Lexicon Exclusive

"Maestros and sages"

The X-Files Lexicon's Exclusive Interview with Jeff Charbonneau
Conducted via email by Matt Allair (08/07/2012-08/09/2012).
Page Editor: XScribe

In a similar fashion to Cinematographer John S. Bartley, music editor Jeff Charbonneau, might not be as well known to fellow Philes, but his role was just as vital as Composer Mark Snow's. While Mr. Snow, rightly, gets a mountain share of attention for his contributions - The X-Files, Millennium, The Lone Gunmen, Harsh Realm, Jeff Charbonneau was his right hand, seamlessly contributing to these shows. Yet, he has rarely spoken, nor has been given a chance, which makes this interview rather historic for the Lexicon. If the casual fan were aware of the depth of Mr. Charbonneau's varied experience, I think they'd be rather astonished.

Mr. Charbonneau is a multiple award-winning technician, with five prime time Emmy's, and 16 nominations, as well as an MPSE award for music editing. Having worked on numerous features, several cited in the interview, as well as Crazy in Alabama, Citizen Ruth, Waterworld, and such television series as Breaking In, Kojak, Against The Law, Jeff has worked on numerous television pilots, several video games, as well as television soap. But there is more to the story than his official title as a 'music editor.' He's a performing musician with record production experience, and a sound designer. He also has experience as a photographer, who has created his own photographic prints using traditional dark room techniques and has also collaborated with his creative partner, Eliza French, since 2004, and have had their work exhibited since 2006. The range of Mr. Charbonneau's talents isn't necessarily surprising; often exceptional talents have strengths in numerous areas, but these details were satisfying to learn, nevertheless.

But accomplishments alone don't fully measure someone, I found Jeff to be extremely generous with his input, and this added to my over-all impression. As usual, these interviews often develop in unexpected ways. Therefore, I must thank Mark Snow for helping to initially connect us. Jeff gave me a very vivid impression of his work, which is often very subtle to the average audience member, and easy to overlook, but I feel it was important to have this discussion. At first, I gathered that a phone interview would develop, but to my surprise, he offered to answer in writing. I found Jeff to be candid, unassuming, giving, and eager to share his experiences. The interview proceeded as follows...

Matt Allair: How did you break into the business?

Jeff Charbonneau: By pure circumstantial luck. I was what some refer to as a "professional student," living on grants and scholarships for eight years. I studied classical music, biology, film, photography, and ended up as a graduate student in anthropology, pursuing a doctorate in paleoanthropology and toiling through a graduate dissertation.

I needed a break from academics and a job outside of the university system. So a friend who had also studied music, suggested that I interview with a composer she knew that was looking for an assistant. I worked as a substitute music supervisor for the company he was affiliated with on daytime TV, which led to a full time position on the soap Capitol. It was a position that required the creation of an underscore track from pre-recorded music snippets on a daily basis. The music would be laid into the show via multi-track tape machines during production rather than post-production. I had to map out and pre-cue everything based on a script, reference recordings, and a stopwatch. I would then work with engineers on the set, audition the pieces for the director and producers, and sync it as they filmed. It taught me a lot about the mechanics of music and dramatic performance. It also taught me how to respond quickly to changes and how to develop a proficient musical memory...From there I interviewed at Fox and was given an apprentice position in the music department.

Matt Allair: Growing up, did you have a desire to work in film and music?

Jeff Charbonneau: No, I didn't really become interested in film until I was in college. I studied classical music as a teen and was enthusiastic, but never envisioned it as a career. I played in some bands, ensembles, experimental things, but ultimately was more interested in learning and potentially becoming a teacher.

Matt: A lot of fans hear the term 'Music Editor' and probably wonder what it involves. How would you describe what you do?

Jeff: It varies from job to job. I have been hired to come on to a film prior to the composer to help construct a temporary score for previews and/or to experiment with various styles of music with the director. That can often shape the decisions and choices made for the final soundtrack. Sometimes the composer has already been selected, so we use as much of their music as possible. Other times it has been an objective search that could end up being a soundtrack based on licensed songs or the compositions or style of a particular composer or period.

Most of the time I come on to the project with a composer. We spot the music with the director and producer(s) and determine all of the attributes of each individual cue. I will then translate that into a synopsis with timings that the composer can reference when they write. If it is a score that involves live musicians we build a metronome reference track, create visual cues on the picture for the orchestra conductor, and assist the composer with conforming the music track if the picture changes prior to recording and after the picture is locked. Sometimes the music editor is involved with cleaning up the recordings and helping produce the score mix.

