Music for a Mockbuster: Scoring the Other Battle of L.A.
Millions of dollars and years of pre-production planning, filming, and post-production refinement went into the massive sci-fi blockbuster BATTLE: LOS ANGELES, currently storming theaters across the country; only a small fraction of that expense and time was lavished on its pretender, BATTLE OF LOS ANGELES. Arriving on home video today after a March 12 premier on the SyFy Channel, BATTLE OF LOS ANGELES was made by The Asylum, a movie production company known for making “mockbusters” – low-budget films synthesized quickly to capitalize on the release of the larger films they are imitating. Unlike some of its brethren, however, BATTLE OF LOS ANGELES brought its own style and entertainment quotient to the small screen, like it or not.
The Asylum’s mockbusters are mostly denigrated as quickie knock-offs – in which Spielberg’s WAR OF THE WORLDS begat The Asylum’s H. G. WELLS’ WAR OF THE WORLDS, Stephen Sommers’ VAN HELSING begat The Asylum’s WAY OF THE VAMPIRE, Peter Jackson’s KING KONG begat The Asylum’s KING OF THE LOST WORLD, Michael Bay’s TRANSFORMERS begat The Asylum’s TRANSMORPHERS, Roland Emmerich’s 2012 begat The Asylum’s 2012 DOOMSDAY, Guy Ritchie’s SHERLOCK HOLMES began The Asylum’s SHERLOCK HOLMES, wherein the master detective battles robot dinosaurs – and so on. Despite their frequent critical lambasting, the recurring comparison of The Asylum and SyFy Channel original movies with the B-movies of the 1950s is an apt one, and these cheesy new features fill a place for low-rent cinema among an eager audience of undemanding moviegoers and monster fans.
One area of The Asylum’s films that can usually be admired is that of music. While synthetic and artificially created, their musical scores are notable for their epic verisimilitude and ability to build excitement even in the midst of hackneyed dialog, less than stellar performances, and bargain basement CGI. With BATTLE OF LOS ANGELES, the high-energy and broadly played musical score of Kays Al-Atrakchi and Brian Ralston gives the film a great deal of its muscle and energy.
Born in Florence, Italy, Kays Al-Atrakchi grew up in Orlando, Florida, switching from an early career in rock and roll and a songwriting partnership with Matchbox Twenty’s Rob Thomas into what he felt was the more secure job field of film music. He moved to Los Angeles in 2004 and has maintained a productive scoring schedule ever since with more than forty feature films, shorts, documentaries, and video game scores to date. His music for CUTTING ROOM (2006), Ian Truitner’s serial killer comedy, earned the Best Soundtrack award at the Milan International Film Festival, and his moody scores for ALIEN RAIDERS (2008) and MIDNIGHT SON (2011) have also been favorably noted.
“I’ve been involved with a lot of horror films and thrillers, but these films generally want an intimate type of scoring and often require what I would describe as a ‘sound design-y’ type of scoring,” said Kays. “BATTLE OF LOS ANGELES offered a great opportunity to just go nuts with a full orchestra, to really let loose and do something that quite honestly I don’t get to do very often.”
Brian Ralston actually started out with a degree in biochemistry, working for a neurologist until he discovered his true passion lay not in the chemical processes of organic matter but in the compositional processes of original music. He put his degree on the shelf and began studying film music at the University of Arizona under film/TV composer Jeff Haskell, completing his graduate studies at the University of Southern California with composers such as Christopher Young and the late Elmer Bernstein, David Raksin, and Buddy Baker. Brian was called in by composer Robert Kral to compose additional music for the fourth season of TV’s ANGEL in 2002, which led to a small handful of feature film scoring assignments, with BATTLE OF LOS ANGELES being one of his most significant so far.
