Chanda Dancy explains how to compose an action-packed war film


BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE

In a war film like Devotion, the action is literally flying all over the place (and dive-bombing, too). So how do you use music to boost already epic-scale events? Composer Chanda Dancy chose to leap into the drama on screen, using orchestral instruments to mimic the engines of fighter planes known as Corsairs.

But war films aren’t just about life-or-death events. They’re also about the human experience and what unites us — in this case, Chanda explains, true love.

The American composer tells CutCommon what it takes to score an epic war drama like Devotion (trailer featured below), a true story about US Navy fighter pilots and their sacrifices during the Korean War.

Chanda, what were your first impressions of the project when you first learnt what it was about — a true war story?

When I first read the script, I cried, profusely! It was both amazing and heartbreaking, and I felt so much love for [real-life characters] Jesse, Daisy, and Tom.

It is a true war story, but it is mainly a story about true love in every sense of the word. I was incredibly honoured to be chosen as the composer!

What was involved in your research when you started to think about how you wanted the film to sound? For instance, did you dive into the war film genre, watch documentaries or file footage, or even push all this aside?

The director J.D. Dillard actually didn’t use any temp score and specifically told me that he didn’t want this to sound like another Saving Private Ryan, or anything traditional like that. He wanted me to do my own complete take on Devotion, so I really leaned on my own sensibilities, and I was more influenced by classical composers such as Bela Bartok, Dmitri Shostakovich, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Arvo Part, and jazz composers such as Duke Ellington, Gunther Schuller, and Vince Mendoza, and EDM music styles like future bass and gabber.

We wanted a score that combined several elements: an emotional core, sweeping themes with a big orchestra, a very masculine sound, and a marriage of the old and new, meaning combining a traditional orchestral score with modern sounds, synths, and sensibilities to create something that sounds familiar but fresh. 

So talk us through this soundworld you created.

Essentially, we wanted the score to sound like a classic Hollywood score but with a tasteful underlayer of contemporary elements. For example, our piano sound in some cues is a combination of an acoustic piano, and a synthesizer to give the overall sound of ‘affected tradition’. In the cue The Lighthouse, we hear low synths combined with the low brass to give that bottom a heavier and more machine-like quality, along with a bouncing synth bass line emulating perpetual motion.

All of these modern elements had to be balanced correctly with the classic orchestra to create something that is authentic to the period and timeless, yet have a nod to our modern sensibilities. We also wanted to nod to the period with the big band cue All Bets Are On — an homage to the late 1940s/1950s big band jazz styles that one would hear at the time.

Overall, the score used a total of 109 musicians, including myself playing some solo viola and cello parts, recorded at Ocean Way Studios, Nashville.

In a film about war, there must be so much space for action in the music in parallel with the vision. How did you respond to the military scenes? And how did you balance the music with the sound effects?

The use of character themes was the key here. It’s less about scoring a military scene or an action scene, and more about scoring Jesse Brown in an action scene.

The character themes evolve depending on their journey and what they are experiencing. So, for example, in Sortie we have a really big action sequence with lots of sound effects. The key was to stay out of the way, with quick music accents here and there to propel the action while not fighting any dialogue or important sound effects — and only when a really dramatic moment happens, we hear a character theme.

You utilised a really interesting technique to emulate the dive-bombing Corsairs; talk us through how you came up with this and mimicked the propellers and engines.

J.D. sent me some tracks of Corsair plane sounds for inspiration for the score, and one of the tracks was the sound of a Corsair diving. When a Corsair dives, it makes a really distinct high pitched wail/whistle, and I really wanted to recreate that sound using the orchestra.

For the cue Sortie, in the recording session I used an expanded wind section — with three contrabassoons! — and brass growling and overblowing to create the sound of that dive whistle and revving plane engine sounds. Along with the strings in rising cluster chords, it created a soundscape that mimics Corsairs revving up and diving into battle.

Most war films are ultimately about the human experience — life and death, friendship and heroism, connection and companionship. How did you use music to narrate this more intimate side of the film?

The heart of everything in this film is love — love for family, love for friends, love for country, and devotion to a lifetime of showing up when you are needed. The use of character themes was the main way to convey this heart…All of these themes are tonally related and can play against each other as counterpoint. So when an important character moment happens on screen, or even multiple character moments, the themes can play seamlessly either in succession or combined.

What advice would you give to fellow composers taking on a war genre project for the first time?

Film composing is such a collaborative effort. My advice is to work closely with your director and other creative team mates to decide what you want to say and how you want to say it.


Images supplied. Chanda headshots by Georgia Shiu.




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