Jim Harrison is an award-winning music editor, whose credits comprise The Greatest Showman, The Jungle Book, Houdini, Ice Age: Collision Course, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Purple Rain and many more.
In this interview Jim talks to us about the music editing process between pop and classical music for The Greatest Showman, as well as the challenges he and his team faced to make the soundtrack fluid and cohesive. Furthermore, and in great detail, he shares with us his experience with both the business and the artistic sides of music editing.
Designing Sound: Let’s begin with your background. How did you get into music editing for films?
Jim Harrison: I was born in Los Angeles. I have an older brother, Ken — he was in a band called The Saturday Afternoon and they were actually quite popular in the valley. When I was probably nine years old, we moved down to San Diego and my brother remained in LA because he attended school and he also played the piano.
I loved San Diego, but when I turned 20 or 21 I decided it was time to start making some money, so I moved back to Los Angeles. Then, my brother introduced me to a music editing company called Lada Productions, ran by Dan Carlin, and they actually hired me as a driver because I had a pickup truck at the time. And in San Diego — I’m not a studio musician — I did play trumpet for about five years in school, and then as I got to high school and college I let that go and just went to the professional world. After starting up here as a driver and slowly working myself up to an apprentice level, the hardest thing was to get into the union, but thank God Lada Productions was able to get me into it. As time went by, I was trained to be an assistant music editor and I just slowly worked my way up through the ranks until where I am today.
As far as how I got into it, my brother remained in Los Angeles and we would come up and visit him often. He worked in the CBS music department at the time and he started out as a music copyist. Then, under the supervision of composers Bruce Broughton, Mort Stevens (who wrote the Hawaii Five-O original theme), and Jerry Immul — they took my brother under their wing, which ultimately lead him to orchestration work, and composing. Once he began writing episodes of Hawaii Five-O, we would come up from San Diego and observe his scoring sessions. This is how I was first introduced to the motion picture business.
In San Diego, I was actually working in machine shops, and the motion picture industry seemed a lot more exciting than accounting. Through connections of my brother’s, I was introduced to Dan Carlin at Lada Productions who ultimately ended up hiring me. When I first started it was Dan Carlin Senior and his son who ran the company, and then when Senior retired, Jeff Carson became co-owner with Dan Carlin Jr. To this day, I continue to work with Jeff Carson at Liquid Music.
DS: What was your first experience as a music editor like?
JH: It was exciting. The first film I worked on was horrendous, but shortly into my career I landed a movie called Purple Rain with Prince, and that was a fantastic experience. That was my first big movie — we didn’t know how big Purple Rain was because to be quite honest he wasn’t the best actor in the world. Although I would say that those production numbers to this day are still some of the best that had ever been filmed, and that was one of my first big movies that I really enjoyed working on. We worked hard seven days a week, dubbing throughout the day and then later at the evening and into the night we would be at a studio where we would work on the songs and the score. It was around the clock, seven days a week, but thank God I was much younger and I got through.
DS: Could you talk about the music editing process, as in how does it begin, and how does it unfold until it hits the final mix?
JH: The process actually occurs in different phases, and varies from one production to the other. The Greatest Showman is a good example of the entire process.
Normally, a music editor could start on production, like on The Greatest Showman music editor Jen Monnar went to New York and started on production. But, in general, not every show has visual performances and such. So, the music editor’s job would start most of the time with the temp dub, which is the process where they start sending you the first cuts of the film and you start placing temporary music for screenings only. When you’re doing a temp dub you’re pulling music from anywhere, because it doesn’t need to be licensed as you’re previewing the film — its a work in progress — you’re basically showing the film to audiences for their feedback.
What’s particularly important, for instance, is when you’re doing a comedy, the preview process helps in the timing of jokes. Sometimes you’ll have a big laugh and it may transition over to the next scene and you may lose one or two lines of dialogue. The filmmakers then know that they’ll have to open up the ending of that last big laugh so that you can hear the incoming dialogue of the next sequence.
During the previewing process, the temp music is constantly changing because they’re changing the picture. Often, a film may have reshoots etc., so you’re constantly changing the music by making it longer, shorter as it evolves and becomes its own. So that’s the temp score process, which a lot of the time we are involved in, but not always.
Following the temp dub process — or actually during this process, this would be the time the final music composer is brought onboard. Often, composers these days have their own music editor. For instance, we work a lot of John Debney at Liquid Music. When working on The Greatest Showman I was brought on mid preview cycle with composer John Debney and then I went through the final stages of post with him.
