Danny Elfman Masterclass Review

Published by: Julia

Any music fan or musician will be enthralled by Danny Elfman’s Film Music Masterclass. Learning about his unusual, yet effective, creative process is fascinating.

He takes you on a journey through his wonderful, often zany musical world. Both film and music fans are sure to enjoy this window into the world of cinematic scores. Other creators will also benefit from learning how he captures the ideas he has, organizes them and creates his masterpieces.

Learn from the master of film music

For more than 30 years, Danny has been working in the film industry, creating extraordinary film scores. But, he took a circuitous route to reach the point where he became a composer.

As a young man, he traveled to Africa and Europe. Journeys that he used to expand his horizons. Learning to play an instrument was a part of his efforts to do that.

He chose to learn the violin and took one with him, on his travels. That is when his love affair with music began. Without planning to do so, Danny began to acquire the skills he needed to create his extraordinary music.

Danny has been nominated for four Oscars. Over the years, he has worked with accomplished directors, including Tim Burton, Peter Jackson, Ang Lee, Guillermo del Toro, and Brian De Plama.

Film music is as important as filmaking, no more no less.

Danny Elfman Teaches Music for Film Masterclass

This masterclass will delight film fans as well as musicians who want to learn how to compose. It is an engaging and interest masterclass, that has a lovely quirky feel to it. I found it to be very enjoyable, here is a taste of what you will learn.

Danny Elfman´s inspiration

Danny´s first video is all about the roots of his passion. Here he explains how he fell in love with horror movies and the composers and musicians who inspire him. If you have the time, listen to some of the tracks he recommends. Doing so will help you to better follow some of the things he goes through, later in his course.

Starting your score: The spotting session

Your first proper day on the job starts with you and the movie makers sitting down and watching the film right through. During this session, you get told when and where each piece of music needs to start.

If the director is happy to leave the score entirely up to you, all you need to do is to note the reel and time spots. However, other directors have a lot to say about what style of music they are expecting at each point in the film. For example, they may say to you this is a really sad scene and ask you to do something really specific to emphasis this.

Danny explains the mechanics of these spotting sessions. In particular, how to take notes, so that you can capture what they want and work effectively.

Storytelling through music

For film fans, this is a great section of the course. Here, Danny explains the art of using music to tell and reinforce the story. I enjoyed the fact that he did this using several old movie scores.

Watching Danny explain how Steiner had used his throbbing tones to bring to life the shambling Kong. As well as, make the jungle seem even more menacing and dangerous made me realize how little I actually knew about film scores.

How to create themes and melodies

Themes and melodies are essential tools for anyone who creates film music. Danny briefly explains the difference between the two, then goes on to explain some of the approaches you could take to blend them together.

In particular, he goes through the leitmotif approach in some details. Showing you how to create a unique piece of music for each character.

Finding a melody is hard. But, you always need to create that memorable hook. Danny has had a few lucky moments, for example, when he created the theme for The Simpson´s. The moment he looked at Matt´s early pencil sketch version of the show he knew instantly that he had to go retro. He was thinking The Flintstones, Hanna Barbara and the tune he needed came to him immediately.

Other times, you´ll take ages to come up with something. In those situations, the answer can come to you out of nowhere. For example, once, Danny was sitting at his daughter´s wedding when inspiration struck. On that occasion, he could not capture his idea on his phone. But, his advice is that you should stop when you have an idea, you should always stop immediately and get it down. If you don´t you will definitely lose it.

A melody can be as simple as a bass drum, it can be as complicated as a full-blown theme.

Danny Elfman Masterclass

Creating the music for A Simple Plan

In this lesson, you learn how to use microtunes to disrupt, to push the audience off-balance slightly. This is a great way to convey the fact that something has changed. Something important, but subtle, had just or is just about to, happen.

It’s interesting how a big part of the theme is designed to reflect and reinforce the environment in which the characters are living and moving around. As an example, using the banjo to reflect the backwoods is a clever play on cultural references. This example aptly demonstrates that your choice of an instrument can be more important than you realize.

How to breathe life into your score through instrumentation

This feeds nicely into the next part of the course. It is clear that Danny loves experimenting with new instruments. His time in Africa and the fact that, over the years, he immersed himself into an eclectic mix of music scenes really shines through in his work. You can hear the influence of High Life, Jazz, Scar and many other genres of music shining through.

But, for the early part of the scoring creation process, he always uses an instrument he is very familiar with. Doing this enables him to quickly breathe life into the music. The piano is a particularly good choice for this part of the process.

You usually end up building the melody and theme up in layers. But, at this stage, you are really experimenting.

Speaking of experimenting, I was surprised to see that Danny sometimes incorporates non-instrumental sounds into his compositions. Usually, in a percussion form.

The one thing I was really disappointed with was Danny´s treatment of synths. He does not really use them.

But, sometimes the budget is so small you will not have any choice but to get started by using synthesizers. So, it would have been nice if he had covered how to use them in a little more detail. I am sure that people who are just getting started would be able to benefit more from his masterclass if he had done so. That said, he does provide some resources in the workbook to help you to experiment more with digital samples and plug-ins.

Elfman Case Studies and real-time listening

If you are a film buff, rather than a musician, Elfman’s case studies are probably what are going to interest you the most. So, I suggest that you start by watching those first.

These are the films he covers in detail:

  • The Nightmare Before Christmas
  • Batman
  • Milk
  • The Unknown Known
  • A Simple Plan

The interesting thing about these case studies and listening sessions is the fact that Danny takes such a different approach to creating each of them. For example, for The Nightmare Before Christmas, in the beginning, there was no script. So, Tim Burton explained the story elements to him and they wrote most of the songs using just that and the sketches. Later, the rest of the score was closed in a more traditional way.

