Who Really Created The 'Inception' BRAAAM? Composer Mike Zarin Sets The Record Straight

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by Kevin Jagernauth
November 13, 2013 1:18 PM
25 Comments
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It has become nearly omnipresent in blockbuster trailers, it was the defining characteristic of a major movie campaign, it has become as recognizable as any piece of score or movie music, and you know it as one single, stomach rumbling note: BRAAAM! Ever since it accented the mysterious world Christopher Nolan was conjuring for "Inception," there has been an equally enigmatic air surrounding just who is the true creator of this dark musical motif. Most of us assumed we had it figured out when Hans Zimmer shared last week (in an interview with Vulture) how the sound was created, along with his disdain for its overuse in movie spots. But his involvement is just a small part of a much bigger story. Composer and sound design Mike Zarin, after reading Zimmer's comments, reached out to us to finally clear the air on how the BRAAAM was made and the journey it took through the advertising campaign for "Inception." If you're wondering why Zarin should know, it's because he created it.

“It never really bothered me that much, yeah it was annoying, but it was always a level of hearsay. ‘Who did this, who did that, was it Zack Hemsey? Was it Hans Zimmer? Was it Mike Zarin? Who did what?’ I would get questions, and I would answer them, and it was fine," Zarin explained about what compelled him to talk about creating that iconic trailer sound. "But reading [the Zimmer article] and seeing someone on the inside, who knows exactly how everything happened, outright lying, that bothered me. I just feel the truth on the whole process should be explained once and for all.”

What followed was a fascinating talk with Zarin, but the first thing that became clear was that he's ultimately quite humble about it all, and as you'll see, fully credits others for their help as well. He also acknowledges that there was a precedent — even though it wasn't a direct influence — for the idea of an insistent, percussive accent in a trailer. “That sound...using an impactful sound design element to reinforce the idea of a trailer, in my recent memory, was first done effectively in the first 'Transformers' trailer. That was the first one where there was a distinct, repetitive sound that was used over and over,” he said.

 

Before we get into the process of how BRAAAM! came to be, it's useful to be reminded that marketing and trailer campaigns for blockbuster movies start as shooting begins, sometimes even earlier. Thus, when Mike Zarin was commissioned by BLT Communications in 2009 to work on "Inception," they didn't have much to start with in terms of material. “At that point, there was just a script. They had just started shooting, they didn’t get in any dailies,” he explained, adding: "Yes, the Edith Piaf song was written into the script. It was Christopher Nolan’s vision that every time they kicked into a new level of consciousness, that slowed down version of that song played.”

Working with Dave Rosenthal as the editor and Lauri Brown as the producer, Zarin kicked off the four to six week process pulling together the music for the first teaser trailer for "Inception." The trio used what little they were given as a starting point. “The only footage we had at the time was Leonardo DiCaprio riding a bullet train. So the concept of the teaser trailer was taking a journey on a bullet train through the levels of consciousness through the mind. And so I went around town with a recorder, hopped on the subway, did a whole bunch of foley recordings, capturing this idea of being on a train. And if you listen closely in the trailer you’ll hear these very subtle sort of train sounding things," Zarin shared. 

"And the idea was that we’re sleeping, but we’re on a train. So we’re feeling the rumble of the train, and the visualization that I was given for the creation of what became [the BRAAAM] was that if you imagined your hand was buried in sand, and you’re slowly lifting it up, and you see something is starting to appear, and then all of a sudden the hand appears, and so then it’s very clear. And so musically, the direction was, we’re asleep on this train, something is slowly rumbling, there’s something brewing, and it’s slowly appearing, and it’s developing and it’s developing, and it’s growing and it’s growing, and then it smacks you in the face," he continued.

As he continued to work, input from Rosenthan and Brown refined things further. “And then Dave wanted me to create a sound that cleared the room, kind of like a Tibetan bell,” but that idea took another dimension with Lauri suggesting the tone have a brass edge to it. “The concept for the trailer was [initially] more sound design into percussion, not brass. So I need to make this sound that cleared the room, yet had a brassy feel and was highly impactful. So that’s when I went back, and I chipped away, using brass samples, pitch shifting, different effects and layering, and tweaking them out until we finally came up with this [sound]," Zarin said. "It was Dave, who was the editor — who technically speaking was the music editor and arranger — I’d give him all the stems, and then he would take them and place them as he heard they should be. So what I had at the bottom of my mix, he put at the top of the mix. Where I had something shifted a little to the left, he’d put it right in the middle.”

However, there was still more input to come, from the director himself, before it was all done. “In the last week of the project, Christopher Nolan sends ‘Always A Catch’ from ‘The Dark Knight’ score. And he says, ‘Please take what you guys have done and build it around this. So then we took it, and I reinterpolated my piece that I did and made it fit on the drum hits and on the marks that Christopher Nolan wanted. And then again, I gave it to Dave and then he reinterpolated it again and added a couple more drum hits and changed a couple levels here and there, and then the final result was BRAAAM.”

