We had composer Chris Heckman in on Friday to talk with our composers about careers in Film Composition. Chris is a good colleague who has worked on projects for Disney, Danny Elfman and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. He was direct and informative with the students: no sugar-coating, no blasting the bad guys, just shared a clear sense of how the profession works. A few themes emerged.
- First, speed. Film composition is not for people who like to sleep on an idea. He made it clear that you go with your first idea and make it great, or the job goes to someone else. If you can create five minutes of riveting music in less than a half hour, all the better.
- Second, off-the-beaten-track. As in: avoid at all costs. Or, more specifically, avoid especially the more it costs: films with big budgets can’t afford to risk alienating viewers with unfamiliarity. More creative options are available with lower budgets, but even that is not the norm.
- Third, filmmakers often have a particular musical genre in mind, and it’s not your job to convince them another option would be better. Figure out what they want and deliver.
- Fourth, if you are lucky and get a big credit for something you’ve done, that’s probably who you are for the rest of your life, regardless of how you might envision yourself. He shared the story of a friend, a fine composer, who got the Music Editor job for one of the Lord of the Rings films. Great credit, great money… and the end of his career as a composer. From then on, all anyone wants him for is editing.
- Fifth, there are a lot of composers in the industry who do really great work, make really great money, and never see their names in the credits, or are even allowed to list their work on resumes or websites. The main composer gets the credit for the project, and a good main composer often has an even better farm team.
- Sixth, no such thing as banging out a rough draft of what you are thinking, everything has to be the best possible quality from day one. To get there, invest in serious hardware and software. To get to the top, expect to spend in the 6-figure range.
- Seventh, once you create the music, let ownership go. You may be particularly proud of a particular passage of beautiful stuff, but it’s perfectly possible it will get buried under the sound of a speeding car in the final edit. He even told the story of a filmmaker who used his music played backwards, because he thought it sounded cooler.
I’ve always admired good film composition, and I’ve always known it was not the right thing for me. There are aspects of the above that suit me pretty well – making music quickly comes pretty naturally for me, and I can easily imagine enjoying the anonymity of being a farmhand. But other aspects of the job just don’t appeal. And that makes me happy to have colleagues like Chris who can spell out the pros and cons for my students and even share some of his wonderful work in the medium.