Making Music With McCreary on "Human Target"

When you're watching your favorite television show, you likely don't think about the many different moving parts of the production that must come together to create the finished product. Sure, you recognize on some level that a lot goes in to the craft of making a one-hour television program, but you're not thinking about the specifics of how the script came together, the long shooting days, when visual effects were completed for a scene or how the music for an episode was recorded. Of course, that's exactly the way it should be, but there is a lot of hard work put in to each and every aspect of your favorite television show.

While we here at CBR have often taken you behind the scenes into the making of television shows and films, talking with the writing staff or supplying you a report of a visit to the set, one area we've never explored - and one often neglected in the press as a whole - is the musical score, one of the most important pieces for setting the tone of show.

This past Saturday afternoon, CBR was given a chance to look at the musical side of a television show's production when I went on an exclusive visit to the Eastwood Scoring Stage on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, a legendary sound stage that's large enough to hold a full orchestra and has been the scoring site for hundreds of movies and television shows including classics such as "Casablanca" and "Rebel Without A Cause," not to mention "The Bridges of Madison County," directed by Clint Eastwood, whom the stage is named after.

On this day, we were there to visit with Bear McCreary, the composer behind such series as "Battlestar Galactica" and "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles." Now, Bear has focused his attention on his latest series, the January debuting Fox television series "Human Target" based on the DC Comics character and brought to the small screen by Executive Producer Jon Steinberg. Over that four-hour stay, I saw just how the music comes together for a television show and got a chance to sit down with Bear to talk about his craft.

Upon entering the building, I was escorted through a series of doors with signs outside noting that if the red light was on you were not to enter. As I made my way in, I found myself in the main recording studio where engineers were talking with Bear through an intercom system about the part of the score that they had just been working on. In the center of the room was a massive multi-track mixing board with numerous computers and monitors. An engineer sat at the center of the console, with orchestrators and other support staff to his left and write. Behind the mixing board was a long desk, where other engineers and support staff sat with additional computers. Behind this was a series of couches and chairs for onlookers like myself to sit, with additional chairs in front of the mixing console for observers to watch Bear McCreary conduct the orchestra through a massive double-paned window. Think of it like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise - the recording engineer is Captain Kirk, but instead of looking through a massive view screen in to space, it's a giant window that looks onto the main scoring stage where Bear and the musicians were. Throughout the recording studio were numerous flat screen monitors where the scenes from "Human Target" they were recording for could be seen.

I took a seat in the back of the room. On the other side of the glass was a massive scoring stage, the size of a large high school gymnasium, complete with wood flooring. At the far end of the stage was Bear, his back to us, standing in front of a lectern, a massive standing desk with the show's sheet music laid out in front of him. In front of Bear, at the far end of the scoring stage, a group of 10 musicians sat with french horns, trombones and trumpets. Above them was a massive projection screen, showing the scene they were scoring. I was told that earlier in the day they had recorded tracks with the string instruments and the remainder of the day would be spent working with the brass instruments.

As I settled in, they began recording music for a scene from the second episode. In this scene our hero Christopher Chance, played by actor Mark Valley, is in the open wheel well of an airplane. Another actress is in there with him, holding a gun toward Chance. Though all of this, I'm not hearing any audio from their discussion, just the music mix which included the previously recorded percussion and strings, while Bear conducted the horns in the room in front of me. As the scene went on, a hand-to-hand fight breaks out, and that's when the music really amps up. Early on in the scene, the brass instruments were quieter, but as the action built, so did the action from the scoring stage, as the brass instruments really picked up. Suddenly, the scene goes to black and the only sounds left are a reverb sustain - we're in commercial. I instantly got a sense of high adventure from the music, which would only become more prevalent as the day went on.

Bear came over the intercom, talking with the engineers and staff in the recording studio. Despite the words being spoken in English, it was a language that I was certainly not familiar with. "Hey, did it sound weird at 37," Bear asked, while his engineer responded, "No, it was fine, but the ending is still off." And that's how the conversation continued all day in between takes - there would be intense discussion and dissection of specific measures of music, even on down to single notes or sounds overheard. The engineers and orchestrators, who followed the sheet music closely as Bear conducted, would provide feedback, showing an intense attention to detail. "Bear, I think one of the french horns was too bright on that take," or, "I think it should be a bit bouncier in the beginning, and more accented and sharp at 11." Bear would ask additional questions about specific measures or sounds he was hearing, then relay to the musicians how he'd like things changed for the next take.