 

It's on the second trailer where Hans Zimmer's team entered the picture. Ideas for strings for the new trailer were requested, and though Zarin had written some sketches during the final stages of his work on the first "Inception" teaser, he admits they weren't up to his standard and unsurprisingly, the studio wasn't keen on them. "So Christopher Nolan gets Hans Zimmer’s team to work on trailer number two. So if you listen to trailer number two, it’s my BRAAMS, it’s all my sound design, and [there’s] another brass line that I wrote that was in my sketch, but then there’s a whole new orchestral part that his guys wrote,” Zarin says.

“Then if you go to the actual film score [the track '528491'], that is a reinterpolation of trailer number two," he added. "It’s the same melody, the same strings, the same everything -- it’s reorchestated, re-recorded and now the BRAAM is no longer mine, but what Hans [described in the interview]...it was a derivative from trailer number two.”

 

This brings us to the third and final trailer of "Inception," arguably the one that made BRAAAM stick in the public consciousness. “So then trailer number three, obviously the most popular trailer for all the right reasons — it was a great trailer, and a great song — was Zack Hemsey’s piece. And in the actual trailer, it’s still built on top of all of my sound design," Zarin reveals. "And he worked the same as I did with Dave and Lauri — Dave was actually the music arranger in this as well — so Zack started with a five minute piece and then Dave takes it and rearranges it, and makes it what it was. And turned it what Zack, after the fact, re-edited and created into 'Mind Heist,' and then he put it up on the internet for everyone to have.”

 

There you have it, the full story on how the BRAAM sound evolved from the train recordings of Mike Zarin for the first "Inception" teaser through to the Zach Hemsey scored third trailer. Hopefully for Zarin, this will finally put to rest any questions about where this trailer sound originated. “One of the reasons I haven’t said anything, the main reason is that this is a collaborative effort. I didn’t come up with this on my own. The whole [impactful sound concept] was Dave’s idea,” the composer and sound design reiterates.

“It’s not the not giving the credit, it’s taking credit where it’s not due," Zarin continued, about what perturbed him most through all of this, adding: “I’m a believer in truth, I’m a believer in fairness. It’s the non-truth that bothers me. It’s the not being fair and accurate that bothers me." Pressed as to why Zimmer may be owning the creation of BRAAAM, rather than sharing the spotlight with those who built it up, Zarin simply stated, "I don't know."

At the end of the day, he's thankful for the opportunity of working on "Inception," and the doors it opened. "My peers all knew it was me, and that trailer only helped me. At that time, when I got that gig, I had only one big trailer placement under my belt, and that was ‘Inglourious Basterds.’ And that was it, that was all I had. And after 'Inception,' I got ‘Avengers,’ I produced a track for ‘Iron Man 3,’ my list of trailers is awesome, and I have ‘Inception’ to thank for it.”

Update 11/15: Mike Zarin also credits Massey Rafani at Warner Bros. for spearheading the "Inception" marketing campaign and being a key influence on the shape and direction it took.

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25 Comments

  • Miguel | December 6, 2013 12:42 PMReply

    So interesting uses for the tripod soud from war of the worlds!

  • nicole | November 27, 2013 4:30 PMReply

    1: Trailer for Kundun find it on youtube
    2: Philip Glass
    3: 1997
    4: quote from above: "As he continued to work, input from Rosenthan and Brown refined things further. “And then Dave wanted me to create a sound that cleared the room, kind of like a Tibetan bell,” but that idea took another dimension with Lauri suggesting the tone have a brass edge to it. “The concept for the trailer was [initially] more sound design into percussion, not brass. So I need to make this sound that cleared the room, yet had a brassy feel and was highly impactful. "

    nothing new under the sun

  • Dan | November 24, 2013 12:15 PMReply

    Hans Zimmer is just a bit of a prick isn't he?

  • Sebastian | November 20, 2013 9:16 AMReply

    This guy sounds so jealous!! - Zimmer is the most generous person when it comes to sharing credit! Did you know that Zimmer allowed Klaus Badelt to take 'full credit' for composing the first 'Pirates of the Carribean' film?? Hans composed the whole thing.

  • Brady | November 29, 2013 6:36 AM

    He didn't give him credit. He was contractually not allowed to have his name attached so that's why Badelt got credit. Also, if Zimmer was so generous he wouldn't take credit for as many films as he does. Most of his scores that are composed by him are really primarily made by ghost writers that work for him., but he still takes all of the credit.

  • Ripley | November 15, 2013 10:01 AMReply

    I recall the Alien trailer having an iconic sound years ago as well...

  • Glass | November 14, 2013 4:03 PMReply

    Shout out to him for mentioning that the whole repetitive-rhythm trailer design had been around since Transformers.

