11 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Film Composers
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.