Monday, May 4, 2015

Steve Danforth: A Conversation

If you've read this blog before, you know how much I love the music from the show.  From the first episode to the last, the music was unbelievably amazing and better than any other television show's catalog before or since.  Without the music, the show simply would not have been the same.   Steve Danforth was a music editor for Paramount Studios who worked on "MacGyver" for the entire series run.  He talked to me on the phone for an hour, and I was thrilled and thankful for the opportunity to talk music and MacGyver with him.

SD: I am probably the #1 fan of MacGyver - I loved working on the show as its only music editor throughout the run.  I truly believe we would have aired many more years if ABC had not inexplicably stuck us in a horrible Monday night time slot (after football).  I think a lot of our audience was women and kids, not football watchers, ha!

NS: How did you get started on the show?

SD:  Paramount Pictures at the time would assign music editors to shows.  I was simply assigned to the next show that didn't have an editor, and that happened to be MacGyver. 

NS: What were the early days on the show like?

SD: Many of us had doubts as to whether the show could succeed.  It wasn't a normal show and it didn't have big action.  In the pilot, MacGyver puts out an acid leak with a candy bar. And we thought, "Hmm, I don't know if this is going to work or not!" But it surprised us all, and we were happy that it not only went on for many years but also that it became part of the culture and a colloquialism where people now use it as a verb and say, "Let's 'MacGyver' that."

NS: How important was music to the show?
SD: The music in MacGyver was VERY important to the show.  One of our producers once told us that the show played very well overseas because it was mostly music with a little dialogue.  Many of the scenes were what I called "MacWork" - i.e. music that played under MacGyver building things to get the advantage on bad guys.  Unlike much of today's TV underscore, we used a live orchestra of around 40 musicians, recording mainly on Stage M at Paramount Pictures. On bad guy music, early on I suggested having primarily low horns play (in a similar manner as composer Bernard Herrmann's music). The composers loved the idea and ran with it, creating their own style of bad guy music.  Several of the shows were "tracked" per year -- i.e. I selected music that was recorded (only) that year and edited the music to make it "hit" whatever was going on in scenes.  While today's action shows just have repetitive sequencer-driven music, our show had to change tone back and forth between Mac working and bad guy tension.

NS: What was the process like to score and edit an episode?
SD: The composer, producer, and I would get together for a spotting session which was where we would decide where to put music in the show.  We were in a projection room, and there would be a projectionist showing us the episode, which had already been otherwise shot and edited, up on a screen.  It was very tedious since projection machines didn't move very fast.  

We would pick the start and stopping point of each cue, or theme.  We'd decide if the cue should have any particular style, and the producer would have suggestions based on his prior knowledge of the episode.  As the music editor, I would take notes of what was said in the spotting session.  Then I went to the editing room and timed the show in seconds and tenths of seconds, and within those timing notes I'd say what the producer wanted in the particular cue. And the composer would take those notes and write his music based on those notes. 

Then the composer, producer, and I would get together on a scoring stage where the orchestra actually played the music with Dennis McCarthy or Randy Edelman or Ken Harrison conducting.  I was pretty close with the producers, and they relied on me a lot to offer opinions and feedback.  They used me as a sounding board to see if I thought the music was appropriate. Sometimes the producer would ask for changes right there on the scoring stage.  

Generally we tried to stay away from dialogue unless it was an emotional scene.  When an action scene was over and the characters began talking, that was our reason to bail on the music.  In some episodes, particularly in the first season, we started going a little crazy with music.  In one particular episode, and I can't remember which one, we scored 48 minutes of music in a 52 minute show.  That was a huge amount of music for Dennis to deliver, and on that particular show he ended up bringing in a couple of guys, Bruce Babcock and William Ross, to help.

There wasn't always agreement. I remember one time where Mac landed a hang glider atop a very tall Arizona butte.  Do you happen to remember that episode?

NS: Yes, that was "Eagles."

SD: Yes, exactly.  The original score that Dennis had for Mac landing on top of that butte was this triumphant, big, heroic, orchestral sound.  The producer said, "The picture editor had something I thought worked better." And so Dennis stopped the score and we put the orchestra on a 10 minute break.  We went in the booth and looked at the video tape, and the picture editor had cut in a solo trumpet doing a slowed down version of the theme. Dennis said, "Ok, that's fine."  I asked Dennis afterwards, "How did you do that?  They took this magnificent cue that you had written!  Mac landed on top of this butte and your music was so heroic and joyful." He just waved his hand over his head and said, "You just gotta do what you gotta do."
NS: Did you work in Los Angeles the whole time?

