This case study will explore the life and works of one of the most prominent and inventive film and music composers of modern times, Hans Zimmer. His extraordinary ability to span an extensively wide range of genres and formats with extreme competence is extremely influential and inspiring. Zimmer is a pioneer in his field, with his use of both electronic and orchestral elements within film scores.
Zimmers success in creating the scores for some of the most celebrated films, and his ability to encapsulate in the music the overriding themes, and personalities of the characters in modern day cinema is what makes him so special.
I have chosen to write on this subject as it is completely relevant to my interest in the field. This case study includes a discussion of the early life of Hans Zimmer, his entrance into the world of Hollywood composition, his influences and growth as a composer and leads to a more in-depth discussion of the work on his most current films, as well as a brief look at the studio and equipment he uses.
Born in Frankfurt, Germany on September 12th 1957 Hans Florian Zimmer is acknowledged as one of the most pioneering, innovative, successful, influential and sought after composers in Hollywood today (IMDB, no date). His interest in music began at a very early age and he began playing the piano at the age of three, although he had little or no formal music education or training throughout his early life (Gillespie, 2001).
Despite his lack of training, Zimmer knew he wanted to be a composer by the age of six and this coincided with an important event in the young Zimmer’s life; the death of his father.
He is quoted as saying in an interview with CNN Worldbeat; “My dad died when I was six, that’s when I decided I was going to become really serious about music, because it was my refuge” (CNN Worldbeat cited by IMDB, no date). During his early teens his family moved all over Europe before settling in London when Zimmer was 14 years old.
Throughout his childhood his passion for music meant he neglected his schoolwork and as a result was expelled from several different schools (Shelton, no date). After finally finishing school he began his professional music career by composing advertising jingles for Air Edel associates and playing in rock bands (Ankeny, no date). It was during this period that Zimmer found success as a member of The Buggles, an English new wave synthpop group, and had a hit single with ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’.
It is said that this worldwide hit helped ‘usher in a new era of global entertainment as the first music video to be shown on MTV’ (IMDB, no date). His talent on the keyboard and synthesisers would continue to be significant throughout his career although this is perhaps the first event that might have suggested at the huge amount of success and appreciation he would go on to enjoy as a composer. Zimmer is known to have favoured the Moog synthesiser when performing and creating music for these groups, a preference that has endured the span of his career.
It was also during this period that we see Zimmer first combining the use of computers with live music on stage with other successful groups (Shelton, no date). This combination has been a constant throughout Zimmer’s professional career and his talent in merging the two elements is part of what has earned him the success and appreciation he currently enjoys. The diversity of his talent is also seen in his ability to span genres such as new wave UK punk, as well as Spanish pop music.
However, Zimmer would not remain a part of the pop scene for long. He felt inhibited by having to write in just one style of music and felt his creativity was restrained. It was at this time that he first went to work with Stanley Myers who began to teach him about scoring films (Shelton, no date). This partnership would prove to be a collaboration of great orchestral elements combined with the most up to date electronic instrumentation available (Abodos, no date). Zimmers technological fascination in these early years has proved influential in his later and most successful works.
Perhaps it is this preoccupation with technology that has kept him at the forefront of composition. It could also be said that the use of both technological and traditional orchestral elements has ensured his popularity with all generations of audiences. It was with Myers that Zimmer co-founded the London based Lillie Yard recording studio (Wikipedia, no date). A demonstration of the combining of the elements mentioned above is showcased in their early works, an example of which is seen in the film ‘Moonlighting’ (1982).
The fusion of moody undertones performed with synthesisers and clean orchestral pianos combine to create a dark, unnerving, suspenseful atmosphere in keeping with the films subject and the emotions portrayed by the characters. His talent for creating music spanning the genres of different films is also seen in this early collaboration with Myers. Further examples of this are his compositions for films such as ‘Success is the Best Revenge’ (1984) which is a drama and the films ‘Insignificance’ (1985) and the acclaimed ‘My Beautiful Launderette’ (1985) which have comedic elements and demand that a completely different atmosphere is created.
