By Melissa White | From the September-October 2020 issue of Strings magazine
It’s the music that makes or breaks a scary movie. Not convinced? Watch a horror flick on mute—the joy of being held in suspense diminishes significantly without the sound. So when award-winning composer Michael Abels called me to be the featured violinist for the horror film Us, for which he wrote the music, I was both honored and excited. But I felt the pressure. Not only would this theoretically represent the largest number of people hearing me perform by a long shot, I’d also be adding a crucial ingredient to a blockbuster film! With all of that in mind, I said yes, and the adventure began.
I was flown out to Los Angeles, California, in January 2019 to begin recording the solo-violin parts for the movie at The Village. I knew from previous work recording movie music that time is money, money is time, and that Hollywood does not like to waste either one. However, I had only experienced that in an orchestral setting, with a conductor controlling the flow. This was to be a solo session with Michael and the recording engineer, which meant the pressure would be solely on me not to waste time and make every take a good one.
Michael and I had been in touch quite a bit leading up to my arrival in L.A., so we could be as prepared as possible. He sent me the charts as he completed them, and I practiced. But working in Hollywood means accommodating changes made up until the very last moment—sometimes just hours before a film is submitted for its debut release. So I expected to continue receiving new charts and knew I needed to be ready to sight-read new music during the session. There was also the possibility that we could put in all of this work, complete our three hours of soundtrack recording, and, in the end, have none of it used in the final version of the movie! (Luckily, that didn’t happen.)
The night before the session, I arrived in L.A. The airline had lost my luggage. I was jet-lagged. But as soon as I made it to my hotel, I pulled out my violin and put in a late-night practice session, because I had received about ten new charts during the flight out. I was tired and already nervous. My alarm went off early, interrupting the little sleep I managed to get.
When I arrived at the studio, Michael was settled in the control booth. We’d met years before, when I gave the debut performance of his work Delights & Dances in 2007. But we hadn’t seen each other in over a year. He was seated behind what looked like a NASA control board with thousands of knobs and buttons. He jumped up to give me a hug and I immediately felt more at ease seeing his radiant smile and knowing I’d be in good hands with such refined ears providing direction.
The recording booth, my home for the next three hours, felt like a rug showroom—not only was the floor covered, but there were rugs hanging from the walls as well to provide soundproofing. There were, of course, tons of microphones: some to record the room sound, closer mics to record my playing, and a talk-back mic for me to communicate with the control booth. My favorite part was the huge, flat-screen TV positioned directly in front of my music stand, so that I could watch specific scenes of the movie as I recorded the music to go along with them. Assistants buzzed in and out to position the mics and make sure I had all the essentials.
I had a few minutes to warm up (and check out the brand-new charts that appeared on my stand) and then it was time to start. I wore a pair of headphones with one ear on and one ear off so I could both hear myself playing as well as a combination of click-track and accompanying instrumentals. A scene would appear on the TV screen and, after hearing two bars of click in my headphones, the music and the movie began rolling and I played the chart from top to bottom.
The first run through of each chart was mostly diagnostic. It gave me a chance to feel how the music fit within the movie and the other pre-recorded music coming through my headphones, and it allowed Michael to hear his composition live for the first time, giving him a sense for how it set the scene. It also gave the engineer time to make any adjustments for optimal recording.
After the initial play-through, Michael would usually have a couple of notes for me. These were not the usual “more legato,” “less vibrato,” “play softer” kinds of comments I’m used to. His directions came as vivid descriptions:
“Can your vibrato sound scarier?”
“The mood should be more distant.”
Or my favorite: “Sound more like an evil villain.”
So, on the spot, I’d put my imagination to work, integrate it with my classical technique, and deliver to the best of my ability with each subsequent take. On average, each chart was about three to five minutes long and required anywhere from five to 25 takes to get just right. But I quickly became comfortable with the process and by the end, it was even lots of fun!
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Excited I can now share that when you go to see @jordanpeele’s latest film @usmovie ✂️ (which releases TODAY) you’ll be hearing Yours Truly on the solo violin lines brilliantly composed by the one and only @_michaelabels! Working on this project was absolutely amazing! I’ll probably be too scared to even notice myself, but if you stay long enough you can catch my name in the credits…. ☺️ #UsMovie #BTS
I was glad to find the fun, because recording for a movie can be extremely tedious. The playing has to be excellent every take, because what matters most is that the music aligns with the action on screen, the sentiment of the actors, and the narrative of the story, all at exactly the right moment. Lots of tricks can be done in post-production to edit dynamics, timing, and even intonation. But feeling, mood, and tone have to be recorded just right in the moment. And since time is money, if you want to be rehired, the less they have to do in post-production “fixing” things, the better it makes you look. So the pressure is really on to deliver excellence take after take.
We ended up finishing early! I was extremely relieved and excited—and couldn’t wait to see how it would all come together by the time it hit theaters. Michael and I took a picture to commemorate the moment (I’m wearing the clothes I’d traveled in the day before because my suitcase still hadn’t arrived), and then I treated myself to a delicious meal at In-N-Out Burger!
I never heard any of the final takes until I went to see the film on opening weekend. I was so nervous—and I wasn’t even sure I’d hear myself! But when the first scene I recognized popped up on the big screen, I immediately identified myself playing. It was an incredible moment. I was sitting there, listening to myself play while watching one of my favorite actresses, Lupita Nyong’o, on the big screen. It was remarkably exciting. I’m most grateful to Michael Abels for trusting me with the task. I always love working with him, and it’s an honor to be a part of one of writer and director Jordan Peele’s brilliant projects. I’ll forever cherish my name being listed in the credits as a featured violinist!