By Patrick Birk
In response to shortened attention spans and an increase in people watching content on smaller devices, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman started Quibi. This new streaming service aims to deliver Hollywood-quality productions, with a twist — the platform is solely focused on mobile viewership, with episodes of each big-budget series divided into “quick bites” that are generally 10 minutes long.
I recently spoke with Peter G. Adams, who composed the score for one of Quibi’s initial offerings, Survive. Directed by Mark Pellington, the show focuses on Jane (Sophie Turner), a suicidal young woman who finds herself in dire straits when her flight crashes in the wilderness. She and Paul (Corey Hawkins), the only other survivor, must try to escape a frozen mountaintop, as Jane continues to wrestle with her suicidal tendencies.
An ASCAP award-winning composer, Adams past projects include Den of Thieves, Game Night and Amazon’s Too Old to Die Young. He was kind enough to give us some insight into his process.
Was it difficult to pack the emotional depth of a drama into 10 minutes episodes? How did you maintain subtlety within the cues based on the time constraints of the episodes?
I don’t think so. I I mostly just looked at it like I was scoring a movie. Even though the episodes are short, I feel like once you watch it all together, the narrative is more along the lines of what most audiences will be used to in a film. I thought there was enough time within scenes. I didn’t feel like they compressed scenes in order to accommodate the format.
Did you write any of the pop-style songs featured in the show, or did you score around them?
I didn’t write the stuff with the voices, but a lot of the things around it are things that I created. Because we did use some licensed music in this show — some really beautiful pop tunes — I felt like I should probably not use that in the score. I wanted to have the two ideas stand apart from each other a little bit.
What instruments did you record?
We recorded a lot of strings. I recorded myself playing some strings here in my studio, along with things like guitars and bass. We also did some sessions with a small ensemble… just two players. Then we did a chamber ensemble of 25 string players. So mostly I recorded a lot of strings for the emotional punch.
Do you find that recording the real deal gets you further than using a library?
Libraries are great and everybody uses them, but absolutely. I mean there’s just no comparison to having life breathed into the music. We had some nice players on this, and it always makes a difference. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve needed to have players or there weren’t budgets to have players, and it’s never the same.
Do you work out of your home?
I have a little home studio that’s big enough to record in. That’s mostly the way I’ve done it in the last five years or so. I used to not work at home, but now I do, and there’s a lot of benefits right now with COVID, of course.
Were there any skills that you pulled out from the reserve for this project?
One of the great things about working on Survive was getting to write some really fun, emotional themes. I love writing music that can touch people emotionally. That’s something that I probably like doing more than anything else.
Of course, that’s a very subjective thing. Sometimes you think you got it and you don’t, so you have to really collaborate and make sure that people are feeling what you are. You need to make sure that you’re speaking a musical language that is universal enough that people can understand it. love doing that and I got to do it on Survive.
I’ve seen “composer cheat sheets” online with chord changes that are supposed to correspond to a certain emotional response. Do you have a framework like that or is it a clean slate every time?
It’s never a really a clean slate — I bring my own bag of tricks to the job and have my own path that I tread down; things that I’m used to, musically speaking. But every job is different, so I tailor my language to each one. Sometimes one thing will work and sometimes another thing will work. Cheat sheets can be a good thing; anything that can prompt you to find a creative path is great.
There are some universals — I tend to write shorter themes because if I can express a theme in eight bars. I like it better that way. If I try to write longer themes upfront, I’m always trying to pair them down throughout the show. If I write a shorter theme that’s succinct, I find that it fits in more places and more subtly.
Sometimes there’ll be references that filmmakers want me to listen to, or ideas they want to share. I take all the feedback and input and incorporate that into what I do. I did that with Survive. Mark Pellington was very involved in the scoring process; I would call it a collaboration. The producers were also involved creatively, especially Cary Granat.
When you’re using synth, do you design all your own patches? Do you find presets useful as a starting point or have you ever just used a preset in your project?
All the above. A lot of times, I’ll start with presets. If I don’t have the time, that’s where I start and then I always try to make it my own if I can. That’s not to say that some things haven’t just gotten in there that are very “preset-y,” but I do my best to customize things.
