Alumnus Conducts, Orchestrates The Lego Movie

Alumnus James T. Sale has credits on some of today’s biggest hit movies, including as conductor/orchestrator for The Lego Movie.

February 24, 2014

Whenever James T. Sale got on a plane to take a trip as a kid, he would hum the opening sequence to The Towering Inferno that accompanies the scene where Paul Newman’s character flies over San Francisco. For fishing or boating trips, it was the “Out to Sea” cue from Jaws.

“It was very much part of my thought process,” said the 1992 alumnus.

And it has been ever since. Sale has credits on some of today’s biggest hit movies, including as conductor/orchestrator for The Lego Movie, which had a $69 million opening weekend.

The movie features a good dose of electronic music, which allowed Sale to put his experience working with sequencing and synth programming to use, a skill set he credits Berklee for introducing him to. “That was the beginning of me learning how to sequence and learn electronics. It’s helped me to make a living in the industry,” he said from his home in Pasadena, California.

Sale came to Berklee by way of the University of Delaware, where he was studying English. He was actively playing drums on the side but had this nagging feeling that he needed to pursue his dream of being involved in film music—a dream he’d had since he saw Star Wars as a 10-year-old in 1977. He knew in order to do so he’d have to study composition and orchestration in a formal way. Berkee’s film scoring degree was a perfect match.

“There was something about film music that really captured my imagination,” said Sale. “It was something I strongly identified with. It made sense to me how music was functioning in film. I felt I understood what was being done to enhance the film to make it more memorable.”

Sale describes himself as a "daydreamy kind of kid" for whom film music was an escape. He found himself returning to the theater to see Star Wars over and over again. “It dawned on me that it was because I was hearing John Williams’s music in Dolby stereo. It was a bit of an escape for me.”

At Berklee, Sale got the tools he needed to do his job today. David Callahan, who taught him conducting privately and in class, was among those teachers who were particularly influential for Sale.

“He really helped train me for conducting in general and conducting for film,” he recalled. “He’d put scores I’d never seen before in front of me and play the music. I’d have to follow along and sight-read and read tempo markings. Of course it was great training for film music, especially if you’re conducting for another composer; you are sight-reading up there and need to have your wits about you.”

Composition professor Tom McGah also made a lasting impression on Sale, who noted he was supportive of students taking chances and exploring with composition.

Beyond the classroom, Sale took advantage of the library’s resources. “I spent hours in there studying these film scores, figuring out what makes the orchestra sound this way or that way, how things are voiced and put together.”

Along with The Lego Movie, Sale’s credits include the films 21 Jump Street, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and Ali, and video games The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth, and The Golden Compass. He wrote the score for such films as Music Within and the forthcoming Return to Zero starring Minnie Driver.

For the latter, he wrote, orchestrated, and conducted the music. Because of the subject matter—a couple that lost a baby just weeks before it was born—it was an emotional process at times. The director, Sean Hanish, is a friend who experienced this same loss. Sale immersed himself almost like an actor does. “I found myself almost haunted late one night, hearing bits of music,” for the last scene of the film, he recalled. He wrote down the music in the middle of the night on a piece of paper that he would later frame and give to Hanish. “It was one of those things I was living, sleeping, and breathing constantly.”

After all, he's been scoring scenes in people's lives throughout his own. For Sale, the kid who was once obsessed with film scores, such an immersion is likely instrumental to his success.