So as discussed, the principles in this book apply to any country in the world. But the answer to the above question is: it depends. It depends on what you want for yourself and what goals you set out for yourself. If you want to score the next Hollywood blockbuster, then yes you do need to move out to LA. Community and connections drive this business and Los Angeles is the center of the universe when it comes to the entertainment industry. There may be some exceptions to the rule, but I am only aware of one. Once you establish yourself, then you can move back home or wherever it is that you want to live. But if you want to be on the A-list of composers (the top 20 or 30 highest paid, scoring the biggest movies) then you need to at least start in Los Angeles.
Alan Silvestri lives in northern California and Howard Shore lives in New York State (outside of the New York City ) but they both established themselves in Los Angeles at one point. The rest of the A-list composers pretty much all live out here in LA.
If you see yourself as scoring independent movies and local commercials as a career, then you can probably live in any big city. So if you are from Springfield, Illinois, and want to stay close to home, you could move to Chicago. If you are from Oriskany Fall, NY, you may want to move to New York City . If you are from Huntsville, Ontario, then you might want to move to Toronto. Even if you are from a moderately big city you still may want to move to a bustling metropolis to find work. For a brief time in my life I lived in Brisbane, Australia. The population of the city was hovering around 1,000,000 people. Pretty big, right? But as I tried to find work in film scoring there, I realized there were very slim pickings. If I were to pursue film music at all in that country it was going to have to be in Sydney or Melbourne. I eventually ended up moving back to Toronto as a springboard to get to Los Angeles. Now this is not to say there are no film composers in Brisbane, but there can’t be very many.
The Personality Factor
As an assistant you will be interfacing with many members of the composers team, such as the engineer, the music editor, the musicians contractor, the agents, editorial (the team editing the picture who will supply you with the latest reels of the movie), the orchestrators and the conductor. Sometimes you might even be required to liaise with the director and producer. So having good people skills is another requirement.
As “Spider-Man 3” went on, director Sam Raimi had less and less time to come over to Chris’s studio to listen to the mockups. So Chris sent me over to Sony to meet with him almost daily. As his liaison I had to make sure that he was represented well.
On one cue towards the end of the movie, as the Sandman emerges into the enormous behemoth at the construction sight, Chris had written a huge tutti section. Of course, even with the best of mockups there is no way to avoid it from sounding dense and one-dimensional. Chris conceives his music for the orchestra in his head, at the piano. He doesn’t write to accommodate his samples. The technology doesn’t influence him in that sense. Composers who write at the computer may not face this problem.
So Sam asked me why it sounded the way it did. I explained it to him just like how I explained it in the above paragraph. He wasn’t convinced right away. I had to assure him and gain rapport with him and have him trust me that it was going to sound amazing on the scoring stage with a real orchestra – and it did. Sam loved it! If I wasn’t able to gain rapport with Sam and really sell Chris’s music, then Chris might have had to rewrite the cue, and that would have not been welcome news to him.
I had another experience like that on the same movie where I had to use my social skills to improve a situation. About 20 minutes into the movie there is a big fight between the characters Harry and Peter. This was an extremely important scene for Sam. He thought of it as the fight everyone had been waiting to see since the first movie. It’s a 4 minute long action sequence. It was also very important because it was being aired on NBC in a week for a promotional special on the movie. The music had to be good and it had to be recorded soon.
This was towards the beginning of the project. Sam was still coming over to the studio. I was sitting beside him when he heard the mockup for the first time. He almost leapt out of his seat with excitement. The mockup was sent to the dubbing mixer (the one who mixes the music, sound effects and dialogue) so he could start mixing the scene with all of the audio elements. When the cue was recorded, he was going to simply replace the mockup with the live recording and then tweak it for the final mix.
When he was mixing the cue with the mockup he noticed problems in Chris’s “writing.” The next day there was a meeting in the Cary Grant Theatre (the big dubbing stage on the Sony lot) with Paul Ottosson (sound effects editor), Bob Murawski (picture editor), Sam Raimi, Laura Ziskin (executive producer) and of course the dubbing mixer. Chris was asked to be there but he didn’t want to get bogged down with that sort of stuff. He needed to be cranking out new minutes of music. So I was sent in his place since I was getting to know Sam pretty well.
We listened to the mix of the scene. The dubbing mixer then told me that he couldn’t mix it well because the music was fighting the sound effects. Now Paul, the sound effects editor, the one who actually designed the sounds, was just observing quietly taking notes. The dubbing mixer asked me (as Chris’s representative) why the music was sounding so muddy, why it was not cutting through, why the percussion had no “umph!” to it. It sounded like he was suggesting that the problems were in the writing. I told him that it was the mockup. The real thing would sound great. He wasn’t convinced. I even brought the sketch. I had done the takedown so I knew the cue backwards and forwards. I showed him the percussion parts (not that a music score really meant anything to him anyway) and tried to assure him that it was going to sound fabulous with the real orchestra. I told him that there was going to be so much more clarity, sharpness, depth and presence to the recording. I looked over to Sam and he looked at us like two of his children he had to choose between. I never really thought Sam had his own problem with it, but Sam trusted the people on his team and wanted a solution. Ultimately it was Sam’s call.