There was an incredible attention to detail in every take, most of it being completely missed by myself. A note was out of tune here, a trumpet was behind on this measure, Bear would indicate this should be Mezzo-Forte versus something else - seriously, it almost sounded like they were talking about pasta, not music.

And the score for the scene would be recorded again and again and over time, as I focused on the feedback Bear would give his musicians, I began to notice the subtle changes they discussed.

After spending about 45 minutes working on that single scene, it was time to do the final recording on the main title sequence. The best way to describe it would be that it has a "Sin City"-esque feel, with a collage of watercolor style images, including all the elements you'd expect from an action series - images of our hero walking, running, jumping, followed by a cityscape, helicopter shot or other places and situations Chance finds himself in. The names of the actors floated by, first Mark Valley then Chi McBride and Jackie Earle Haley, as well as that of series creator Jonathan Steinberg. The music begins relatively quietly, mostly with strings and percussion, but as the action in the title sequence ramps up, so does the sound of the drums and the brass instruments in the adjoining room. It has a very swashbuckling style at first, transitioning into high energy, ramping up the tension at the end as Chance walks toward the audience and the "Human Target" logo comes on screen.

As they finished with the main title sequence and moved on to scoring another scene, I walked onto the scoring stage to hear the musicians live. It was like entering an entirely different world. In this massive room, all you can hear is the instruments and the click-track of a metronome. Bear and the musicians all have headphones on, so they can hear the percussion and strings recorded earlier. A second engineer sits behind another mixing board, still massive, but about half the size of the one in the recording studio. This engineer oversees the music mix the musicians hear in their headphones. Interestingly, the discussion with the engineers and orchestrators in the studio can only be heard by Bear, who gives instructions to his musicians in between takes.

At one point a musician asked Bear to tell him a bit more about the show and who this character was. Bear explained just that this was an action-adventure series based on a DC Comics character who in the comics wore a costume and mask, but didn't in the show. It was clear from his description that Bear knew more about the character of Christopher Chance than just what he read in the script - was he a comics fan, too? I made a mental note to ask him about that when we spoke later.

Being in that room was rather amazing - it was as though a private concert was taking place in front of me. Absent were the percussion and strings, just the warmth and strength of the brass instruments sans any processing.

During one of their breaks, Bear made his way to the recording studio where he looked over his music with his engineer and orchestrators, getting feedback and poring over every measure of music. At one point Bear asked of his compatriots, "How's this going? I can't tell when I'm in there, and I start thinking this just sounds lame." He was assured by everyone in the studio it sounded excellent. Is Bear a perfectionist? Is he a bit too hard on himself? Both are fairly typical aspects of anyone working in a creative capacity and something I'd have to talk with him about later in the day.

Following the short break, everyone was back to work on additional scenes, with more intense scrutiny of every recorded second. The click-track could be heard that time, so the scene was re-recorded. "I thought I heard an errant noise. I'm probably being paranoid, but let's do it again," Bear said after one session. "Horn #2, you can come out a bit more at 7," after another. They even discovered a small error in the sheet music as they day went on. The littlest details did not go unnoticed.

The day began for the Bear and his crew early in the morning and wrapped around 5:00, at which point I had a chance to sit down with Bear to discuss what I had just witnessed and talk about his approach to scoring the "Human Target."

Jonah Weiland: Bear, I want to start with something I heard you say while you were conducting. When you described the show to one of the musicians, you knew details about the character that aren't part of the show, such as his costume and mask. That could only be known by someone who's actually read the comics. Are you a comic fan?

Bear McCreary: Yeah. I've read comics my whole life, and for me it's really exciting to be able to contribute something to the DC Universe, even if what we're doing is a bit different. I have a feeling that really hardcore comic fans will be upset that we're changing what is sort of the core thing about the Human Target, but I think what we're doing is updating it and making it something that will translate better for the mainstream.

Well, one of the luxuries Jon Steinberg and you have is that the Human Target is not as well established a character in the mainstream compared to, say, a character like Wolverine, so the audience will likely be more forgiving. Tell me a bit about your early fascination with comics.

