Inside the Hitchcock-Inspired Score to 'Bones' 200th Episode

Patrick McElhenney/FOX

A still from the 200th episode of Bones. 

How a television time warp prompted house composer Sean Callery to create something audibly distinct with actual strings.

When the 200th episode of Bones aired in December, fans might have momentarily thought they’d tuned into TCM instead of Fox, as the procedural celebrated a decade on the air by transporting the cast 60 years back in time. For no other reason than the sheer fun of it, the hour imagined the cast transported into a glamorous 1950s Alfred Hitchcock comedy-thriller. But if you’re going to pay homage to Hitchcock, it’s a given that you’re also going to have to offer a nod and a wink to Bernard Herrmann -- or at least make some effort to recreate a lavish style of suspense-film music that hasn’t been heard much in a half-century.

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That’s where Sean Callery came in. As seen in the clip below, the house composer for Bones -- along with his composing partners Jamie Forsyth and Julia Newmann -- brought in something you’ll rarely see in the vicinity of a 21st century prime-time show: actual strings. And a deliberately, delightfully dated sensibility to go with them.

“This is the equivalent of a complete rebooting of the series, almost like we were doing a pilot episode,” Callery says. “We had the task of paying homage to a style of filmmaking and storytelling that hasn't been around in a bit. And normally the show has a very, very small budget for live recording. But when I read the story and studied some of the films we were saluting, like To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest, I really saw that the level of the writing and the expressiveness of the playing was such that you literally couldn’t do that kind of score using electronic means and have it sound proper. So I lobbied very strongly to at least get a string section to play the score for the episode, and I was lucky enough that Fox found the resources so we were able to get about 20 instruments (for the live session). We had to utilize electronics to help produce and fill out the fullness of the score,” but the honest-to-gosh strings “made a huge difference in the way the episode breathed.”

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And it involved some rather long musical breaths. The first seven minutes of the episode were dialogue-free, starting with an old-school, theatrical-style opening credits sequence, and continuing on through a lengthy caper scene involving a jewel theft. “It was really a very exposed episode for the music,” Callery says. “On 24, I worked on action sequences where there was no dialogue, but in this Bones episode, it was really (pure) music writing as much as it was writing to picture ... The closest I came to any kind of writing style that resembled what we did here was years ago when I worked on Medium, and sometimes they had a bit of noirish writing.” The in-your-face approach of the Hitchcock tribute episode is most unlike Callery’s other ongoing gig of note, Homeland, “which is the other end of the spectrum, very minimal and almost not present, even though it’s making a big impression aesthetically and emotionally.”

Doing a tribute to 1950s film music didn’t mean they had a time frame equivalent to anything Herrmann and his contemporaries were allowed. Callery and his partners got the episode the day before Thanksgiving, and were into the mixing phase by Tuesday, before the turkey had even settled in anyone’s stomachs — not a lot of time to take up and master an entirely different musical idiom. “I can honesty say this is the one where I was most out of my comfort zone, out of anything I’ve ever worked on,” Callery says. The coming months will tell whether his To Catch a Thief homage has the right stuff to catch an Emmy.

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