Composer Blake Neely on HBO’s The Pacific

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This Sunday sees the US broadcast on HBO of the first episode of a major new ten-part miniseries called The Pacific.

The Pacific is perhaps the spiritual successor to Band of Brothers, itself a ten-part adaptation of the book of the same name by American historian Stephen E. Ambrose. While Band of Brothers told the story of the part played in the victory in Europe of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment of the US Army, otherwise known as Easy Company, towards the end of World War II, The Pacific tells the story of the US Marine Corps’s participation in the Pacific theatre of war.

The series is based on memoirs by two US Marines, With the Old Breed by Eugene Sledge and Helmet for My Pillow by Robert Leckie, and tells the story of the war against Japan through the eyes of these two men, and a third Marine, John Basilone.

The same production team that worked on Band of Brothers – including Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks – are behind The Pacific, so it is appropriate that the people behind the music have some links to the earlier series. The composer on Band of Brothers was Michael Kamen, who sadly passed away in 2003, but his orchestrator on that series, Blake Neely – himself now an acclaimed composer, arranger and producer – has collaborated with Hans Zimmer and Geoff Zanelli on The Pacific, and the results are sure to be epic.

Blake was kind enough to make time to talk to me about his work on The Pacific, his collaboration with his co-composers, and how Sibelius plays a part in his work. More after the jump.

Blake Neely is one of the most in-demand composers in Hollywood at the moment. Not only has he worked on some of the biggest films of the last decade – including collaborating with Hans Zimmer on the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy and The Da Vinci Code – but he is currently providing the music for two weekly drama series, ABC’s Brothers and Sisters and CBS’s The Mentalist, as well as scoring Warner Brothers’ upcoming feature film, Life As We Know It.

Dream jobs

“This year I’ve worked on some dream television projects,” he says. “On each I have been given great creative freedom and am allowed to enhance with music rather than merely ‘wallpaper.’ Each has rich stories and characters, which fuel my inspiration, and each one requires a different musical style and sound world, so I’m never bored.”

Each of the three shows for which Blake provides the music are very different, and the music he provides is accordingly very different. How does he hit upon the unique sound of each show? “When I see a show for the first time, usually an early edit of a pilot episode or a first cut of a film, a specific musical idea will come to me,” he says. “If it doesn’t on that first viewing, then I usually panic a little bit, because this is almost always my way in.”

Blake knows the importance of following his instincts. “What comes to me might be a theme, a sound world, a style or even an instrument. But it’s usually one that I instinctively feel will work well for the show. From there, I spend a few weeks experimenting and exploring ideas based on this initial concept. And a sound world of instrumentation, style, and themes evolves. With a series, I then have 22 episodes a year to build this world and hopefully make it better.”

I asked Blake just what his weekly schedule is like when creating the music for a series like The Mentalist. “For me, the only negative in scoring television is a lack of time per week to create. For a weekly network series, I generally have six days to complete an episode. With an average of 25-30 minutes of music in each episode, I need to be writing and recording 4-5 minutes of music per day, per show.”

This doesn’t sound like much, of course: until you consider that there are many competing demands on your time. “No, not bad – until you are doing three series and a film, meetings, spotting sessions, playbacks, and so on, and so on. Then the time constraints multiply and become overwhelming. But over the years I’ve developed lots and lots of tricks, templates, organizational and management systems to make me a very fast writer. I also surround myself with helpful and talented musicians and together we make these deadlines a reality.”

Doing it for free

One of those helpful and talented musicians who helped Blake in the early part of his career is the late Michael Kamen.

“I have so many memories of working with Michael,” he says. “I learned so much from him, whether it was how to approach a scene, how to choose your orchestration, or perhaps most importantly in this business: how to accommodate a director’s requests and stay true to your vision.”

It is clear that Blake continues to hold Kamen in high regard. “He was a master composer, great all-around musician, and a good and caring person to all who knew him. Michael also taught me that the business of making music should always be enjoyed and enjoyable. To paraphrase him, ‘Do you think they’d still pay us if they knew we’d do it for free?’ I always remind myself that, even during some dark and stressful hours on The Pacific, being able to do this for a living is unbelievably fun and a real gift.”