The sound mixer was suggesting taking the music completely out in places where he thought the two elements were fighting each other. It was always in the middle of a musical phrase it seemed. There was only one place that Sam insisted music be out. That was at the point where Harry throws Peter through the window. Sam wanted to feature the sound effects there. I came up with a solution. The meeting ended and I had made my point. I told them I would take their notes to Chris so that he could start addressing them. I assured them that they would like the solution and for that, I had to get them to trust me, to like me and had to build rapport with them. The music was to be recorded the next afternoon.
I got back to the office and told Chris where the dubbing mixer wanted to punch holes in the music. He wasn’t all that happy about it. I told him my solution and he green-lit it. All I was going to do was write “cue” around the sections in the score that the dubbing mixer wanted deleted. The terminology “cue” means to play the part with the indication, only if asked to by the conductor. So we would know in the score where music was supposed to be out, but the musicians had the notes on the page in case we wanted them to play it. I knew that the problem could be solved by having them hear the real thing. It would be that simple to fix it. So when we brought that cue up on the stage we asked the musicians to play all of the cues, except for the section that Sam insisted be just sound effects. When it was recorded Sam came into the control room for a playback. He hadn’t been there for the rehearsing of the cue. He heard it and loved it. He made some final tweaks. We listened to it with the sound effects and dialogue and problem solved! I never heard anything about the conflicting issues of that cue ever again.
The point of this story was to show that as Chris’s liaison I had let the dubbing mixer and company feel that their needs and concerns were being met while trying to keep the integrity of Chris’s music in tact as much as possible.
The First Steps To Begin Finding Work
Unfortunately you can’t turn to the classifieds in the local paper to seek out work as a composer’s assistant. The easiest way to find a job is by word of mouth. As in any field, an employer is going to want to hire someone more if he comes highly recommended, as opposed to just credentials on a piece of paper. This is why having a network or expanding your network is so vital. If your friends who are working know that you are looking for work, they will keep their ears to the ground for you. If they hear of an opening at their work or somewhere else then they will refer you. Usually when you are working you hear more about job openings. It’s ironic.
So what do you do if you don’t have a network? You need to create one. If you are living in Los Angeles it is pretty easy to join the film scoring community. Groups like the Society For Composers and Lyricists (The SCL) are excellent places to meet fellow composers. They often hold screenings of movies and invite the composer to discuss the music with the audience at the end. The Film Music Network is also another great resource. They hold events for their members, such as discussion panels and there is always a big turnout. It is a great place to meet people and make friends because you will already have a common bond. For about $12/month you can become a member of the Film Music Network and have job opportunities emailed to you. Chris Young runs a class here in Los Angeles separate from his USC class for any aspiring film composer. It is completely free of charge and the assignments he hands out sometimes require a scoring session that he pays for himself. Not only is it a great place to learn, but a fantastic place for networking and making friends. I’ve seen many friendships bud out of that class.
My main network was my USC class but has now become more of the friends I met working with Chris. When I first moved to LA I didn’t know a soul. Going to USC gave me a built-in network of friends and composers who had moved to Los Angeles with the same vision I had. This made the transition easier. Since we graduated I have kept in touch with some of them and have gotten work from some of them and given work to some of them. We always try to help each other out. Now I have a similar connection with the Chris Young crew. Try contacting working alumni from your college in your city if possible. See if your college has any networking strategies or support for their alumni. Also check and see if your college offers any assistance in finding work at their career center.
Myspace.com has exploded in the United States . Virtually every composer I know and could think of is on Myspace. In fact it was originally created for musicians to get exposure for their music. You can meet composers from all over the world just by sitting in front of your computer wherever in the world you are. You should all have Myspace pages even if you already have a website. It is free.
So what do you do if you are not in Los Angeles? Well, with any city that has film composers there is a film composing community. Do your best to find out what those are. It will require some Internet searching. In Toronto, I managed to attend a panel discussion for the Guild of Canadian Film Composers. A composer I knew (whom I met through cold calling) let me be his delegate. More than half of all Canadian composers were in that room. Afterwards there was a social where I got to mingle with other composers and build my network.
112 Hollywood-Insider Film Scoring Tips
7. Give The Director 3 Options When Presenting Themes. It’s always a good idea to provide 2 or 3 different options to help the director establish the theme and general direction of the score. In my experience I have found that they rarely pick the one that the composer thinks is the most suitable. That’s why it’s a good idea to present 2 or 3. If they don’t like the first one presented (which is typically the composer’s favorite) they have others to choose from. Directors often forget they don’t actually have to choose any one of them!
13. You Don’t Have To Write In Chronological Order. Some composers like to write their score in chronological order. They start with the Main Title and finish with the End Credits. It’s sometimes nice to write in cue-order and have that sequential context to work with.
However, it might serve you better to write according to themes. Many composers group cues together by like-material. For example, they will group all the “love theme music” together, all the “hero-music” together and all the “villain-music” together. Sometimes a composer can write faster and better if he organizes his writing like that. Oftentimes he can write more cohesively and quicker. The less “gear-changing,” the better.
