October 1, 2002

Interview with Blair Joscelyne
Composer of the soundtrack for Man Conquers Space

The fascinating background to the score of the alternative space history documentary.

In 1952 Colliers magazine published a famous series of articles on the future of space exploration. Authored by Wernher von Braun and colleagues and beautifully illustrated by Chesley Bonestell, the series made an enormous impact on the United States with its depiction of a very ambitious but scientifically plausible scenario for what many had previously considered just the fantasies of pulp science fiction.

However, the country did not take up von Braun's proposal for a step-by-step development of space: first a space station, followed by a Moonbase and from there on to Mars and beyond. Instead it required the shock of Sputnik to motivate the US to create a space program and then, instead of the incremental approach, it went straight to the Moon. Apollo succeeded magnificently but when the program was canceled there was no space infrastructure in place to do the really exciting work of creating a living community in space.

Saturn Shuttle
Surfaces Rendered and Man Conquers Space
"Saturn Shuttle on the launchpad
at Cape Canaveral"

The film Man Conquers Space, now in advanced production, offers an alternative history of space exploration in which the country wholeheartedly took up von Braun's proposals. In 1960's documentary style, the film celebrates the success of the first mission to Mars in 1968 with a look back at the accomplishments of the space program including the first landing on the Moon in 1963. David Sander and his company Surfaces Rendered use advance computer graphics techniques to depict this alternate retro-universe with stunning realism.

The soundtrack received the same care and sophisticated development as the visuals. Composer Blair Joscelyne describes below the background of the film score, including how he got involved in the project, his approach to the music, the performance with a full orchestra, and the audio processing that gives the soundtrack a 1960's feel to it. Plus, he also provides interesting general information on the technical and creative aspects of making a soundtrack.

This interview with Mr. Joscelyne was carried out via emails to and from his home in Australia.

Soundtrack Samples

'Dawn', 'Landed', 'The Future'
at Blair Joscelyne - mp3.com.au

"The three sections of this track each represent a scene in the film, being the opening scene as the space craft are revealed against the sunrise ('Dawn') the landing on the moon ('Landed') and the final triumphant look into the future, aptly titled 'The future'."

"The music was hand written and performed by students from the University of Western Sydney and the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. It was composed by Blair Joscelyne and recorded, produced and mixed also by Blair Joscelyne at Studio3MP in Sydney, Australia in February/March 2002."

These are "three short pieces out of about 12 that are used for the 1960's footage."

HS: How did you get involved in the MCS project?

I originally met the director of Man Conquers Space, David Sander, at a pre-production meeting for a sci-fi film titled 'Retribution'- Working Title. (The name was later changed to Equinox346 - I think...) I had won the job of scoring the film by a chance meeting. I was driving a friend of mine to an audition that was being held at the directors' house for extra parts in Retribution.

When I found out about the film (that it was sci-fi and was yet to have a composer), I gave the director a copy of my CD show reel. I got a call the next day with an excited director asking me if I could do the score. About a week later a script about 10cm thick arrived at my house.

A pre-production meeting was called and this particular day we were all meeting at David Sanders house, the man who would be responsible for all of the modeling of spacecraft and relevant space paraphernalia needed for an alien VS human film.

This film had come about via the success of an earlier film called 'The Dark Redemption' which was a spin off of the Star Wars films and was meant to fit in somewhere between Return of the Jedi and The Empire Strikes Back, I think. Some of the same people involved in that film were now pitching for funds to get 'Retribution' off the ground.

David had done all of the preliminary work, and we laid in some of my music over a rough title sequence and the synthesis of the two really locked in and was very effective. David had mentioned that he was working on another solo project and that he would like me to do the score (Man Conquers Space).

We agreed that we would discuss his side-project 'MCS', as it became abbreviated, while we were meeting up for 'Retribution' meetings in the future. As the film 'Retribution' never took off Mr. Sander and myself fell out of contact for a period of time as we were both busy with other projects.

About two years later, my mobile phone rang with an excited David Sander saying that he was well underway with the film and still wanted me to do the music for him. I was very excited and I was working at a television production studio at the time running the recording studio.

So I got David to come in and meet the owner who of course offered David a job straight away after seeing his work, so we actually worked on a number of smaller projects such as TV commercials and corporate presentations together before commencing MCS. While we were at the studio we also cut the teaser, which I scored and was then posted on the web, about 18 months ago now to try and get some interest up for the film.

