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Antonio Gambale on global opportunities, creative stamina and composing for Netflix’s Unorthodox

Tip Published Wednesday 3 June 2020
Antonio has scored two Emmy nominations for his score for Netflix’s groundbreaking series Unorthodox

Antonio has scored two Emmy nominations for his score for Netflix’s groundbreaking series Unorthodox

His score uses a combination of unique sounds and textures to develop a language of instruments for the characters and settings

His advice for young composers is to score as much as you can and build your body of work, he says short films are a great place to start

AFTRS graduate and Paris-based Australian screen composer and APRA AMCOS member Antonio Gambale has built a career on scoring music for a range of international productions, including this year's acclaimed Netflix limited series Unorthodox.

Congrats to Antonio, who received two Emmy nominations for his work: Music Composition For A Limited Series, Movie Or Special (Original Dramatic Score) and Original Main Title Theme Music.

Film Music Magazine described the composer's work: "Gambale’s score beautifully expresses “Esty” in all of her emotional shades with a soundtrack that traverses two cultures and countries, one regressing further into a cloistered past, and the other singing with the possibilities of youth."

In our Q & A with Antonio, he delves into Unorthodox, how to make international connections and what it takes to keep up with the screen industry's fast, music-driven pace.

What are the current trends you’re hearing and seeing in screen music? Did you draw on any particular influences for Unorthodox?

In recent years, I’ve noticed an explosion in genres, which I really like. Audiences and the industry, in general, have really embraced many wildly different kinds of films and shows such as full-blown fantasy, modern edgy comedies, high-quality character-driven dramas, a new wave of sci-fi, and more.

In terms of music, this has opened up a lot of range. Audience expectations have really driven producers and composers to push the boundaries to deliver exciting, innovative scores. This is quite different from the painting-by-numbers bland TV and film music used on productions with less ambition and less fan-love.

I also really like the influence of modern production and composition techniques that have found their way into scoring. Nowadays, a theme doesn’t have to just be a recognisable melody, it can also come from the creative use of unique sounds and instruments themselves.

I definitely drew on this for Unorthodox. I spent a lot of time experimenting to find the right combination of unique sounds and textures to develop a language of instruments to use for character themes. You hear this a lot in particular in Esty’s scenes, where I use the same thematic sounds and develop them as her story progresses.

One thing I’m less a fan of these days is the overuse of music in many productions. This is partly due to how audiences are these days; our attention spans have been eroded somewhat by media overload. To combat this, there’s a trend to keep things loud and lively, avoiding quiet dialogue scenes where people might tune out. But if music is omnipresent, we lose the effect of contrast and it can lose its power. It creates a kind of more is less situation, which I think is regrettable.

On Unorthodox, we set out from the start to be very careful and considerate with music spotting, only using score and source music when it really added to the scene. I’m glad to see that the hugely positive audience response to our show demonstrates people still appreciate this approach. A lot of feedback we get on the show is how deeply moved people are by it. I think the careful and sparing use of music helped this a lot.

What were the creative challenges that came with being part of such a groundbreaking production?

There were a few. Unorthodox was quite an international production, so there were logistics of working from Paris on a show that was shot in New York and Berlin, with post-production all happening in Berlin. Once we really got down to work, I set up camp in Berlin for a couple of months to work in proximity with the rest of the post-production. I think this is a trend that’s going to keep getting more popular, at least once people can travel again.

In terms of specific creative challenges, the most evident was defining what the score would be comprised of and how it was going to live in the world of the story. What kind of instrumentation would make sense; which styles and cultural influences should be a part of its DNA and which should not?

From the very start, a core directive on the show was that the score should never try to be fake “Jewish style” music, too “Berlin techno”, or too classical. These are musical worlds that are all integral parts of the story and they needed to be represented by genuine, authentic source music.

The challenge with the score was to find the right style to make it comfortably live shoulder-to-shoulder with the source music and feel like it belonged, but with its own sound and language.