We then participate in the final mix of all of the sound elements used in the production. We edit and sync the background songs, any on-camera performances, and accommodate any changes that the director and producer(s) want to make prior to the release. When the project is completed we compile all of the relevant materials and facilitate the delivery to the studio for legal and/or archival purposes. Sometimes music editors work on the set to coordinate and record filmed performances and sometimes we are responsible for notating, sweetening, or replacing on-camera performances. The responsibilities vary with each composer and each production. One [really fine] composer that I work with publicly described me as his therapist/psychoanalyst. [Sean Callery.]

Matt: Are you a musician / composer in your own right?

Jeff: I play a few exotic instruments; studied winds, instruments that you can strum and pluck, and percussion as a child and in college. I have written and arranged underscore pieces here and there done some promotional scoring, and a few short films. But I have never had an interest in marketing, perceiving, or proclaiming myself as a composer. I like being a music editor. In that role I have been in the fortunate position to work with some amazingly talented composers, orchestrators, musicians, and scholars. Mark Snow has always been particularly generous in expanding my role and responsibilities on the projects we have worked on together. I have really enjoyed those opportunities and it made me feel like I was an important part of the process and allowed some creative input.

Matt: I understand you were involved with John Waters on Hairspray, and Richard Linklater on Dazed and Confused; what was that experience like working with those directors?

Jeff: I found them both to be really remarkable people. True artists, and dare I say the word auteurs. They were wonderful people to work with; eloquent, intelligent, and uniquely lucid in their respective methods of narrative. John and Rick both created sublime work environments that allowed creativity to flourish. It was an honor to work with them and I am delighted that both films became so highly regarded...They are still two of my favorites...

Matt: I understand that you were working on The X-Files pilot before Mark Snow was brought in. What was your initial impression of Mark Snow?

Jeff: I had heard a theme that he had composed for another series that I had briefly worked on, so I was already a big fan and was immediately impressed with how gracious and down to earth he was when we first met. So I felt that Chris made a great choice.

Matt: I've heard that the studio brought you in to work on the X-Files pilot. What was your initial impression of Chris Carter? Did you share a similar vision or taste? Did Bob Goodwin play a hand in getting you the job?

Jeff: I instantly liked Chris; personable, intelligent, and eager to listen and entertain ideas. We did have the same musical instincts for the show so it made it a pleasure to research, experiment, and explore possibilities. I hadn't met Bob Goodwin yet. I think it was the Fox music department that had suggested me to the production company for the preliminary pilot cut. At that time most pilots were scored with tracked music until they got picked up. Thankfully Chris liked what I did and asked me to continue on with the series. A truly magical moment for me...

Matt: Did you work closely with Terry J. Couturier and Larold Rebhum in the early seasons of The X-Files?

Jeff: I did indeed. Two immensely talented guys. I still work regularly with Larold.

Matt: Was there ever a balancing act between the sound design / sound effects and Mark's score?

Jeff: Yes there was; because the base of the soundtrack was predominantly music, the sound designers were often shifting their textures to get things to play in concert with the music...Mark Snow incorporated a lot of unusual elements into his scores that would sometimes completely fill the existent ambient voids. They all worked great and sometimes could supplant the need for additional sound design. Sometimes the score would need to be thinned out to get specific device sounds and hard sound effects to cut through. The mixers and sound editors devised some nifty tricks to get it all to work. At times, the television mix tracks would be so dense that the meters would be pinned past the threshold point for an entire action sequence...and everyone would ask if we could add yet another giant metallic crash or drum hit to emphasize a cut or action...always great fun! Heavy metal at it's best...Sometimes I miss it dearly.

Matt: Creatively, what do you find more liberating? Working on feature films or television? Or is there no difference?

Jeff: It depends on the project. At their best, feature films provide the chance to enlarge the scope of the music and refine things intelligently because of the lengthier schedules...These days it seems like features go through so many changes that the benefit of the longer schedule may be a bit minimized, especially if the score has to be changed or conformed continuously. It still is nice to be able to focus on a single project and to be able to work in an orchestral setting.

