Eric Metzgar: The effective union of images and music intoxicates and hypnotizes me, and I absolutely love the process of trying to wed the two. I have to admit that I’m underwhelmed by most documentary “scores.” I feel that the music in most documentaries serves only to smooth the transitions between scenes. To me, such use of music is dull and predictable. When I began to edit The Chances of the World Changing, I knew I wanted the music to be an integral part of the film, as important to the storytelling as the images, live sound and narration.
Filmmaker Eric Daniel Metzgar and composer Eric Liebman
Eric Liebman and I met when I first moved to New York about seven years ago. Our common interest was music. I had always liked and appreciated his taste and his own compositions. While shooting the film, Eric L. had been sharing some of his new instrumental pieces with me, and I was storing them away — eager to try them when editing began. At last, when I started editing, I assembled a few scenes using his music, and I loved the results. So with a sort of unspoken agreement, he started to compose music with the film in mind, and our collaboration had begun.
Eric Liebman: Even before Eric M. expressed interest in using this music, I was curious about this film he was making. Once he started showing me edited scenes containing my audio recordings, I was excited about the possibility of such a collaboration. The audio-visual synergy made sense, in a way, because even at that time the two of us shared many artistic and spiritual interests. Eric M. would inquire about my latest recordings. He was very honest with me about what his musical needs were and about what he thought worked or did not work.
Some of the pieces that ended up in the film had been completed months before the idea of a collaboration even arose. Others had to be altered to suit the needs of the images or story, or to better fit with the live audio Eric had recorded in the field. Then there were pieces that came into existence only after Eric provided a description of what was needed, or he would show me a recently filmed segment and ask me to come up with something that completed the requisite mood.
Metzgar: Yes, let me provide an example. During the film, Richard moves out of his Manhattan penthouse. The move itself was unbelievably complicated, laborious and time-consuming. He had to move over 1,200 turtles, hundreds of tanks, containers, food bowls, water filtration systems, etc. It took months to accomplish, and we filmed a great deal of it. When it came to editing, I thought the scene itself should be wearying and almost painful to watch — so that the viewer could feel directly involved in the vast amount of labor that conservation requires. But as I began editing the footage (as a scene with dialogue), I immediately discovered that a viewer (myself) could only watch so much moving, lifting and packing. In other words, I discovered that with only a few potent images, it was possible to portray the move as it was: grueling. So I quickly turned a ten-minute scene into a three-minute scene. I yanked nearly all the dialogue, leaving only my favorite images of Richard and his crew moving the turtles and tanks out of his apartment and onto the trucks down on the street in Manhattan. Watching the newly shortened scene, I realized that, essentially, it was an action sequence. So I asked Eric L. for something lively, something busy and rhythmic, and something that would grow, expand and then climax at the end.
Liebman: This was, as I recall, the first composition inputted into “The Chances of the World Changing” that started as an attempt by me to match footage Eric had already edited. He requested something rhythmic that sounded like a group of percussionists or drum circlists, a movement that would ramp up from something nearly inaudible to something thunderous. I drafted a composition along these lines and made a scratch recording. Eric M. liked it right away, but he kept refining his view on how long the scene needed to be to properly convey the intensity and urgency of Richard’s forced move. I ended up creating two or three different versions of the original piece; in each piece the “percussionists” take a different amount of time to go from zero to sixty. Finally, Eric M. had some ideas for the texture of the closing of the piece, and I tried a few different endings before he had the track he needed for the scene. (Watch the scene and listen to the composition)
To purchase the soundtrack to The Chances of the World Changing, visit CDBaby.com.
Metzgar: Yes, that piece worked out very well. I’m also really pleased by “Queens,” which is the title of the composition that accompanies the scene in which Richard unpacks a shipment of turtles at the producer’s apartment in Queens, New York. That composition is just melodically gorgeous. (Watch the scene and listen to “Queens” )
Liebman: Thank you. That’s probably my personal favorite audio recording for the film. The Queens scene is special from the editing perspective because it is two minutes that are especially free from field audio or voice-overs, so the scene feels particularly quiet and introspective, an intimate portrait of one particular stop along the turtle underground railroad. The electronic quartet is playing five beats to the measure, which underscores the shifting uncertainty of the turtles’ fate.
Metzgar: I also really like “Diaspora Pulse,” the composition that announces the third act of the film, in which Richard packs his van full of turtles and hits the road. That composition fit perfectly. After quite a sad, somber few minutes of the story, that piece really lifts the mood and re-energizes the viewer, I think. (Watch the scene and listen to “Diaspora Pulse” )
Liebman: This was a piece for which I’d done a draft recording many months earlier. Oddly enough, I had begun composing “Queens” and “Diaspora Pulse” on the same day, many months before Eric M. and I ever discussed music for this film. The original version of “Diaspora Pulse” was quite different: It had very little percussive energy in its latter half. That was changed to provide a forward momentum that doesn’t let up until the final second of the scene, when the truck stops.
