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Want to be a screen composer? Bryony Marks gives guidance

Tip Published Thursday 2 November 2017
Bryony Marks has been composing music for film and television almost her entire life

Bryony Marks is a screen composer who is nominated for two Screen Music Awards this year, one for the Feature Film Berlin Syndrome

The increase in Video on Demand can help more composers get their music out into the world

Visibility is key to encouraging more female composers to go into screen composition - we need to show them that its possible

Screen composer Bryony Marks is the woman behind the music that soundtracks and scores some of Australia's most successful and acclaimed TV shows and films. Her breakthrough opportunity was on We Can Be Heroes, and from there an impressive variety of work has continued to come in steadily. She is nominated for two Screen Music Awards this year for Feature Film Score of the Year for Berlin Syndrome, and Best Music for a Mini-Series or Telemovie for Barracuda. And, if you hear piano in one of Bryony's scores, it is her playing it.

Ahead of the Awards, she shared insight into how to get started in the field.

Q: Did you set out on a path to compose screen music?

I always wrote music when I was a kid. I did it all my life so that I didn’t really realise I could do it as a career. It was just a part of me. When I was 21, some friends of mine that were putting on a play asked me to write the music and perform the music. And I had a really positive response and that was the moment when I realised I might be allowed to do it as a career, that I could do it as an adult.

Q: Do you think it’s a sector of the music industry that young composers have in their sights?

There’s never been a more visual culture than now. So I think across all the visual platforms you can write music for from games to feature films, I would think young composers are pretty aware of screen opportunities. But, actually getting into it and in terms of making a living is not easy. It’s a small pool, it’s competitive and it takes a long time to succeed.

Q: How do composers make inroads?

I did a post-graduate degree at the Conservatorium in Melbourne, and it was wonderful to study composition for a year with four other people. But what I did - and what everyone I know did - we all made films with our contemporaries. So when we were in our 20s and early 30s, we had friend who were filmmakers, writers, DOPs, editors, and we all got together and made films for free and learned our craft. Some of it was awful, some of it was good.

You just need to learn. There’s a lot to learn and there’s no better way than by doing it.

Q: What are three traits that a screen composer needs?

  1. Speed
  2. Flexibility
  3. A voice

I think a voice is really, really important. You want to be able to contribute something. You want to be a player.

Q: At what point in a film’s production timeline does the composer get involved?

Sometimes it is really early and you might read a script, or be contacted even before the script is finished. More commonly, a composer gets sent a film once it’s a 'locked picture cut' and you work to that. So sometimes they want you on board right at the end. And everything in between!

Q: How detailed is the brief?

It can be incredibly detailed. If it is someone you have worked with a lot, they may leave you to it. We call a briefing session a ‘spotting session’, so you watch the film with the director, editor, producer and figure out where the music will go. That is always a really interesting part of my job.

Q: How does the approval process work?

Depends on the project. I tend to work with live musicians, so what I am playing for directors and producers for approval is a draft that will get re-recorded. So they have to approve it at draft stage because then we go and spend the money on musicians and studio. Feedback can be ‘great, let ‘s move on’ or you might get someone asking if you can do something different. I like constructive criticism - you don’t take it personally, you just have to do what’s right for the film or TV show.

Q: Are you feeling the impact of a wider distribution model for TV and film with the growth of Video On Demand?

I released tracks from the Please Like Me soundtrack last year, and it’s not Beyonce huge, but it’s big for an Australian soundtrack release. It’s been streamed something like 600,000 times. It doesn’t really translate into a big commercial figure, but it’s a lot of people hearing your music.

I feel fortunate all the time – when I see that for up-and-coming bands it doesn’t seem to be the same pathway it used to be with getting a record deal and making money through album sales. I got into screen music because it’s a passion, but I feel lucky that I am in a field where we get paid a fee up front, and then there are royalties.

Q: What can be done to encourage more women to go into screen composition?

I think in any field visibility is the best way to the pave the way for younger women. If they can see us doing it – if we aren’t hidden in any way – they can think they can do it. I would be very happy to go and talk to any film and TV composition courses about what I do, because it’s also very exciting for me to see who is coming up and what they have to contribute.

Overall, I think it’s about established people being available to those emerging, and just being visible.

Listen to the Berlin Syndrome (Original Soundtrack)