It started when I was a kid. The first comics I got in to were those French comics, "Asterix." I got into those big time. That was my gateway drug in to X-Men and especially Batman. It was in college that I got in to some of the longer form graphic novels like "Watchmen" and stuff like that. I wasn't in to weekly comics as much as I was into the collections.

Starting with "Asterix" is an unusual starting place for most people in America. Did you happen to grow up in Europe?

No, I grew up here, but those books were in my elementary school, which is how I was exposed to them. I did go to Europe as a kid and lived in Italy for a short while, and when I was there I did pick up some "Asterix" books. I couldn't really read Italian, but I could basically understand what was happening. I was super thrilled because I was able to get stories that weren't yet available in the States. So, I was a big nerd even back then.

When I spoke with Jon Steinberg earlier today, I asked him about finding the musical tone for the show and he said that in your discussions you brought up the soundtrack for "Start Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" by James Horner. He said that was the moment he knew he found the right composer for "Human Target." Tell me about some of those early discussions you had with Jon.

We hit it off right away. We liked all the same things and recognized [that] the tone of the show draws from a lot of works from the late '70s and '80s. It draws heavily from "Indiana Jones" and "Lethal Weapon." We talked about "Star Trek II" and even "The Goonies." There was this great sense of adventure that could be fun, with a serious side. "Indiana Jones" and "Lethal Weapon" are great examples of that. They can be fun and funny and you'd laugh, but the action was great - they weren't winking at you in the action sequences, these were serious, kick ass action movies. We wanted to capture some of that.

I must confess, we hit it off musically, but I was still skeptical that we could not only make a show that worked with this approach, but that Warner Bros. and FOX would let him, because it's just not something that's done anymore. There are a few other shows that use orchestras, but they don't usually have scores like this or in this language. I'm trying to be contemporary, I don't want to sound retro, but I'm also trying to acknowledge the fun in it, and I think that's the thing missing from a lot of action shows on TV right now and even in the movies. That fun factor can get lost.

This is the first time I've watched a scoring session like this, and I was listening to you talk during one of your breaks about how challenging this work will be for you with only a seven day turnaround. Is this a crazier schedule than you've ever had to deal with before?

Absolutely. The scale of what we're accomplishing is tough. Other shows that have seven day turnarounds do not require one of those days spent being here [on the scording stage], and to write this music just takes longer. I'm not able to write as many minutes a day. It's just more difficult, but ultimately so rewarding, and I'm really excited about stepping up to that challenge. It will be a real challenge, but I'm not the only one facing that. The writers, actors, production staff - they're keeping this up week-to-week, from script-to-script and making sure the action stays intense and feels like a movie every week, which is not easy.

Well, you're making a 42-minute action movie every week and that has to be exhausting.

So far it has been, yes, and we're just getting started! [laughs]

Is this the most challenging thing you've worked on?

Well, I don't mean to suggest it's difficult to write, but it's time consuming. I find it's very inspiring and the ideas come very quickly, it's just that there are not as many hours in the day as I'd like, but we'll get it done.

I was listening to you record the theme song earlier, and I noticed that a number of elements found in the theme song made it into two of the action sequence scores I heard you record as well. I'm guessing this is Chance's theme. Are there themes developed for other characters like Guerrero, played by Jackie Earle Haley, or Winston, played by Chi McBride?

Chi has a theme, but Jackie does not - yet! He will soon. There are several other themes weaving their way in to the show. Jon has been good about letting me know about the bigger mythology, so there are certain themes I'm writing because he's let me know in advance that certain things to the casual viewer may appear to only pertain to that one episode, but are actually part of building a bigger mythology to Chance's past - what happened to him and how he became who he is. So, we're planting these seeds that can become bigger, almost operatic themes in the future, but that's only because Jon's given me that feedback.

Help me understand a bit the language you were using, because this is very foreign to me. There was a guy sitting at the center of the mixing board ...

That's Steve. He's my engineer and co-producer, so he's the one that's making sure all the mics are in the right place, records all the tracks and is the one who does the ultimate mixing. As my co-producer, he also makes a lot of creative decisions, and I have discussions with him at the beginning of a show about what it's going to sound like. Usually my ideas are the really creative ones and, as I sit down with him, he helps me figures out how to do those things given what we have available to us and the time constraints we're working under. I've been working with him for 10 or 11 years now, since I did my first student film score when I was 18.