For example, ‘My Beautiful Launderette’ features a much more upbeat electronic production with less orchestral elements as the subject matter of the film requires. From 1982 – 1987 Zimmer worked collaboratively on productions. It was not until the film ‘Terminal Exposure’ (1987) that Zimmer would produce his first solo-score (Wikipedia, no date), based heavily on electronic production encapsulating the 80’s pop culture era. His next collaboration with David Byrne and Ryuichi Sakamoto would lead to his first taste of Academy Award success – winning the Oscar for Best Original Score with the picture ‘The Last Emperor’ (1987).
The theme tune of which combines influences from both traditional Western and Eastern cultures, again allowing him to experience new found inspiration for his future creations. At this time he also created one of his most durable works for the UK television game show ‘Going for Gold’, about which he was quoted in an interview with the BBC as saying ‘[it] was a lot of fun. It’s the sort of stuff you do when you don’t have a career yet’ (BBC, 2008). This demonstrated his levelheadedness despite his new found success.
This is also another example of how Zimmer was able to span the genres of music composition whilst enjoying his work, which arguably has been crucial to his success. The next film score composed by Zimmer was the small budget movie ‘A World Apart’ (1988) about apartheid South Africa (Shelton, no date). This was his first excursion into composition for a movie set in Africa, perhaps leading to his continuing interest in this area (seen in his work on the later films ‘The Power of One’ (1992) and ‘The Lion King’ (1994)).
The soundtrack to ‘A World Apart’ featured traditional African instruments such as African drums and shakers giving the soundtrack an authentic feel. At the same time, these are combined with powerful synthetic strings which strike emotion and also bring in a Western element, which mirrors the films subject. 4 – Word Count: 3459 Student no. 15735 The success of this soundtrack led to Zimmer’s involvement in the critically acclaimed film ‘The Rain Man’ (1988) after the Hollywood director Barry Levinson’s wife introduced him to Zimmer’s work (Wikipedia, no date).
Zimmer would follow an individual process when composing; “It was a road movie, and road movies usually have jangly guitars or a bunch of strings. I kept thinking don’t be bigger than the characters. Try to keep it contained. The Raymond character doesn’t actually know where he is. He might as well be on Mars. So, why don’t we just invent our own world music, for a world that doesn’t really exist? ” (Zimmer cited by Young, 2008). This allowed for the score to contain escapist, other-worldly elements reflecting the character played by Dustin Hoffman. The Rain Man’ (1988) was Zimmer’s first venture into Hollywood. The soundtrack was created by the use of a lot of digital synthesis from the Fairlight CMI which was able to do sampling as well as additive synthesis where Zimmer was able to draw his own wave forms. In 1989 the score was nominated for an Academy Award and won Best Picture (Shelton, no date). His success would only continue. He was approached by the director of ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ (1989) the score of which consisted mainly of synthesisers and samplers.
The Roland MKS-20 synthesiser was used for piano sounds about which Zimmer jokingly quoted “It didn’t sound anything like a piano, but it behaved like a piano” (Zimmer cited by Wherry, 2002) showing the unpredictable nature of digital synthesis. Within the same month as ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ Zimmer also created the score for the film ‘Black Rain’ (1989). In involving himself with both these films which were of entirely different genres he felt that Hollywood would not be able to typecast him (Young, 2008).
This is further evidence of Hans Zimmer’s drive to think outside of the box, never wanting to be constrained or restricted to create just one type of music. His broad horizons were demonstrated further in 1992 with the film ‘The Power of One’ where Zimmer expressed his thirst for gaining authentic samples and knowledge of different musical cultures by travelling to Africa and sampling indigenous choirs and traditional drums. He gained a police-record whilst in the country for his work on the film for being labelled as subversive (Wikipedia, no date).
It was ‘Power of One’ that led to his first expedition into the world of animation with the 1994 film ‘The Lion King’ which followed the African theme. Zimmer originally created 48 different theme tunes for ‘The Lion King’ (1994) before he was happy with the outcome (Hans-Zimmer. com, no date, a), displaying his meticulous nature. It can be said that this contributed to the film’s success and it went on to win an Oscar for Best Original Score and Golden Globe awards (Ankeny, no date).
