What’s the score? We look round AIR Studios, the home of film music


On Friday 24th February, Universal Pictures’ Safe House opened in cinemas across the UK, so this week felt like the perfect time for me to write a short piece about the amazing opportunity I had to witness the scoring of the film over the Christmas vac.

Safe House is an action-thriller by Daniel Espinosa, starring Ryan Reynolds as a CIA agent forced on the run with his charge, Denzel Washington, when their safe house is attacked. The soundtrack was composed by Ramin Djawadi (a protégé of Hans Zimmer) and is intense and emotive; enveloping the audience in the dramatic, tense atmosphere of the world of espionage.

The soundtrack was recorded at AIR Studios in central London, an old converted Church where box office hits like Inception and Pirates of the Caribbean have also been scored and artists ranging from Shirley Bassey to Jay-Z have recorded. The Safe House soundtrack was recorded in Lyndhurst Hall; a large, open room with a motorised acoustic canopy to help contain the sound. Microphones were placed around the room to capture every sound, including a set of microphones in water jugs to give a richer subwoofer effect.

Inside the isolation booths, the scenes the orchestra were recording played on monitors so Djawadi could see the music merged with the picture as he gave directions to the conductor who in turn interpreted these adjustments for the string orchestra. The musicians and composer were not a pre-existing orchestra; they were hand-picked and contracted in individually for this recording. I was invited into the booths, so I could watch both the film clips and the orchestra as they played through each piece, tweaking bits here and there to get the sound just right. The musicians’ talent was phenomenal – they understood the mood of each piece instantly – and it was hard to believe that the musicians and the composer were sight-reading the score.

The creation of the film score is perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of the film making process; the seemingly effortless way in which a soundtrack can breathe life into a film. The music for a feature film is never the most costly item on the film making budget and yet the soundtrack is one of the most critical aspects of a film – the influence music has on our movie experience is incalculable. From the slow, menacing motif for the shark in Jaws, to Dario Marianelli’s haunting ‘Elegy for Dunkirk’ that accompanies the captivating one-take shot of the beach in Atonement – music always amplifies the mood of a scene, but often it will actively shape its meaning. There is a glorious moment in The Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King, when the Rohirrim army charge the Orcs who are overrunning Gondor. Howard Shore’s soundtrack is inspiring; signifying the courage of the cavalry and the slow crescendo as they ride into battle leaves you tense with excitement. Imagine for a second, though, that Shore had understood the scene in a different way, perhaps deciding instead to emphasize the pity of war and the reality of death: replace the soundtrack with something like James Horner’s tense and tragic ‘Unable to Stay, Unwilling to Leave’ from Titanic and you will find the charge adopts a new emotional meaning.

I’ll wrap this up now, before I get carried away with re-scoring my favourite films. There’s a quote floating about that says ‘music speaks what cannot be expressed’ and this is certainly true of film soundtracks. It’s not simply that they intensify a feeling but that they actually inspire that feeling to begin with.

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