Blake and his co-composers came on board with the project after filming was complete and rough edits of all ten parts had been assembled. “Once we’d watched a rough version, we each began writing themes and trying to find a style and instrumentation that worked,” he says. “After we had some basic themes and knew the orchestration, we set out scoring. Since it’s a ten-part series, and we had the entire first cut, I would literally hop around and write a scene in Episode 8 and then see if the same material would work for the set up of that story in Episode 2. We approached it like it was just one 10-hour feature film. This gave us continuity. As the project unfolded, we would focus on particular episodes and fully score one before going to the next. But we had a good idea of the overall arc of the score before we did each episode.”

Being able to write the score for the entire series allowed the freedom of ensuring the musical continuity throughout the entire series. “One fascinating part was realizing as we were scoring Episode 7, for example, that something we had written in Episode 4 no longer worked because we’d discovered a new approach. So we would have to go back and redo these particular spots. This happened very frequently, so much so that our last recording session was to simply record the rewritten areas.”

Blake found it useful to start with the destination in mind. “The first piece I wrote for the series, back in September 2008, is actually one of the last pieces you hear in the show: Eugene’s homecoming,” he says. “I do often work backwards on a story, so that I always know where I’m headed and everything in the score can lead to that point.”

The character of the music itself is “noble, melancholic and elegiac”, but it has nothing in common with the score for Band of Brothers. “Everyone on the project wanted The Pacific to be its own thing. If you hear audible links, then it is either coincidence, or a bit of Kamen sneaking through my pen, as it does from time to time.”

Team effort

With so much music to write, the division of labour is very important, not only between the three co-composers, but also the teams of orchestrators and copyists who all come together to create the music.

“Hans and Geoff are not orchestrators in the traditional ‘notes on paper’ sense, so there were several additional orchestrators on The Pacific: Bruce Fowler led a team of excellent and talented people,” says Blake. “For me, however, I got into this business as an orchestrator and still love that part of the process, so it’s hard for me to relinquish those duties.”

Nevertheless, with a project of this size and such tight deadlines, Blake had no choice. “Something had to give,” he says. “I ended up sending about 25% of my music to other orchestrators. It was a surprisingly enjoyable for me, an admitted control freak, to hear what someone else did with my music. Orchestration is such a subtle and misunderstood dark art – I wish that listeners understood how vital it is to composition.”

Once the composers and orchestrators have had their say, each cue moves along to the third part of the process: creating the parts that the musicians on the stage can play from.

“I’m not sure exactly how many copyists worked on The Pacific, but probably not enough!” says Blake. “Copyists are always the most overworked and sleep-deprived people on a scoring stage. We composers and orchestrators tend to wait until the last minute to have them do this incredibly detailed and important job – and then we expect there to be no mistakes!”

The copyists worked under the supervision of Booker White. “Booker led an amazing team, and I can tell you honestly that the only mistakes made in the parts were those created by us composers, and they never missed a deadline! I sent an orchestration one morning at 3am. It was roughly a three minute cue, and our downbeat (start of recording) was at 10am. All the parts were on the stands and perfectly playable.”

Conducting and recording

In addition to being an accomplished composer and orchestrator, Blake spends much of his time on the podium in the scoring stage, conducting ensembles for his own and others’ scores. For The Pacific, Blake conducted the orchestra through the sessions for all ten episodes.

“The orchestra was about 75 players,” he says. “We recorded close to six hours of music over 10 different recording sessions at Sony Scoring Stage, with Dennis Sands as our engineer. There are literally hundreds of score pages and thousands of individual part pages. It is a lot of music.”

All of those pages of music were produced using Sibelius – well, almost. “Except for one cue, which I wrote out by hand during lunch on the scoring stage, every orchestration I completed was done in Sibelius,” says Blake.

Some of the orchestrators on the project worked in Sibelius, while others worked in Finale (“Hey, it’s their funeral,” Blake jokes). For Blake, though, Sibelius is one of a handful of indispensable software packages that he relies upon to do his job.

