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11 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Film Composers

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Film music can be iconic and catchy or underrated and subtle; it can help drive the plot forward, build suspense, or elongate a moment, creating a space for contemplation. With one foot in the world of visual storytelling and the other in the world of music, composers bridge the gap between sound and vision. Here are a few things you might not know about the profession.

1. THEY OFTEN WORK CRAZY HOURS.

Because deadlines are constantly shifting, composers frequently end up with a lot less time than expected to complete a score. "Schedules always get changed, and deadlines move forwards or backwards,” says Dan Romer, a composer best known for his work on Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) and Beasts of No Nation (2015).

When mental_floss spoke with Romer, he was preparing two documentaries, Gleason and Jim: The James Foley Story, for their premieres at this year's Sundance Film Festival. “Sometimes it works out where you have to do a lot of work in a very small amount of time. Right now, I’m getting ready for Sundance and working very, very long hours—between 12 and 16 hours a day. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.”

2. THEY KNOW HOW TO READ MINDS.

While most directors have a sense of what they'd like their film's score to sound like, they don't necessarily have the musical vocabulary necessary to express their ideas. Composers need to learn how to translate a director's creative ideas into music. “The job of a composer is mainly to translate the filmmaker's musical vision,” Jeff Russo, who is best known for his work on the television shows Fargo and Power, told Reddit. “Some don't have a musical vision ... And in that case you need to be a bit of a mind reader.” 

“Words that directors will use a lot are ‘bright,’ ‘dark,’ ‘airy.’ Those kinds of words are words you have to learn how to decode, to figure out what the director means," says Romer. "And, as a composer, you might have a very high instrument without much high end, and you think, ‘Oh, that’s a very dark sound because there’s not very much high-end on it.’ But the director might hear it and hear that as a very bright sound because it’s high. The best thing to do, I find, is to ask the director a lot of questions about what they mean, and which instruments they’re referring to."

3. SOMETIMES THEY DREAM OF MUSIC.

Most composers will tell you that inspiration can strike at any time, and often comes from unexpected sources. In a 2014 interview at Loyola Marymount University's School of Film and Television, Hans Zimmer claimed to have heard an important musical segment from The Dark Knight Rises (2012) in a dream: “I dreamt that whole sort of insane Bane opus. And, so I wrote it out, and went to Warner Brothers and said 'You know, I had this idea, and I don’t know if it’s going to work,'” he explained. “And they thought for a second, and they went, 'Yeah, go on, do it.' And it really turned out great.”

4. COMPUTERS HAVE CHANGED EVERYTHING.

Over the last few decades, computers have changed nearly every aspect of film production—and composing is no exception. With the switch from film to digital, filmmakers spend more time in the editing room, tinkering with changes both large and small, and those changes affect the score. “Because of digital editing films are never really locked any more,” says Joseph Trapanese, who scored Straight Outta Compton (2015) and Tron: Legacy (2010). “We have to record everything in separate passes (strings separated from brass separated from percussion etc.) so that we can edit the music after we record.”

Nowadays, most composers work everything out on their computer before they begin recording actual instruments. While this lets them experiment with different sounds, it can also be limiting. “The problem is that a real orchestra can make so many sounds that a [music] library cannot even capture,” Junkie XL, a.k.a. Tom Holkenborg (2015's Mad Max: Fury Road), told Reddit. “What happens then is that you start writing what sounds great on your sample set instead of what sounds great for real players!”

But Hans Zimmer sees the computer as a useful instrument: “I’ll tell you what I play—I play the computer,” he said. “When computers came along, in the '70s, I suddenly thought, hang on a second, this is interesting. These things can become an instrument.”

5. THEY COME FROM DIFFERENT MUSICAL BACKGROUNDS.

Film composers don’t always grow up knowing they want to compose music for movies. It’s not uncommon for composers to start out as classical musicians or members of rock bands. Danny Elfman had his first brush with film composing when director Tim Burton heard the music his band Oingo Boingo was making, and thought he’d be the perfect composer for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985). Elfman told Rolling Stone, “When I met him, it was like, 'Why me? Why would you want me to do a score? That's crazy.' Tim was like,'I don't know. I've seen your band and I think you could do it.' It was kind of that simple.”

By contrast, John Williams, who composed the scores for Jurassic Park (1993) and The Force Awakens (2015), among other films, studied to be a concert pianist at Juilliard before moving into composing. "I played pretty well," Williams told NPR. "I did hear players like John Browning and Van Cliburn around the place ... and I thought to myself, 'If that's the competition, I think I'd better be a composer!’”

