The American Society of Cinematographers

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Although I have a fairly sizeable collection of movies (more than 15,000 Blu-rays, DVDs and laserdiscs) and a pretty good collection of art and photography books, I find that more and more, I turn to music as my inspiration for the visuals of a project I’m working on. The music doesn’t necessarily have to be a match for the setting of the film; in fact, sometimes the contrast of eras or styles conjures up the most interesting ideas. For example, Marvin Hamlisch’s use of Scott Joplin’s ragtime music was out of context for the 1930s milieu of The Sting, but they seem to belong together when you watch the movie. 

To me, one of the bright spots in the movie-music scene of the early 1980s was Basil Poledouris’ marvelous score for Conan the Barbarian. In an era dominated by soundtracks that featured wall-to-wall pop tunes, director John Milius fought to give Conan a classic orchestral score, and the result is one of the best examples of motion-picture scoring of that decade. The music moves from Wagnerian, epic brass, backed by a chorus of bold operatic voices, to gentle themes of profound longing. One of my favorite tracks is “The Search,” which starts out as a simple theme on the oboe and builds to an emotional swell that gives you a feeling of the vastness of destiny. I had this music in my head when I was filming many scenes for the telefilm Judas in Morocco. Poledouris also composed a beautiful piece in waltz time, “The Sands of Time,” for Randal Kleiser’s The Blue Lagoon. I loved his work; he evoked the spirit of Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. 

Sometimes a specific performance of a classical composition can be a revelation and conjure images in your mind’s eye. I have heard many versions of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 as live performances and recordings, but none has affected me as deeply as the recording by Herbert Von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker. The third movement of this recording, with its measured pace and 17-minute blossoming of massed strings, is almost achingly lovely. It evokes a memory of pastoral bliss tinged with the sadness of loss. Many times have I delved into this recording to find the emotional core of the visual heart of a scene. It is one of the best pieces of movie music never composed for the movies. 

But it isn’t only music with high-falutin’ pedigrees that makes my imagination soar. For a recent gig shooting the TV series American Horror Story, I found myself listening to “Goodnight Moon” from Shivaree’s album I Oughtta Give You a Shot in the Head on my way to work every morning. In a strange way, it just fit, and it helped me get into the mindset of the show’s photographic style. The song has a cool, quirky vibe, aided by the use of the theremin and by Ambrosia Parsley’s smoky vocals.  

One of my favorite songs that I hope to someday find a visual match for is Virginia Astley’s “Darkness Has Reached Its End” (from her album Hope In A Darkened Heart). Many forms of music have the power to free your imagination. You just have to find the one that clicks. 

While driving one day, I stopped at a light next to a gentleman who appeared to be really grooving out to whatever was playing on his stereo. I rolled down my window to take a listen. It was “The Ecstasy of the Gold” from Ennio Morricone’s score for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. That particular tune accompanies one of the greatest marriages of music and visuals ever created, as Eli Wallach searches through thousands of gravestones for one name. The gentleman in the car saw me watching him. I said, “That’s from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly!” He smiled and said, “Yes, ‘The Ecstasy of the Gold.’” As the light turned green, I pointed to him and said, “That makes you cool!”


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