I really like that process of sound design and creating synth patches, or processing sounds or recording sounds and then mixing those sounds together. I do that almost as a pre-production routine a lot of times. I start to create a sound world, and I really like doing that, so I try to get the time to do it on every project if I can, and always make it custom.
What kind of sound palette did you begin assembling when you started working on Survive?
I started writing demos a couple of weeks before I had picture. I read the script, and the creative process arose from conversations with Mark Pellington, and we would exchange music we liked.
Mark had some of my previous scores and would point out particular pieces he thought could really work. From those early conversations, I started to write demos and create a sonic world for Survive. I talked about instruments that he liked, and I would couple those instruments with an ambient sound palette with me overdubbing myself on guitar or on strings, or creating feedback, or me taking a synth, stretching it out and ramping it.
I tried to do whatever I could to create this ambient world. The world of Survive is less synth-oriented, so we don’t hear a lot of overt synth sounds in the show. We mostly hear real instruments, whether they be bowed percussion instruments or strings or whatever. Survive is more of a handmade feel. I like to doing that a lot; I just try to record myself and overdub myself and create an atmosphere that way.
I noticed some changes in instrumentation throughout. For example, it sounded like a ghostly flute comes into play around the time when Jane and Paul are leaving the plane together.
That’s actually a violin, but it’s played in a way where it sounds flute-like; I like doing this. We were talking about samples before, and there are some things that you just can’t get from samples. One of them is something like trying to make a string instrument sound like a flute or something like that.
For the vast emptiness of Survive — the mountain — I played strings to create something with a handmade feel. I wanted it to feel weird and lonely and personal and also just a little off. Sort of both natural and unfamiliar. This allows the audience to feel unsettled and uncomfortable, just as the characters are in that setting.
Did you coordinate with the post sound department? There’s a moment in Episode One where Jane’s pocket watch is ticking and it intersects rhythmically with the score.
The sound designers did their own pocket watch and I did a watch as well. That’s definitely one of Mark Pellington’s hallmarks: having sound design that might be score and score that might be sound design. I sampled in some stopwatches and timed them up to be in rhythm with the score and then brought them in. I also did some processing on them. So it’s not just one stopwatch, it’s a bunch of different ones that have different processing on them, and then I faded them in and out and brought them in when they would request them.
There are some huge sound design moments in the show, like the plane crash and the avalanche. How do you judge where to focus the score and where sound design will take prominence?
It’s different for every project. For the plane crash, I did try to go pretty big, but you also know that you’re going to be sort of fighting with sound design. So I tried to do things that would not ever sound like what you’re actually seeing on screen. At the same time, I put in some things like rises in the plane crash section, where there’s also the sound of the jet engines happening, Those are also speeding up. So once again, it’s like, “Is this score or is this sound design?”
In the case of the avalanche, there’s a lot of score in there, but I don’t think it’s too big in the mix. Mostly because there’s all this production sound and sound design going on in those sections.
Let’s talk about your path. How did you get into scoring?
I’ve been involved with music since I was seven. I played a bunch of different instruments and in a lot of different kinds of ensembles. I started doing songwriting and playing in bands in my teens, and then that led to me getting a composition degree.
When I started a degree in music, I didn’t think about doing film. I had always liked film music, and it was always on my radar, but I’m not from California, so it seemed like something that would be hard to do and hard to get into. But I got a chance to intern with a composer in LA, and once I did that I realized that what I was doing back at home was so similar to what people were doing out here in LA. And it would be an easy jump for me.
What were the similarities that made getting into scoring such a seamless transition for you?
I was doing songwriting and playing in bands and I had a very avant garde classical music education. So all those things immediately came into play.
There were always sound design elements that I had to work with in scoring and that’s something that I had been doing in my records. There was the need to write nice melodies with nice chords that people might relate to. That’s something that I had been working with in pop music, so it translated pretty well.
Patrick Birk is a musician, sound engineer and post pro at Silver Sound, a boutique sound house based in New York City.