Jack McKown

the jack of all trades

The Road to Berlin is Long and Arduous — Part 1

Here begins my detailing of the film scoring process I half-learned, half-figured out along the way. This project had a few setbacks, which hopefully you can avoid after reading this!


Part 1 of the Process Detailing how I scored my entry


About the Film

Abiogenesis was relased in 2011 under the New Zealand Film Commission by Richard Mans.

It chronicles an intriguing Sci-Fi answer to the question of life’s origins. 

The idea of “life out of nowhere” was first explored by Aristotle, and debated among subsequent Greek philosophers. There is some evidence that this actually took place, and several theories about the precise pathways exist.  However, this film puts a new spin on the idea. It posits that there was an external influence in the origins of life – Especially as we know it.


As the film begins, we see stars. The vastness of space is laid out for us. Soon, a capsule-shaped object rushes by, revealing the proximity of a planet. We see the descent of the capsule toward the planet, its purpose a mystery. Is it an explosive? Atomic bomb? Something worse?


As the capsule passes into the atmosphere, suddenly it transforms. Thrusters appear and begin slowing the descent. It appears to be preparing to land rather than crash. Finally the capsule makes contact with the planet’s surface. Dust flying all around, the capsule transforms again revealing four rocket driven explorers. They launch from the capsule and fly over the planet’s surface, transforming mid-air from the rocket propulsion system to flapping wings–almost mosquito-like in form. These mozzy-bots land near ponds of of a greenish primordial liquid. The robo-squitos begin to siphon up the green liquid, filling their sacs.


Once full, they transform again, into space-aged HotWheels style racers this time. They take a cool roll across the desert, back toward the capsule.


They arrive at home base; their machinery rejoins the capsule to form a talon-footed, four legged machine. These machines, that we just witnessed flying through space, rocketing around, and flying with a steam-punk meets Da Vinci flair, now walk… 
Toward an ominous looking nearby mountain…
(Everything about this seems wrong according to every horror movie ever).


Nonetheless, it trudges along slowly, and eventually makes its way up to the precipice of the mountain. This is where it begins its final transformation.


It dances into a lotus shape, and  begins to spin and rotate. As it gains intensity and speed, it levitates and floats higher above the ground until it bursts into a flash of light.


This light penetrates into the mountain, cracking the surface and blowing apart bits of planet as it plants its footing deep in the planet, and finally forms a tree. It very much resembles the tree of life.

However, this tree is not our final destination, and it begins to swell and untwist from the roots up.


Finally it erupts into a shower of zygotes turning into baby plants as they rain down on the planet.


Back at the mountain, there is one final explosion, a brief phoenix of fire, and a newly generated capsule hurtles into space. It’ next planetary surrogate awaits.

Interpretation – FIlm SCORING PROCESS

Hans Zimmer says that the score for a film has to add something to the story, otherwise what is the point of it being there? If we are to add something to the story, then it has to be deeper and on a level of understanding that is not just the surface-level cover what happens when sort of thing — that’s the job of the picture and dialogue. 

We have to add something that is uniquely our story and interpretation that adds dimension and interconnectedness that may not necessarily be seen otherwise. So, here is my frame of reference for what I came up with on this piece. 


Suppose the creators of this capsule were humans, who having destroyed their planet to the point of being unlivable, sent the device out into the Universe. Carrying with it: the building blocks and correct DNA sequences to eventually evolve into humanity again. This makes one ponder humanity’s eventual ultimate struggle–survival in this universe that ultimately will itself perish. 

How do we then carry on? What will have been the purpose of us being here? Until we know, we must persist. We must survive long enough to figure out what it’s all for, and what our purpose is. Why are we on this tiny, remote planet? 

So, what we witness then is not necessarily in the past or the future — it is both.

impact of supposition – your interpretation – film scoring process begins!

We carry on the process of creating the technology to survive at the expense of destroying our ability to survive on our current planet, waiting for this underlying truth and meaning to come to light. Who knows how many times our race has been destroyed and recreated by our last few holdouts? How many planets before?

