Workflow of A-List Composers

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

  1. InLight-Tone

    InLight-Tone Senior Member

    Dec 31, 2013
    Thank you for articulating my EXACT questions!
  2. jonathanparham

    jonathanparham Active Member

    Jun 7, 2005
    New Orleans, LA
    Depends on what you've heard.

    Silvestri is talking here, then about 45s later, Jackman and Zimmer mention suites.
  3. Rctec

    Rctec Senior Member

    Jun 14, 2010

    What’s a “suite”? It’s a piece of music - in my case something like a diary - that has all the themes and experiments, the detailed outline of the orchestration (is it orchestra, synth, or 12 drummers?) and the most important character and plot-point themes and motives.
    I haven’t had a spotting session in years... I start writing (unless I’m still on another project) roughly when the movie starts shooting. Having discussions with the director and knowing the story, going to the set, seeing bits and pieces of conceptual art, storyboards and knowing how the editor works are usually enough points to get going with. Both “Inception” and “Interstellar” where pretty much written while they where shooting.
    Everyone probably works differently. For me, there is something nice when you have the chance to influence the movie before its shot. I remember spending two weeks with Ron Howard once going through ideas before he shot a single frame, and then seeing all these musical moments turn up on film... just simple things, like certain character ideas we thought we could tell better with music than with words. And we had the screen-writer in the room with us all the time...
    The opening of “Gladiator” was never in the script. One minute of a hand (it’s not even Russell) on a wheat field... but the music legitimized that moment.
    The opening for “Lion King” was scripted as a dialogue scene. It’s working independently of the confines of the picture that usually lets you come up with something like an African voice in a Disney movie and no dialogue for three or so minutes...
    But you need great music editors and people who help you turn the suite into cues. You can think of it a bit like an architectural plan, that than needs builders to actually build the house...At a certain point it just turns into a balancing act between meeting deadlines and not giving up on the ambition of experimenting.
    We just finished a film that ran a year over schedule. There is roughly 16(!) hours of music lying around...
    And no, I don’t conduct. I need to hear the recording we are making and use my ears and eyes glued to the picture...
  4. Jdiggity1

    Jdiggity1 Stroking The Frog

    Jan 31, 2012
    La La Land


    It is all a lie....
    NoamL, chillbot and paularthur like this.
  5. OP

    Fitz Member

    Apr 14, 2018
    Great answer, Hans.

    How do you follow your ideas within suites and let go of the self-doubt? Which seeds of an idea get the water to grow and how do you know when to let an idea die off? I'm sure that never fully goes away, that self doubt, and possibly only gets worse as life goes on. I struggle with which seed of an idea to follow. When I'm writing, I sometimes find myself paralyzed by where to go with an idea — which direction to take the character or scene or motif. I think Stephen King once said 'writing a novel is like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. And there's plenty of opportunity for self-doubt.' I find writing music to be the same experience.

    As I creep along a suite or piece of music, I try to shut out the cynics and self-doubt demons that perch on my shoulders. I still deal with spotting sessions but I can imagine how enormously liberating it is to write away from picture and let the themes unfold themselves alongside mental imagery of the film.
  6. NoamL

    NoamL Winter <3

    Jul 6, 2015
    Los Angeles

    Music editors do a lot of musical work!

    Existing music is cheap. It's easier to throw ten pieces of music at the screen than to write ten. The reason for throwing music at the picture is that the two have an alchemical relationship and you can never REALLY tell how they will work together except by watching them together. Each shapes the pacing & emotional impact of the other. Thus, "throwing a bunch of pieces of music at the screen" is a really good way to learn what works and what doesn't, what makes the scene feel too fast or too slow, what is too little or too much of an accentuation of the emotion or action of the scene, etc.

    The goal should never be to copy the temp, but rather to learn what works and why.

    I would compare temping to that scene in every detective movie where they sprinkle the chalk dust on the notepad next to the phone in the murdered character's apartment, and by doing that they see what number was written down on the sheet that got torn away.

    By throwing music at the scene you get a sense of its contours and pacing and how a potential, original piece of music would best serve the picture.
    Although if it's music from the TV show's library or the film's master suite, it could actually end up getting used.

    I worked on a kid's tv show and in every episode (the show was fairly formulaic) there was a "What did we learn today?" scene. You know like where the character who hogged their toys learns that sharing is fun. The composer had written about fifteen different variations of music. Some of the pieces felt like pep talks, others felt like they would work as music for a character apologizing for misbehaving, others had a dramatic build to a "lightbulb moment" and so on. Now what was interesting & kind of magical is that in each episode, as I temped in the music, I would always bring in all fifteen themes for the "WDWLT" scene and try them out one by one. And just by trying them out I would find out that some totally flopped against the picture, while others completely transformed it unexpectedly.

    You can have two pieces of music that anyone would describe with the same words, e.g. "sad, introspective music" and they would have COMPLETELY different alchemical reactions with the picture.
    Last edited: Apr 19, 2019
  7. Dominik Raab

    Dominik Raab Active Member

    Apr 29, 2011
    That must be it. Thanks!

