Interviews

Published on July 24th, 2019 | by gareth

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Talking Composing With Greg Tripi, Carl Thiel, Nick Soole, And Russ Howard

Ahead of their appearances at SDCC; I got the chance to speak with several composers about their work in the industry

 

Greg Tripi

  1. How did you get into composing?

 

I grew up playing bassoon in orchestra, as well as bass and guitar in heavy metal bands.   Somewhere along the way, I took a detour with drum and bass and electronic music. When I started to focus on film music, everything sort of came together in this beautiful mess. The first class I ever took in electronic music featured an ARP-2600 that was tuning-impaired. We would create sounds, print them to tape (actual TAPE), change the pitch and print again, and then assemble a song with a razor blade. I think that moment was the first time I realized that my orchestral background could be mixed with my interest in electronic music. It sort of expanded from there.

 

  1. Where do you find your inspiration when composing?

 

For a long time, it was about 99% coffee, and 1% dumb luck. Now, I try to slow down and listen to what the project needs. I let it turn around in my head for a while, and then see what feels natural against picture. My Pantheon Steel Halo is a great inspiration. It’s a melodic metal drum, in the same family as handpans and the Hang drum. I’ve been playing them for several years, and they have helped define the vibe of what I want my music to sound like.

  1. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced scoring and what have been your greatest triumphs?

 

I’ve never been particularly patient. I get so excited about scoring, and sometimes, I’ll try to write the entire film in one sitting. It has taken several years to get comfortable with the idea of taking my time. One of the biggest thrills of scoring a movie or show is being able to record with a live orchestra. I do this occasionally, and it always reminds me of why I love creating this type of music.

  1. Can you explain a bit of your creative process when composing for a film or series?

 

My scoring process always starts with sound design as well as assembling textures and rhythms to use in composing. I’ll often sit in my studio and record different sound sources and then process them with various sound design techniques. Lately, I’ve been using my bassoon as a sound source. I’ve recorded my hand pan collection in various studios, and that gives me a good collection of performance phrases to draw on. Sometimes, it only takes one cool sound to inspire an entire score.

  1. What sorts of composers inspire you? Are there any composers in particular you listen to when preparing for a film or series?

 

I listen to film music all of the time. There are probably too many composers to list here, but I’m always drawn to musicians who have a very stylized sound. Most of my favorite scores are unique, hybrid electronic soundtracks. They are the ones who work with the picture to make extremely stylized films that pop out at you. I worked with Cliff Martinez for several years on his film and television scores. He’s always the first to come to mind when I’m stuck. WWCM do?

  1. What do you like to do you in spare time?

 

I’ve been known to play volleyball at the beach, ski in the snow, collect Transformers with my son, and hunt down the manliest coffee I can find.

  1. What do you have upcoming?

 

Currently, I’m scoring a new horror feature (tentatively) titled, “The Descendant.”   There’s a video game project as well, but I’m not allowed to discuss it yet.

 

  1. Is there a particular piece of music that you are most proud of? Or a project that you worked on?

 

One of my favorite projects was the Discovery Channel series “Manhunt: Unabomber.”   I had so much creative freedom, and it was really the first time I was able to use my Halo drum as the leading voice in a project. The entire series was so moody and had such a great group of people creating it. The music just flowed out of me. It was effortless at times. I’m definitely proud of that score.

  1. Was composing for films something you had always wanted to do?

 

Yes. Since I was too young to even know what it was called. There was a brief moment where I considered astrophysics, but… I would never have been as happy as I am scoring films.

 


 

 

Carl Thiel

  1. How did you get into composing?

Music has been a part of my life ever since I can remember. My dad played piano at home when I was little and so I wanted to do that too. I started taking formal lessons when I was 6 and by age 11, I was composing short pieces, just for fun.

Always thought it’d be a great hobby, didn’t imagine it being a career. I studied radio, television, and film in college because I wanted to make films, all the while playing in bands and writing music. I got to work as a PA on some TV commercials and film productions and it struck me that maybe I could write music for those. So I hit up some of the producers I had met with a music demo and eventually one of them gave me a shot. It was a very low budget, late night cable commercial, but it was the first time anyone paid me to score visual media. I was hooked. That spot led to many more, first local, then regional and national commercials. Still in love with films, I sought work in longer format projects. Got to do lots of short films, corporate videos, documentaries, and eventually those led to feature films. I feel very fortunate to be able to play in the two worlds I love most: music and film.

  1. Where do you find your inspiration when composing?

From all sorts of places! I love listening to other people’s scores and see how other composers I admire approach different situations. Whenever I hear something that perks my ear, I’ll study it and try to figure out what about it elicited an emotional response from me.

I often also sit at the piano and just improvise… let my hands flow without my head getting in the way. Nine times out of ten I’ll hit an unusual chord progression, or melodic sequence that really catches my attention. Some of the best ideas come out that way.

