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How to Design a Surreal Film Score like Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

Composer Claude Debussy said, “Works of art make rules; rules do not make works of art.” This struggle is especially true in the world of a cinematic score, where traditional orchestration dominates.

But lately, the perception of what a score can be has been challenged by Nine Inch Nails lead singer Trent Reznor and his producing partner Atticus Ross.

Over the course of feature films and recent contributions to Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War, the two have blurred the lines between sound design and score, creating a wholly unique musical language.

Here’s how you can approach crafting a soundtrack for your project just like Reznor and Ross.

Watch: How to Compose a Film Score like Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross

Grab your curated Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross music playlist below.

Mix orchestral with digital

One of the hallmarks of effective screenwriting is conflict.  Conflict drives a story and showcases the evolution or decline of a character.

Film score also has the ability to reveal and reinforce conflict within a narrative.

For Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the tone and melody of the music become just as important as the dialog.

Take The Social Network soundtrack for example. 

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross use orchestral and digital melodies to show character conflict.

Here, Ross and Reznor use a piano medley set against a synthetic backdrop.

The woeful piano is at odds with the digital strings, mirroring the embattled friendship between Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin.

In the deposition scene, the music becomes more distant, signifying Mark’s distance from the child he once was, as he moves from innocence to experience.

This musical approach to conflict persists throughout the film. 

Ross and Reznor build add a digitized, manic energy to this scene.

In the scene above, the sped up remix of “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” echoes the repetitive nature of competitive rowing.

The takeaway: Consider mixing classical orchestration with digital choices to de-romanticize a narrative, and build a modern (often bleak) soundscape. 

Build tension with distortion

Regarding the creation of his music, Trent Reznor has said, “The setting, place, and mood inspires what comes forth.” For an Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor soundtrack, environment and situation dictate what musical tool will be utilized.

As Reznor says, “Is it analog and organic? Is it digital and icy? Is it human and orchestral?”

Often in moments of tension, Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor songs employ distortion to increase a sense of unease.

Consider Patriot’s Day for example. 

Reznor and Ross use distortion to amplify the tension. Patriot’s Day (2016)

In this scene, the relentless drive of the drums intensifies the man’s escape. Like the best Nine Inch Nails songs, Trent Reznor and Alex Ross build suspense by layering turbulent, digital sounds.

This approach also occurs in Gone Girl.

For the film, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross turned to a company called Folktek which creates acoustic, electronic synthesizers. The device allows the guitar strings contained within to loop in a repeating pattern. 

Folktek devices can be used to create an unnerving effect

Regarding the sound, Reznor says, “What we liked about it was it felt like it was trying to find order. It created this kind of unease when we were getting into moments of tension in the film.”

Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor songs highlight character revelation. Gone Girl (2014)

Throughout the narrative, the theme of facades and appearances surfaces time and again.

In an Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor soundtrack, distortions not only reveal the horror of the moment but the scope of a character’s true, disturbing nature.

By thinking beyond traditional orchestration, you can further delve into a character’s complex psychological states. 

Reflect the environment

As we’ve seen, an Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor soundtrack uses music to mimic character emotion.

But another vital function it serves is reflecting the environment of the scene.  

Yes, the two composers are effective at drawing an audience’s attention to important thematic moments. However, Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor songs give voice and perspective to the environment itself.

For example, in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Reznor and Ross mix the score with the sounds of the underground to immerse the viewer in Lisbeth’s chaotic world.

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross use music as an extension of character emotion.

This approach is also present as Mikael is first drawn into the mystery of the missing woman.

Regarding the production, Reznor says, “Dragon Tattoo was cold and icy, and that implied a certain subset of synthesizers that were more digital, lots of bells, lots of metal-y type objects.”

This Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor soundtrack combine organic and digital sound

In the scene above, the echoing bells reinforce not only the icy, cold environment, but the distance from safety Mikael now finds himself in.

By using sustained synthesizers, you can create an overwhelming sense of isolation within a scene. 

Wrapping up

Trent Reznor has said, “I think there’s something strangely musical about noise.”

By embracing the uncommon melodies of distortion and electronics, a composer and director can delve ever further into the psychologies of their characters.

With their penchant for the unexpected,  Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have opened the door to the untapped possibilities of film score and composition.  

Still curious about how music can be used to take your video projects to the next level? Check out our Mastering Film Scores video series where we dive into how music selection builds suspense on screen.

Or learn how John Williams uses music to create iconic moments and characters we love.

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