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Workflow of A-List Composers

Fitz

Member
I've been reading a lot of the posts on some people who have worked with top level guys in the industry, as either a tech or an assistant etc. I'm curious about workflow at that level as I continue to build my own composing career.

The new normal seems to be the composer writes a suite (or series of suites) independent from picture which the music editor then takes and cuts against the film. Does the composer often ALSO score to picture? Or do they sometimes just take parts of the suite and flesh that out?

When I watch some JXL tutorial videos, I see him with actual cue files, but does he pull some of this material from his suite?

What's the general workflow for the big blockbuster features? How is it then handed off to assistants? I'd love to hear peoples experiences with this.
 

AlexRuger

Senior Member
I've been reading a lot of the posts on some people who have worked with top level guys in the industry, as either a tech or an assistant etc. I'm curious about workflow at that level as I continue to build my own composing career.

The new normal seems to be the composer writes a suite (or series of suites) independent from picture which the music editor then takes and cuts against the film. Does the composer often ALSO score to picture? Or do they sometimes just take parts of the suite and flesh that out?

When I watch some JXL tutorial videos, I see him with actual cue files, but does he pull some of this material from his suite?

What's the general workflow for the big blockbuster features? How is it then handed off to assistants? I'd love to hear peoples experiences with this.
Yes, you're more or less on point, but once the music editor has placed the suites to picture, the assistants will conform the suite DAW session to match the edit, and then that is when the real writing starts; the conform is the starting point for the cue, but things will be added, changed, taken out, etc. And it's not like the music editor's edit is gospel -- in fact, in my experience, he or she is sometimes sitting in the room with the composer in front of the DAW, reviewing the music and making suggestions. It's very much a team effort.

It's a good system, starting from suites, because you can ensure very high quality and consistent a consistent production aesthetic between cues and between additional writers. Plus, it's "pre-mixed."

But don't think that the lead composer is just writing suites and then chilling while the minions toil away. They and the additional writers absolutely still write to picture from scratch. The whole suite -> edit -> conform the DAW session thing is a time-saver, that's all. It's not the whole process.
 

babylonwaves

Senior Member
The new normal seems to be the composer writes a suite (or series of suites) independent from picture which the music editor then takes and cuts against the film. Does the composer often ALSO score to picture? Or do they sometimes just take parts of the suite and flesh that out?
you can't flesh out a suite that much. but having one is great because you can derive a lot from it. also, IMO it's a good way to get used to the mood and style of a production and internalise melodies and (chord) progressions.
So, no - once the suite is done, nobody leans back as @AlexRuger already said.
 

Wolfie2112

Senior Member
Pardon my ignorance, but I've also heard that once the main themes, etc, are written by the composer, the assistance (or ghost writers) take it from there. I read that Danny Elfman, for example, hands it off to the arrangers, orchestrators and conductor once the themes are written (or at least that's how he used to work). Is there truth to this?
 

AlexRuger

Senior Member
Pardon my ignorance, but I've also heard that once the main themes, etc, are written by the composer, the assistants (or ghost writers) take it from there. I read that Danny Elfman, for example, hands it off to the arrangers, orchestrators and conductor once the themes are written (or at least that's how he used to work). Is there truth to this?
Not at all. I worked for Danny for two years and can confirm that that man is a genius and writes his ass off. The myths about him are so annoying...he's a great orchestrator, yes he can read music, etc. He has help, but so does everyone, and having help has nothing to do with ability or work ethic, usually.

That way of working exists and does happen, but it's as rare as it is lazy.
 

AlexRuger

Senior Member
I don't know Hans personally but I'm sure he could chime in here. I've never seen footage of him conducting, though -- I believe he prefers to hear the orchestra in the control room so that he can get a better sense of how the recording is coming along, and being in the room conducting can really skew your perception.

Danny feels similarly. He's always in the control room, never conducting.
 
OP
F

Fitz

Member
But don't think that the lead composer is just writing suites and then chilling while the minions toil away. They and the additional writers absolutely still write to picture from scratch. The whole suite -> edit -> conform the DAW session thing is a time-saver, that's all. It's not the whole process.
I never assumed the lead composer just faded away after the suite. I thought the opposite, in fact. The process you laid out makes sense with digital editing and time saving etc.

The suites seem to be a good starting point for the conversation without getting into the nitty gritty technical stuff involved with composing. I guess I also wonder how long a composer will spend in the “suite” stage.
 

bryla

Senior Member
I guess I also wonder how long a composer will spend in the “suite” stage.
Jóhann could spend a year in this stage often disposing huge amounts of music.

But then again he was maybe the extreme version of making suites. At times he would seclude either to Iceland or Italy and just write music for months before actually working on the movie.
 

Dominik Raab

Active Member
I don't know Hans personally but I'm sure he could chime in here. I've never seen footage of him conducting, though -- I believe he prefers to hear the orchestra in the control room so that he can get a better sense of how the recording is coming along, and being in the room conducting can really skew your perception.

