Interview with Orchestrator Dave Metzger

I had an opportunity to have film orchestrator and composer Dave Metzger answer some questions about orchestrating and his career in Hollywood today. 
Dave Metzger has orchestrated for composers such as Mark Mancina, Alan Silvestri and John Powell.  He has composed music for Brother Bear 2, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and was Tony nominated for his orchestrations to the Broadway version of Lion King.      

Q: First off, how did you get into the film business?
Dave Metzger: I started composing and arranging music at age 12, became enamored with film music at age 16 after seeing the first Star Wars movie, and then moved to LA for college.  At college (Cal State University Long Beach) I began making contacts with fellow students, who recommended me if they heard of someone that needed writing work done.  A week before moving [to Oregon] I got a call from a friend who led a casual/society band that I used to play in. He had just been hired to be the music supervisor for The Tonight Show, for which Jay Leno had just been named as the host, and he needed to line up composers and arrangers to write for the band. So, for the first 5 years I lived in Oregon (from 1992-1997) I wrote about 250 pieces for The Tonight Show.
In 1997 I got a call from an old friend asking if I would be interested in orchestrating on a film for Mark Mancina - Speed 2.  During the same time period Mark had been hired by Disney to produce the music for the Broadway production of “The Lion King”, Mark asked me if I would be interested, I said yes, and after 9 months of intense work together we emerged with an extremely tight relationship. From that point on I have orchestrated every note of every movie that Mark has done, as well as contributing a significant amount of additional music composition on all of his projects.
Mark Graham, a longtime friend and colleague of mine who runs a copying service in LA, started to recommend me to composers and other orchestrators, which led directly to my work for Alan Silvestri and John Powell, as well as others. I am also extremely fortunate to have developed a friendship with John [Ashton] Thomas, who is a wonderfully talented orchestrator and composer, with whom I’ve worked on many projects over the past 4 years.
Q. What composers (of past or present) have influenced you or are there any composers that interest you as a listener?
DM: For me the biggest influences were John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Alan Silvestri, Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy, and diverting from orchestral music, The Beatles, and the Buddy Rich/Count Basie/Maynard Ferguson/Thad Jones-Mel Lewis/Woody Herman big bands when I was a kid.
Q. A two part question: You worked on Lion King for Broadway, did you get attached to that from Mark and what was the challenge in moving film orchestrations to a Broadway pit orchestra which obviously has different requirements?

DM: As stated above, I did get attached to Lion King through Mark. It was a tremendous challenge, as I had never written for such a bizarre combination of instruments before! One of the advantages for writing for a big budget film score is that you have so many amazing musicians (between 70 and 110) and that they will make pretty much anything sound great.
In The Lion King we only had 24 musicians to work with, and 5 of them were percussionists, so every note really had to count. I had no idea if any of the orchestrations/arrangements were going to work at all until the sitzprobe, which is the first time that the musicians and singers rehearse together. Getting through that night was a huge relief!
I want to point out that I worked with Bob Elhai orchestrating The Lion King – we were co-orchestrators on the project and very much collaborators on the show. Bob is an extremely brilliant guy, and I’m sad to say that we haven’t had a chance to work together since then – hopefully there will be another opportunity in the future.