Metzgar: And the “Chances Theme” composition, of course, is really something, I think. The first time I laid this track over footage of the turtles, I knew I’d found the “feel” of the film. (Watch the scene and listen to “Chances Theme”)
Liebman: Thank you. That piece was born out of the simple desire to create something where a delay/echo filter played a central role in the composition. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it when it was first draft-recorded, but when I saw how it would ultimately be used in the film, I was really excited, as those are some of my favorite visuals and voice-overs in the entire film.
Metzgar: I also want to mention the Faun Fables song in the film, called “Live Old.” It’s a heavenly song from an absolutely vital band. Dawn McCarthy wrote the song, and while I was editing, I was looking through a lot of songs of my friends’ bands. When I got to Faun Fables, there were a few tracks I loved, but “Live Old” was my favorite. I just can’t get enough of that song. Lyrically, it seemed to magically fit the themes of the story. In fact, the first cut of the film featured that song twice, once at the very beginning of the film, as the opening music, and once at the end, where it is now.
The process of finding the right music is wholly intuitive, like the rest of filmmaking. There’s no formula. There is only trust in one’s own instinct, and faith that each scene will eventually work, and shine. It’s just so exciting to apply music to a freshly cut scene. There’s nothing like it. It forces the mind to erase itself, to stay fresh. It forces you to watch with new eyes, to listen with new ears. When I lay a piece of music down under a new scene, hit play, and lean forward in anticipation — it’s one of the few situations in life where my attention is singly focused. In that moment, I’m simply terrified, dying in hopes of experiencing some new synergy of image and sound, something greater than the image or sound alone, something magical. Such a synergy is rare, which is why the anticipation is so intense, but so thrilling. With Eric L.’s music, it was especially exciting, because each of his pieces is so unique. Each piece I would try lent the scene a different mood and meaning, which is great, and which made working with him really, really fun.
Liebman: There’s a similar aspect to creating the music tracks. There is the excitement of being given a visual, abstract direction and sitting down to create accompanying music, having no idea where the process will end up. Then, after the composition is recorded in draft form, there is the excitement of seeing how the director ultimately makes use of the track. When it works, the result is beyond the sum of the constituent elements.
Metzgar: Perhaps you’d like to explain your home-studio setup, for those readers interested in the technical side of film scoring.
Liebman: It’s actually relatively simple, which is the way I like it. The central elements are the Korg Triton keyboard workstation and the Mac G4 running ProTools. Although I have several guitars and amps, none of them were used on this soundtrack, as it was entirely electronic by design. Sequencing of music data takes place in either the Triton or in the ProTools environment. I have a series of external rack-mount modules (preamps, compressors, noise-reduction elements, etc.) through which I filter almost everything that comes out of the Triton. Mixing and other tweaking are done in the Mac.
I upgrade very hesitantly and slowly, because any upgrade has the potential to force you into endless hours of testing and troubleshooting just to get your system to work at all. I’d rather use one keyboard and one digital recording environment and know them very well, than have an army of keyboard workstations, etc.
Metzgar: I’ve been to a lot of festivals with The Chances of the World Changing, and at every Q&A session, someone raises their hand and says they really liked the score. I’m always really pleased by that. It confirms the fact that the audience is really listening to the music behind the scenes. Do you think documentary films are moving stylistically closer to narrative films, in which the score plays a more significant role?
Liebman: That’s good to hear about the praise for the score; there was one Q&A that I attended where a woman made a speech solely to denounce my work for not being sufficiently turtle-esque! As for the trend of documentaries vs. fictional films, it’s really hard to say. It does seem, however, that there is a significant increase in the number of people seriously attempting to make documentaries — we’ve met these people time and again at festivals — and I suspect that more artistically meritorious docs are being made and thus that artistic bar has been raised generally. The changing economics of filmmaking also allow documentarians to get more artistically adventurous without spending a fortune out-of-pocket.
Metzgar: Speaking of an artistic adventure, I’m really excited about the music for the next documentary I’m directing, called Life. Support. Music (POV 2009). I’m three-quarters of the way through shooting, and I’ve yet to begin editing, but I’m loving the wild sounds and extraterrestrial compositions we’ve been experimenting with. I’m dying to start editing.
Liebman: I’m excited too: a whole new palette, with whole new themes.