Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Working-Up a Picture

In this column, Sinn outlines a method for "working-up" a picture. This method involves identifying "the predominant theme of a picture and work to that." The idea is to make distinctions between what aspects of the film are essential to the articulation of this theme and those that are merely incidental to it. Music, Sinn argues, should focus attention on what is essential, allowing the merely incidental to fade into the background. More and more, the filmmakers will follow the same strategy with the image, shooting, framing, blocking and editing their subjects so foreground and background levels are always clearly distinguished and that these levels represent (and reproduce) a narrative hierarchy. (Continuity editing is one means film makers develop at this time to articulate the narrative hierarchy that carries the theme.)

Toward the end of the article, Sinn comments on parallel editing, which was a problem for the musicians precisely because the hierarchy was not obvious in the image but had to be extracted from the larger narrative. Parallel editing thus required musicians to subordinate the lines in parallel editing to some larger idea (usually, but not always, meaning that the action in one line was subordinated to that in another).

A dozen different pictures may represent a dozen different methods of working up. One may have a theme or motif which is constantly recurring throughout the picture, while in the next the musical numbers follow consecutively like a string of beads; any of the sensational melodramas work out in this manner—a march, a "hurry" and a plaintive; a waltz, a plaintive and a "hurry" make up the greater part of these. There is a reason, but we will take that up later. Pathe's "Isis" is well described by a single number (like Lorraine's "Salome") running straight through and interrupted only by the dance (for which use "Zallah," by the same composer). A stop may also be made for the harp solos if this effect is imitated.

Some pictures (like "Mr. Four-Flush") may have one "fill-in" running through while each description is of a different character; again, others may require a single descriptive theme while the "fill-ins" vary. In fact, nearly every picture which displays originality is apt to present a new problem which makes it difficult if not impossible, to formulate a set of rules governing all cases. As I said before, one must fix on the predominant theme of a picture and work to that. This theme always centers in the principal characters of the play. For example, suppose we have a love story laid in the time of the American Revolution and the principal character is a girl; the story is all woven around her—the things she does and the things that are done for her and because of her, form the plot of the play. Whenever she appears she is the center of attraction to the audience (and must also be so to you), and in these scenes the other characters are valuable only to the degree in which they affect her. Of course, when he is out of the picture, any character or incident holding the attention at the time is the dominant part. A General enters with a staff of officers. (Martial music.) An Indian messenger comes on, or a few Indians gather in the background. This does not necessarily mean Indian music unless they are to take an important part in the action. Otherwise they are simply accessories—pieces of stage furniture—and the General is the focal point of attention. In other words, you should not withdraw the observers' attention from the important parts of the story or direct it to the unimportant parts. But whenever an element enters which has a bearing on the story, cater to that if you can. Sound effects are often given which are directly opposite in character to the descriptive music, and yet enhance the value of the picture. The heroine is in the foreground weeping—the passing army in the background. Pathetic music for her, soft drum taps for the marching soldiers. A single soldier passing would not be of sufficient importance to direct the attention to him. A minor character be he soldier, Chinaman, Indian, or anything else is ignored unless he has a direct bearing on the scene.

Permit me to digress a moment to speak of Indian music. The question has been raised as to whether an Indian “tom-tom” should accompany all Indian music. I believe it should in most case, but always softly unless otherwise called for. The instruments in a picture-show orchestra are used for two-fold purposes, viz.,: to provide music and furnish sound effects. When he is imitating some instrument of a like nature, the player is producing a sound effect, and his instrument should then be made accordingly conspicuous, but only then the Indian music is descriptive and the “tom-tom” adds greatly to its suggestive character, but discretion must be shown in this as in all other things. It might be left out of a love scene (Indian). In the case of the “sleeping Indian village,” referred to in a previous issue it seems to me that if such a scene suggested perfect quiet, the “tom-tom” would be entirely out of keeping. Query: Was Indian music really essential to the scene? In a recent release, “His Sergeant’s Stripes,” Indians play an important part, yet the dominant note in the picture is the soldier’s devotion to duty and centers about the dispatches he carries. Instead of accentuating the Indians’ presence with Indian music, work up the motive with something of a mysterious and threatening character. To exemplify further the difference between “sound effect” and descriptive music: Suppose the orchestra (or piano) is playing pathetic or other music incidental to the scene—this is descriptive and merely accessory to the picture. A character enters the picture, seats himself at a piano and runs his fingers over the keys, the pianist in the orchestra imitating him. This is a “sound effect” and is a part of the picture. The difference, between the “accessory” and the “sound effect” can be made apparent enough if the musician uses judgment. The same thing applies to other instruments in the orchestra if there be others. And here let me digress again to say that I hope the time will soon be here when it will be the rule rather than the exception for moving picture orchestras to be composed of enough instruments to describe ordinary pictures. Imagine the “Swan Song” or “The Violin Maker of Cremona” without the violin sound effects. Nearly every battle scene (and they are common enough) needs trumpet calls. W. E. King's orchestra (Orpheum Theater, Chicago) not only has a sufficient number for ordinary effects, but the management has provided a mandolin attachment for the piano, permitting of imitations of mandolin, harp, guitar, etc., and a reed organ which is useful not only for organ effects, but gives us also the hand-organ, accordion, mouth-organ and bagpipes, besides being frequently used in pathetic and religious scenes as accessory music when no instrument appears in the picture. But to return to the subject in hand.

Some pictures are shown in which the scenes alternate so rapidly as to make it impractical to change music with every change of scene. For example: A mother watching her dying child in one and the desperate father about to commit a burglary in the other. Ordinarily, the first scene suggests a plaintive and the second a pizzicato or mysterious, but here there is time to play but a few bars of each, not enough to develop the scene, and the effect of such skipping about would be absurd. Here comes the “principal motive” again. The father is turning burglar for the sake of the child. The child dominates both scenes. Therefore your pathetic runs straight through until a scene occurs which is long enough to permit a change of music if such be necessary. Again: We have a ballroom filled with dancers; you are playing a waltz. The heroine comes down to center or one side, her attitude suggestive of grief. A pathetic might seem logical at first glance. She is the dominant figure, the dancers merely accessory; but in this case they are equally prominent. She is in the ballroom, she hears the music and sees the dancers. Keep your waltz up, but subdue it, for it must partake of the nature of a “sound effect” as well as a descriptive. In this case a soft, slow waltz will answer for both. Should the dancers stop or retire, leaving her the stage center, a change in the music is permissible. Should your scene be outside of the ballroom yet in hearing of the music, your dance music is played softly—as a “sound effect”—until the scene grows sufficient in intensity to obliterate the ballroom from the mind's of the audience. Then work up to the scene.

Understand these are only hints and must not be understood to be ironclad rules. I am using these illustrations to induce you to look for the core of the picture and not the surface alone.

Source: Clarence Sinn, “Music for the Picture,” MPW 10 December 1910, 1345.

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