HS: What is your musical background and what other soundtracks have you worked on?

I started playing music from a very young age on my grandfathers' organ, which resided in our living room in our farmhouse in country Australia. I remember clearly thinking when I was about 4 years old that if I played 'Mary Had A Little Lamb' backwards it was much more interesting than the original.

My family later moved to Sydney as my father was the CEO of a radio station there so I was always around technology and studios from a very young age. Traditional piano lessons started when I was eight and this continued through until once again I wasn't always content with the notes on the page and eager to make my own variations I started composing 'officially' when I was 15.

I later went on to do my Bachelor of Music with a double major in composition and music-technology and then went on to do an honours degree focusing on music for interactive media.

Blair Joscelyne
Surfaces Rendered and Man Conquers Space
Blair Joscelyne in his studio.

During this time I started getting experimental with sounds and made instruments such as an amplified shoe and a mercury-switched mobile phone that provided different tones depending on how you manipulated the box that housed the electrical mess.

My major work was a 3D animated system where the 'user' could journey into an artificial solar system and interact with the music via manipulating the mouse on certain planets and stars. This project was later noticed by a large museum in Sydney and I now have two musical interactive systems on permanent exhibition in Sydney.

I currently own my own studio in Sydney city and have a permanent contract with a production company where I work as a full time composer scoring films, documentary, television commercials and interactive media. [So] I have done numerous scores before, but none that have been concerned with such an interesting, period based scenario. I have worked on a large number of productions ranging from work on TV and film, to commercial CD's of various styles and corporate work also, such as product reveals and interactives etc. One such job was the launching of a new BMW product.

I had to compose 4 minutes of music that 'would make people feel like they were entering space as they entered the showroom'. (Well that's what the brief said) Another piece of music for a large US pharmaceutical company had to be a space inspired electronic piece (completely synthesised) and was synched up to robotics and pyrotechnics at the Olympic sports stadium to launch a new range of medicines into Australia.

HS: Do you have a particular interest in space travel, astronomy, or sci-fi?

I have a deep interest in the space/time relationship and also time travel and I think because of this Sci-fi has always been a huge fascination for me. From 50's schlock films (UFO's and aliens with bad make-up) all the way through to contemporary documentaries I've got a broad appreciation for all things space-related. I remember as a child one of the first film scores that really impacted me was 'The Last Star Fighter' composed in the early 1980's, which has just the most amazing music.

And such a great story about a boy in a trailer park who gets the high score on a video game located in his trailer park, without actually knowing that the game is a test - a gateway into a war in another solar system. I recommend to anyone to check out the DVD of this film and have a look at 'The Making Of'- Amazing. I hold a large interest in space/time literature, such as the work of Steven Hawking and Darryl Reaney.

HS: How did you go about scoring a film that was only partially developed?

David and I had a firm understanding that what we were trying to create was a film that replicated the space documentaries of the 1960's. With this as a backdrop it provided us the order of instrumentation that was used in those older documentaries. We watched many films from early space documentaries, all the way through to Apollo13, just writing notes and discussing what we going to do.

For us to replicate the sound of the older films I worked out the colours that were available for my sonic palette- Strings, brass, some wind and percussion were the main features of the early 1950's/1960's space documentaries. There was rarely any synthesizer elements in the film scores that we were trying to re-create.

David went through music that he had extracted from these older films and he laid them in under a rough edit of MCS and gave me a copy on VHS so I could get the 'feel' of what he was trying to achieve. Often as a composer it is not always about how good you are as a musician, but how good you are as a translator of ideas between a visually orientated person (such as the director) and the musicians who will eventually perform the score.

After giving me a copy on VHS David also burnt me a CD and then told me I had 4 weeks to complete the score as the film was due for a preliminary screening in the US. While he wanted me to use the temporary tracks from the film, he was also very clear that he wanted "...a Blair Joscelyne score..." and not just a monkey copy of what he had given me as a rough idea.

We also made the important decision that I would compose the music independently from the picture. We did this for two main reasons- One was that the final cut was not finished and was still in a process where a lot of scenes had a high probability of being changed or re-edited. This meant that I could not get a picture lock-off to compose to.