    Edit: Whoops! Hans has responded in the meantime and cleared that up. I'm late, as always. :D
  8. Guy Rowland

    Guy Rowland Senior Member

    Dec 13, 2012
    Terrific thread.

    Does anyone have any broad sense of how widespread the composing-a-suite-first is now? I remember being fascinated by this when Hans mentioned it many years ago, at the time I don't recall ever hearing it done that way before. Is it the norm now for studio pictures? Is it now a rarity at this level still do it the old spotting / composing to picture way, without music editors at this stage at all?

    (BTW, really interesting kids show story, NoamL).
  9. thesteelydane

    thesteelydane Senior Member

    Apr 9, 2015
    Hanoi, Vietnam
    On the topic of conducting can I just add that it is much, much, MUCH more difficult than it looks. I worked as an orchestral musician for 10 years, and I can safely say that 95 % of professional conductors range from shitty to mediocre - the highlights were few and far between. It also takes a professional orchestra all but 10 minutes on Monday morning to figure out if they like this weeks conductor. Even if, in an alternate universe, I became a wildly successful film composer, there's no chance in hell I would ever attempt to conduct my own music.
  10. erica-grace

    erica-grace Senior Member

    Sep 7, 2015
    Thank you Hans and thank you Noam :)
  11. Daryl

    Daryl Senior Member

    Mar 25, 2006
    What's even more shocking is that many orchestral musicians think that they can conduct better than the people they are subjected to, but nearly always turn out to be just as bad, making the exact same mistakes that they moaned about for all those years...!

    However, I also have to say the 95% of orchestral musicians are not really qualified to know what makes a good conductor. All they know is what makes their lives easy, which is not necessarily the same thing and IMO, this is why they nearly always make bad conductors themselves.

    Having said all of this, only some is applicable to conducting commercial film sessions.
    bryla likes this.
  12. Alex Fraser

    Alex Fraser Senior Member

    Jun 21, 2017
    I'm not sure about the workflow of an A-List composer but if anyone's interested in the workflow of a D-List composer, I'm happy to answer your burning questions!
  13. thesteelydane

    thesteelydane Senior Member

    Apr 9, 2015
    Hanoi, Vietnam
    I can only speak for myself, but the highlights for me that I still remember, stand out because they managed to make musical magic - not because they made my job easier. They reminded me of why I became a musician in the first place. There just wasn't enough conductors of that caliber, so when it started to feel like a job, I quit to preserve my love of music.
  14. Daryl

    Daryl Senior Member

    Mar 25, 2006
    Unfortunately there are are not enough in the profession with that attitude, particularly people with full time contracts. During my time as a player, I was often disappointed with the lack of interest shown by some of my colleagues.
  15. Desire Inspires

    Desire Inspires To the stars through desire....

    Jul 30, 2016
    Miami Beach
    No amount of music could legitimize the fact that Russell's hand was not the hand in the scene. A sad day indeed. :-(

    Next they will tell me he didn't actually kill that tiger......
    Last edited: Apr 21, 2019
  16. NoamL

    NoamL Winter <3

    Jul 6, 2015
    Los Angeles
    Some times it's even part of the pitch. Which is hard on composers. They write 10-20 minutes and may not even get the job.

    A suite is crucial because it keeps everyone on the same page for the themes, and especially if there are signature sounds.
    Last edited: Apr 21, 2019
  17. kevthurman

    kevthurman Active Member

    Dec 18, 2018
    What about the workflow of more traditional people like John Williams or Howard Shore and even some of the old greats like Rosza and Korngold and so on?
  18. Jeremy Gillam

    Jeremy Gillam Active Member

    Jun 10, 2017
    Los Angeles, California
    I'm pretty sure on 'Lord of the Rings' Howard Shore wrote suites for major themes that were mocked up for approval by the filmmakers. There was clearly a lot of forethought there, for example hearing the Gondor theme on a solo horn in 'Fellowship of the Ring' required him to have music for film three mapped out while working on film one. But I think much of his material on those movies was written for specific sequences and not drawn from suites, at least to the same extent that Hans and others might these days. Some of this forum were involved on the LOTR films and I'm sure will be happy to correct me if I'm wrong!
    kevthurman likes this.
  19. Wolfie2112

    Wolfie2112 Senior Member

    Very cool Hans, thanks for that, I always wondered. Are there ever times when you hear the live orchestral versions of cue you sequenced as a mockup....and it isn't quite how you envisioned it?
  20. Selfinflicted

    Selfinflicted Member

    Jun 22, 2016
    No - he just wrote themes and then scored scenes in sections. They would turnover a certain amount of the film at a time, like 15-20. Each film was scored separately, as there were no cuts of the next films, so foresight of themes was really limited to just the story. And there was really way too much going on with each film to get too concerned about the next thing.

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