The African drum and choir samples used in ‘Circle of Life’ (the theme tune for the film) convey authenticity, whilst the use of a Western vocalist meant that a Western audience could still identify with the track. This maintained its resonance with the films main demographic, and the score was later adapted into a Broadway musical. After years of orchestral development Zimmer went back to his roots of synthesis with the Grammy Award winning film ‘Crimson Tide’ in 1995.
However, his success post-Lion King meant that the celebrity lifestyle was in danger of catching up with him and his first attempts at the composition for ‘Crimson Tide’ were described by its directors as ‘crap’ and ‘rubbish’ and Zimmer is quoted as saying that “reality came back really fast for him” (Zimmer cited by Young, 2008). In the following years Zimmer went on to work on the scores for many more successful films. It was in the 2000’s, however, with the postmodern preoccupation with film that he became involved with even higher budgeted Hollywood Blockbusters.
The following discussions of his works will describe 5 – Word Count: 3459 Student no. 15735 in depth how Zimmer’s creative processes lead to an extremely effective way of making sound for movies. The first of these discussions will focus on the film ‘Gladiator’ (2000). It is important to note Zimmer’s preoccupation with imagery and how the sound will translate on screen. It can be said that rather than dictate with music, Zimmer will take elements from the scenes, the characters and aesthetics of the film to set up the tone.
An example of this is seen in what is arguably the most iconic scene of the movie, set in a wheat field, which is extremely poetic. Zimmer argues that the music gives the artistic license to be so poetic (hans-zimmer. com, no date, a). He talks about the collaboration with the artist Lisa Gerrard on this scene, and describes this relationship as a meeting of minds, finding her to be a ‘true’ artist. This collaboration is clearly effective in evoking emotion as the guttural vocals by Gerrard coincide beautifully with the imagery.
Whilst watching the movie, it is found that the same piece of theme music is used in different places and in scenes that are worlds apart in terms of emotion. Zimmer’s ability to create polarity with one piece of music clearly displays his strategic ability to place the music effectively. For example, one piece of music is used in a scene where two people kiss as well as just before a battle scene. In the former, the effect is one of tenderness and romance, whilst in the latter tension and violence is alluded to.
A further example of this is how the use of music conveys the humble theme of the movie (the personal life of the character) while at the same time can be turned into thousands of different emotions. (hanszimmer. com, no date, a) Additionally, the tone of the music clearly changes as the film moves around geographically in order to represent the location. For example, the battle scene set in Germania consists of sustained, powerful strings and other skewed instruments which create a frantic and tense scene as well as authentically representing the location.
Furthermore, for the scenes set in Morocco the sound is generally more tribal, dirty and gritty giving the sound in the movie a bigger range and representing the change in locations effectively (hans-zimmer. com, no date, a). The composition throughout the entire movie is mainly orchestral and this has the effect of transporting the viewer to the appropriate period of time in history that the film represents. All of this amalgamates to an all-round epic and large scale experience which is at the heart of the Gladiator’s subject matter.
Another interesting aspect of Hans Zimmer’s work is to see how he portrayed one of the most iconic villains in modern day films in the Batman movie ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008). From the outset it seems that rather than create a happy, indulgent score, Zimmer wanted to create something hateful and provocative, something that the viewer could invest in. The Joker is the focal point of the film and represents a change from its predecessor, ‘Batman Begins’ (2005). In order to convey the significance of the character the sound that accompanies him on screen displays the anarchy, mayhem and insanity inherent to the Joker’s eccentric personality. youtube. com, no date). In an interview on the making of the film, Zimmer describes his attempts at depicting the tone of the character through the use of razor blades on barbed wire and incessant tapping on tables and floors, but he eventually came to the extremely successful technique of playing two notes on a cello at the same time, which juxtapose beautifully. This gives the effect of a taught string that gets tighter and tighter but never breaks, paralleling the Jokers spiralling descent into madness.
Also, the note of the cello slowly but consistently rises in order to draw the viewer in as the character also does on screen. This extraordinary quiet, high-pitched sound which creates rising tension appears to have a 6 – Word Count: 3459 Student no. 15735 slightly anxious and uneasy quality which syncs perfectly with the character and the viewer’s perception of him. To accompany the sound of the cello, and add to the ever-growing tension two heavily distorted guitars, almost unrecognisable as the original instrument, are played with pieces of metal, with the result of creating a completely anarchistic atmosphere.
