Composer Steven Price on scoring the soundscape of 'Gravity' and the power of Atmos

Posted by · 1:58 pm · October 10th, 2013

In a film such as Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity,” which takes place in orbit and embraces the reality that “in space, no one can hear you scream” — or anything else, for that matter —  music was always going to have an expanded role in the experience. The director was very determined from the outset that, like so many other elements in the film, the score would need to serve the immersive ends he was aiming toward. It was always going to be sort of moving around the audience in the theater, making you feel as though you were part of the action taking place on screen.

That directive naturally ended up influencing the way composer Steven Price, who initially came onto the film just as a music editor, wrote the pieces that became the score, as well as how they were recorded and, eventually, how they were mixed (particularly via the immersive Dolby Atmos technology, which added a whole new level to the experience of the film).

The word “textural” was something that came in very early when it came to actually writing the music. Cuarón didn’t want it to ever feel like a conventional Hollywood movie score and he didn’t want it to feel beholden to action genre tropes. Like so many things in the development of the film, the score was an adventure, a chance to try new things and risk failing.

So a lot of the early conversation revolved just around sounds that Price and Cuarón liked, without the structure of considering tunes and melody and percussion. They talked about ways to make the soundtrack as intense as what was happening visually on the screen, and indeed, the idea of juggling two extremes was a concern from the beginning.

“The visuals are incredibly beautiful, but equally, it’s the most terrifying thing you’ve ever seen in lots of ways,” Price says. “So the music had to do both of those things and feel kind of very organic and very textural, but equally kind of help your stomach to drop when things were spinning around you.”

There was never a point in the process where there was a typical temp track — an amalgamation of other score cues to help dictate the aural tone of the film as post-production progressed. That tone was consistently directed by work-in-progress bits of Price’s work. And yet with all the unique elements at play in the score throughout, the music really goes for it in the end, embracing the emotional journey of the lead character and allowing that sort of overt release on the soundtrack.

“I think it was felt that Ryan [Bullock’s character] kind of merited it,” Price says. “It always felt like you had to go with the achievement and go with her strength and the fact that she achieved so much since the first reel, from being nervous and feeling sick just doing her job up in space, to all the things that she goes through. A lot of the film is about her strength, I think, and I certainly didn’t want to underplay that; it felt like you had to honor the achievement.”

There were a number of things discussed from the early stages that Cuarón didn’t want implemented in the score. For instance, “no percussion” was a directive, largely because, again, he didn’t want it to feel like a typical Hollywood action score. A lot of processing would happen to recorded elements as well, giving the tracks the electronic sheen they have now.

“I would do like a string octet,” Price says, “but then we would use them as an effect, almost in reverse, using the texture of the strings rather than using kind of traditional playing. I remember there was one session where it was a bigger orchestral session and one of the execs was there and they said a nice thing about how it was playing. And I kind of looked at a couple of people I was working with like, ‘Oh, God, I hope they still like it when we’ve trashed it!'”

That experimental spirit could even be traced to the handful of records Price and Cuarón listened to while thinking through the score, whether it was Canadian rock band Godspeed You! Black Emperor or composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Atmos, though, was the real launching off point for taking the score to another level. “There’s a lot of stuff recorded very separately so it could be placed in different speakers,” Price says. “And we were always kind of thinking where the camera was and where the character was. There are action scenes in the film where the notes will follow with the character sort of like within the theater, so you’ve got them moving on screen but the music will move one direction or another direction and they might meet or overlap and that sort of stuff.”

The entirety of the score was conceived to do that, to almost serve as effects. And a lot of options had to be left open in order to tweak the mix in the final development of the aural components of the film. They were still tweaking, in fact, just before the film’s Venice Film Festival world premiere in August.

It was a bit of a challenge, Price says, to get his head around this vision of sound and score on a feature film, even for someone with a background in music editing. He would become endlessly confused with where various elements would be incorporated. But the process was nevertheless immense fun. And creatively, it was quite invigorating. With Atmos, Price and other members of the team could go back to the 7.1 mix and extract a whole array of other elements in order to be more precise with their placement. It allowed for a whole other pass on the mix to make it all the more immersive.

“I hope Dolby Atmos catches on because that seems to be a good system,” Price says. “It means that all the speakers all around you are kind of full bandwidth, so you can really hear everything move and then get a sense of it really shifting…like when you have POV shots where you’re within the helmet and that sort of stuff. A lot of the things that you kind of get nearly there in 7.1, you can get exactly as you intended in Atmos.

“And I think wherever you sit in the theater, you’ll get a slightly different experience, as well, which is an interesting development. You’re actually embracing the fact that it’s an experience again, that it’s something you can only get in a big room with a lot of other people, which I think is great…You just kind of hope that the theater has got all the working speakers, you know?”

“Gravity” is now playing at a theater near you. See it Atmos and hear for yourself.

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