- Spotting Sessions
As the film continues to be temp’d, we then start working on the final score. This process generally starts with a spotting session, mostly between the director, the film editor, the composer and the music editor, but often we can have producers involved. In the case of Showman, because it was so song driven and we wanted to utilise those themes from the songs within the score, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul were also in some of the sessions. Once the spotting is over, we use a program called Cue Chronicle, developed by a gentleman named Vincent Cirilli, to generate a database.
Following the spotting sessions, I would then go through the picture and make detailed notes for the composer and assign a specific cue number to each musical sequence. Included would be a cue title specific to the sequence, and then I spot the IN point and the OUT point for the music and include any notes from the director as far as tone, etc. For instance, “This should be percussive and rhythmic, or perhaps a particular theme, or electric guitar here, or I don’t like electric guitars” — anything specific that the filmmaker feels that they’re wanting in the score. Also, from our music spotting notes, we also derive an exact number of minutes required to record. From here a recording budget and schedule is developed based around the final dubbing process.
In the case of The Greatest Showman, we needed to book band sessions at smaller studios, and then as we’d get close to the end, we needed to book Twentieth Century Fox’s scoring stage, so that we could get 80 musicians on the big stage there. That’s why the music spotting sessions are very important and I constantly maintain those notes every time we get a new cut of the picture, so we can track exactly everything that’s going on. For example, I can say, “Hey John, you wrote for this scene on October 6th, but on October 20th they have a new picture and you’ve got to do some revisions on that due to some major film changes.” So that’s how we track all of the individual pieces of music.
- Final Dubbing / Mixing
Once the spotting session and all of the recordings are finished, we do final mix downs of each cue into stems: strings, percussion, guitars, synth elements, rhythmic synth elements. We try to breakdown all of these elements so that when we go to the dubbing stage we have more control. For example, if we have a loud horn blaring over dialogue, we can then just nudge the horn down a few decibels, which will allow the dialogue to pop through without carving a giant hole for the score by lowering all the music. In the final dubbing process, the dialogue is the star of the show — if you can’t hear the dialogue, you’re in trouble.
In preparation for the dub, after final scoring, mixing down the score, we then cut and prepare our final sessions using Pro Tools. In addition, we do any final conforming; we also cut song masters and improve any edits from editorial if needed. In the case of The Greatest Showman, the files were so big that we had separate Pro Tools sessions because Jen Monnar was working night and day on songs and I was working night and day on the score. This also allowed us to go to various overdub sessions and such while the other person continues to work on their particular area.
We then attend the final dub with our completed Pro Tools sessions of the music and make any changes the filmmakers may have. A lot of the times, when you get to the final dub, you make final musical choices. “Maybe we don’t need music there” or “wouldn’t it be great if that cue perhaps went a little bit longer, like two more bars?” Also, if there’s something that the composer needs to add, I then interface with the composer and get any additional tracks as needed.
Once the film is completed, we create the final print master for the film, in addition to an M&E (music and effects) pass that is utilized in foreign territories so they can create various versions of the movie in different languages.
Lastly, as music editors, we create the final “Music Cue Sheet”. This detailed document contains all the detail for each individual piece of music within the film that lists the cue number, title, composer / writer, publishing information, usage (underscore or song etc.), and the duration for each cue. This information is then delivered to the music / legal department so that special payments can be disbursed through ASCAP, BMI, etc. This document also includes any licensed material, such as a previously recorded song, where payment was made for the right to use their recording.
DS: The music of The Greatest Showman gathers both classical and pop music. Could you comment on the complexity of editing both genres as a means of building a cohesive support to the narrative?
JH: This is exactly why Benj and Justin we’re involved in the spotting of underscore for the movie. It was important that the songs also be connected somehow to the emotional, lighter, and more dramatic moments of the story in order to maintain the fluidity between the score and the songs. In addition to incorporating themes into the score, director Michael Gracey also wanted each scene to have a tempo / feel of the songs both thematically and in orchestration. To aid in this task, composer Joe Trapanese was brought onboard to work with John Debney on the score for the film. During pre-production, Joe worked with Benj and Justin on orchestrations for a couple of songs, so he was the perfect fit.