These effects are heavily processed with the use of distortion to create a more surreal experience, detached from reality. These techniques fuse together to form a rich and complex tapestry of emotion, the audial and the visual aspects are combined in a way that portrays harmony as well as contrast. (youtube. com, no date). The final movie that will be discussed in depth is ‘Inception’ (2010). In the New York Times Zimmer describes his own understanding of the films subject as being about time and its slowing down, and speeding up.
The Edith Piaf track ‘Je ne regrette rien’ is used as part of the film to signify a kick to another reality. However, Zimmer has taken its use to a deeper level “all the music in the score is subdivisions and multiplications of the Edith Piaf track” (Zimmer cited by Itzkoff, 2010) representing his perception of the film as being based around time and its manipulation. In the same way Zimmer manipulates the Piaf track by using a single beat and slowing it down dramatically in order to create the trademark foghorn sound that the movie is well known for (Itzkoff, 2010).
The momentum of the film is defined by the structure of the score that accompanies it. The intensity of the film gradually snowballs, becoming more and more surreal and penetrating. At the same time the music increases in intensity and level of depth as the film explores the different levels of the human mind. In an interview with Hans Zimmer (hans-zimmer. com, no date) he describes making electronic sounds from scratch on the custom moog rack in his studio, as well as using software synths such as U-he Zebra.
In order to create the sounds he wanted he would play the synthetic sounds to his bespoke orchestra which consists of; six bass trombones, six tenor trombones, four tubas and six French horns in order for them to imitate the sounds. Combinations of the two create a euphoric and emotive atmosphere where deep and unsettling synthetic and orchestral sounds accompany and synchronise with a powerful and grand visual experience. Whilst Zimmer has admitted ‘The Dark Knight’ was heavy in its use of electronic sounds in ‘Inception’ this is pushed even further.
In order to gain a further insight into what Hans Zimmer is influenced by, it is important to consider the setting in which he creates his momentous scores. His home studio in Santa Monica, USA is extremely gothic in its decor and can be perceived as having an overwhelmingly dark and eerie vibe – somewhat consistent with a large amount of his compositions. This can be seen in the pictures below. (Pictures sourced from www. stuckincustoms. com) In picture one, we see that muted decadence is incorporated with the feeling of comfort. It is hard to imagine that influence would not be drawn from these surroundings. – Word Count: 3459 Student no. 15735 The second picture, displays the core of the hardware at Zimmers disposal.
Whilst it is hard to make out the various components, some are identifiable; his Quested monitors (5. 1 surround sound set up), his Doepfer LMK4+ midi-keyboard, and two analogue synthesisers which are mounted on the back wall – one of which is a custom Moog rack (as mentioned above) and a custom Roland rack, as well as two custom HP touch sensitive LCD screen monitors connected to his DAW (Steinberg Cubase as his main sequencer and Pro Tools for his final mix) (hans-zimmer. om, no date, b). The picture on the right shows a large amount of Pro Tools systems and a patch bay as well as various other hardware devices. He also has a custom built Bosendorfer grand piano. It is also worth mentioning the software used by Zimmer which as well as the DAW’s described above include various VST’s such as; Omnisphere, U-he Zebra, Atmosphere and thousands and thousands of sample banks. (hanszimmer. com, no date, b) Hans Zimmer enjoys an astonishing career with some incredible accomplishments, despite the fact that he has had no formal training.
His passion is maintained and can be seen in both the way he talks about the composition process as well as the finished product that is heard on screen. Perhaps, it can be said that in his work he is still battling his inner turmoil at the death of his father as a young boy; “[composing] was my way of calming the demons in me or at the same time sometimes letting them roar, letting them rip, letting the monster out and seeing that it wasn’t so scary being able to look it in the eye. ” (CNN Worldbeat cited by IMDB, no date).
It is argued here that in his work Zimmer forces his audience to confront the demons on screen whilst creating an opportunity for escapism which is what cinema represents. His productions are both seamless and effortless whilst at the same remaining extraordinarily powerful and commanding. As a relatively young composer and with some of the biggest and long-awaited Hollywood blockbusters ever to be produced in the pipeline, such as the sequel to ‘The Dark Knight’; ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, his success can only intensify with time.