A good friend of mine recently loaned me this excellent (and short) book,Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, by writer and artist Austin Kleon. In it, Kleon lists the things he wished he’d learned in college, things like “Don’t wait to know who you are to get started,” “Be nice (the world is a small town),” and “Creativity is subtraction.” As you can tell from some of my earlier blog posts, I’m especially fond of that last one. Limiting your options and stripping your work down to its essence are great ways to raise the quality of your output.
Obviously, with a title like Steal Like an Artist, Kleon spends a good part of the book talking about stealing (er, borrowing) effectively, and has great advice about doing so ethically and in a way that serves you and your work. His central thesis is that nothing is original and all great work is inspired by something else. The trick, he says, is to borrow things you can legally and ethically use, like techniques, moods and colors, and then work with them until you make them yours. Don’t try to become John Williams, take some aspect of his work that moves you and filter it through your personality and experience. Learn from him and then move on. Continue reading →
Here’s a great site offering (as the title so obviously implies) daily bits of film scoring wisdom. The posts are written by Dresden-based composer Robin Hoffmann, who heroically crafts a paragraph for his blog nearly every day. Robin covers all sides of film scoring, from composition itself to orchestration, marketing and delivery of final cues. The pieces, although short, are almost always useful. Here’s a recent example:
“When you write a cue, make sure to sustain a ‘musical language’ throughout the piece. It will feel very strange if you use simple triads all the way through and suddenly use one very complex chord. Also, melodic and rhythmic complexity should stay in a certain range throughout a piece. This might seem simpler than it actually is and often one idea might not really fit together with each other or you might stumble across a chord that you like on its own but which doesn’t fit into the rest. So when finding ideas, it is not only a decision whether it is a good idea but also whether it fits to the rest of your music.”
I stumbled across this blog post on Documentary.org while wandering the Web. It’s an interview with six film composers about the peculiar art of scoring documentary films. They talk about the idiosyncrasies of the music in documentaries, when they typically get brought on board, schedules and budgets, and much more.
By being involved earlier I had a longer time to conceive of the music…. You can’t speed up the process of just ruminating on something creatively.”
As a composer currently working on two docs, I found numerous bits of wisdom to take away. One of my favorite parts was the lengthy discussion of the pros and cons of temp music and how best to deal with temp scores (always a hot topic). They also talk a lot about the power of music in documentaries and what it can bring to the table—great fodder for your next negotiation with a client who’s balking at your bid.
While geared toward documentary composers, there’s plenty in the post for dramatic composers and filmmakers as well. Much of the discussion centers around the composition process and every film’s need for great music. These are universal topics, and the composers in question speak eloquently about the subject. All in all a worthy read.
I was having dinner with some composer friends a few weeks ago and the subject of writer’s block came up. Mostly, we talked about the fact that we rarely get it. Perhaps because we’re all media composers and seldom have the time for such creative obstacles, we’ve all developed strategies to deal with the occasional lack of inspiration. It seemed to me a great idea for a post.
To make it even more useful, I decided to enlist the aid of a few compatriots. Tim Huling was one of my composition teachers and was there at the table for the original conversation, so he was a natural. He sent me the basic list, which I elaborated upon and added to (and he added that some of the ideas originally came from Michael Rendish, Assistant Chair of Berklee College of Music’s Film Scoring Department.) SCOREcast founder and creativity blogger Deane Ogden sent me some excellent thoughts, despite being in Asia for a movie premiere and impending marriage(!). And Jeffrey P. Fisher, author of Fish(er) Tales and the Moneymaking Music Tip of the Week, generously donated some wisdom as well. Thanks to all of you!
I’m finishing up a job which was temped with an Explosions in the Sky song. My instructions were simple: create a score with the same vibe—mellow electric guitar escalating gradually to a euphoric climax. Explosions in the Sky are not terribly hard to mimic since their songs often follow a fairly specific formula, but the process got me thinking about the most efficient ways to make use of reference tracks. Basically it comes down to this: the more methodical you are with studying your reference tracks the easier it is to create a final cue that’s original and yet captures exactly what the client wants.
When I first started composing for media, my approach was a bit random. I’d create a playlist of appropriate reference tracks, listen to it for a while, and then try to duplicate what I’d heard without violating any copyright rules. Sometimes this worked well, but other times I felt like I was fumbling around in a dark room looking for the light switch. By taking a more measured approach, you can work more quickly and nail the cue more easily.
I watched Battle Los Angeles last night (good film; intense and fun). In the extras there’s a doc about the director, Jonathan Liebesman. If you haven’t heard of him, that’s not surprising. Battle LA was only his fourth feature. He wasn’t exactly an unknown in Hollywood, but he was still in a place where he needed to hustle to get this choice assignment.
Initially, the producers had no idea who would direct this $70 million blockbuster. They interviewed lots of directors, most more qualified than Liebesman. His knew this going in, so he decided to blow them away in the interview. He brought in five black bags filled with props and goodies he’d made. He had drawings of the soldiers and aliens, models he’d built, before and after photos of the soldiers in battle, storyboards of various scenes, and even a ten-minute computerized previsualization of one of the action sequences. He worked incredibly hard on these materials, but it paid off. None of the other directors could touch his presentation or his passion. The producers hired him immediately.
Here’s an excellent post from Deane Ogden (of SCOREcast fame) on getting the most out of your creative day and maximizing your composing time. Deane discusses topics like preparing for work, composing tools, scheduling your time and avoiding TV and meetings.
This is essential reading for anyone who’s serious about their composing career. While you’re there, Deane has many other great articles about creativity and the music business to inspire you. But be warned: he tells it like it is and doesn’t sugar coat the truth. If you take his advice you’ll likely end up working a lot more than you are now, but you’ll work smarter and faster, and likely improve your music and your career immeasurably.