There is a great feeling of satisfaction in seeing a film go through its various stages of completion and having it placed in your hands knowing that, through your efforts, the sonic landscape created will be able to convey the deeper emotions of what is being portrayed onscreen. Film Composers are in fact storytellers and our tools are sound.That being said there are a lot of steps that has to be covered before the Director trusts you with the work, vision and effort that it took to reach your hands. The Director is looking for you to add the final emotional touch to support and enhance the story. So let’s start with the most important part (my opinion) of being a Film Composer – the Composer’s attitude. Skills are Ubiquitous – attitude is more important!
The first thing that must be remembered is that the Film industry (just like most industries) is relationship based. For Film Composers, the relationship between themselves Film Directors is critical not only to get repeated work but most importantly, word about your attitude will spread fast. This also applies to your relationship to the Producers, Sound Designers, Sound Editors, Orchestrators, Sound Mixers and anyone else you meet in this industry.
Getting access to and information on aspects of the art and craft of Film Composing is ubiquitous. In my experience, there is no ‘secret’ to skill composing. It just boils down to concentrating your talents, constant learning and hard work. This can be done via books, online classes, listening to Film Composer podcasts, meetups, YouTube videos, websites, Film Composer social media groups and if you can afford it, schools that teach Film Composition. Gaining the basics of the skill set is one thing. How you treat people and vice versa are another. LEARN this part and you will have a shot.
When you are starting out you do not have to buy the most expensive gear, MIDI Controller or even software (some of them are either free or trial versions). You do however have to become very skilled at imagining musical concepts and converting music ideas for emotional impact. Here is a tip: Leitmotifs are your friend.
As David W. Collins says in his podcast, The Soundtrack Show, “Great melodies tell great stories”. It is also vital that you get very familiar with your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) as this will vastly reduce the time it takes to perform recordings, produce versions of your cues and when working with a Director, shorten the time it takes to convert the Director’s suggestions for the music to reality.
The art of listening (not only just hearing) is also a key component in your growth as a Film Composer. Not everything needs an orchestral score and it will bode well for a Film Composer to expand their musical and cultural palette so that there would be more ideas and sounds to draw from.
If you are now starting out and do not know how to read music that is okay. With the emergence and development of music notation software, either standalone or integrated into your DAW, it is much easier for an upcoming Film Composer to map out their notes in their DAW and import the MIDI tracks to notation software for further development.
I would advise however that learning how to read/write music is essential for many reasons and it will further your development as a Film Composer. There are actually many free online resources to help you with this. Some of the advantages of learning this art is that you would be able to communicate with your Orchestrator and musicians much faster with your ideas; be able to study the works of other Film Composers and musicians; transcribe ideas from your mind if you are not near your computer That being said I am not a great sight reader so I am still practicing but just like everything else it will get better with time. I am also a fan of the time-tested pencil and manuscript paper.
As a Film Composer in the digital age, you are required to work under time pressure with the real (make that VERY REAL) possibility of you being asked change aspects of your cues already completed on a constant basis while at the same time, composing the other cues required for the film.
This career has its perks but you must understand that Film Composing, especially the higher up you go in your career, becomes a very intensive process. In this digital age where most aspects of the film can be manipulated I personally feel that the film is not locked until it hits the screen. Leave your ego at the door and be prepared to work.
There is also another reality. Getting work as a Film Composer is hard. In terms of finding work there are the usual routes that I’ve seen people take; applying for jobs online, going to online work forums, and going to Film Composer conferences. From my experience I saw that as a bottleneck so I went in other directions. I started going to Animation conferences, mobile technology conferences, trade conferences and online music seminars/conferences that are outside my usual reference point (e.g. I recently attended online The Music Imbizo 2020 that took place on the African Continent and made contacts there).
You would be very surprised who actually turns up to these sessions. Not only Film Directors attend but also Music Supervisors, Entertainment Lawyers and other people who are essential to the functioning of the film industry. An important thing to remember is that when you are approaching other people in the Film Industry is this. You are not approaching them to look for a job. You are meeting them to ADD VALUE to their works!If you are starting out, be willing to play the long game.
Student Directors are in need of Composers and you can build a very good working relationship with these Directors whom, as the move up in the ranks and get more experience, will have you as an essential part of their team. This is vital as you would be expanding your IMDB profile that can be used to get more work. I must stress this again. Leave your ego alone. Serve the story. In the second part of this blog series we would be talking about strategies to market yourself as a Film Composer, how to use your skills to find work in Animation, Video Games and Mobile applications and ways to pass on what you have learnt to other upcoming Composers.
Navid (pronounced Nah-veed) Lancaster is a Film Composer and Sound Designer from Trinidad and Tobago. He is the owner of Lancast Ltd where he composes the emotions for award-winning films, video games, mobile applications and animation.
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