John Williams: An in-depth look at scoring Star Wars

John Williams heads back to the Academy Awards tomorrow, with The Rise of Skywalker nominated for Best Original Score. This iconic composer shows his award-winning process in a documentary from 1980.

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Oscar Legend

John Williams conducting
John Williams conducting

There’s always a lot of fanfare around the Oscars, where the best talent in the film industry is honored each year. John Williams, the celebrated film composer, has become a fixture there. In fact, he’s a bit of a legend: He has won 5 Oscars, and been nominated a total of 53 times! This is more than any other living person- the only one who had more was Walt Disney.

When thinking of film composers, it’s impossible not to have Williams’ iconic scores come to mind: Harry Potter, E.T., Superman, Indiana Jones, Jaws, Jurassic Park, and of course, Star Wars.

“John, you breathe belief into every film we have made. You take our movies – many of them about our most impossible dreams – and through your musical genius make them real and everlasting for billions and billions of people.”

Steven Spielberg

The Documentary

For aspiring film composers, John Williams is one of the giants. His credits are mind-boggling. And it can seem impossible to try to follow in his footsteps.

That’s why unearthed this documentary from 1980 is so fascinating. It follows Williams around as he is in the midst of composing the score for The Empire Strikes Back. We get to see his process step-by-step as he plans, writes, and conducts a cue for a short scene. We also get to follow him around in his life outside composing to get his perspective on the industry and music in general. Personally I found it a fascinating peek into a pivotal piece of film composing history.

Lessons from the Master

“I’m sure that Beethoven would have shunned [film composing]. But Wagner would have had his own studio out there in Burbank with a huge water tank with a W on it.”

John Williams

There are so many highlights to this documentary, but my key takeaway isn’t about the music at all. It’s the filmmaking. There are a couple scenes where John Williams is sitting down with the director and discussing the story and the characters. When we see him watching the rough cut, he’s paying attention to the shot selection and the development of the story. He’s looking at the individual beats of the story, and how that affects the larger character arcs.

Irvin Kershner, the director of The Empire Strikes Back, compliments Williams’ ability to find and augment the emotion of scenes. And he talks about how, in scenes with little dialogue, the music is telling the story. Therefore John Williams has to be not just a good composer, but a good storyteller – a true filmmaker.

Without a doubt, John Williams is one of the greats. Any film composer can learn a great deal from his work, and this 40-year-old documentary is a fascinating peek into his process.

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