I am hoping that some of this diatribe sheds some light on my thinking. Which in turn, may be helpful in understanding the next part of this article: my process for scoring this piece.

Process for scoring a film


As this was my first major scoring project ever, it was a HUGE educational experience that I thoroughly enjoyed. When I first took interest in this competition, I knew there was a lot I didn’t know about scoring. In truth I was a little unprepared for realizing exactly how much a “lot” was.

So I registered for the Berlin International Film Scoring Competition in October of last year, after stumbling across the winning entry for the 2019 competition, for a short film titled “Wrapped.”

It was spectacular. Very well done, polished and I’ll admit extremely intimidating. But I know that to get that good at something, you have to just do it. and do a lot of it. Over and over, learning from your mistakes and successes along the way and refining your craft, honing your technique… So I pulled up the BIFSC web page, and saw that registration was still open. So, I figured, “why not give it a shot?”

I forked over my €30 registration fee, and then it was off to the races.

THE VIEWING – film scoring process

When I received the email containing the materials provided to us for entering the competition, I was incredibly stoked and so eager to get started. I immediately opened the video and watched it — this I later came to realize was a mistake… at least, it was a mistake without being just a little bit more prepared.

First, I should have at least had some paper and a pen or pencil handy, to simply make it easier to remember my emotional reactions to the piece when it was fresh — this is ultimately very important to be able to recall accurately, because once you have seen the film once, you are biased, and it will never be fresh and new like the first time, which is how an audience in the real world experiences film media.

I, being naive, and very excited about the project, made this mistake, and although I am ultimately happy with and proud of what I have put together for the piece, still have that nagging feeling of slight regret. “What if–? What did i leave out that I just couldn’t remember feeling the first time through?”

Nonetheless, It had begun, and I was in it.

A Disclosure – film scoring process

This is where it may become a bit more difficult for me to put into words exactly what my process for scoring a film entails. This is primarily due to the fact that Music “describes the ineffable.” It is the language of emotional content we can use when words just aren’t enough.  It conveys all of the intricacies of a particular moment’s feelings. Also, I grew up in a very musical family… going to church as a child primarily consisted of some kind of rehearsal. (Read more about me in general here)

Music is in my blood, and as much a part of me as my hand, or my tooth–it’s part of who I am, and I can manipulate it to what my brain wants it to do…

(Most of the time… sometimes, just as when you bite your cheek, your teeth take that leap toward having their own free will–and when that happens with music, the experience can be just as painful.)

So when speaking about my process of actually writing the music, for films or otherwise, it can be difficult, if not impossible to express using language. I relate it to trying to describe exactly what your process is for making a fist or tapping a single finger… what is it you do to make that happen? So I apologize if at times, I seem a little vague in my descriptions of how I came up with a specific melody or chord progression or contrapuntal motif… It’s a lot less intellectual and a lot more instinctual and autonomic for me.

That being said–

THEMEs – film scoring process

The primary motif throughout the piece I  came up with rather early on, as I was pondering the possibility that, like Star Wars, this futuristic planet-seeding, DNA propagating, rogue robot was an ancient, rather than future event–and the ambiguity of this possibility that it could indeed be both ancient and future lead me to the obvious ambiguity of the open fifth at the beginning, and the ♭6 leaves us still unsure of whether we are major or minor–this duality i liked a lot, and used the concept throughout, with some mixed mode chords, unexpected Picardy thirds, etc:

Main motif for abiogenesis

figure 1 – main motif

So, armed with motif in hand, and a general ancient/future duality as my concept, I set forth to begin writing and arranging. Only I had no idea how to go about doing this in terms of tempi, alignment, frame matching, or anything else related to actually getting it right when it came to putting music against a picture.

END OF PART 1 – Check out the next segment of “The Road to Berlin…” to continue reading about my film scoring process.

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