A lot of times I’ll be at a restaurant or some place and I’ll hear a random noise that inspires a rhythm or melody. Or I’ll be driving thinking of a scene and a melody pops into my head. Thank goodness for smartphones, because I hum all sorts of crazy stuff into mine just to remember later when I’m in the studio!

  1. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced scoring and what have been your greatest triumphs?

Challenges?…. hmm, generally I think of every new project as a challenge to be creative, to come up with something new and unique for it. Getting out of my comfort zone and expanding my musical palate. New signature sounds, melodies, chord progressions, etc.

But more specifically, there are times towards the end of big projects, when you’re burning the candle at both ends, working 16-hour days, you’re sleep deprived, and you have to stay focused and creative because the deadline is approaching. On “Machete Kills” for example, one of the last scenes I scored was when Machete latches onto the rotating helicopter blades and slashes all of the folks around him. I had barely slept the previous few days and was practically delirious. I had to deliver the next day. The first thing that came to mind was a speed metal guitar groove (ha!). So without thinking further I tried that and burnt a couple of precious hours putting it together. But it just wasn’t working. Robert suggested going the opposite way (he was also up all night at his studio, tweaking the film), and I thought “of course!” So I wrote a slower, heavier, more thematic cue that gave the scene more weight, making it a more epic moment. Of course, once I’d gotten some sleep, it made perfect sense, but when you’re in that sleep-deprived state of mind and the pressure is on, it’s sometimes challenging to summon the right perspective. I now use that moment as a reference when confronted with similar situations, and have gotten better at taking a moment to step back and look at the big picture to think of the right approach, even when I’m exhausted.

As far as triumphs go, the first big break I got was when the state lottery first started in Texas. GSD&M was bidding against several other ad agencies to get the lottery’s big launch campaign, and they in turn invited me to pitch a jingle idea to them. They also asked several other much more established composers to pitch for the job. I was very young, didn’t have a studio and was doing demos in my apartment. So I used what little equipment I had, wrote the demo and found a good singer to come sing in my closet on a borrowed mic. To my surprise, GSD&M picked my demo over all those other great composers, pitched their ad campaign to the state with it, and ended up winning the account. I was elated. We later tried to recreate the vocal performance in a proper studio with good equipment, but we couldn’t beat the charm of the original vocals that were recorded in my closet, so we ended up using those! I’ll never forget the joy I felt. That job opened a lot of doors. I still think of it as a pivotal point in my career.

  1. Can you explain a bit of your creative process when composing for a film or series?

If possible, I love to read the script ahead of time. I like to ponder what the sound palate will be, what style of music would fit the world in the story, etc. A lot of times just having read the script, I’ll sit at the piano or pick up a guitar and come up with some preliminary themes, chord progressions, moods. I’ll record those to have as reference.

I also like to find new instruments, whether real or virtual, specific to that project. That usually gets me out of my comfort zone and inspires me to write in a new way, and also gives that project a unique signature sound.

At some point there’s always a meeting with the director, producer or other creatives, and we’ll discuss what it is they envision for the music. Sometimes they have a very specific idea of what they want, and other times they just want me to come up with something to show them.

I’ll record some demos of the main themes/moods (independent from picture) to show and see what kind of reactions I get. If it’s positive, then I know we’re on the right track.

After that, once I get a cut of the film/episode, I’ll throw some of those original demos up against picture just to see how they feel. Sometimes the vibe is spot on, and others they need some tweaking, be it instrumentation, or the melody is too busy, etc. Every once in a while the feel of the story changes dramatically from script to final cut, and the themes need to be reworked. But once all that is settled, then I can get started with the actual score.

Having the main themes, sound palate, etc. established ahead of time really makes the actual scoring work flow much more smoothly.

  1. What sorts of composers inspire you? Are there any composers in particular you listen to when preparing for a film or series?

Oh, there are so many. I love listening to Thomas Newman, always inspiring. Alan Silvestri, Howard Shore, Ennio Morricone, Danny Elfman, John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Lalo Schifrin, Alexander Desplat are all awesome sources of inspiration. But honestly, I get excited watching/listening to shows on TV or streaming services like Netflix or HBO and discovering fresh new sounds. There’s some incredible music out there. Max Richter’s music on “The Leftovers” is gorgeous, Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score on “Chernobyl” left me breathless, and of course Ramin Djawadi’s work on “Game of Thrones” and “Westworld” is so much fun.

As far as preparing for a project, it really depends on the project. If it’s a particular genre or ethnic style that I’m not very familiar with, I’ll definitely study other composers work that have excelled in that genre. But if it’s something I’m more familiar with, I’ll work on creating a sound all its own. Honestly, when you’ve heard so many different scores from all sorts of composers throughout your life, it just becomes part of your subconscious and blends with you own original ideas, becoming its own new thing.