6. COMPOSING CAN GET PRETTY EMOTIONAL.

“I find that I have to, when I’m scoring a very emotional film, I have to let down my guard and really let it affect me and take hold of me in order to make the right kind of music. It’s a litmus test for me: If I cry while I’m watching a scene, then I feel like I’m doing an okay job,” says Romer. “If it’s an emotional scene and I’m not crying, there might be a problem.”

7. SOMETIMES THEY DON'T WANT THEIR WORK TO BE NOTICED.

In films with more understated scores, sometimes composers try not to make music that stands out too much. “I love it when the movie reviews are great and nobody mentions the music. That means I'm doing my job—helping to make the film better but going unnoticed,” says Trapanese. “Though I've had a fortunate position of being involved with some amazing film scores and artists who do stand out. I don't think there is any one way to make a successful film, and I've enjoyed both films where the music is very very minimal (like Network and Drive) and where the music plays a huge role (Star Wars and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly).”

8. THEY LET THE STORY DEFINE THE SOUND.

When people ask what the inspiration for a particular season is, it's the story,” explains Russo. “The characters and the story are always the inspiration.”

9. THEY'RE ALWAYS ON THE LOOKOUT FOR WEIRD NEW SOUNDS.

In recent years, music software has expanded the range of sounds composers can play with. A number of programs let composers take any sound sample and turn it into a musical instrument that can play at any pitch. For Beasts of No Nation, Romer used everything from wine glasses to submarine sonar sounds. “All these instruments, if you can get one cool note out of it, then you can stretch it across the keyboard,” says Romer. “With Beasts of No Nation what we were able to do was, instead of taking one note, we were creating dissonant chords. Then, I’d play many of those at once, which would make a totally dissonant, chaotic, kind of drone sound.”

10. THEY ALL HAVE DIFFERENT CREATIVE PROCESSES.

When they first begin work on a score, some composers grab a pen and paper, while others sit down at their piano or computer. “I don’t use a computer when I write and I don’t use a piano. I’m at a desk writing and it’s very broad strokes and notes as colors on a palette,” Avatar (2009) composer James Horner told The LA Times in 2009. “I think very abstractly when I’m writing. Then as the project moves on it becomes more like sculpting.”

11. IF YOU WANT TO BE A FILM COMPOSER, BE OPEN TO NEW OPPORTUNITIES.

The path to becoming a film composer is often full of twists and turns. If you’re interested in composing, Trapanese recommends learning as much as you can from as many teachers as you can, and being open to internships. “Every job I’ve ever had can be traced back to my first two internships,” he says. Romer, meanwhile, recommends focusing on music, in general, instead of just film composing. “Don’t try to be a film composer, just be a musician,” says Romer. “If you really want to be a film composer, lean towards it, but don’t turn down jobs that are music-related but not film composition.”

All photos provided by iStock.

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Every New Movie, TV Series, and Special Coming to Netflix in May
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Netflix is making way for loads of laughs in its library in May, with a handful of original comedy specials (Steve Martin, Martin Short, Carol Burnett, Tig Notaro, and John Mulvaney will all be there), plus the long-awaited return of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Here’s every new movie, TV series, and special making its way to Netflix in May.

MAY 1

27: Gone Too Soon

A Life of Its Own: The Truth About Medical Marijuana

Amelie

Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures: Season 1

Beautiful Girls

Darc

God's Own Country

Hachi: A Dog's Tale

Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

High School Musical 3: Senior Year

John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous Live at Radio City

Mr. Woodcock

My Perfect Romance

Pocoyo & Cars

Pocoyo & The Space Circus

Queens of Comedy: Season 1

Reasonable Doubt

Red Dragon

Scream 2

Shrek

Simon: Season 1

Sliding Doors

Sometimes

The Bourne Ultimatum

The Carter Effect

The Clapper

The Reaping

The Strange Name Movie

Yu-Gi-Oh! Arc-V: Season 2

MAY 2

Jailbreak

MAY 4

A Little Help with Carol Burnett

Anon

Busted!: Season 1

Dear White People: Volume 2

End Game

Forgive Us Our Debts

Kong: King of the Apes: Season 2

Manhunt

My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman: Tina Fey

No Estoy Loca

The Rain: Season 1

MAY 5

Faces Places

MAY 6

The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale

MAY 8

Desolation

Hari Kondabolu: Warn Your Relatives

MAY 9

Dirty Girl

MAY 11

Bill Nye Saves the World: Season 3

Evil Genius: the True Story of America's Most Diabolical Bank Heist

Spirit Riding Free: Season 5

The Kissing Booth

The Who Was? Show: Season 1

MAY 13

Ali Wong: Hard Knock Wife

MAY 14

The Phantom of the Opera

MAY 15

Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce: Season 4

Grand Designs: Seasons 13 - 14

Only God Forgives

The Game 365: Seasons 15 - 16

MAY 16

89

Mamma Mia!