Over the weeks to come, we would demo and cut, in addition to having various small recording sessions that would allow the score to evolve. We discovered over time that the percussive, rhythmic element of the score worked well on some occasions, but in other areas it was best to play the emotion of the scene, allowing the audience to follow the narrative of the story in between the powerful visual production numbers. Having peaks and valleys — dynamics within the score — always works well which leads to a more powerful experience when the action, or in our case, production numbers begin. Often, we recorded alternative versions of cues that were then accessed during the final dubbing process, once all the final dialog, sound effects, and backgrounds were available.
The final dubbing / mixing process began the beginning of November 2017. We had only 3 weeks to mix the film. During this time, Jen Monnar was continuing to update the final song mixes, in addition was music editor Peter Myles, who worked with editorial on the final lip-sync for the on-camera performances. On the score front, we continued to have orchestral sessions on the Twentieth Century Fox scoring stage, which conveniently was in the next building close to the dubbing stage. As a music editor, I attended both the final dub and additional recording sessions to ensure that all of the latest versions of music cues were being addressed, mixed down, and prepared for the dubbing stage.
In general, most final dubs can take approximately two weeks to six weeks depending on budget and the task on hand. In the case of The Greatest Showman, three weeks was short, but with the help of the amazing crew, we pulled together and helped create a film that we were all proud of.
DS: Could you comment on the term Temp Love? Does it get in the way of the creative flow of the composer with the director and the video editor?
JH: The temp love can either be a curse or very helpful. Often times the filmmakers are not musical and they don’t know what to say to the composer. Therefore, it’s helpful if they can talk about what they love about the temp, such as “I love what the temp is doing here on this little area.” and “I love the energy of this foot chase between Victor and Jim as they go through the streets and moving in and out of the building, how it’s shifting and changing.” — this can be very helpful information. Sometimes the composer will try to do something like the temp, but it isn’t exactly like what the temp did. So after you try to do multiple versions, what you end up doing is a sideways version of it, where it isn’t exactly like their temp, but it has the shape and feel of it.
For instance, I’m sure you’re familiar with Thomas Newman. He has a specific sound and a lot of the times his music will be temp’d into shows and people will fall in love with his sound. Therefore, you may hear scores from other composers, where once in a while you’ll have a “Thomas Newman” kind of sound, and that was probably because of temp love.
So it could be a curse, but it could also be a good thing at some point. It can get a little frustrating for a composer if they’re really are trying to do a score that’s different but he can’t get the film editors to let go of their temp score. Sometimes you win the battle, sometimes you don’t, just like anything in life. (Laughs)
DS: In the case of The Greatest Showman, John Debney did the score. That said, did the temp music get in the way of his creative flow?
JH: No, it didn’t. What happened in the case of Showman was that Benj Pasek and Justin Paul were the writers of the songs, and when you look at the songs, all of them are fantastic. People love every one of these songs — I have never gotten sick of hearing them. These guys are incredible, they wrote the music of La La Land, which was also fantastic. They are very talented and they brought some amazing songs. The songs were so powerful that the filmmakers wanted themes from the songs to be utilised in the score. And because they were so busy, they were flying back and forth between LA and New York — they’re New York based — as they were working with various producers for each of the songs.
Once the film was shot, the songs continued to be produced. They could still continue to build on it, because the tempo was there; the visual vocal was there, but the other elements such as synths, keyboards, guitars, can all be changed afterward. In addition, some of the songs were being edited for dramatic reasons. So all of that was going on in the background and that’s their expertise.
Film scoring on the other hand, is slightly different to song writing. You have to do a cinematic approach to it, which means that you wouldn’t necessarily play the melody of a song for a dramatic scene all the way through because you may get tired of it after a while. You need to have peaks and valleys within the score, then perhaps, at a specific and important point, you would bring in the theme, or just a phrase or two from one of the songs, which is very effective and very dramatic in the film scoring sense.
In this case, for instance, the song A Million Dreams, represents Barnum and Charity — their love affair, marriage and triumphs and also more tense times with their relationship. For that we ended up using the theme from A Million Dreams. As far as the oddities (the cast members of Barnum’s Circus), we used This is Me to represent the Oddities fight to be normal. This theme is very powerful anthem, kind of rising up and giving them strength. And then, obviously, Barnum was falling in love with Jenny Lind, the other love interest, and her song was Never Enough, and we were able to incorporate that theme in some of the scenes between her and Barnum.
That’s what the filmmakers wanted: a cohesive and fluid transition between songs and score that dramatically leads you through the story, but also reprises the themes from their wonderful songs.