Number two, was that research showed that often music for the early space documentaries seemed to be 'sourced' from elsewhere rather than being composed to screen specifically and this showed up in multiple films. Evidence of this included music fading up and down in places that didn't make sense musically (such as halfway through a phrase). Some of the music seemed to be cut in strange places to fit with certain scenes. This led us to steer towards the belief that the music may well have been pre-existing and just 'slotted' in where needed in the film.

For this reason we decided to adopt a similar process. David gave me a shot list, (typed text of the sequence of shots and edits for the whole film with approximate timings) and I would compose based on the information I had on paper. For example the shot list for the opening of the film that I used to compose the piece of music 'Dawn', appeared like this:

dawn at cape
est VAB
aquatic birds
nature reserve shots
crowd at dawn waiting for shuttle (x n)
shuttle approach from T-38
crowd watching shuttle (x n)
ground view of shuttle approaching runway
crowd watching shuttle
side-on of shuttle touching down view from end of runway of shuttle on runway
crowd applauding
shuttle slowing to stop

Based on this information I could work out how the music should interact with the images for example whether the music should support, or contradict the images. The music from this era was very 'What-you-see-is-what-you-get' (or 'What-you-see-is-what-you-HEAR' in this case). This basically means that I would try and mimic the scenes musically. I also had the VHS copy with the temporary tracks on it to use as a rough reference.

I wanted the music to 'stand on it's own two feet' rather than just be a supporting role for the picture. For this reason it was good for me to work on the score aurally rather than focusing on the pictures all of the time. Often sound and music can be neglected when composed to picture, and when heard independently from the pictures it can appear quite uni-dimensional. As there would be a soundtrack only CD available with the Collectors Edition DVD, we needed the MCS score to exist in its own right as well as part of the film.

HS: When you began did you decide on a particular musical theme or approach before seeing any clips from the movie? Or did you watch the visuals and get inspiration from them as the project went along?

David was really great about this score. I have certainly worked with a lot of people who don't quite have the vision and musical understanding that David displayed throughout the process. He made suggestions rather than demands, once again we would discuss the reasons why, and how the changes would be made and come to an agreement on what to do.

One such example of this is the musical cue when the men first arrive in space. I wrote a string piece which modulated to a completely unrelated key every four beats which gave it a very unpredictable and eerie value designed to represent the feelings of the men hurtling themselves into the unknown. It is quite a slow piece, and while David enjoyed the cue, he noted that there would be a sense of achievement and excitement as the men reached into space. The cue was slightly altered to include a fanfare style trumpet solo at the beginning of the cue to give that sense of bravado, which then leads into the original string piece.

The score was hand written on paper and then performed by an orchestra that I put together with students from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and the School of Contemporary Arts at the University of Western Sydney, which is where I did my BMusic and my BMusc(Hons.). The score was tracked and mixed at my studio (called Studio3MP).

One of the tricks with this score was to make it sound like it was produced in the 1950's so we had to replicate this. This is where Dominic Hilbrink came into the picture- a sonic astronaut in his own right. He and I have been working together since we were 16 at high school and he now operates an audio mastering facility, also based in Sydney.

A spectrum analyzer was used to examine the frequency content of the original recordings taken from the 1950's. The computer calculated, based on a sample of the music, which audio frequencies were accentuated or attenuated on the original recordings taken from 1950s films, and then an acoustic model was made with his data.

This model was then used to process the finished mixes of the full resolution music files from my studio to turn them into something much grungier and more characteristic of audio production in the 1950's/60's. Crackles and pops were added and a slight variation in speed to emulate the music coming off vinyl. These were saved as data files suitable for David to take into the Avid suite where the music was married with the visuals.

HS: As I understand it, David is doing a major revision of the movie. It appears, though, the music is essentially finished. Will you expand or modify it in any way?

The music that has been completed so far is for a part of the film that will not change. The new scenes to be completed are all shot in contemporary time (i.e. now) and information in these new sections will refer (like a flashback) to events that occurred in the 1960's. All of the music for the 1960's section, which is the orchestral movements, is completed. What I have to do now is write the music for the new scenes which will be mainly electronic documentary style, similar to the sound that you may hear on current space orientated film productions.

HS: Is the marrying of the score to visuals always purely the director's domain or do some directors work side-by-side with the composer?

There are a couple of ways that the music can be put together with the visuals. It can happen completely in the edit suite with the absence of the composer, in which case the producer, director and editor almost become 'pseudo-composers' as they decide what should go where. With my ProTools suite, I have full picture sync so the director can come to my studio and hear the music that I have done while watching the images in a separate window.