The 40-Year-Old Virgin

The Kingdom

Wanted

MAY 18

Cargo

Catching Feelings

Inspector Gadget: Season 4

MAY 19

Bridge to Terabithia

Disney’s Scandal: Season 7

Small Town Crime

MAY 20

Some Kind of Beautiful

MAY 21

Señora Acero: Season 4

MAY 22

Mob Psycho 100: Season 1

Shooter: Season 2

Terrace House: Opening New Doors: Part 2

Tig Notaro Happy To Be Here

MAY 23

Explained

MAY 24

Fauda: Season 2

Survivors Guide to Prison

MAY 25

Ibiza

Steve Martin and Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life

The Toys That Made Us: Season 2

Trollhunters: Part 3

MAY 26

Sara's Notebook

MAY 27

The Break with Michelle Wolf

MAY 29

Disney·Pixar's Coco

MAY 30

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Season 4

MAY 31

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman: Howard Stern

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20 Best Docuseries You Can Stream Right Now
A scene from Wild Wild Country (2018)
A scene from Wild Wild Country (2018)
Netflix

If your main interests are true crime and cooking, you’re in the middle of a Renaissance Age. The Michelangelos of nonfiction are consistently bringing stellar storytelling to twisty tales of murder and mayhem as well as luxurious shots of food prepared by the most creative culinary minds.

But these aren’t the only genres that documentary series are tackling. There’s a host of history, arts, travel, and more at your streaming fingertips. When you want to take a break from puzzling out who’s been wrongfully imprisoned, that is.

Here are the 20 best docuseries to watch right now, so start streaming.

1. WILD WILD COUNTRY (2018)

What happens when an Indian guru with thousands of American followers sets up shop near a small town in Oregon with the intent to create a commune? Incredibly sourced, this documentary that touches on every major civic issue—from religious liberty to voting rights—should be your new obsession. When you choose a side, be prepared to switch. Multiple times.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. FLINT TOWN (2018)

If your heart is broken by what’s going on in Flint, Michigan, be prepared to have that pain magnified and complicated. The filmmakers behind this provocative series were embedded with police in Flint to offer us a glimpse at the area’s local struggles and national attention from November 2015 through early 2017.

Where to watch it: Netflix

3. MAKERS: WOMEN WHO MAKE AMERICA (2013)

Narrated by Meryl Streep, this three-part series covers a half-century of American experience from the earliest days of second-wave feminism through Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination in the 1990s. Ellen DeGeneres, Condoleezza Rice, Sally Ride, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and more are featured, and the series got six more episodes in a second season.

Where to watch it: Makers.com

4. THE JINX (2015)

After the massive success of Serial in 2014, a one-two punch of true crime docuseries landed the following year. One was the immensely captivating study of power, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which chronicled the bizarre, tangled web of the real estate mogul who was suspected of several murders. The show, which could be measured in jaw-drops per hour, both registered real life and uniquely affected it.

Where to watch it: HBO

5. MAKING A MURDERER (2015)

The second major true crime phenom of 2015 was 10 years in the making. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos uncovered the unthinkable story of Steven Avery, a man wrongfully convicted of sexual assault who was later convicted of murdering a different woman, Teresa Halbach. Not just a magnifying glass on the justice system and a potential small town conspiracy, it’s also a display of how stories can successfully get our blood boiling.

Where to watch it: Netflix

6. WORMWOOD (2017)

Speaking of good conspiracies: documentary titan Errol Morris turns his keen eye to a CIA project that’s as famous as it is unknown—MKUltra. A Cold War-era mind control experiment. LSD and hypnosis. The mysterious death of a scientist. His son’s 60-year search for answers. Morris brings his incisive eye to the hunt.

Where to watch it: Netflix

7. FIVE CAME BACK (2017)

Based on Mark Harris’s superlative book, this historical doc features filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro discussing the WWII-era work of predecessors John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens. Also narrated by Meryl Streep, it looks at how the war shaped the directors and how they shaped the war. As a bonus, Netflix has the war-time documentaries featured in the film available to stream.

Where to watch it: Netflix

8. THE STORY OF FILM: AN ODYSSEY (2011)

If you can’t afford film school, and your local college won’t let you audit any more courses, Mark Cousins’s 915-minute history is the next best thing. Unrivaled in its scope, watching it is like having a charming encyclopedia discuss its favorite movies. Yes, at 15-episodes it’s sprawling, so, yes, you should watch it all in one go. Carve out a weekend and be ready to take notes on all the movies you want to watch afterward.

Where to watch it: Sundance Now

9. UGLY DELICIOUS (2018)

David Chang, the host of the first season of The Mind of a Chef, has returned with a cultural mash-up disguised as a foodie show. What does it mean for pizza to be “authentic”? What do Korea and the American South have in common? With his casual charm in tow, Chang and a variety of special guests explore people through the food we love to eat as an artifact that brings us all together.