DS: The director envisions how the story is going to be, and the film editor assembles it. Is this relationship similar to that of the composer and the music editor, in this case John Debney and yourself?
JH: Yes. Often we’ll meet with the director and John will start working by first sending demos to me. We’ll look at the notes made in our previous meeting with the director or any other filmmakers and sometimes we’ll call John back and suggest a minor change or alternate, but not always. In regards to the music, John is the director and I’m the editor. What’s more important is the relationship between the composer and the director. As they interface during the demo process, this helps in accomplishing everything that the director wants in a successful score.
DS: In both general and specific situations, is there any communication between the supervising sound editor and the music editor? How does it work?
JH: Yes. The Greatest Showman is also a good example of this. We had a lot of performance numbers and a lot of dancing and the director wanted to make things percussive. Jen Monnar would supply the sound department with Pro Tools sessions of the current work in progress so that they could utilise those songs as references for Foley, sound effects and sound design. Because if someone is stomping on a table or they pop a window, it’s all in tempo with the music. So, yes, we love collaborating with the sound department.
DS: Congratulations on winning the MPSE achievement for Outstanding Sound Editing for The Greatest Showman! What are the challenges of editing a musical as opposed to a regular movie?
JH: Thank you, that was a lot of fun actually.
Well, the challenges are when you have large production numbers. It’s a lot of in-studio work, continuous overdubs, you may be doing string overdubs or vocal overdubs, so a musical is very labour intensive as far as tracking all of the different elements and sessions for each number. In general we approach it like any other film. It’s good organisation; making sure that everything is in the right place, at the right time, and making sure that the proper sessions are prepared correctly for each studio session. For instance, we may be at 20th Century Fox doing the orchestra, but tomorrow morning we may be in a smaller studio doing a band session, so you have to make sure that everyone has the latest sessions ahead of time.
I would say that the difference between a musical and regular film, with just underscore for instance, is the amount of session maintenance in the tracking of sessions involved for each recording event, so it does amp up the workload. But, technically, the work is the same.
DS: You have also worked on other iconic films, such as The Jungle Book in 2016 and Ice Age: Collision Course, and in smaller films as well. Given that scope of experience, were there any challenges that you found on The Greatest Showman that you didn’t face before?
JH: The Greatest Showman was difficult in a way that we needed to find which elements worked best, dramatically, for each sequence. In general, you go through this process in every film. That’s part of the fun and the frustration, all at once. (Laughs)
DS: In regards to The Jungle Book, because it was a live-action remake of the classical animation, did you turn to temp tracks from the original film or did you go to a new direction?
JH: Jon Favreau, the director, wanted to do something a little more modern but we used a little bit of the original themes. The original Jungle Book was more of a classical score and Jon wanted the new one to have more contemporary elements to it. It was also a little bit darker than the original, which allowed us to take advantage by using percussion and driving orchestra, as well as sinister sounds.
DS: Looking back on your trajectory, which films have been your favourite ones so far?
JH: I really liked Purple Rain and I obviously loved Harry Potter, but you know what? Every film is so different; every film has its own journey. I could go down my list and remember the ones that I enjoyed the most or the least, but there’s none that stick out as my “favourites of all time”. I enjoyed the big orchestral ones, such as Ice Age: Collision Course, Tin Cup, The Mighty and My Dog Skip. In 2017 I did a TV series with composer Michael Gatt called Blood Drive, which was mostly driven by rhythm and synth and that was a blast. Houdini is one of my favourites that I worked with composer John Debney on.
DS: Finally, you’ve spoken about what you love about the film industry. What is it you love about being a music editor?
JH: What I love about being a music editor is that it’s not a 9 to 5 job that is tedious or perhaps you do the same thing every day with the same people. Being in this business I have met some of the most talented and amazing people in the world in regards to the music / film business. I have had the opportunity to meet some big icons, vastly talented people with the industry that I would never meet otherwise. That’s the part that I love the most.
In addition to that, whenever I go to a scoring stage, I always sit there and look at the amazing orchestra and think about how privileged I am to be a part of this process: to be able to experience a Harry Potter film being scored or an Ice Age or other iconic films that we get on once in a while. As a music editor, you’re not doing the same thing every day; you may be doing notes one day and conforming, you could be cutting another day and then that evening or another day you could be in a recording studio. I really love the variation of it and it’s great to meet the various people involved in every process.
I love the people and I love the process.
A big thank you to Jim Harrison for taking his time to share his experience with us. You can find more about his work at his IMDB page.