Q: What is it like switching from composer to composer? Along those same lines, how much information either in sketches or demos do you usually get from Alan Silvestri or John Powell?
DM: As far as what it’s like switching from composer to composer, the hardest part is when you work for someone for the first time because you aren’t sure how they like to see things notated, you don’t know how they prefer to have the strings divided, do they like extra “barking” in the low brass, etc. Once you get a feel for their style it gets much easier, and then it’s not too difficult to jump back and forth.
These days most everyone provides MIDI files/mock ups. Depending on the composer, some like you to fill in and expand upon what they’ve done while others want everything exactly as they have it in the file. Alan is one of the few remaining guys who still does hand sketches. His sketches are very complete, but there is room for creative input on the orchestration front as long as you don’t go too crazy.
The biggest challenge when dealing with MIDI files is to sort everything out. It’s not uncommon to get files with 100 or more tracks, including 30 or 40 for strings alone. It’s also not uncommon to have string ideas overlapping (long melodies PLUS pizz PLUS a layer of staccato rhythms), so a big challenge is how to include all of the elements without divisi-ing down to only having one player on every part!
Q: On practically all films now, the orchestrations are a team effort – how do cues get divided? Is there an effort to make the film scores sound cohesive, even though all orchestrators have their own techniques?
DM: Good question. The way it works is that one person is the supervising orchestrator, who then divvy ups the cues. That person (the supervisor) has usually established a long and trusted relationship with the composer. My experience is that the supervisor usually has his/her trusted list of orchestrators, with the top one or two getting the bulk of the assignments from the beginning of the project, and then with additional people brought in to pick up a cue or two as the recording dates become imminent. As far as making the scores sound cohesive, yes there is an effort made. It’s always great to make up a list of how to handle certain situations (things like how much freedom there is to add, how to handle 2 harps, certain patch issues, etc), which goes a long ways towards having the orchestrations sound cohesive.
The other part of the problem is that nowadays many composers use “additional music composers”, so a big challenge when orchestrating is to try and tighten up the varying compositional styles you might find on a project. I think that’s one very important thing that an experienced orchestrator can bring to a project anymore.

Q: You did some additional music for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Given that so many new video games have symphonic scores, what was it like working on that – is it any different than film?
DM: The biggest difference to me was that you aren’t composing to a locked picture that will always be seen that way; rather, they give you a video of someone playing the level so that you get a feel for what it will look like. The cool thing was that once you got the vibe of the level you’re just writing pieces of music (usually in the 4-6 minute range), so it was actually kind of freeing.
Q: Recently, How to Train Your Dragon was nominated for an Oscar for original score. What is that like being able to work on a score like that and what do awards (like Oscars and Tonys) mean to you?
DM: I don’t really put a lot of weight into it, because often when you’re working on a film you aren’t sure how good it will end up being (although sometimes it’s pretty obvious that it won’t be a classic!). However, at the end of the day I suppose it’s always nice to get some recognition for your work.
I actually rather enjoy history, so one of my favorite things when I record at a studio like Sony in LA is to sit there and think of all the amazing classic scores recorded there over the decades – I guess hopefully some of the films I’ve had a chance to work on might one day be thought of by someone in that way as well.
Q: Do you have any favorite cues or scores you’ve worked on that you’re extremely proud of – either composed or orchestrated?
DM: I’d say the scores I’m most proud to have been involved with would include “Tarzan”, “Training Day”, “August Rush”, and “How To Train Your Dragon”, either because I thought the films turned out pretty well or because the music had a special role in the picture. I was also happy on a compositional level to have had the opportunity to score “Brother Bear 2”, which although it wasn’t a big project, allowed me to have my name on the top of the credit list for a change (as opposed to ghosting so much music over the years).

Another project that was pretty cool was having the chance to arrange “When You Wish Upon A Star” for the Walt Disney Castle Logo that is seen at the beginning of most every Disney film – it was exciting to work on something that you know would be around for quite a while.
Q: Any other upcoming compositions or orchestrations you'd like to share?
DM: It’s been a busy year so far, and I’m already booked for 3 more films in the next two months. I’ll also be traveling to a few places around the world for some music changes in “The Lion King” (hard to believe that’s still happening 14 years later), plus I have a choral piece I’ve been commissioned for that I’ll be working on through the summer – it’s still fun to write some non-industry based music now and then!

My thanks to the obviously busy Dave Metzger for the interview. Look for his recent orchestrations in Kung Fu Panda 2, X-Men First Class, and Captain America.  You can view his IMDB page here.

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  1. Incredibly cool interview. This is what film score fans want to read.