Where to watch it: Netflix

10. JAZZ (2000)

A legend of nonfiction, Ken Burns has more than a few docuseries available to stream, including long-form explorations of the Civil War and baseball. His 10-episode series on jazz exhaustively tracks nearly a century of the formation and evolution of the musical style across the United States. You’ll wanna mark off a big section of the calendar and crank up the volume.

Where to watch it: Amazon

11. THE STAIRCASE (2004)

In 2001, author Michael Peterson reported to police that his wife had died after falling down a set of stairs, but police didn’t buy the story and charged him with her murder. Before the current true crime boom, before Serial and all the rest, there was Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s Peabody Award-winning docuseries following Peterson’s winding court case. The mystery at the heart of the trial and the unparalleled access Lestrade had to Peterson’s defense make this a must-see. (Netflix just announced that it will be releasing three new episodes of the series this summer.)

Where to watch it: Sundance Now

12. PLANET EARTH II (2016)

The sequel to the 2006 original is a real stunner. Narrated (naturally) by Sir David Attenborough, featuring music from Hans Zimmer, and boasting gorgeous photography of our immeasurably fascinating planet, this follow-up takes us through different terrains to see the life contained within. There are snow leopards in the mountains, a swimming sloth in the islands, and even langurs in our own urban jungle. Open your eyes wide to learn a lot or put it on in the background to zen out.

Where to watch it: Netflix

13. THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA’S BEST IDEA (2009)

The cheapest way to visit Yosemite, Yellowstone, Muir Woods, and more. This Emmy-winning, six-part series is both a travelogue and a history lesson in conservation that takes up the argument of why these beautiful places should be preserved: to quote President Roosevelt, “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Where to watch it: Amazon

14. CONFLICT (2015)

Experience the too-often-untold stories of conflict zones through the lenses of world class photographers like Nicole Tung, Donna Ferraro, and João Silva. This heart-testing, bias-obliterating series is unique in its views into dark places and eye toward hope.

Where to watch it: Netflix

15. LAST CHANCE U (2016)

Far more than a sports documentary, the story of the players at East Mississippi Community College will have you rooting for personal victories as much as the points on the scoreboard. Many of the outstanding players on the squad lost spots at Division I schools because of disciplinary infractions or failing academics, so they’re seeking redemption in a program that wants them to return to the big-name schools. There are two full seasons to binge and a third on the way.

Where to watch it: Netflix

16. VICE (2013)

Currently in its sixth season, the series is known for asking tough questions that need immediate answers and giving viewers a street-level view of everything from killing cancer to juvenile justice reform. Its confrontational style of gonzo provocation won’t be everyone’s cup of spiked tea, but it’s filling an important gap that used to be filled by major network investigative journalists. When they let their subjects—from child soldiers suffering PTSD after fighting for ISIS to coal miners in Appalachia—tell their stories, nonfiction magic happens.

Where to watch it: HBO

17. CHEF’S TABLE (2015)

From David Gelb, the documentarian behind Jiro Dreams of Sushi, this doc series is a backstage pass to the kitchens of the world’s most elite chefs. The teams at Osteria Francescana, Blue Hill, Alinea, Pujol, and more open their doors to share their process, culinary creativity, and, of course, dozens of delicious courses. No shame in licking your screen.

Where to watch it: Netflix

18. NOBU’S JAPAN (2014)

For those looking to learn more about culture while chowing down, world-renowned chef Nobu Matsuhisa guides guest chefs to different regions of Japan to ingest the sights, sounds, and spirits of the area before crafting a dish inspired by the journey. History is the main course, with a healthy dash of culinary invention that honors tradition.

Where to watch it: Sundance Now

19. THE SYSTEM (2014)

Should a jury decide if a child is sentenced to life in jail without parole? How can you go to jail for 20 years for shooting your gun inside your own home to deter thieves? These are just two of the questions examined by this knockout series about the conflicts, outdated methods, and biases lurking in America’s criminal justice system. Insightful and infuriating, it makes a strong companion to Ava DuVernay’s 13th.

Where to watch it: Al Jazeera and Sundance Now

20. BOBBY KENNEDY FOR PRESIDENT (2018)

It won’t be available until April 27 (so close!), but it’s well worth adding to your queue. This four-part series utilizes a wealth of footage, including unseen personal videos, to share the tragic story of Robert F. Kennedy’s run for president in the context of an era riven by racial strife. Watching this socio-political memorial told by many who were there (including Marian Wright and Congressman John Lewis), it will be impossible not to draw connections to the current day and wonder: What if?

Where to watch it: Netflix

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