The nice thing about television is that it becomes an efficient work environment. We learn what works and what doesn't and we develop a predictable schedule. The composer can expand upon themes and revisit old ideas. Over time, the crew becomes familial and comprehends each other's thoughts and methods. I enjoy working on both and especially enjoyed working on The X-Files because of the supportive and fluid environment that was created on the series and the two features.

Matt: I have a friend who's a sound designer. Sound designers often will comment on the psychological impact on sound with an audience. Do you feel an audience member will experience a psychological impact with good music editing? It is something you should notice?

Jeff: When I first started as a music editor at Fox, my boss, Len Engel, imparted these words of wisdom: "You know you've made a good music edit, when no one can hear the edit" I think he was right.

I do however think that you can contour a known piece of music such as a song or classical composition to function with the intent of underscore. Stanley Kubrick's use of existing music was extremely effective at imparting a psychological impact. Gordon Stainforth, the music editor on The Shining did an amazing job piecing together a diverse and memorable soundtrack as have many other music editors on a variety of films. I think you probably notice music editing if the soundtrack is an assemblage of music that is familiar to you. Then it becomes a subjective evaluation of the choices, the mood it creates, and how it is placed in the scene. Some movies and television shows seem to throw in a bunch of songs to justify an adjunct soundtrack album. I am not sure that it's fair to call it bad editing per se but I have had a number of people tell me how terrible they thought a movie was because of the way the songs were used. And then there are many movies that wouldn't play as well without songs. I think it is really about the musical choices. There are many great music supervisors in the moving picture world. I think their craft, the sound design and the composer make the impact. The music editor is in the best circumstances, a competent facilitator.

Matt: I understand that you would spot the show, The X-Files, alone, then confer with Mark, and present your notes to the producers. Did that dynamic ever change with The X-Files as the show grew and progressed to the later seasons?

Jeff: Not really. It was more efficient and we were all on the same wavelength. Mark had so much to do that taking the time for a formal meeting would have made his schedule more arduous. If there was a questionable area, I would consult with Chris, Frank, or Paul Rabwin and tie up the loose ends before anything went to Mark. Things functioned pretty smoothly.

Matt: A lot of fans hear the term "spotting session," and don't understand what it means; could you describe how it worked, and illustrate what a normal session is like? Did the approach for spotting sessions change as you got involved with Millennium / Lone Gunmen / Harsh Realm?

Jeff: I pretty much spotted most of shows the same way. I would receive a video from the picture editorial department, watch it carefully, note any music that they cut in (songs, background source in specific locations, temp music) and translate the timings from the SMPTE timecode* to standard minutes and seconds so that Mark would know how much new music he needed to write. Then I would go through and figure out specific key picture cuts, important dialog lines, and/or action and scene shifts to determine where the cue should begin. Then of course figure out a transition point or end point for each cue. I would then create a title, a synopsis and a reference number for each piece and forward it to Mark. If there was any music that was pre-existing I would also make him a reference audio tape.

The Lone Gunmen featured a lot of songs, so for that series we would have a formal spotting session with the producers (Frank Spotnitz, Vince Gilligan, John Shiban, and Chris) in conjunction with the song (music) supervisor, Barklie Griggs. Barklie always had a plethora of great tunes and ideas and would help guide me through various versions to edit and prepare for the producers and the final mix. So spotting is essentially creating a guide map and a subsequent inventory.

Matt: You have been involved with 24 and Homeland; have those experiences shared any similarity to the years you worked on The X-Files / Millennium / Lone Gunmen? Did they differ in any way?

Jeff: I have had the great pleasure of working with some of the same people. Notably, Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon on both 24 and Homeland. 24 started with formal spotting sessions and morphed into me spotting on my own. It was primarily because of our short schedules that it evolved that way. The show creator, Joel Surnow, the composer, Sean Callery, and I developed a great rapport and quickly got on the same wavelength. The objective of the show was pretty clear; it was music-driven and for the most part, quick paced. Homeland requires more of Alex's guidance when it comes to music. The show's approach to music is a lot more minimal, delicate, and subtle. We like to discuss the nuances and possibilities for each piece and value Alex's vision. Both 24 and Homeland have been really great experiences; it's a pleasure to work with the same people on new projects that allow us to explore different approaches.

Matt: Is there a feature film that you were most proud to have been involved with?

Jeff: A number of them. Of course both X-Files movies. I love working with Mark and think his scores were great!...The others: Dazed and Confused, Hairspray, I'm Gonna Git You Sucka', Tapeheads, The Giving, To Sleep With Anger, Sneakers, and Seven Years In Tibet.

