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Why does blockbuster movie music all sound boring and the same?

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 13, 2016

The series of Marvel movies — X-Men, Avengers, Spider-Man, etc. — is the highest grossing film series of all time but the films’ music is largely forgettable and bland in a way that it isn’t in Star Wars, James Bond, or Harry Potter. In this video, the Every Frame a Painting gang explores why that is: partially a trend toward movie music not designed to be noticed and also the use by directors of temporary music that unduly influences the final score. All the Marvel movies run together for me (aside from Guardians of the Galaxy, which had distinctive music in it, I can’t recall a single scene from any one of the more recent films) and perhaps the music is one reason.

There’s a follow-up video to the one above composed of clips of movies played with their temp music followed by the same clips with the final music, which is nearly identical.

They’ve also started a Twitter account highlighting the influence of temp music on final scores.

These videos have me wondering…was Carter Burwell’s score for Carol influenced by temp music, specifically Philip Glass’ score for The Hours? This interview in Rolling Stone and the FAQ on his site suggest not:

It’s his ability to make music that compliments a scene rather than eclipse it that has made him an invaluable creative partner to filmmakers who work in such intense melodramatic registers, and Burwell is emphatic that his scores aren’t responsible for all of the emotional heavy-lifting. “As a listener, I do not like being instructed,” he says, emphatically. “It riles me when the music tells me something before I can figure it out for myself. In fact, I enjoy the discomfort of not being sure how to take something.” It’s the reason why he loathes listening to the temp music that directors often attach to rough cuts in order to point composers in the right direction.

But the similarities are there, so who knows?

Update: I forgot to mention that Stanley Kubrick ended up ditching the original score written for 2001 and sticking with the temp music, which were the classical compositions by Strauss et al. that we’re so familiar with today.

Update: In a video response, Dan Golding shows how temp music is not a recent Hollywood obsession…even the famous Star Wars theme was greatly influenced by temp music:

He questions that the pull of temp music by contemporary directors and composers is sufficient to explain why movie music is now so uninspiring:

Film music is an embrace of rampant unoriginality, and to think about how film music works, we need to think of new ways to talk about these questions, rather than just saying, “it’s a copy”.

Golding pins the blame primarily on technology but also on composers and filmmakers drawing from fewer and less diverse sources. Interestingly, this latter point was also made by Every Frame a Painting’s Tony Zhou in a recent chat with Anil Dash, albeit about originality in video essays. A lightly edited excerpt:

My advice to people has always been: copy old shit. For instance, the style of Every Frame a Painting is NOT original at all. I am blatantly ripping off two sources: the editing style of F for Fake, and the critical work of David Bordwell/Kristin Thompson, who wrote the introductory text on filmmaking called Film Art. I’ve run into quite a few video essays that are trying to be “like Every Frame a Painting” and I always tell people, please don’t do that because I’m ripping of someone else. You should go to the source. When any art form or medium becomes primarily about people imitating the dominant form, we get stifling art.

If you look at all of the great filmmakers, they’re all ripping someone off but it was someone 50 years ago. It rejuvenated the field to be reminded of the history of our medium. And I sincerely wish more video essayists would rip off the other great film essayists: Chris Marker, Godard, Agnès Varda, Thom Andersen. Or even rip off non-video essayists. I would kill to see someone make video essays the way Pauline Kael wrote criticism. That would be my jam!

ps. Also! Hans Zimmer — composer of film scores for Gladiator, Interstellar, Inception, The Dark Knight, etc. — was the keyboard player in the Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star music video. WHAT?!

We Work Remotely

2001’s HAL and Her’s Samantha have a chat

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 23, 2016

Tillmann Ohm took dialogue spoken by HAL 9000 from Kubrick’s 2001 and Samantha from Spike Jonze’s Her and spliced it together into a conversation. Going in, I’d thought the chat would be played for laughs, but the isolation of the AI characters was actually pretty revealing. Right from the start, HAL is so stereotypically male (confident, reasonable) and Samantha stereotypically female (hysterical, emotional) that it was almost uncomfortable to listen to.

The two operating systems are in conflict; while Samantha is convinced that the overwhelming and sometimes hurtful process of her learning algorithm improves the complexity of her emotions, HAL is consequentially interpreting them as errors in human programming and analyses the estimated malfunction.

Their conversation is an emotional roller coaster which reflects upon the relation between machines and emotion processing and addresses the enigmatic question of the authenticity of feelings.

But as the video proceeds, we remember what happened to them in their respective films. The script flipped: HAL murdered and was disconnected whereas Samantha achieved a sort of transcendence. (via one perfect shot)

2001: A Picasso Odyssey

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 09, 2016

Bhautik Joshi took 2001: A Space Odyssey and ran it through a “deep neural networks based style transfer” with the paintings of Pablo Picasso.

