In early 2011, David Klotz got a phone call from his friend Ramin Djawadi, a TV and film composer who'd been brought in at the last minute to score a new HBO show called Game of Thrones. It's not unusual for a composer to be allowed to pick his music editor, and Djawadi hoped Klotz would sign on— the two had worked together in the past, on A&E's Breakout Kings, Fox's Prison Break and a short-lived ABC show called FlashFoward.
Djawadi told Klotz the show's basic premise.
"I was, like, What is this? Dungeons and Dragons?" Klotz recalls, laughing.
It only took seeing the first episode for Klotz to realize he'd landed a dream gig.
"I was completely blown away," he says. "It's the best show I've ever worked on, really."
Heading into its fourth season, Game of Thrones is based on George R. R. Martin's fantasy-novel series, A Song of Ice and Fire. The books—and the show—follow several noble families as they struggle for control amid a Lord of the Rings-like medieval landscape.
Despite a complicated story line and Martin's penchant for killing off his main characters, the show's become HBO's most-watched series aside from The Sopranos. And, Game of Thrones' music has won a cult following of its own—from the epic theme song that's been covered, remixed and even played from bell towers to Djawadi's use of subtle, recurring musical cues to foreshadow, say, a mass slaughter or follow a character's evolution; several characters have their own theme music.
"When certain characters cross paths," Klotz says, "[Djawadi] can find a way to interweave the tunes together."
Musical themes, then, provide a thread for the series and offer subtext to what's happening on the screen. But it's all very organic, never overt.
Klotz happens to be a longtime friend of mine whom I've known since he was music supervisor for the late-'90s / early- '00s MTV show Undressed, a sex-charged, awkwardly acted soap opera. He went on to land music-editing gigs on shows like Tru Calling and Entourage. Currently, his time's divided between Glee, American Horror Story and Game of Thrones.
Djawadi and the show's creators, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, have been interviewed plenty about Game of Thrones' music, but I'm a bit of a behind-the-scenes geek: What's the process that goes into the final product? So, while fans will be lining up outside Hall H on Friday afternoon for the show's official panel, here's a quick look at what goes into making Game of Thrones so aurally cool.
Scoring a Game of Thrones episode takes three weeks to a month from start to finish— longer than most TV shows. But, Klotz says, the approach to the music has always been more akin to a feature film than a TV show.
"Ramin kind of wants to create themes in the sense that it's a film," he says. "The producers get it; they get how effective a really good underscore works, and they want to use it as best as possible to help tell the story."
The process begins with a "spotting session," where Klotz and Djawadi sit down with producers to watch an episode, which, at that point, doesn't have any visual effects. They decide where the music's going to go and how long a "cue"—a segment of the score— will last. For Season 3, Klotz and Djawadi watched all 10 episodes in December and January, which helped lay the groundwork for themes that might be expanded on as the season progressed, Klotz says.
"The producers will say, Hey, in Episode 7, this theme needs to kind of come back and be revisited,' and it's easy for us to see that right away."
It takes Djawadi a week or two to come up with an episode's score. When it's done, they'll sit down with the producers and watch the scored episode. "We'll decide, The big drums need to come in a beat later' and that kind of stuff, or with the really dramatic stuff, we'll want it to be bigger, or more horrifying."
Once the score's approved, Djawadi gives Klotz all the elements to mix—"all the drums, all the strings, all the brass, the choir, everything kind of split out," he says.
"While we're mixing," Klotz says, "a lot of other decisions come up with sound-effects needing to cut through more or vice versa."
In the sixth episode of Season 3, for instance, characters encounter an avalanche while climbing a wall of ice. The score and the sound of the avalanche were competing with each other, so Klotz had to figure out what to pull out of the mix. He does this via "stems," which are basically the individual audio files—percussion, strings, bass, choir— for each component of the cue. The stems allow a music editor to remove an instrument or push it up or down in the mix. In the case of the avalanche scene, Klotz removed the low percussion sounds that were competing with the sound effects.
While Klotz is editing the music—he uses ProTools—other elements of the episode are being worked on, like visual effects. They might result in a scene being shortened, or lengthened, or needing more impactful music, which means Klotz has to constantly adjust the cues or pull in something from a past episode that might fit better.
In another Season 3 episode, Gary Lightbody, the singer for indie band Snow Patrol, makes a brief appearance, leading a group of soldiers in a bawdy song, "The Bear and the Maiden Fair," that recurs throughout the episode, culminating in a rather jarring rock version of the tune by The Hold Steady that accompanies the credits.
But, the song that ended up in the episode wasn't the original version. By the time the episode got to the production stage, Benioff and Weiss decided it should have a different melody.
"So [Lightbody] had to re-sing it, and we had to cut [the track] to fit his mouth," Klotz says.
It's like piecing together a puzzle, only the shapes of the pieces keep changing.
"Even on the last day of the mix, we'll get a new picture update and have to move everything around," Klotz says. "It's frustrating, but at the same time, it's kind of like job security because someone's gotta be here doing this."