Matt: Recently, you've worked with television composers like Sean Callery and Rob Cairns. After the years of working with Mark Snow, does your approach differ when working with a new composer? Do each of them share certain similarities?

Jeff: Mark and Sean have similar working styles, so not much changed when Sean and I started working together. Both guys are amazingly talented, fast, and proficient. They both prefer working to a locked picture and delivering a full final mix to me. Fortunately they use the same (great) mixer (Larold Rebhun). So I comfortably know what to expect.

Rob Cairns and I work together in a slightly different way. Rob prefers to write the music and record and mix prior to the locked cut. He works closely with the directors, producers, and picture editors to provide original cues for each sequence as they are being assembled. He gets notes and revises as much as possible during the picture editing process. We then spot the episodes with the producers and determine what Rob needs to rewrite and what I need to conform or change to match the picture lock. So he is generally deep into the upcoming episodes, long before they are turned over for sound post-production. The method is slightly different, but the results are still fantastic. It's a real pleasure to work with Rob; he is a great musician and is always creating great scores.

Matt: In hindsight, regarding The X-Files, Millennium, Lone Gunmen, and Harsh Realm, do you have favorite seasons, or episodes that you could cite?

Jeff: I really loved the pilots on all three series and honestly enjoyed all of the episodes...Off the top of my head, these earlier X-Files episodes stand out: "Duane Barry," "Humbug," "Clyde Bruckman," "731," "The Erlenmeyer Flask," "Dod Kalm," "Jose Chung," and "Talitha Cumi." ...Seasons 4, 5, 6, and 7 were all real stand outs to me and the latter seasons as well--especially season 9...Millennium Season 2 had a whole bunch of my favorite episodes, especially "The Time Is Now," the season finale...I really liked all of The Lone Gunmen episodes, the specials being "Eine Kleine Frohike" and "Tango De Los Pistoleros." "Camera Obscura" was a memorable episode of Harsh Realm. I was extremely disappointed that both of these series didn't get more of a run.

Matt: Do you have a favorite piece of music, or music cue by Mark Snow?

Jeff: There are so many, I wouldn't know where to begin. Mark wrote so much brilliant stuff for all of the episodes. My list would be in the hundreds. Again, off the top of my head: "The Surgery," "Mountain Montage," and "Home Again" from the second feature. "Facts" and "Stung Kissing" from the first feature...The score to the "Anasazi" episode. The score to the "Nisei" episode. "The Sixth Extinction." The score to the "Home" episode, "Genderbender," "EBE," "Gethsemane"..."The Truth is Inside"...The "Disturbing Behavior" Theme. The Harsh Realm main title. The score to "Night Sins" and so many more. And of course I love the X-Files main theme, the Millennium theme and the subsequent scores.

Matt: If the opportunity arises, would you want to work for Chris Carter again?

Jeff: Definitely, I would be delighted to have that opportunity. Working on all of Chris's shows was a wonderful, elucidating experience for me. He was a supportive, enthusiastic, generous, and kind maestro and sage. I dearly miss The X-Files. I wish it could have gone on forever.

Upon reflection, there seemed to be a symbiotic relationship between Mr. Charbonneau and Mark Snow, they seemed to be in great sync and complimented each other's abilities. Jeff is another example of the following: One may start with one intended path, and end up in a completely different direction that is just as surprising and satisfying. Jeff's work can be currently enjoyed on the series Dallas, as well as his next feature film Small Time. I do hope Jeff works with fellow X-Files alumni as he has demonstrated himself a consummate professional, and someone with a generous spirit. If anyone has an opportunity to check out Jeff Charbonneau and Eliza French's photographic work, it is recommended. I wish Mr. Charbonneau the very best with his future efforts.

* SMPTE Timecode is a set of cooperating standards to label individual frames of video or film with a 'timecode' defined by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers in the SMPTE 12 M specification. Timecode itself is a form of media Metadata, which made videotape editing possible, and eventually led to non-linear editing systems. SMPTE time code can be broken down as containing binary coded decimal hour:minute:second:frame identification and 32 bits for users. The various types of SMPTE timecode media include Linear, Vertical interval, CTL timecode, Visible timecode, and film labels such as keykode. Longitudinal and vertical-interval timecodes were developed in 1967 by EECO.

Back to top