  • Thorhammers | November 14, 2013 3:52 PMReply

    Great article. Love when truth prevails..or more, when it's allowed to prevail.

  • Jesper | November 14, 2013 4:54 AMReply

    I don't see how Hans Zimmer lied about it in his interview. The Edith Piaf track was even in the script.

    Google this article: "Why Hans Zimmer Got The Job You Wanted (And You Didn't)" from soundtracksandtrailermusic

  • Dylan | November 26, 2013 10:00 AM

    I think it's a misunderstanding rather than lying. Zimmer assumes when people ask about the sound they're talking about the sound that features in the movie itself, which is drawn from the Piaf number: http://youtu.be/UVkQ0C4qDvM whereas I think Zarin above is correct actually most people are thinking about the sound from the trailer, which is what we here all over trailers these days. I think we might be able to accuse Zimmer of presumption and no small amount of vanity, but I think lying and credit grabbing is a little unfair.

  • Skeptical-Guy | November 14, 2013 2:48 AMReply

    Hans Zimmer's true talent is politics. Directors feel safe knowing that he is producing the score. Producers feel confidence due to Zimmer's track record. Frankly, they all know that he doesn't originate all of the music, and they don't care. They do care about the seal of approval that comes from having his name in the credits. Many of his writers will never get out from behind his shadow, and if they claim credit, they are usually not believed. The danger of starting out as a ghost is that you may likely stay a ghost.

  • WEITZIE | November 13, 2013 4:46 PMReply

    "Devil's Battle Cry" from Epic Score -- 15 seconds in. Released: June 2009.

  • laksndlskn | November 13, 2013 4:21 PMReply

    I'd love for an in-depth article about how exactly Zimmer operates his factory of composers. So many of the Remote Control-produced scores sound very similar, sharing certain sounds or elements almost exactly, yet credited to a variety of different people. Zimmer gets the credit on the biggest ones, but who else is working on his scores? For example, in that Vulture article he talked about his work on the first Pirates of the Caribbean as if he composed it alone, but it's actually credited to Klaus Badelt who surely had at least some hand in it.

    Surely there are some former Remote Control composers who could lift the lid on how it all operates?

  • Pawel | November 13, 2013 6:11 PM

    One did, there is an article about it somewhere and I don't remember.

    One crucial thing. While often the additional composers (mostly arrangers, they basically take the material Zimmer wrote in suites and rearrange it to it the movie) aren't often credited in the film (the reason "political" is often mentioned, also unofficially), they ARE however credited in the cue sheet. What does that mean? They are paid royalties for cues they worked on (and so is Zimmer, because the melodic material used is his anyway).

  • TK Milano | November 13, 2013 3:53 PMReply

    "Open Secret" is right. It *is* well known that Zimmer does this. Zimmer's genius isn't writing, it's orchestration. He knows how to make things sound better than most others. But what's immoral is that he doesn't give credit for all the material that is handed to him so he can do this. I know of a particular piece of music he took credit for - a great piece of music - that he did not write. I know he didn't, because I know the composer that did write it. He's like a modern day Disney - getting everyone else to do the work then taking the credit. What's sickening is that when you're that successful, it really isn't necessary to be such a liar about it. If fact, it's actually rather pathetic and says a lot about the kind of human being he is...

  • sdasdasd | November 13, 2013 4:24 PM

    Yeah, I'd be fascinated to find out more about this. Even his famous scores like The Thin Red Line have (buried away in the credits) co-composers like John Powell and Klaus Badelt.

  • jizm | November 13, 2013 3:47 PMReply

    puke... At least now everyone knows who's responsible for the demise of musicality in trailer music.

  • Jake | November 13, 2013 3:11 PMReply

    Oh god, who cares. Seriously. People care about this STILL?!

  • Washington | November 13, 2013 6:23 PM

    How about some empathy, asshole? How'd you feel if your most famous work that made you successful was miscredited to a different person

  • OPEN SECRET | November 13, 2013 2:52 PMReply

    It is well known around town that Hans Zimmer has made a very successful career by of taking credit for the work of others. The only thing surprising about this article is that finally someone had the guts to call him out on it publicly. Bravo, Mr. Zarin.

  • McKenzie | November 13, 2013 2:47 PMReply

    Great post. The concept of "ownership" and "originator" is so murky with music in films these days with so many people working on the same project.

  • FilmFan | November 13, 2013 1:24 PMReply

    Such an unnecessary article over a sound effect that has been used for years.

  • Washington | November 13, 2013 6:24 PM

    Can you people even read nobody is saying they invented the deep bass hit, it's how it was used

  • David | November 13, 2013 4:42 PM

    And asound effect which is practically a low brass strike. Nothing that it hasn't been used in thousands of scores.

  • Alfredo | November 13, 2013 2:01 PM

    Right - it's been used for 3 years. Since 2009. Incessantly. By EVERYONE. Interesting to learn where the sound actually originated.

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