 

  1. What do you like to do you in spare time?

I love doing Bikram Yoga. It keeps my mind clear and my body in shape. When you sit in front of a computer all day, you gotta find something to keep your mind and body healthy. Also, some great musical ideas sometimes pop into my head when doing yoga.

I love to travel, visit places I’ve never been to, especially near the ocean or a large body of water. Scuba diving is definitely up there on the list.

Closer to home, I love going to the movies, eating out, hanging out with family and friends.

  1. What do you have upcoming?

I’m finishing up the score to this really cool animated series for Netflix that’s coming out this fall. It’s called “Seis Manos” and it is awesome! It’s produced by the same folks who are doing “Castlevania,” and it’s got Danny Trejo, Mike Colter, Aislinn Derbez, and a ton of other great actors. The story takes place in Mexico in the 70’s, and it’s got Kung Fu, drug cartels, witchcraft, blaxploitation elements, comedy, you name it. As a composer I feel like a kid in a playground, with so many fun musical worlds to explore. Plus, I got to record a 26 piece string orchestra and a myriad of authentic ethnic instruments. It’s a very organic score.

There’s also a great independent documentary called “Diving Deep: The Life and Times of Mike DeGruy” that I co-scored with my good friend and brilliant composer Stephen Barber earlier this year. It’s a fascinating story about Mike’s adventures as a deep water cinematographer for National Geographic, James Cameron, the BBC, etc. Keep an eye out for it!

  1. When scoring for a series, do you have the opportunity to watch several episodes prior to working on the score?

Not usually. If I’m lucky, I’ll get the first couple of scripts. Most of the time, a series is done like an assembly line: they shoot for a week or so, then another team edits while the first team shoots the following episode; then when the first one is edited, I’ll start the score for it, and so on. So when I’m working on the first episode, they might just be starting to shoot the third, and editing the second, etc. Everything has to stay on schedule, because once the wheels start moving, all the teams need to do their part to keep the train on track.

But the show I’m currently scoring is an exception. Since “Seis Manos” is animated, the process is much slower. I got to see all the animatics (kinda like moving storyboards) in advance, which was a great advantage. By the time I actually started recording, all the main character themes were well established, and I had a good idea of how the musical arc was going to unfold throughout the season.

  1. You have composed for such a wide variety of genres, everything from family animated series, horror films, comedy, do you find a genre more interesting or challenging to do? Is the process different for the different genres?

I’d say the process is about the same for all genres. Now, some projects might have different approaches, depending on timelines, budgets, instrumentation, whether we’re using an orchestra, etc., but that could be the case for any genre.

As far as preference, I don’t know that I have a favorite or find any one genre more interesting than another. People often ask me what my favorite project has been, and I always say “the one I’m working on right now,” and that is the truth. I love all kinds of music, and get excited with the prospect of creating something new, whatever it is. I really immerse myself into each project I work on. It’s hard to explain, but when I’m in the middle of it, the characters become my friends and family, I care for them and share their struggles, and the story permeates my subconscious. The melodies float in my head and it’s all I think about. For that period of time, that is my world. So I feel incredibly fortunate that I get to live all these different adventures from the inside out. It’s truly a unique and magical experience.

 


 

 

 

 

 

NICK SOOLE

 

  1. How did you get into composing?

I spent years in Sydney, Australia (where I’m originally from) writing songs, playing in bands and producing albums, but I’ve always loved film music. One of my hobbies was writing orchestral music with samples and synthesizers that many people said sounded like it “should be in a movie.” After getting tired of lugging my amp around the east coast of Australia I decided to move to Los Angeles to find work writing music. I went to USC and studied film music, met some great people and slowly the work started coming in.

  1. Where do you find your inspiration when composing?

For me, it’s the urgent need to get the job done. You have to come up with a bunch of good music that works with the picture and pleases the director and/or producers – within a set period of time. I like the idea of having to be creative quickly. When you know you’re under the gun, there’s a feeling that could easily become panic, but if you run with that sense of urgency, it becomes inspiration.

  1. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced scoring and what have been your greatest triumphs?

Short deadlines are usually the biggest challenge. Like I said, urgency is a good thing, but there have been a few projects where the turnaround was so short that you’re trying to balance meeting the deadline with maintaining the quality of the final product. Some of the technical aspects of writing and producing music can be very time-consuming. The less time you have, the harder it is to get that side of things right. Short deadlines usually just mean you get less sleep.

I think my greatest triumph has been getting consistent work. Seven years ago, when I first came to LA, I had no idea how to get into this business. Somehow it happened. I’ve been so incredibly fortunate. I’ve been able to make music for a living. To me, that’s a win.