“The Battle of LA score is a very different score than anything I had done in the past,” echoed Ralston. “It also was an opportunity to spread my wings a little bit compositionally, and to try to do some things that I hadn’t done before. There’s one thing I don’t want to do is get typecast into a very specific genre of film. I need to develop my sound as my career develops, but at the same time I don’t want to always be known for one genre of film. So doing a sci-fi action movie that’s pretty bombastic was an opportunity to do that.”
BATTLE OF LOS ANGELES director Mark Atkins had known Kays Al-Atrakchi for some time, but they hadn’t had the chance to work together until Adler got the green light to bring Kays into The Asylum’s version of BATTLE. Knowing the amount and type of music needed, and familiar with the abbreviated timeline the Asylum production would afford him, Kays brought in his friend Brian Ralston, suggesting they collaborate and score the movie together.
“I think it actually was a blessing that we had each other to cover everything, because it is pretty much wall-to-wall music,” said Ralston. “I think it’s a 90-minute film with 89-and-a-half minutes of music!
“I also felt very strongly that my style and Brian’s style were very complementary,” added Kays. “I thought that we could work together because we could probably create a score that seamlessly blended from one cue to the next without feeling like it was two separate composers.”
Working together on BATTLE seemed to replicate the process by which classic Universal B-movies of the 1950s like THIS ISLAND EARTH and IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE were scored, with a team of composers banded together to create compatible film music on deadline. Universal’s composers usually were assigned to score specific reels of film, with two or more composers leapfrogging through the reels until all work was done; Al-Atrakchi and Ralston, on the other hand, tried to integrate their work so that each of their efforts would seamlessly permeate the soundtrack.
“For the most part we tried to space out our cues so that it wasn’t me doing a reel and then Kays doing a reel,” explained Ralston. “There were sections in the film where I might have had a very long section or a cue and Kays might have had another very long section or cue following it, but for the most part we tried our best to alternate what we were doing so that my creative input and his creative input were splattered throughout. And that gave the score a lot of balance, as opposed to the first half being one person and the second half being another person.”
Although BATTLE OF LOS ANGELES was made under the shadow of Jonathan Liebesman’s big-budget Columbia Pictures of BATTLE: LOS ANGELES, the composers never referenced or discussed what was happening with that film or its large-scaled score (composed by Brian Tyler), nor was there a temporary score that either of them had to face in determining their approach to scoring BATTLE OF LOS ANGELES.
“I didn’t even know that there was a studio-produced BATTLE OF LA until we were well into this project!” said Kays. “That shows how out of touch I am! Then I saw a billboard somewhere and I was like, ‘Oh wow!’”
“The Asylum has a business model that really works for them,” explained Ralston. “A lot of their films are made because their distributors and the channels that they distribute to are asking for that. So they are able to quickly respond to what they’re being asked to make. Whereas something like BATTLE: LOS ANGELES has had years and years of development and preproduction and finally production, the distribution chains in the foreign territories that Asylum is dealing with has been sold before the film has even been made. So then they have to quickly turn around and make the movie by the deadline that they agreed to.”
The pair began working on the film right in late November. At that time they only had two weeks to provide their score, since The Asylum had given them a mid-December deadline. Well into post-production, a deal was made with the SyFy Channel so that the cable channel would broadcast BATTLE OF LOS ANGELES as a SyFy Original Movie rather than having it released direct-to-video, in the manner of The Asylum’s other productions.
“We got a locked edit on the first half of the movie around the first of December,” said Ralston. “We fully had the intent to finish scoring the film by December 15th. When the SyFy movie deal happened it changed our production schedule. Not only did they go back and throw more effort and money into the effects and the edit, they put us on about a one-month delay because the second half of the film [would not be] locked until sometime in February.”
“We were in a holding pattern while they got more footage,” added Kays. “That did give us the time to get our basic ideas down. But as far as working with a locked picture cut where we could actually match the cuts and hit all the dramatic points, that came fairly late into the game.”
