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.