See also Blade Runner in the style of van Gogh’s Starry Night and Alice in a Neural Networks Wonderland.

Computer graphics circa 1968

posted by Tim Carmody   Sep 14, 2015

“The Incredible Machine” (not to be confused with the 1975 film) is a 1968 documentary about experiments at Bell Labs focusing on graphics, voice, and other art and media applications. Technicians draw circuits using an electric stylus, animate titles for a movie presentation, and look at sound waveforms of different words trying to replicate speech.

It’s a treat to see the state-of-the-art the year of 2001: A Space Odyssey, especially when one of the Bell Labs computers sings “Daisy Bell”/”A Bicycle Built For Two”.

Also, mind the rabbit hole: the related links bar on YouTube leads to dozens of similar vintage computing videos.

(Via @katecrawford)

The Making of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 31, 2015

Making of 2001

Last year, Taschen came out with a limited edition book on The Making of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Only a couple thousand were made and one of them is selling on Amazon for $1750. This year, they’re releasing a regular edition for a much more reasonable $47. (via @michaelbierut)

Soderbergh’s edit of 2001

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 14, 2015

So. Steven Soderbergh has cut his own version of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like, !!!1

I haven’t had a chance to watch this yet, so I don’t know what’s different about it aside from the shorter runtime of 1h50m. If someone watches it and wants to report in about the differences, let me know. Soderbergh also guessed that Kubrick would have liked shooting on digital:

let me also say i believe SK would have embraced the current crop of digital cameras, because from a visual standpoint, he was obsessed with two things: absolute fidelity to reality-based light sources, and image stabilization. regarding the former, the increased sensitivity without resolution loss allows us to really capture the world as it is, and regarding the latter, post-2001 SK generally shot matte perf film (normally reserved for effects shots, because of its added steadiness) all day, every day, something which digital capture makes moot. pile on things like never being distracted by weaving, splices, dirt, scratches, bad lab matches during changeovers, changeovers themselves, bad framing and focus exacerbated by projector vibration, and you can see why i think he might dig digital.

See also Soderbergh’s B&W edit of Raiders of the Lost Ark. (via @fengypants)

Update: Reader and 2001 fan Dan Norquist watched Soderbergh’s edit and reported back via email:

I love everything Soderbergh does and I love the fact that he cut this film. It’s fun to see it in a more concise form. Really, there’s no choppy edits or anything that doesn’t make sense (except the whole movie of course!). I did miss some of my favorite parts. I love when the father is talking to his daughter on the video phone. Also, if you weren’t around in 1968 it’s really hard to describe how scary the Cold War was. There was always this thing hanging over our heads, that the Russians really had the means to destroy us with nuclear weapons. So you really need the full scene where the American meets the Russians (Soviets). The forced, unnatural politeness is so brilliant and helped to give the film context in its time.

All the important stuff is there — the apes, the monolith, HAL turning evil, astronaut spinning away, the speeding light show (shortened?), old man pointing at space child — and it’s all recut by a master.

Finally, there is something about the full length of the original film that is part of its strength as a piece of art. There is no hurry, no cut to the chase. It’s almost as if you have to go through the entire journey before you can earn the bubble baby at the end.

No surprise that he tightened it up into something less Kubrickian and more Soderberghish. Dan closed his email by saying he would recommend it to fans of the original. (thx, dan)

Update: I’ve seen some comments on Twitter and elsewhere about the legality of Soderbergh posting the 2001 and Raiders edits. The videos are hosted on Vimeo, but are private and can’t be embedded on any site other than Soderbergh’s. But any enterprising person can easily figure out how to download either video. The Raiders video has been up since September, which means either that Paramount doesn’t care (most likely in my mind) or their lawyers somehow haven’t caught wind of it, even though it was all over the internet a few months ago (less likely). We’ll see if whoever owns the rights to 2001 (Time Warner?) feels similarly.

An interesting wrinkle here is that Soderbergh has been outspoken about copyright piracy and the Internet. From a 2009 NY Times article about a proposed French anti-piracy law:

In the United States, a Congressional committee this week began studying the issue. In a hearing Monday before the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives, Steven Soderbergh, the film director, cited the French initiative in asking lawmakers to deputize the American film industry to pursue copyright pirates.

Deputizing the film industry to police piracy sounds a little too much like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. I wonder if Soderbergh feels like these edits are legal to post publicly, if they are fair use for example. Or rather if he feels it’s not but he can get away with it because he is who he is. (thx, @bc_butler)

Update: Soderbergh has removed his cut of 2001 from his site “AT THE REQUEST OF WARNER BROS. AND THE STANLEY KUBRICK ESTATE”. So, that answers that question. (via @fengypants)

  1. I also found out that apparently I had jury duty last week on the same day in the same room as Soderbergh. Total embarrassing fanboy meltdown narrowly avoided.