SD: I lived in Los Angeles, but we did do actual scoring with the orchestra in Vancouver when the show was there because I was told it saved around 10 thousand dollars per episode. The composer, producer, and I would fly up every week and a half to score. We'd arrive the night before, get on the scoring stage the next day at 8 AM, then score until 2, then be on an airplane coming back to L.A.  At that time the show was recorded on tape, and I physically took the tapes to the sound stage and cleaned out all the tracks and wrote the dub logs from which the mixers would dub the show the next day.  The next couple of days, the sound effects, music, and dialogue would be mixed together.  The supervising producer would supervise the dub, and then the Executive Producer, usually John Rich but sometimes Henry Winkler, would come in and check the dub and occasionally would request a few changes.  Then I'd have to go to my library of pre-recorded scores and cut it to fit.  I would often have to rush because everyone wanted to leave by that point!  

NS: What was the technology like that you worked with?

SD: One thing all shows of that time period went through is technological changes.  MacGyver started as an all-film show, meaning I worked with a 35mm black and white "dupe" and 35mm mag film, all running in sync, for editing, through a Moviola.  Paramount had the best Moviolas in all of Hollywood, at that time, because you could run three-channel mag through two different sync "play heads."  Other studios did not have three-channel heads and so you could not hear each of six channels separately (until you reached the dub stage).

Next, technology changed and I needed to learn how to transfer music via 1/2" three-channel tape that I edited onto 16 track 2" tape (that I shared with sound effects editors).  At the time, I believe I was the only TV film music editor to transition to doing tape editing.  Other editors had to work alongside a tape editor who pushed the buttons.

The last technological transition was to have digital picture and sound editing (very similar to what is used today).  I counted myself as being very fortunate in being allowed and able to make these technological shifts (I worried that the work could be farmed out to an editing house specializing in that new technology).  Fortunately, the producers and composers valued how I edited music and so I was able to hang on and keep working!  It would have been so easy for them to outsource to a sound company, but that speaks to the family feeling on the show and at Paramount. 

NS: Tell me about the composers you worked with, and did you have a favorite?

SD: I enjoyed working with all of them.  They were all very talented, and I considered myself very fortunate to be working with all of them.  They're the ones who provided me with ammunition to show off with music.  When their stuff was great, they made me look great.  

I have the closest relationship with Dennis McCarthy and Ken Harrison.  Randy Edelman wasn't around that much that I could develop a big relationship.  Too bad, because he went on to do great films. He's a great composer, and the world called!  William Ross has also gone on to do some big movies.  I really liked Bill's music because he reminded me the most of John Williams.  He could take a small 40 piece orchestra and make it sound like a symphony.  

Dennis was my mainstay.  He created a kind of continuous style for the show which I just found very useful in tracking.  His music has what I call a lot of "hits" in it, meaning it hit on various things in the scene.  And when I tracked, I found that a lot of these hits would magically line up with other hits in other scenes, and this concept of hitting was very important in a show like MacGyver.  In today's shows, they throw on a sequencer and creating pulsating music, and you can weed it out by the yard - it doesn't have to hit anything. 

Ken's music was very specific to a show.  He'd try to get into the particular ambience of the show.  Dennis's music was less like that, so I generally relied on Dennis's music to track shows with.  But Ken and Bill's music was very powerful, and I liked to use those whenever I could. 

NS: Is there any chance of a MacGyver CD in our future?

SD: I've never heard of one.  There wasn't much dialogue when there was music so I imagine you could make your own.

NS: Did you have much interaction with Richard Dean Anderson or Dana Elcar?

SD: No, not much at all.

NS: Any other special memories to share?

SD: I have two favorite memories... Dennis nicknamed me "Amazing" for always calmly and quickly making the music for whatever the producers wanted.  Producers and sound editors then began calling me that, too!   What a treat!  The other favorite memory occurred when Executive Producer John Rich asked for a change in music, and I asked him what he preferred.  He responded,  with a smile, "You know what to do."

NS: What were your favorite episodes?

SD: My favorite show was Show 59, The Negotiator - a transition show for Dennis where he got into more of a synth base score with orchestra backup.  MacGyver falls in love with a woman who tries to kill him - then survives, but is temporary blind.  Sound thus becomes a huge part of the story.  I loved the long wailing horns in Dennis's music followed by nothing but silence during which Mac and we the audience are listening to where the villain killer might be located. The spaces of silence with music accents I thought really heightened the drama.  I ended up using that score a lot to track many shows that followed.