21. Get Your CD In The Hands Of Film Editors And Music Editors. They are the ones building the temp music tracks in Hollywood movies. Sometimes a director falls in love with a track from the temp and just has to have that composer write his score. Try to be that composer!
29. The 8-Minute Rule: This advice was given to me by one of Hollywood ’s top film music agents. He said that it took him 8-minutes to drive to and from his office. This was a bit strange seeing as that he lives and works in Los Angeles where getting anywhere seems to be a 45-minute ordeal.
Of course he too gets inundated with demo CDs. Since he is so busy he only has that 8-minute window where he is in his car driving to and from work where he can listen to demo CDs. Oftentimes he is distracted by phone calls in that 8-minute span as well!
So he told me that a composer only has 8-minutes to get his attention. That’s it – 8 minutes. He might not even use the full 8-minutes if he feels he’s wasting his time. But sometimes, he’s so interested that he intentionally misses his freeway exist to finish listening to the demo. That’s the demo CD that you want to have. Come out swinging and show ‘em what you can do early on in the demo.
33. Minor Third Modulations In Minor Keys. This is something I have been noticing more and more in Hollywood film music. I’m sure it has been taking place since the Romantic Era though. As you might know, a technique to provide interest in a piece of music is to modulate. Well, in cues that are in minor keys I have noticed a trend to modulate up a minor third unprepared. So if a cue is in the key of A-minor, a common key to modulate to would be C-minor. The modulation is unprepared. That is to say there is no pivot chord. You simply “jump directly” to the new key.
Go sit at the piano and try this technique. I’m sure you will find it a very familiar modulation to your ear. Well, it is also a very useful technique when you need to modulate and sustain musical interest. It also works in major keys.
39. Switch Players and Mic Placement For Better Imaging: When recording small ensembles with the intent on overdubbing for a beefier sound like in the above example, try switching players and mic placements after each take. For instance, in the above example you may want to have some of the violin players switch seats and the violists switch seats on subsequent passes. This helps slightly in making your recording sound as if you had more players than you really did. It helps mitigate any phasing as well. Adjust the microphone placements ever so slightly between takes for this same reason.
44. Dialogue Is King. When showing a director your cue, make sure you have the music and production track mixed the way it will sound in the theatre. Music is generally mixed quietly in the final product. Many composers are so anxious to show their music to the director that they bury the dialogue with the music. This is a sure-fire way to get your music disapproved. If you are going to err, err on the side the music being too quiet. The director can always ask you to adjust the mix of the dialogue and music.
79. Key Score Information. Every Hollywood film score should have the following information written at the top of the first page of the score.
i) Project Name. This should be on every page of the score in the upper-left margin.
ii) Cue ID. Every cue needs to be identified with a number. A typical cue could be numbered “2M7 REV 3”. The first number stands for in which reel does the cue belong to. The M stands for “music.” All cue IDs include this M. The second number denotes which cue it is within that specific reel. The REV indication means that this is a revised version of the cue. The number after that stands for which revision. So in this example, “2M7 REV 2” stands for the seventh cue in the second reel, third revision. This cue ID should be on every page at the top center.
iii) Concert Score. This indicates that the score is in concert and not transposed. Even though concert scores are the industry standard you still need to indicate this.
iv) SMPTE Start Time. This number is expressed as an 8-digit number that marks the time of beat one, measure one (the precise frame where music enters). When a composer is delivered Quicktime files of the movie, there is a timecode burn-in window usually towards the bottom of the screen. Each frame in the file has a corresponding frame number. A SMPTE start time could be 05:10:03:12 (RR:MM:SS:FF). So that means music starts in Reel 5, 10-minutes, 3-seconds and 12-frames into the reel. This information is crucial for the music editor.
v) Orchestra Size. Usually in a Hollywood film score there are 2 or 3 different size orchestras. For example, if a movie has 3 different size orchestras, they would be named A, B and C. “A” would be the biggest orchestra in terms of size. Since all the cues in a movie may not need every player in every cue a B-orchestra is derived from the A-orchestra. The B-orchestra has less players than the A-orchestra. This way the recording process is more economical for the studios that pay the recording bill. They don’t want to have to pay players to sit around and play crossword puzzles. Sometimes a C-orchestra is derived from the B-orchestra. Always indicate on the first page of the score which orchestra the cue is for.
96. Print Multiple Parts For The Percussion Section: As described above, the percussionists have multiple stations. For example, if there are 3 percussionists there might be 4 or 5 percussion stations. Because of this you need to provide more parts than there are players, or at least as many as there are percussion stations. You don’t want them making noise by carrying their parts from station to station while recording.
100. Overdub The Choir. Overdubbing the choir is a standard Hollywood film music convention. For some reason recording choir takes longer than recording orchestra. I don’t know why, but it just does. So never plan on recording the choir with the orchestra at the same time. And of course, you will need all your cues clicked out to do so. Be sure to record the choir after the orchestra. When recording the orchestra things haven tendencies to change. This way you can make any according adjustments to the choir parts to match the changed orchestra part if necessary. Very rarely do you ever record the choir first.