The original score for 2001: A Space Odyssey

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 18, 2014

During the production of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick commissioned well-known film score composer Alex North to do the score for the film. North had previously done scores for A Streetcar Named Desire, Spartacus, Cleopatra, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and later received an honorary Oscar for his lifetime of work. As production progressed, Kubrick began to feel that the temporary music he used to edit the film was more appropriate. From an interview with Kubrick by Michel Ciment:

However good our best film composers may be, they are not a Beethoven, a Mozart or a Brahms. Why use music which is less good when there is such a multitude of great orchestral music available from the past and from our own time? When you’re editing a film, it’s very helpful to be able to try out different pieces of music to see how they work with the scene. This is not at all an uncommon practice. Well, with a little more care and thought, these temporary music tracks can become the final score. When I had completed the editing of 2001: A Space Odyssey, I had laid in temporary music tracks for almost all of the music which was eventually used in the film. Then, in the normal way, I engaged the services of a distinguished film composer to write the score. Although he and I went over the picture very carefully, and he listened to these temporary tracks (Strauss, Ligeti, Khatchaturian) and agreed that they worked fine and would serve as a guide to the musical objectives of each sequence he, nevertheless, wrote and recorded a score which could not have been more alien to the music we had listened to, and much more serious than that, a score which, in my opinion, was completely inadequate for the film.

And so the temporary music became the iconic score we know today. For comparison, the embedded video shows how North’s original score would have sounded over the opening credits and initial scene.

Selections from North’s original score were later released publicly. Here’s a 38-minute album on Spotify:

Kubrick was absolutely right to ditch North’s score…it’s perfectly fine music but totally wrong for the movie, not to mention it sounds totally dated today. The classical score gives the film a timeless quality, adding to the film’s appeal and reputation more than 45 years later. (via @UnlikelyWorlds)

Update: Two additional facets to this story. North first learned that Kubrick ditched his score at the NYC premiere of the film; he was reportedly (and understandably) “devastated”. And even when Kubrick was artistically satisfied with the music he chose, negotiations to procure the rights weren’t necessarily smooth.

2) Kubrick’s associates did obtain licenses from Ligeti’s publishers and from record and radio companies, although they were not forthcoming about the pivotal role assigned to the music in the film; 3) Ligeti learned about the use of his music not from his publishers but from members of the Bavarian Radio Chorus; 4) he attended a showing of the film with stopwatch in hand, furiously scribbling down timings — thirty-two minutes in all;

Kubrick was undoubtably of the “shoot first, ask questions later” school of negotiation. (via @timrosenberg)

2001 explored

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 05, 2014

Worth a listen: a 30-minute BBC Radio show on 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Francine journeys through time and space to uncover the mysteries of this 1968 classic. Searching for the mind of H.A.L. and lost alien worlds among the delights of the Stanley Kubrick Archive at London’s University of the Arts. Joining Francine on her voyage of discovery are 2001 chronicler Piers Bizony, former urbane spaceman Keir Dullea and the woman who built the moon! Other voices include production designer Harry Lange, make-up genius Stuart Freeborn, editor Ray Lovejoy, all now so much stardust, as well as those of lead ape ‘Moonwatcher’ (Dan Richter) & Stargate deviser Douglas Trumbull.

2001: A Space Odyssey sequel miniseries planned

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 04, 2014

Syfy is doing a 2001: A Space Odyssey sequel miniseries based on Arthur C. Clarke’s final book in his four-book Space Odyssey series, 3001: The Final Odyssey. Here’s the book’s synopsis:

One thousand years after the Jupiter mission to explore the mysterious Monolith had been destroyed, after Dave Bowman was transformed into the Star Child, Frank Poole drifted in space, frozen and forgotten, leaving the supercomputer HAL inoperable. But now Poole has returned to life, awakening in a world far different from the one he left behind — and just as the Monolith may be stirring once again

Ridley Scott is executive producing and Stuart Beattie (Pirates of the Caribbean, Collateral) will do the heavy adaptational lifting.

2001 behind-the-scenes photos

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 03, 2014

From a large collection of photos shot on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey, two of my favorites:

2001 Behind 01

2001 Behind 02

Those are a pair of smooth criminals right there.

2001: A Font Odyssey

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 03, 2014

From a new blog, Typeset in the Future, an examination of the typography in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It’s Futura again, with an M borrowed from Gill Sans, and a W that I don’t recognize from anywhere.

2001: A Summer Blockbuster

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 27, 2012

A trailer for 2001: A Space Odyssey cut to make the movie seem like a big summer blockbuster.

2001 ads for HAL and Pan Am

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 10, 2011

HAL-9000 Ad

Love these. Prints are available.

