middle of an action sequence and a different theme altogether for a romantic scene.  Hans Zimmer, given the same scenes, might write a single theme and write variations on it that are alternately heroic and tender.   

One thing that Both John Williams and Hans Zimmer have in common is that they both work with orchestrators.  If you look at the credits on the cover of a film score and it says “composed and orchestrated by” the composer that means that the composer wrote every single note in the score themselves. If the credits say “composed by” the composer then that means that there were one or more orchestrators that also worked on the score.  Orchestrators are essentially assistant composers.  When working with one or more orchestrators the composer will write perhaps the main melody, the basic harmonic structure, and anything else that really stands out when you listen to a particular score.  The orchestrators will then come and help the composer fill in the parts for the other instruments, the things that you might not notice when listening to the music but that give it a fuller sound.  John Williams is known for giving very detailed instructions to his orchestrators.  He knows how he wants the whole score to sound even if he doesn’t write out every note by hand himself.  Hans Zimmer tends to go to the opposite extreme.  Hans Zimmer runs a film score company called Remote Control Productions which is home to a large group of composers that work with and are mentored by Zimmer. Zimmer’s understudies can at times function less as orchestrators than as ghostwriters.  Zimmer will develop the main themes and their variations but then hand the themes off to one or more of the other composers to actually apply the themes to scenes in the film.  Such was the case for the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie which was ultimately credited to Klaus Badelt, one of Zimmer’s coworkers.     

The different methods used by John Williams and Hans Zimmer are both obviously highly viable ways to put music to film.  Both their scores and their composing methodologies will likely continue to serve as examples for aspiring composers for many years to come.  

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