I also emotionally liked Blind Faith, Show 121.  Dana Elcar, from all the stories I heard about him, just seemed like a really nice guy.  I loved the fact that the people on the show kept him on. At a speech he gave to the National Federation of the Blind in 1991,  he related how the producers told him, "The fact that you're losing your eyesight doesn't mean you've forgotten how to act." That particular episode, to me, cemented the good feelings that we on the show all felt toward one another.  That we were very supportive of one another.  You work on a lot of shows, and when a show like this comes around where people really care about one another, it makes an amazing difference.  It improves the work and makes everyone do their best, and I think it came out on screen.

NS: Was MacGyver your favorite show to work on?

SD: I would say so, and I've worked on successful shows such as Happy Days and JAG.  It was great times with fun, creative people.  I keep hoping to work on a new version of MacGyver, be it TV or a feature movie.  Working with the same composers and producers again... Heaven!


  1. Another great interview. As hectic and stressful as I'm sure it was at times, what a great job to be able to select which of the first-rate musical compositions of Randy Edelman, Dennis McCarthy, Ken Harrison, and William Ross to place in which scene. I don't get the jargon of the music trade but I think I agreed with what he said about the compositions on modern shows and their "repetitive sequencer-driven music" that can be intense but is also pretty undistinguished. "24" is a show that comes immediately to mind. The music set an exciting mood at times, but it didn't have much soul or redeeming value standing alone. If the music were not being set to whatever exciting thing Jack Bauer was doing at a given moment, you wouldn't get much out of it.

    Mr. Danforth proves his bona fides as a huge fan by reciting the numbers of the episodes he remembers best (i.e. #59 The Negotiator and #121 Blind Faith). Not too many people could do that! Not surprising that "MacGyver" was the show he enjoyed working on most. The music on "MacGyver" was light years better than any other series I've watched. I've always liked much of what Jan Hammer did on "Miami Vice" but I still wouldn't put those compositions on par with "MacGyver".

    1. It was an amazing operation they had going, getting the music composed and tracked so quickly after the show was done filming. And all the modern technology in the world can't replicate the sound of a real orchestra playing the works of world-class composers.

      I may be wrong, but I think he was probably looking at some type of guide or index rather than just reciting the episode numbers of the top of his head. That's not to take away from his fandom, however. He originally said that he wasn't sure how much he'd remember and that it was a long time ago, but as you can see by the length of the post, he remembered plenty.

    2. When I think of 24, the one moment that stands out to me musically is at the end of Season 4 when Bauer fakes his death and then walks off into the direction of the rising sun. Amazing music there. But I agree, there's not much else that stands alone as something I'd enjoy listening to.

    3. I don't recall the music from that final scene in season 4. I have most of the series on VHS, including season 4, so I think I'll dig the tape out in the days ahead and give that a listen.

      Yeah he definitely remembered an impressive amount of material. The greatness of the music is all the more noteworthy when factoring the tight timeline they had to put it together.

    4. Here's a link - no pictures though. It's still worth pulling out the VHS to see the shot of Bauer pulling out the sunglasses and walking off into the sunrise.

  2. Fantastic interview, thanks so much for posting this. Indeed it is amazing how many details he remembers. I wonder what the 48 minute score was he mentioned from season 1. I recall Deathlock having nearly no unscored scene, wonder whether that might be the one. Would be interesting to know what exactly Ross and Babcock's job was on that show. Interesting to know that Ross got involved over 5 years before actually composing for the series.
    I know exactly what piece from The Negotiator he was referring to, on top of my head I recall this piece being tracked in The Endangered, The Invisible Killer, Blood Brothers (even though this one had an original score), The Spoilers and Easy Target.
    One thing I've always wondered was whether the composers thought of each other as competitors, colleagues, or whether they simply had nothing to do with each other.
    Nice inside info on Eagles too. I didn't care for the episode but always thought McCarthy nailed that score, and basically made the episode worth watching.
    I do wonder whether the composers always flew to Vancouver to conduct themselves. By season 3 McCarthy would have had his hands full with Star Trek TNG, hard to believe he would have had the time to fly out to Van that many times. The guy really was a workhorse.
    Do you know whether Steve is still in touch with the composers to this day?
    Thanks again for sharing, I envy you for talking to a guy with this much inside info on my favorite music of all time.

    1. Thanks David! Glad you enjoyed it. I was wondering too what the season 1 score was with almost all music - and your Deathlock guess seems like a good choice. I rewatched that scene at the end of Eagles just now and heard the trumpet line he mentions. I agree, that episode did have a really good score overall. He said he hasn't been in touch lately but does have contact info for some of them.