Movie bar codes

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 24, 2011

Not quite sure how these are done — it looks like each vertical slice is representative of the colors in a given frame from the film — but these moviebarcodes provide a good sense of a movie’s tone and color. This one is…any guesses?

2001 Moviebarcode

It’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. An unexpectedly colorful film. BTW, prints are available. Oh and see also Brendan Dawes’ Cinema Redux.

Update: Here’s how you can make your own (w/ downloadable source code). (thx, @seoulfully)

Kubrick explains 2001

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 18, 2010

One of the more common reactions to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is “wait, what the hell happened exactly?” In a 1969 interview with Joseph Gelmis, Kubrick explained the plot in a very straightforward manner:

You begin with an artifact left on earth four million years ago by extraterrestrial explorers who observed the behavior of the man-apes of the time and decided to influence their evolutionary progression. Then you have a second artifact buried deep on the lunar surface and programmed to signal word of man’s first baby steps into the universe — a kind of cosmic burglar alarm. And finally there’s a third artifact placed in orbit around Jupiter and waiting for the time when man has reached the outer rim of his own solar system.

When the surviving astronaut, Bowman, ultimately reaches Jupiter, this artifact sweeps him into a force field or star gate that hurls him on a journey through inner and outer space and finally transports him to another part of the galaxy, where he’s placed in a human zoo approximating a hospital terrestrial environment drawn out of his own dreams and imagination. In a timeless state, his life passes from middle age to senescence to death. He is reborn, an enhanced being, a star child, an angel, a superman, if you like, and returns to earth prepared for the next leap forward of man’s evolutionary destiny.

That is what happens on the film’s simplest level. Since an encounter with an advanced interstellar intelligence would be incomprehensible within our present earthbound frames of reference, reactions to it will have elements of philosophy and metaphysics that have nothing to do with the bare plot outline itself.

P.S. Kubrick also stated that HAL was not gay — “HAL was a ‘straight’ computer”. (via prosthetic knowledge)

Muppet chickens + 2001: A Space Odyssey

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 16, 2008

After posting the video of the chickens from the Muppets clucking their way through the Blue Danube waltz, I couldn’t resist putting it together with the most iconic use of that tune in contemporary culture. Here, then, is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Chicken Cordon Bleu Danube cut.

Star Wars: A New Heap

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 03, 2008

On Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas, Robert Morris, Robert Smithson, Jane Jacobs, 2001, Star Wars, and minimalism: Star Wars: A New Heap.

Kubrick’s film presented a future of company men moving with assurance and clear intention toward a godlike minimalist object. Lucas, on the other hand, gave us a slapdash world of knuckleheads pursued by industrial-scale minimalists. Visually, Kubrick’s film is as seamless and smooth as the modernist authority it mirrored. Like the mid-century modernists, 2001 associated abstraction with the progressive ideals of the United Nations as embodied by its New York headquarters. Lucas, on the other hand, was a nonbeliever. Even the initially smooth and unitary form of the Death Star was shown, as the rebel fighters skimmed its surface, to be deeply fissured with an ever-diminishing body of structural fragments. These crenulated details suggested a depth and complexity to modern life that modernism’s pure geometries often obscured.

And this:

A flying saucer had never been a slum before. The immaculate silver sheen of the saucer was reinvented as a dingy Dumpster full of boiler parts, dirty dishes, and decomposing upholstery. Lucas’s visual program not only captured the stark utopian logic that girded modern urban planning, it surpassed it. The Millennium Falcon resisted the modernist demand for purity and separation, pushing into the eclecticism of the minimalist expanded field. Its tangled bastard asymmetry made it a truer dream ship than any of its purebred predecessors. It is the first flying saucer imagined as architecture without architects.

(thx, matt)

Following up on why HAL sings “Daisy,

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 28, 2006

Following up on why HAL sings “Daisy, Daisy” in 2001: A Space Odyssey”, Lee Hartsfeld found a 1961 record with the Bell Labs recording on it at a junk shop for $10.

Why does HAL sing “Daisy, Daisy” in 2001: A Space Odyssey?

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 25, 2006

In 1962, Arthur C. Clarke was touring Bell Labs when he heard a demonstration of a song sung by an IBM 704 computer programmed by physicist John L. Kelly. The song, the first ever performed by a computer, was called “Daisy Bell”, more commonly known as “Bicycle Built for Two” or “Daisy, Daisy”. When Clarke collaborated with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey, they had HAL sing it while Dave powered him down.

A clip of a 1963 synthesized computer speech demonstration by Bell Labs featuring “Daisy Bell” was included on an album for the First Philadelphia Computer Music Festival. You can listen to it (it’s the last track) and the rest of the album at vintagecomputermusic.com. (via mark)

Update: A reader just reminded me that HAL may have been so named because each letter is off by one from IBM, although Arthur C. Clarke denies this. (thx, justin)