Workflow of A-List Composers

Discussion in 'Working in the Industry' started by Fitz, Mar 29, 2019.

  1. Fitz

    Fitz Member

    Apr 14, 2018
    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.
    streetster likes this.
  2. AlexRuger

    AlexRuger 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."

    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.
  3. babylonwaves

    babylonwaves Senior Member

    May 9, 2015
    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.
  4. Wolfie2112

    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?
  5. AlexRuger

    AlexRuger Senior Member

    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.
  6. Wolfie2112

    Wolfie2112 Senior Member

    Thanks Alex! Will Danny (or Hans Zimmer for that matter) also conduct?
  7. AlexRuger

    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.
    ptram, jononotbono, KallumS and 2 others like this.
  8. OP

    Fitz Member

    Apr 14, 2018
    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.
  9. bryla

    bryla Senior Member

    Aug 16, 2006
    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.
    dexterjettser likes this.
  10. Dominik Raab

    Dominik Raab Active Member

    Apr 29, 2011
    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! :)
    ptram likes this.
  11. Rob Elliott

    Rob Elliott Senior Member

    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. :)
    ptram likes this.
  12. Daryl

    Daryl Senior Member

    Mar 25, 2006
    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.
  13. AlexRuger

    AlexRuger Senior Member

    Remember though that the players have the click in their ears too.

    Let’s be real, shitty conductors do fine in these sessions. I’ve seen it a hundred times (and done it myself because I am absolutely a shitty conductor).
  14. Daryl

    Daryl Senior Member

    Mar 25, 2006
    In your opinion they do fine. In my opinion they do a bad job.
    Tanuj Tiku and chillbot like this.
  15. DerGeist

    DerGeist Active Member

    Oct 21, 2018
    I'm totally creating a VST called Shitty Conductor. It will randomize the speed of each section of an orchestra. Periodically it will just blow a cue.
    will_m, ptram, hawpri and 2 others like this.
  16. chillbot

    chillbot Sock Muppet

    Feb 6, 2014
    La Canada Flintridge, CA
    There needs to be a function where it takes a picture of itself mid-conducting and posts it on facebook/twitter/instagram with a dumb hashtag. #composerlife.
    ken c, Farkle, jmauz and 1 other person like this.
  17. Desire Inspires

    Desire Inspires To the stars through desire....

    Jul 30, 2016
    Miami Beach

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

    NoamL Winter <3

    Jul 6, 2015
    Los Angeles
    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.
  19. erica-grace

    erica-grace Senior Member

    Sep 7, 2015
    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.
    Dominik Raab likes this.
  20. erica-grace

    erica-grace Senior Member

    Sep 7, 2015
    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.
    InLight-Tone likes this.

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