Danny feels similarly. He's always in the control room, never conducting.
I can't find it for the life of me, but I'm 95% sure I've heard Hans say this exact same thing in an (old-ish) interview - that an orchestra playing together is a beautiful visual that can hog your attention and that he, Hans, doesn't belong in that room at the moment of recording. He's in the control room using his ears, trying not to get distracted.

There's a 5% chance I'm wrong and someone else said it, but I'm reasonably sure! :)
 

Rob Elliott

Senior Member
I can't find it for the life of me, but I'm 95% sure I've heard Hans say this exact same thing in an (old-ish) interview - that an orchestra playing together is a beautiful visual that can hog your attention and that he, Hans, doesn't belong in that room at the moment of recording. He's in the control room using his ears, trying not to get distracted.

There's a 5% chance I'm wrong and someone else said it, but I'm reasonably sure! :)
I am sure that is right. James Newton Howard I believe has the same opinion and practice. Personally makes a LOT of sense to me (but it should be noted that JNH has the VERY capable conductor/orchestrator Pete Anthony to assume that (those) tasks.

Let's also not forget the guy/gal (director) whose final 'yes' gets you paid needs to be 'assured' and/or pleased. That constant 'temperature' is taken in the control room. I have seen footage where JNH was getting 'instruction' from M night on a cue - JNH 'instructs' Anthony (it sounded the same BOTH ways) - BUT M Knight feels he is 'involved' and making the important decisions. :)
 

Daryl

Senior Member
When it comes to conducting sessions you have to realise that most composers are a liability. A conductor has to have a seamless technique, that requires no conscious thought, either to use, or for the players to observe. Unless you are extremely experienced, this will not be the case for a composer.

So the question becomes, if an active part of your brain is thinking about what to do with your body, arms, hands, fingers, head, eyes etc. how can you be concentrating on the music and the players' performance? What use are you?

Secondly with most film/TV recording you are working to clicktrack, so there is another annoyance in your ear, getting in the way of really hearing what the musicians are doing.

Therefore it makes sense for most composers to be in the Control Room listening, and making sure that they are hearing what they need to hear.
 

Desire Inspires

To the stars through desire....
When it comes to conducting sessions you have to realise that most composers are a liability. A conductor has to have a seamless technique, that requires no conscious thought, either to use, or for the players to observe. Unless you are extremely experienced, this will not be the case for a composer.

So the question becomes, if an active part of your brain is thinking about what to do with your body, arms, hands, fingers, head, eyes etc. how can you be concentrating on the music and the players' performance? What use are you?

Secondly with most film/TV recording you are working to clicktrack, so there is another annoyance in your ear, getting in the way of really hearing what the musicians are doing.

Therefore it makes sense for most composers to be in the Control Room listening, and making sure that they are hearing what they need to hear.

Shoot, that sounds like a composer is a robot to me.
 

NoamL

Winter <3
Speaking of click, it turns out: don't do subtle tempo ramps in your cues. Also don't do tempo ramps that change speed halfway through.

It turns out that sudden tempo changes are much easier for the musicians to deal with because they can always punch in at the new section with 8 clicks of the new tempo.
 

erica-grace

Senior Member
I can't find it for the life of me, but I'm 95% sure I've heard Hans say this exact same thing in an (old-ish) interview - that an orchestra playing together is a beautiful visual that can hog your attention and that he, Hans, doesn't belong in that room at the moment of recording. He's in the control room using his ears, trying not to get distracted.

There's a 5% chance I'm wrong and someone else said it, but I'm reasonably sure! :)
If it's what I am thinking of - Hans said that he prefers to not look at the musicians while they are playing, so he can concentrate on the music they make. He also mentioned that watching the musicians can cloud your judgement to the way things sound. I think it was in that roundtable with Ben Wallfish, Henry Jackman and others.
 

erica-grace

Senior Member
Yes, you're more or less on point, but once the music editor has placed the suites to picture, the assistants will conform the suite DAW session to match the edit, and then that is when the real writing starts; the conform is the starting point for the cue, but things will be added, changed, taken out, etc. And it's not like the music editor's edit is gospel -- in fact, in my experience, he or she is sometimes sitting in the room with the composer in front of the DAW, reviewing the music and making suggestions. It's very much a team effort.

It's a good system, starting from suites, because you can ensure very high quality and consistent a consistent production aesthetic between cues and between additional writers. Plus, it's "pre-mixed."
I am not the expert, but this flies in the face of everything that I have heard.

First, what is a "suite DAW session". In fact, what are suites?

And the music editor placing the suites to picture before the real writing starts - that makes no sense.

My understanding is this:

There is a spotting session, where the director and the composer (and others) watch and talk about the film and the music to be.

Then, the composer goes to his studio with temp music, which was put together by the director and picture editor, and sometimes the music editor.

And that is when the real writing starts; the composer writes the music to the film, all the while the assistant will flesh out the ideas and partial cues in a DAW so that the director can hear complete cues. Feedback is given, and changes are made by the composer at the director's request.

And so on.
 
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