Tips for composing film music

Find your junk pile

Tips for composing film music

Find your junk pile

All composers have certain things we can do well.  Our strong suit.  We always go back to them and they work. Every time. It might be a certain chord progression that gets a cue going. Or an instrument we can play well. We’re lucky for these.

They can get us through a scene quickly when we’re pressed for time. Which always seems to be all the time.  But, forcing yourself to change things up can breath new life into your process and inspire you immensely. And inspiration has often been the drug that got me through rough stretches of deadlines on films and tv shows.

My partner Tobias Wagner and I had a studio in East Berlin for about 6 years with 2 other composers. This was a magical time for me. I was discovering an amazing European city, meeting cool artists and lucky enough to have a lot of work. The studio was in Friedrichshain, a neighbourhood famous for clubs. Very creative district. They had been doing construction on the building where our studio was during the entire time I worked there. In fact, the building had been bombed in the war and some years later they just buried all of it underground and built a new building on top.

The construction people voiced on one occasion that they didn’t know what they were going to find when they dug it up to build a new basement floor. Some days they’d be dumping dry wall out of huge tubes on the floors above and it would crash into huge metal containers in the courtyard and fill the air with dense white fog. It was a bit crazy, but somehow charming all the same.

... I was feeling like all the music I was writing sounded a bit the same. I was a little uninspired and down on my sound.

Tobias and I did a couple films together in the Harter Brocken Series for ARD, one of the leading German TV networks, during this time. I remember when the first one came in, it was in a period where I was feeling like all the music I was writing sounded a bit the same. I was a little uninspired and down on my sound.  We had the director in for our first spotting session, though, and he really wanted to stretch the canvas on this one.

We started cutting in some Tom Waits tracks from Bone Machine that really worked well with the picture, and suddenly I started coming to life. The next day began like normal in the studio, loading instruments and searching for a palate. I was looking for some weird wood and metal sounds for a kind of Tom Waits vibe. Digging through the same sample libraries as always, when it struck me that there was this construction site outside and a huge pile of wood and metal just near the front door. Crazy parts of the building that had been ripped out. Tons of pipes, wood blocks. So I ran outside, took a look and realized I had my palette for the show. I started grabbing stuff by the arm full. Going back out and grabbing more. 

Change your palette. It will take you to new creative levels and can give you the much needed energy to keep going when you’re up against a wall on a deadline or feeling like everything you're doing is starting to sound the same.

At one point, some other composers in our studio saw me dragging stuff in and thought I’d lost my mind. Some of it was so dirty I had to put it in the shower and scrub it. I even found a welder on site and asked him to cut some metal into different sizes of shapes. They thought I was crazy too, but happily obliged and even let me film them doing it. Then I went to the local music store and bought every thing I could find to beat things with. Every kind of mallet, stick, etc.
I was crazed.  Incensed.  Passionate and inspired. I bought a really cheap 12-string guitar at the pawn shop that ended up becoming a drum. I mic’d up the wood floor and used the mallets to beat carpet. Everything I used for the film, almost, was recorded instead of sampled. It ended up becoming a life saver. It took my whole energy level to new places and gave me a boost when I was tired, dragging through revisions and dealing with the final phases of delivery that are always grueling.

For months after, I still had this huge pile of junk in my studio.  And I kept going back to it on every show.  For special touches on cues or unique colors.  It’s amazing what some eq and processed reverb can do to a small piece of metal, hanging from another piece of metal that bumps into a piece of wood that was struck with a nail.

Change your palette. It will take you to new creative levels and can give you the much-needed energy to keep going when you’re up against a wall on a deadline or feeling like everything you're doing is starting to sound the same.  Find your junk pile.

Tips for composing film music

role
age
favorite movie

All composers have certain things we can do well.  Our strong suit.  We always go back to them and they work. Every time. It might be a certain chord progression that gets a cue going. Or an instrument we can play well. We’re lucky for these.

They can get us through a scene quickly when we’re pressed for time. Which always seems to be all the time.  But, forcing yourself to change things up can breath new life into your process and inspire you immensely. And inspiration has often been the drug that got me through rough stretches of deadlines on films and tv shows.

My partner Tobias Wagner and I had a studio in East Berlin for about 6 years with 2 other composers. This was a magical time for me. I was discovering an amazing European city, meeting cool artists and lucky enough to have a lot of work. The studio was in Friedrichshain, a neighbourhood famous for clubs. Very creative district. They had been doing construction on the building where our studio was during the entire time I worked there. In fact, the building had been bombed in the war and some years later they just buried all of it underground and built a new building on top.

The construction people voiced on one occasion that they didn’t know what they were going to find when they dug it up to build a new basement floor. Some days they’d be dumping dry wall out of huge tubes on the floors above and it would crash into huge metal containers in the courtyard and fill the air with dense white fog. It was a bit crazy, but somehow charming all the same.

... I was feeling like all the music I was writing sounded a bit the same. I was a little uninspired and down on my sound.

Tobias and I did a couple films together in the Harter Brocken Series for ARD, one of the leading German TV networks, during this time. I remember when the first one came in, it was in a period where I was feeling like all the music I was writing sounded a bit the same. I was a little uninspired and down on my sound.  We had the director in for our first spotting session, though, and he really wanted to stretch the canvas on this one.

We started cutting in some Tom Waits tracks from Bone Machine that really worked well with the picture, and suddenly I started coming to life. The next day began like normal in the studio, loading instruments and searching for a palate. I was looking for some weird wood and metal sounds for a kind of Tom Waits vibe. Digging through the same sample libraries as always, when it struck me that there was this construction site outside and a huge pile of wood and metal just near the front door. Crazy parts of the building that had been ripped out. Tons of pipes, wood blocks. So I ran outside, took a look and realized I had my palette for the show. I started grabbing stuff by the arm full. Going back out and grabbing more. 

Change your palette. It will take you to new creative levels and can give you the much needed energy to keep going when you’re up against a wall on a deadline or feeling like everything you're doing is starting to sound the same.

At one point, some other composers in our studio saw me dragging stuff in and thought I’d lost my mind. Some of it was so dirty I had to put it in the shower and scrub it. I even found a welder on site and asked him to cut some metal into different sizes of shapes. They thought I was crazy too, but happily obliged and even let me film them doing it. Then I went to the local music store and bought every thing I could find to beat things with. Every kind of mallet, stick, etc.
I was crazed.  Incensed.  Passionate and inspired. I bought a really cheap 12-string guitar at the pawn shop that ended up becoming a drum. I mic’d up the wood floor and used the mallets to beat carpet. Everything I used for the film, almost, was recorded instead of sampled. It ended up becoming a life saver. It took my whole energy level to new places and gave me a boost when I was tired, dragging through revisions and dealing with the final phases of delivery that are always grueling.

For months after, I still had this huge pile of junk in my studio.  And I kept going back to it on every show.  For special touches on cues or unique colors.  It’s amazing what some eq and processed reverb can do to a small piece of metal, hanging from another piece of metal that bumps into a piece of wood that was struck with a nail.

Change your palette. It will take you to new creative levels and can give you the much-needed energy to keep going when you’re up against a wall on a deadline or feeling like everything you're doing is starting to sound the same.  Find your junk pile.