  1. Can you explain a bit of your creative process when composing for a film or series?

When starting a new project I’ll usually discuss with the director or producers the overall musical direction we want to take. If there is temp/placeholder music in the film, we’ll usually discuss how much of that should be considered as a stylistic starting point or if it should even be regarded at all. Then I’ll come up with some ideas and demo them to see if we’re headed in the right direction. After that, I usually try to create some stand-alone music away from the picture. This would consist of a theme, sounds and a general musical palette. I’ll then work that music into the picture and let it develop as the story and imagery dictate.

  1. What sorts of composers inspire you? Are there any composers in particular you listen to when preparing for a film or series?

I love a lot of film composers but I listen to all kinds of music. I love rock, electronic, jazz, experimental…anything that grabs me emotionally and intellectually. I take inspiration for my scoring work from everywhere I can, not just from film music.

If there is a particular musical style or tone that a project requires, I’ll always do a lot of listening to get a sense of what I’m trying to achieve musically. For example, if a film is set in a certain time period, I’ll immerse myself in the music of that period.

  1. What do you like to do you in spare time?

I make my own music on the side. Just for me. Just for fun. It’s a hobby but it’s also a good way to flex creative muscles that you might not always get to on film and TV projects. I also play too many video games.

  1. What do you have upcoming?

I’m currently scoring a true-crime documentary series for cable TV and I’m in the early stages of scoring an upcoming indie horror film.

  1. How does scoring a Documentary or Indy compare/contrast with a mainstream film or a series?

A narrative/dramatic feature or TV series is a very different animal than a documentary feature or TV series. The function of the music in a documentary is to help push the story along and keep the viewer engaged but not to editorialize or manipulate the viewer too much. You don’t want to stray too far from reality. In anything dramatic, it’s really a creative decision on how you want the music to play to the picture.

The difference between an indie or mainstream production isn’t always that pronounced. The crew on an indie production might sometimes be smaller, the budget tighter, but to me, it’s the same job. Every project is different. I just try to do right by whatever it is I’m working on.

  1. Which do you prefer and why?

I can’t say I have a preference. One of the coolest things about this job is that one day you’re working on a rom-com and a few weeks later you’re scoring a slasher-horror film. I just like to keep doing different things. I just hope to be able to keep trying my hand at new and challenging projects.

 


 

 

 

RUSS HOWARD

 

  1. How did you get into composing?

I had a childhood dream of being a concert pianist and would practice constantly. Somewhere in my early teens I started developing some nerve issues from playing too much and had to back off from playing for hours a day. Closing the performance door opened up the composing door as a way that I could stay close to music and express myself through it.

  1. Where do you find your inspiration when composing?

Inspiration always starts with the film. I usually like to start from understanding the characters in the film and try to create music that I feel represents them and their journey. I feel like step one is supporting the picture and the actors and step two, if I dig deep enough for inspiration, is having the music say something that isn’t already there on screen.

  1. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced scoring and what have been your greatest triumphs?

One of the toughest and most rewarding gigs was when I was hired to compose for “Hobo With A Shotgun” on Christmas Eve and recorded with the orchestra on New Years. I basically didn’t sleep for that entire week but I got to go to Sundance with that film and it gave me my most infamous credit.

  1. Can you explain a bit of your creative process when composing for a film or series?

I like to watch the film. Go for a long walk. Sit at the piano. Walk some more. More time at the piano. Eventually, between the walking and banging my head on the piano, an idea will pop up. Sometimes it happens right away, and sometimes it can take days. Usually coffee is involved with all of the above.

  1. What sorts of composers inspire you? Are there any composers in particular you listen to when preparing for a film or series?

I tend to be drawn to composers who are great with melodies. So whether it’s classical music or electronica, I love a great melody. A few of my biggest influences in terms of film music specifically were Morricone, John Barry, and Henry Mancini. They were so amazing at writing incredible melodies and using unique orchestrations.

  1. What do you like to do you in spare time?

I do yoga religiously, hiking out in nature, and horror movie nights with my friends.

  1. What do you have upcoming?

I’ll be scoring a couple documentaries and some rom-coms. In the horror world, there are some great projects in the works from the “Tragedy Girls” team that I hope to be involved with.

  1. When scoring Critters Attack, what were you looking to establish for the music as the series has always combined, camp, horror, and comedy.

The original “Critters” sort of broke the score into two parts, an orchestral Americana feel for the family and farm, and then synths for the Critters and Bounty Hunters. We definitely had a little bit of that dichotomy in this score as well. “Critters Attack” introduces a good female Critter that the kids in the film run into. We scored those scenes with a little more of the classic Spielberg vibe and saved the dark heavy synths for the evil Critters.

  1. Did you listen to the music from any of the previous films as a reference?

 

I absolutely checked out the music from the other films but I would say that John Carpenter scores and the score to “E.T.” were more of an inspiration for this film.

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