Like most Asylum and SyFy Channel film scores, BATTLE OF LOS ANGELES is a fully sampled score, without any real, live instruments. The orchestral music was created synthetically using sounds of symphonic instruments sampled into a digital computer, but treated and mixed in a way that gave the score a fairly credible orchestral sound.
“Kays and I both always prefer to have live musicians when we can, because it just brings a whole other element to the score that a computer can never replicate,” said Ralston. “Having said that, because the turnaround time was so tight on this movie and because the music budget was certainly not what Brian Tyler had on BATTLE: L.A., we didn’t have the resources available to give it the live orchestral 80-member orchestra that it really needed.”
When the two composers first began talking about scoring the film, certain scenes appealed to each of them as a starting point for composing music.
“I remember telling Kays that there was a scene in the middle where Karla comes out with her katana sword, and I really wanted to do that scene!” said Ralston. “And Kays said okay, and I think I’m going to take this scene over here! We didn’t really score in order; we just started going with the scenes that spoke to us first. And then in the end we worked out who was covering what. We did collaborate by writing in a similar key so that if our cues were going to be butting up next to each other they wouldn’t completely clash tonally.”
That scene with Karla, for example, gave Ralston the chance to soar musically with an eloquent heroic theme, while sharing the propulsive, rhythmic drive that Kays had composed for his main title sequence. Kays also wrote the music for the scene with the Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) blast, while Ralston was responsible for the 11-minute epic climax at the end. However, most of the score integrated the work of both composers, even though for the most part they were working alone in their own studios.
“We worked separately and we actually used somewhat different programs,” said Ralston. “I used Digital Performer and Kays writes in Logic and we had to deliver in ProTools. So I would write and record it and mix it in Performer, and send it to Kays. He would do the same in Logic, and then he assembled it.” In addition to composing, Kays also served as music editor, taking his and Brian’s cues and assembling them into the ProTools session that would have to be delivered to the sound mixer.
“I think what really helped for us to create a really smooth process of working together is the fact that we use a lot of the same sound libraries and a lot of the same plug-in effects and things like that,” Kays added. “So even though we were working in different sequencing programs, we could really reference each other’s sound quite easily. I could see that Brian was using certain types of sounds, so I could make my own cues compatible so they sound like they belong in the same score.”
One of the challenges in working on a movie like this, noted Kays, “is that it literally goes from balls-to-the-wall action to even more balls-to-the-wall action! There are not a whole lot of peaks and valleys from a character development or a musical point of view. What does happen, though, is that you get to progressively learn a little bit more about the aliens and why they’re invading Earth. In the early part of the movie, we’re mostly following the humans, so it’s fairly militaristic. We’re following these jet fighters and these soldiers on the ground as they’re trying to make sense of this situation. As the score progresses, we both started introducing textural elements into the music, which represent the aliens. So for me the score goes from a very traditional take on an action film to something that recalls a little bit more of the style that I’ve applied on horror movies, where I start using a little more sound design elements and a little more kind of unusual textures.”
“I think what makes a composer’s contribution really great is that the composer has to be a film maker themselves,” said Ralston. “They have to understand character and character arc. When a director hires a composer, it’s not just that his liked their style of music, but that he or she is hiring someone who gets filmmaking, understands story, and understands character development. For the music to be effective, you have to understand that underlying message of what’s being said in a scene.”
“Something like BATTLE OF LA doesn’t need much musical subtlety and it didn’t really need much mood-setting, because it’s a very intensely visual film,” Kays concluded. “Right from frame one, you’re pretty much thrust into this world full of space ships and laser blasts and aliens and gunfire. So the role of the score in this type of a film is not so much to build the mood as to reinforce it and to add to the excitement and the kinetic motion of the film. You’re already very primed and excited to see these guys fighting for their lives against aliens, and the music is just reinforcing that.”
For more information on the composers, see:
The Asylum’s DVD of BATTLE OF LOS ANGELES hit store shelves on March 15th. The Blu-Ray will follow on March 22.