Documentaries, feature films, TV series – how different is your approach to composing for different formats and genres?
The amazing thing about writing music for vision is that there are an infinite number of right and wrong ways that music can work in a scene. Whether I am working on documentary, feature film, or TV series, a big part of my job is to narrow down the creative possibilities early in the process. To do this I write a musical brief for the show. This is a short document describing the broad creative concept for the music. If I don’t do this, I have no idea what I’m doing, and get lost in a sea possibilities! For drama, I use the script to inspire the music brief, and for documentary, inspiration comes from early footage or a written treatment. With documentary, I often have to write music around archive, talking heads, and narration, and, as the format represents that which is ‘real’, there are often ethical considerations that need to take place. TV series are long format, with multiple episodes, so they usually require a meta musical approach, sometimes that spans beyond the first season. Features are commonly made to be seen (and heard) in a cinema, so the music is often more exposed, the medium itself is more immersive, and the smallest of musical ideas can become unusually powerful. Other differences between writing for documentary verses drama is scheduling, budgets, and delivery specifications.
How meaningful is it for you to compose for Australian stories and homegrown screen projects?
I am a big fan of Australian screen productions. I actually pinch myself sometimes, because I find myself working on the shows I would watch. When I work on a production, I get very immersed in the story and the world of the show. I live it and breathe it. It’s like I step into the screen when I’m writing, and step out when I have finished the show. Sometimes it feels like the music exists in the ‘fourth wall’, acting as an emotional connection between the audience and the story. It is an extraordinary space to occupy, and often amplifies much of what is not seen or heard on screen. For me to play in such an abstract, creative space, I need to believe, or as some would put it, suspend disbelief. To do this I must resonate deeply to the story, so that I can craft an authentic and appropriate score, and this means working on home soil, on Australian productions which are familiar to me.
What’s your top tip for composers trying to get their first break in screen composing?
Unfortunately, there is no single pathway to becoming a screen composer. Everyone who I know to be successful in this industry has carved their own path. My tips: get connected, find filmmakers at your level that you can work with, practice your craft, and, be prepared to diversify the types of work you do in the industry. Watch Australian film and TV, and learn the language of Australian cinema. We are a small industry, with a big heart, and many stories to tell. It is vital, if you want to step into our industry, that you educate yourself in the vast and extraordinary catalogue of Australian screen stories. Working as an assistant, or orchestrator, or as an intern in a studio environment is an invaluable experience. Join the Australian Guild of Screen Composers, go to events, and be around. I probably spent the first 5 years of my career feeling nervous every time I went to an industry event, and even more nervous when I spoke to people! I also taught music on the side for many years to supplement my income. Thankfully, many years later, I can call myself a full-time composer.