His approach to the Batman movie was interesting too. The collaborative approach taken must have been challenging, but it produced amazing results. I would say that the Batman case study was my favorite part of this masterclass.

Although the way he wrote the score for The Unknown Known, which was about Donald Rumsfield, was fascinating too. So, don´t skip over that video. His Darth Vader analogy was a great way of explaining why he took the approach he did.

Time management and workflow

One of the biggest challenges is having to get something creative done to a schedule. If the ideas don´t flow, it is all too easy to go over the deadline, which when it comes to films is simply not an option.

In this section, Danny explains how he manages his time. He shows his students a simple wall chart that he uses to map out what has to be done and when each element has to be completed by.

It is at this stage of his masterclass that Danny briefly walks you through some of the software he uses. He quickly goes through how he uses Digital Performer to keep track of different versions of each part of the score and make notes. Unsurprisingly, Danny has some help with his projects, so he also takes you through how he uses his small team to keep things moving at the right pace.

How to create a template for your film music

Regardless of what task you need to complete, using a template can really help. It means that once you start creating you can do so without having to stop and start. That way you can really get into the flow, which helps the ideas to come.

Before starting a score, Danny pulls together everything he thinks he will need for that project. He thinks about the tone of the piece and the kinds of sounds he might need.

For example, for one score he may need a lot of ethereal sounds. So, he will create 10 to 20 such sounds to provide him with a foundation to start from.

He may perhaps grab some piano harmonics too. He likens this part of the process to a painter pulling together all of the pigments they are likely to need to create a work of art. He never uses all of the sounds he creates or pulls together at the start of a project, but having them there is nonetheless an important part of the creative process.

Making sure that the instruments you are likely to want to use are ready and waiting is also important. They need to be tuned and somewhere you can just grab them when you need to work through an idea.

Overcoming your doubts and trusting your instincts

I´m constanty insecure about what I´m doing

Danny Elfman Teaches Film Music Masterclass

The fact that Danny has been creating film scores for over 3 decades, does not mean that he never struggles. It was refreshing to learn that he does. I think that the methods he shares that get him past these issues are sure to be useful for anyone.

How to adapt your approach when creating film music

Any creative process is, at least in part, evolutionary. You need to be able to adapt and go with the flow. When you are scoring a film you are working collaboratively with the moviemakers. So, things are bound to change as the project progresses.

It can be frustrating when someone changes their mind drastically about what they need. But, sometimes it is you that realizes that something is not working and that you need to change track.

This happened to Danny and Gus Van Sant while he was creating the music for Milk. In that case study, he explains how they managed to change direction and quickly fix what could have been a big issue.

Finding the editor’s rhythm and dealing with the edit

Frustratingly, the edit can turn something that is near perfect for the scene into a piece of music that no longer works. It only takes the last 15 seconds of a scene to end up on the cutting room floor for this to happen.

Sometimes you have no choice but to rework sections of the score. Danny reveals how he handles this situation and provides several examples of the way the music has been tailored to the needs of the scene.

In this section, he also covers how to sync the music to what you see on screen. Danny takes you, quickly, through three approaches you could take for achieving this.

The devil is in the detail

Modern soundtracks are very detailed. Sadly, when the film is dubbed, some of the detail that you weave into the score will be drowned out by sound effects. It is just the way it is. Sometimes sound effects are all that is needed to tell the story and draw the audience in. Danny tries to bear this in mind when composing. He explains how it affects his approach in the lesson.

There are moments where the music can do something that sound effects can never do. And there are moments that the sound effects can do something that the music can never do. Both have their place.

Danny Elfmann – Film Score Masterclass

Coping with failure

One of the things I liked the most about the many masterclasses I have taken is the fact that you always learn things that you can apply to all aspects of your life. To become as successful as the various actors, Michelin-star chefs, business titans, and musicians who teach these courses, you have to take a balanced approach to life.

They know this, so they always share some of the principles by which they live. Danny does this too.

In particular, he explains how to accept the fact that you will fail, at some stage. When that happens, understanding how to learn from the experience without letting it overwhelm and stop you in your tracks is vital. Danny shows his students how to keep everything in perspective.

Working with directors

Like any artist, who works collaboratively, Danny has had his fair share of ups and downs. It is very hard to avoid disagreements when you are working so closely with others, especially people who are experts in their own fields.

Danny explains some of the lessons he has learned, along the way. He also takes you through how to become a good listener, so you can understand what it is that the filmmakers need from you. Danny also goes through the sticky points in the film score creation process and explains the strategies he uses to navigate them.

How to avoid plagiarism

All musicians are influenced by others. Like all of us, they have their heroes. It is only natural for them to pay homage to the people they admire in their own work. This is great.

But, you do need to be careful not to step over the line and end up plagiarizing someone else´s work. Danny walks you through how to recognize the difference between inspiration, homage, and plagiarism. This is an important lesson because the legal ramifications of not getting the balance right can be serious.

Danny Elfman’s Film Music Masterclass workbook

Danny’s masterclass workbook is a particularly good one. Virtually everything that is in his videos is included. So, finding exactly what you want is easy. Far easier than it is for some of the other masterclasses I have taken.

I am more than halfway through the 70 odd courses the masterclass platform has to offer. Using my all-access pass, I have basically been able to take 47 classes for just $180.

This is amazing value for money, especially when you consider that if I had paid for each course individually, I would have spent $4,230. So, if you plan to take more than just Danny’s masterclass I would strongly suggest that you consider treating yourself to an all-access pass.

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