Sound and music, as production elements, distinguish E:60 stories among ESPN content. That’s the opinion of Phil Hanson, music coordinator at ESPN.
“What you get with E:60 is music that ties you here,” says Hanson, tapping his heart. “We’re taking viewers into other people’s lives and worlds. Music is part of that storytelling. We have a chance to go in different directions with music and film score. It’s a more elevated form of storytelling.”
Hanson helps E:60 producers use sound and music to define and reflect emotion, mood, action, location, pace, and time period.
As with food and flavors, sound and music are better understood as sensory experience than in words. That’s why Hanson took us into the Music Room, 4th Floor, Building 13, to show how sound and music are used.
Within the music room is a library with thousands of licensed selections labeled descriptively: suspense-tension, bebop jazz, kitsch, easy listening, percussive, world travel, mambo madness, surreal images, glued to the box, tribal dance, popular Dvorak, gator legends of rock and blues, questioning and curious, comedy classic, earth horizon, scenic emotions, computers and robots, lite whimsy, aggressive punk, electro rock, Latin pride and glory, moods, surf score, swamp rock, and country hard rock.
It also contains 20 custom scores composed for E:60’s exclusive use, soon to be 30 custom scores. None were in the E:60 piece about Lions All-Pro wide receiver Calvin Johnson, first aired in 2012, that Hanson queued up as an example.
The story highlighted Johnson’s supportive family and comfortable upbringing in Georgia, his work ethic and humility, and his steady ascent to stardom. It was relatively devoid of struggle and darkness, save for his second year in the league in which the Lions were 0-16.
The sound and music had to match the story.
“We look at three key areas,” Hanson said. “The location of the footage -- Georgia for the most part. The period is contemporary. And the overall mood -- nothing too dark or dramatic. You also have the fact that he’s an NFL player, which lend itself to a hard-hitting sound.”
The piece opens with “Sandstorm Tambur” against a montage of Johnson’s on-field feats. Sandstorm Tambur is a driving percussion, or as Hanson put it, “Kind of action-adventure.”
In succession followed “Stars and Sand”, “Undercover Agents”, and “Epic Action Combat”. More of the same.
At 2:10 the story shifts to Johnson’s family and upbringing in Georgia. The music is “Central Position” -- a slower tempo with folksy strings.
“That’s a major shift - more of a background score for storytelling,” said Hanson.
As the family story unwinds a slow cut, “Hidden Valley”, is followed by “Sparxx”. At the mention of Sparxx Hanson lit up.
“That’s one of our ESPN country drama sounds,” he said. “The story is looking into his background in the south. Basically it combines some country elements with drama.”
Asked to describe Sparxx, Hanson said, “It’s not a melody you can easily hum. It’s going to give you drama and rising moments, with flavors that are southern. It’s also called ‘crunk’, which is country funk. It goes with long-form storytelling on athletes from the south.”
Something called “Tribal Landscapes” is used for a few beats before the story shifts to Johnson’s high school and college feats. The music becomes “Illest in the Game Instrumental”.
“Rather than the traditional highlight music we’re giving it a dramatic twist,” said Hanson. “You can take any kind of basic music style - country, hip-hop, rock, pop - and give it different dramatic twists by putting in more minor chord changes, and changing the pace and the beats underneath.”
As the story winds through his high school and college (Georgia Tech) career, the sound is “A Change of Sky”, which is soft, and “Epic Fight Action”, which is used for highlights, often in montage.
A reflective cut called “Pensive” plays under the account, at 10:50, of his dreary 2008 season in which the Lions went 0-16. After Pensive comes more up-tempo percussive sound to underscore the arrival of quarterback Matthew Stafford, and Johnson’s first Pro Bowl. Lively strings accompany his signing of a huge new contract.
The summation, at 13:30, of the enviable and admirable world of Calvin Johnson is accompanied by “I Guess We’re Friends”, a bright pop acoustic number.
“That’s for a happy ending,” Hanson said.