In this week’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” video blog, I reveal my typical routine scoring an episode of this series. If you’ve ever wondered what its like to be a professional composer, I think this video will answer all your questions:
SPOILERS AHEAD: In “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” Episode 3, called “The Asset,” Coulson and his team must rescue S.H.I.E.L.D. scientist Dr. Franklin Hall from the clutches of billionaire industrialist Ian Quinn. (Fans of the Avengers comic books may recognize Hall’s name, but I won’t spoil it for you if you don’t know who he is.) This episode develops the relationship between Skye and Ward and reveals the ‘defining moments’ in their lives. With the score, I had to constantly escalate the tension, while simultaneously tracking Skye’s emotional arc. Skye’s scenes required warmth, but also undertones of mystery and suspense, as we gradually suspect her true loyalty.
The best way to follow an emotional story thread with music is to use a recognizable theme. For the Skye scenes this episode, the Main Theme was obviously too heroic, and the Agents Theme I introduced last week feels too closely connected to the group as a whole. I realized quickly that I would need to introduce a theme specifically for Skye:
The Skye Theme is woven throughout the entire episode. It plays warmly behind the scenes where she is training with Ward, again as a slippery English horn solo while she sneaks through Quinn’s house, and again in a sinister variation for her scenes with Quinn, emphasizing her betrayal.
Perhaps my favorite moment of the Skye Theme this episode comes in the moments after Ward rescues her from Quinn’s goons. She runs to him, and the violas a French horns offer a sweeping statement of her theme, like a love theme from the soaring scores from bygone serials. Of course, this moment is fleeting and ultimately understated. Ward’s not exactly the romantic type and they just turn around and run. But, I can never resist getting a little romantic.
The most clear statement of Skye’s Theme is in the episode’s final scene, where she and Ward have returned to training. This rare glimpse into Skye’s backstory was the perfect chance to bond her with this musical theme. Though her thematic moments in this episode are brief, they are enough to get this melody buried in your brain. This will come in handy in future episodes when I bring the theme back and develop it.
After our emotional statement of the Skye Theme, Skye says that she’s made her decision to stay and it was time to go out on a big fanfare. The low strings kick into gear with the Main Ostinato:
As the camera pulls back to the final shot, the the French horns and violins burst in with the soaring Main Theme:
If this version of the theme feels different to you, then you’ve picked up on an important harmonic change. As the melody reaches it’s highest note, I unexpectedly shift the harmony to the relative major, and highlight this new idea with an uplifting counter-melody in the trombones. Finally the melody resolves on the major instead of the minor, giving the closing seconds a fitting combination of bombastic energy and emotional closure. It feels like the Main Theme, but somehow has a wholly unique emotional character. Not bad just for changing one chord! (You can hear this exact moment and see the orchestra session at the end of this week’s video blog.)
Another new theme in “The Asset” was for Ian Quinn. To help establish that his mansion is in Malta, I wrote a guitar riff played on a bouzouki, again by guitarist Ed Trybek, evocative of music from the region:
This tune is a little bouncy and energetic, so I simplified it for its orchestral counterparts to create the Quinn Theme:
I don’t use it a lot, but it counts when I do. When he catches Skye in the hallways and steps forward menacingly, the low strings and woodwinds sneak in on this theme and underscore how dangerous he is.
“The Asset” was brimming with opportunities for cool orchestral passages. In the opening scene, a semi-truck flies into the air only to be dropped back on the concrete. For this moment, I recreate the physical movement of the truck with HUGE clusters in the orchestra. The strings rip into their upper registers, then sustain a dissonant suspenseful cluster when the truck hangs momentarily.
Finally, the orchestra rips back down to their lowest registers, while the trombones gliss downward and the trumpets and french horns flutter. It was madness, in hindsight, borrowing heavily from the Carl Stalling school of animation scoring.
The musical standout this episode was definitely the score from the third, fourth and fifth acts. Once Skye begins to walk through the hallways of Quinn’s mansion, a stealthy synth bass groove sneaks in. This dubstep-inspired bass groove forms the foundation for what will become three consecutive acts of wall-to-wall orchestral action music. I had to hit every shift, every reveal, every betrayal and keep the intensity up as we intercut between Skye chatting with Quinn on a couch and Ward storming the beach with Coulson.
During all this, I had to shift for some comedy beats. I laughed out loud when Skye stumbles through the ‘little brother’ metaphor with Quinn. His reaction is priceless. Borrowing again from Stalling, I dropped the intense action ostinato for a moment and reduced the score to a hilarious solo bassoon, in its upper register. As far as orchestration goes, it’s an old school comedy trick. But it worked well.
Immediately, I had to shift the tension on Quinn back to menace. As he draws a gun on Skye, after realizing her true intentions, the violins sneak in with two lines of very high harmonics, glissing slowly between pitches. It’s super creepy, and an effect that you can only pull off effectively with a really large violin section. (Trust me, I’ve tried it with groups ranging from 4 to 40 people!). Here, it works beautifully.
String harmonics play an important role in several other moments in this episode. I use their glassy, alien textures to highlight moments where gravity is going crazy. The first time Coulson realizes he’s standing on the ceiling, I accompany the camera’s 180-degree rotation with a harmonic gliss in the strings, woodwind flutters, harp glisses and mark tree insanity. Later on, when Quinn glances down at the pencils on the floor beginning to levitate, the harmonics return, underlining the weirdness of the gravity waves going crazy.
With such a long action cue, at least 15 consecutive minutes worth, I usually sustain the intensity by modulating frequently. Changing keys allows the music to feel like its gone somewhere new. I take this philosophy to extremes in the climactic moments of “The Asset.” As Dr. Hall and Agent Coulson spar philosophically outside the accelerating Gravitonium gyroscope, I introduce a driving synth pulse beneath waves of emotional, epic string and brass writing. Every time the Gravitonium pulses and the gravity shifts in the room, I modulate to a new key — sometimes three or four times in as many seconds. Just as the actors on screen have to readjust their balance and get used to a new environment, so too must the audience constantly adjust to the new keys. It’s probably not something viewers notice intellectually, but the emotional effect is quite disorienting.
Speaking of emotion, the climax of the episode is one of my favorite moments in the series thus far. Coulson shoots the glass separating he and Dr. Hall from the device, and we watch Dr. Hall plummet to his tragic end. Here, cascading waves of strings fall atop one another while the brass blast out soaring chords. This is truly operatic scoring. I was terrified that the entire cue would be obliterated by the huge sounds of the machine and Hall’s screams. Instead, I was delighted that the producers, sound designers and mixers all decided to feature the music here. Those other elements are there, but tucked back in the mix, letting the music tell the story and bringing these three-acts of continuous action music to a (hopefully) satisfying conclusion.
In technical terms, I wrote my ass off for “The Asset.” The episode presented too many fantastic musical opportunities to resist, and I loved the chance to broaden the themes for one of our main characters. For next week’s episode, I pushed my thematic writing even further and wrote an action cue that may be even better than this one. Catch you guys next week!