There were another two guys to the right of Steve who were following along with the sheet music very intently, giving you a lot of very specific feedback in between sessions.

They are my orchestrator's and orchestration supervisors. These are the guys who take my very detailed sketches and put them on paper for everyone to read, but they're also excellent musicians and are familiar with my style, so when I'm out there conducting, they're in here concentrating on listening to all the fine details I may miss. I think of it like if you're on a film. The Director knows what it's all going to look like, but the Director of Photography is the guy who makes sure all the light is balanced and is the last line of defense to make sure the picture looks good. My orchestrators are like that, the last line of defense to make sure all the little details in the orchestration get covered.

You made an interesting comment during one of your breaks when you sat down with those three guys, you asked them what I think is a fairly typical question someone will ask who's working in a creative capacity, "Does any of this sound good? I can't tell when I'm in there and I start thinking this sounds lame." Are you a perfectionist? Are you hard on yourself?

Too an extreme, on both counts. One of the best things I've found about my career lately is the time pressures and delivery schedules don't give me time to second guess myself, to do rewrites and stuff like that. There are times where I'll be in a mood - and even today this happened - to say, "This sucks! Throw it out! This is garbage! Let's delete it and start over!" [Laughs] But then I realize, no, this has to be done today and we have to find a way to make it work. I find with a score like this - I had to write 33 minutes of music in six days - if I had two weeks or a month to write it, I don't know that it would have been markedly better. I might have felt better about it because I had a chance to fine tune and tweak it, but I have found that my first instincts are usually the best ones. It would always be nice to have more time to fill out the details, but yeah, I'm very self-conscious as an artist. When I put out a soundtrack album, I usually go back and tweak a lot of stuff, but I generally don't have that chance when we're working on this quick a delivery schedule.

I'm most familiar with your work from "Battlestar Galactica," and the tone and sound of that work compared to "Human Target" is markedly different, but I heard a few touches from "Battlestar" - that ramping up sound that was often used as the show went in to commercial - that snuck in here or there with today's recordings.

You know what's the missing link between my work on "Battlestar" and "Human Target" that you haven't heard yet? I have a game coming out next month from Capcom called "Dark Void." The soundtrack to "Dark Void" is the Darwinian missing link between my work on "Battlestar" and "Human Target." In fact, when I first sat down with Jon, he said he wanted something that sounded like "Battlestar," with percussion and energy, but he wanted a big traditional, awesome orchestra on top of it. So I played him "Dark Void," he loved it, and the temp score for the first two episodes came from "Dark Void." [The score for "Human Target"] is even more swashbuckling and high adventure, while "Dark Void" has more ethnic and science fiction elements to it. I would imagine going from "Battlestar" to this is a pretty dramatic difference.

But there are some signature sounds that can be found in both.

Yes, there is a heavy percussion element in this and, if anything, I've had to make a conscious effort to thin out my percussion to make room for the orchestra, because the orchestra was never this big on "Battlestar" and it was never written in such a way that it would draw that much attention to itself. "Battlestar" was always about the drums and the orchestra was a background element. This is the exact opposite - there are drums, but the orchestra is the foreground element for "Human Target."

What are the biggest influences on your music?

It varies from project to project. For this project, I was able to pull from the scores of Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, John Williams and Bernard Herman. Those are guys whose music I've always liked. Especially in this case, Goldsmith and Bernstein. They've always been a big influence on me. On all my other projects, I've had to hide that a bit, but this is a very different project and I can go back to that more orchestral language and play around with it. That's really fun for me because that's the kind of music that made me want to be a film composer in the first place.

Last Question - we're heading in to the Christmas break here, and I can tell you're the kind of guy who works constantly. So, will you be working on the score for "Human Target" on Christmas Day?

I put my foot down - I told myself, "No, don't work on this on Christmas Day." The day after, well, that's another story. [Laughs]

Thanks for your time, Bear. Happy Holidays.

"Human Target," starring Mark Valley, Chi McBride and Jackie Earle Haley, debuts on Fox January 17th, 2009 at 8:00 PM.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker final trailer
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Final Trailer's Biggest Questions andReveals

More in Movies