This turned out to be a combination of solo string instruments (cello and violin) blended with more experimental electronic colours to dovetail with the classical music and the sense of “modern Berlin” in the source music. And for the more religious and deeply cultural aspects of the show, I addressed that by bringing a general pensive tone to the score. The goal was to evoke a sense of spirituality without being needlessly specific, just to set the right mood to let people think for themselves.

How can an emerging screen composer get their music heard by the people who can help your career? (e.g. music supervisors, producers, directors)

I don’t think there’s any simple answer to this question. In many ways, I don’t think this has changed much. I think one of the best channels is still to try to get as much work made as you can. Short films, such as student films, are still a good place to start for beginners. Especially today, it’s so easy for things to be seen by a lot of people using online platforms, as opposed to in the past, you had to be lucky your film got in a festival or was included in an anthology for broadcast on TV. This is good not just for exposure, but also for honing your craft.

It’s also a good thing to just make music and get it out there. Again, this has never been easier with the available technologies today, but the caveat is that it’s also a very saturated world out there. I know a lot of music supervisors search SoundCloud for things, especially when they’re looking for good license music in a very specific style and only have a small budget.

If your work is good and widely available, this can create opportunities to open a dialogue with music supervisors if they notice your work and want to use it.

Study can also be a useful avenue. Going to a film school can teach you a lot; you can also set up relationships with budding directors and producers you may get the chance to work with later on.

What are your top business tips for screen composers?

The best tip I could give anyone is to learn early on about registering your works and to learn to see them as resources of value. We all hear stories of that one track that got picked up for a major licence deal that really opened doors. But this isn’t something anyone can count on, it does happen, but it’s more like a lottery.

A wiser approach is to think of your material as a growing snowball. This helps create more licensing opportunities, but it also allows you to show depth and range in your work.

Over time, if you’re lucky and keep working in the industry, a growing body of work can eventually help unlock doors if producers and directors can see that you have range and technical skill.

There’s always a risk associated with hiring a composer, or any member of the key crew. The more confidence you can help build by having a large body of work, the better.

What are the global opportunities for Aussies and Kiwis who are composing for the screen – even in a challenging time, how can you make inroads or make connections?

I think the keyword here is global. In recent decades, the reach of films and shows has extended beyond country borders, especially now with the dominance of streaming platforms. This also means there are international co-production opportunities. Productions are being made between companies in different countries to share resources and to access different types of funding.

The brutal reality here is that many productions will not (or cannot) hire key crew from certain countries if they have funding obligations requiring them to source crew from a specific region. However, this can also be an opportunity. For example, if there’s an international co-production with key crew quotas to fill from different countries where public funding was provided with conditions, these are the good opportunities to look out for.

What is something you wish you knew about screen composing when starting out?

One thing I wish I knew was just how intense and exhausting the work can be, both physically and mentally. When people ask me about film composing, they’re often surprised by unexpected answers. Usually they think it’s just a relaxed, liberating, openly creative experience with plenty of time to ponder on questions about artistic direction and storytelling. Of course, this is a part of it.

But the other reality is that it’s an extremely hard slog, especially with the speed of production these days. Projects already start out at a brisk pace and only accelerate from there. I never knew I would need to be physically fit and resistant to deal with intense schedules like this.

There’s also a lot of psychology involved. We have to anticipate expectations but also manage them. We have to learn and adapt very quickly to working extremely closely with highly creative people, in many cases whom we’ve only just met. Oftentimes the creatives we work with are already exhausted after a long and challenging shoot, so you need to anticipate this and engage with them even if their focus is on something else.

You need to learn to be objective about your work to make the most of constructive feedback and not be deflated by it. But you also have to retain and nurture your subjectivity, because it’s important to engage your point of view and bring it to your work.

None of this is necessarily negative, the adrenaline and the challenges of communication and interpretation are part of what makes the job exciting. I just never anticipated how large a role these elements had. I might have taken up marathon running to be in better shape had I known!

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