I can score a whole film this way and then export all of the music/audio as a finished mix with a 'bleep-bleep-blip' sound at the start of the music which will sync up with the final '3-2-1' countdown on the finished edit. (So when the music is brought into the edit suite, they will line up the beeps at the start of the audio track with the numbers on the screen that count down before the film starts). In this way the music that ends up with the pictures will be exactly as the composer, with the input of the director, intended it.

There is usually a combination of different techniques that are used and it really does change for every project so you really need to be up to speed not only with technology, but also with how the rest of the production team likes to work. Flexibility is the name of the game.

Often once the director is happy with the final cut and sound mix, it's usually too late for the composer to decide that they don't like a particular musical cue or it's placement. It's really a matter of doing the best job you can from the start and then staying in communication with the director, editor and sound designer throughout the process.

It is very important for the composer and sound designers to discuss their ideas. For example, the sound designer may decide to have only sound effects for a scene where, for example, a rocket is taking off. These sounds could be very loud with a lot of sub-bass content and full frequency range.

If the person mixing the film decides to mix these SFX very loud this may not leave enough room for a full orchestra, especially if the composer wanted to write for the lower end of the orchestra where there is also a lot of low frequency instruments such as timpani, doublebass or orchestral bass drums.

Often with mixing the audio, certain frequency ranges will be slightly 'scooped' out with equalisation to allow the 'space' for other sounds. Like with pop music for example, guitar and voice share a similar frequency range so a common idea is to reduce, for example 4kHz in the guitar and slightly boost this same frequency in the vocal.

This way every sound gets it's own little space in the frequency spectrum. You can imagine that things get very complicated when you have music tracks, soundFX, atmospheres, location sound and also voice over, as well as a myriad of other possibilities.

HS: What do you like and dislike about soundtracks for science fiction films and space documentaries? For example, do you consciously avoid Gustov Holst and John Williams, whose sounds are so common in such works, or can you embrace them as inspirations while finding your own voice?

When it comes down to working doing music for film, being a composer is like being an actor- you have your own style, but you are also under the direction of someone else who may require you to do things that are beyond what you may normally do as a composer and this may lead some people to feel uncomfortable.

It is this uncomfort that leads us out of our safe world of tone colours and tried and trusted progressions into the amazing world of music without the boundaries of our musical comfort zone. I think the boundaries are always going to be pushed, just like the space that many are inspired to pay tribute to, via music.

I feel that there is something in all people's music for me to learn from. In fact I often learn the most at the high school where I teach. The main thing that I have found exciting is the blur of distinction between music and sound design and this is most apparent in what is commonly known as 'sci-fi films'. Noisy music, musical noise- I find it all very exciting. I'm very interested in noise and waveforms in general and am currently working with a fellow composer and a group of scientists mapping electromagnetic waves reflecting off the earth and capturing them from high in the atmosphere with special instruments.

The data is then being converted into music to determine what the earth 'sounds like'. I guess you could say I'm a sound addict, always tapping this, or talking into that to see what sounds the world around me is capable of making. I once recorded sounds of the drills, grinders, hammers (and a whole host of other 'instruments') and re-sequenced/re-contexualised them with a sampler into a musically coherent piece of music. I really enjoy the 'music' of every day life - I sometimes feel that the city is a living breathing orchestra of its own playing a never ending symphony that ends who knows where.

As far as other composers go I don't try and avoid particular styles or composers as I really feel that all music has its place, and all music has something that can help one understand their own abilities. The really exciting thing about space music is that it is such a wondrous world and therefore is still open for musical suggestion. We may be able to have a firm grasp of what water music sounds like as we all have contact with water everyday, but writing about something so distant, is an exciting scope to be working in.

Because there is no sound in space due to the lack of a medium to transfer vibrations, then there are no sound values, or sounds that we can try and mimic with the orchestra or synthesiser. This means that it is open for composers to make their own interpretation of what space sounds, and feels like.

HS: Thank you, Blair.

Blair Joscelyene welcomes further questions and comments on the MCS score at studio3mp@hotmail.com.

On the Moon
Surfaces Rendered and Man Conquers Space
A utility tractor explores the Copernicus crater on the moon.

An interview with Man Conquers Space creator David Sander
will be forthcoming in the near future.