“I have three tools that use every day and on every project: Logic, Sibelius, and Pro Tools,” he says. “Sure, I could resort to the old-fashioned pencil and paper and metronome, but it would be arduous. I have come to rely on these programs so much so that I find it difficult to write music any other way. I create a multi-track sequence in Logic which syncs to the video in Pro Tools, which is also the input for all of my synths and samplers. Once I’ve completed a synthestrated demo of the cue, I can present it to picture to the director. After it’s approved, I then export all of this MIDI data to Sibelius and begin working on the final orchestration. When I’m happy with this, then I send the Sibelius score to the copyist and they output the parts.”

Blake has used Sibelius for years, and can’t imagine using anything else. “What I love about Sibelius is its feel. No other program feels like pen and paper to me. Its new features like Optical ties, Magnetic Layout and improved playback functions are ideal for me to easily and quickly create a final score.”

But like all Sibelius users, Blake has his own wish list for future versions of the software: “If only it worked more seamlessly with Logic, all my problems would be solved.”

Exceeding expectations

Blake is excited that this project is just about to see the light of day, after having worked on it over the last eighteen months. “We were recording music up until the very last days of the sound dub, so we got to see everything,” he says, “which is very unusual: I often score to scenes that are still green-screened, but we got to see The Pacific evolve to the point of writing to scenes with completed visual effects. I’m sure there will be some visual or aural surprises in the final version when it airs, but so far it exceeds my expectations on every level.”

Blake Neely’s web site, which includes lots of his music to listen to, is found at BlakeNeely.com. You can also check out the web sites of his co-composers at Hans-Zimmer.com and GeoffZanelli.com. The fruits of their labours on The Pacific is released as a soundtrack album today, March 9, on Rhino Records.

The first episode of The Pacific airs this Sunday night on HBO in the US: one of the trailers is embedded below.

Comments

  1. PeterRoos, San Francisco

    Excellent blog Daniel – thanks for posting this. I am really looking forward to seeing it on HBO.

  2. PeterRoos, San Francisco

    It’s magnificent – just watched the pilot / first episode.

    Try to watch it if you can, wherever you may be around the world.

  3. Bryan Cockel

    I’ve spent some time on Guadalcanal and the Solomons (New Georgia, the Florida Islands, other places). Enough to say Hanks/Spielberg have done a good job of bringing to life the horror of the Battle Of The Tenaru, in which the 1st Marines slaughtered many hundreds of the elite Echiki battalion, who never lost a battle in Manchuria by using the tried and true tactic of a full-press night attack on fortified positions. When were there in ‘02, locals still dreaded big storms, because they always unveiled human bones on the N. side of the river the 1st Marines misidentified as the “Tenaru” (now called the “Alligator River”).

    The cool thing is I actually recognized my uncle, then Capt. Elmer Salzman, at least in spirit, who was awarded the Silver Star for his actions at that time, specifically, calling on his combat experience in the inter-war years (Honduras, Haiti – “Caribbean bandit campaigns”, in which he was awarded the Navy Cross), to rally and reorganize their defensive positions. It wasn’t Gen. Vandergrift’s idea, eventhough he got the Congressional Medal Of Honor and then kicked upstairs as Commandant of the Marine Corps. Honduras isn’t that different than Guadalcanal. Capt. Salzman, my uncle, uniquely recognized that, and it was he, Capt. Salzman who lobbied General Vandergrift to reinforce their positions where the Ichiki regiment attacked at night, and were subsequently slaughtered. My uncle said very, very little of this. What I mostly know is because I wrote the Records Dept. In St. Louis, and, after 6 months, and to my astonishment, produced a week by week account of Capt. Salzman’s (later to be Major General Salzaman) week by week account of his duty cycle from Guadalcanal all the way thru Okinawa. By the way, if you think he looked something like the “John Wayne” image…he was 5’ 5”, kind of stock/pudgy, prematurely balding…but he was A LEADER, not a Hollywood central casting type….. However, he was, according to his older sister, my grandmother, never the same after the war….

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