A View Behind the Curtain

One of the really interesting opportunities that I’ve had over the past fifteen years or so is to peek behind the curtain, so to speak, into the worlds of both concert composers and film composers. There are many differences between the two career paths, but one striking similarity is how little those who aren’t intimately involved with the process know and understand about what actually happens as concert works or film scores are being created. In the realm of commercial composition (film, TV, video games, etc.), that lack of accurate insight into what really goes on during the pre-production, production, and post-production of a score can give those who yearn to pursue such a career path a very skewed sense of what it entails, and with so many composers looking to multimedia as a potential vocation, it is important to find ways to clarify the process.

I recently came across an interesting bit of insight into the inner sanctum of one of Hollywood’s most successful composers, Hans Zimmer, via violinist/composer Michael A. Levine, a long-time collaborator with Zimmer. Levine posted “Why Hans Zimmer Got The Job You Wanted (And You Didn’t)” a few months ago on the website Soundtracks and Trailer Music, and I found it to be a realistic window into that world, focusing on both the technical side of doing the work as well as the interpersonal aspects of collaborating with a multitude of people. Levine himself is a successful composer within that industry and his comments realistically reflect the various issues and challenges that one faces in that world.

In the essay, Levine touches on several different aspects of Zimmer’s work, including spotting (deciding with the director where and how music should be used in the film), work schedule, interaction with directors and film producers, and the difference between being a film music producer and being a film composer. Composers such as Bernard Herrmann and Henry Mancini were experimenting with alternative microphone placement and recording techniques to achieve effects that were considered acoustically impossible fifty years ago, and after digital technology came to prominence in the 1990s that concept of production has expanded to the point that for composers like Zimmer, the performance of the composed score has become only the first step in building the finished product. Whereas before composers would need to elicit the entirety of their score with the performers in a linear, analogue medium, today composers have the ability to construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct the finished score in a non-linear fashion using whatever initial ingredients the composer decides to record. Here Levine describes one example of that process:

“Later, [Zimmer] asked me to double every ostinato (repeating phrase) pattern the violins and violas played. There were a LOT. And a great studio orchestra had already played them all! I spent a week on what I considered an eccentric fool’s errand, providing score mixer, Alan Meyerson, with single, double, and triple pass versions of huge swaths of the score. Months later, I joked with him about how “useful” my efforts had been. Alan told me that, actually, they had turned out to be a crucial element of the score, that he often pulled out the orchestra and went to my performances when something needed to be edgy or raw.”

Probably the most telling and potentially valuable point that Levine makes is during his recollection of getting fired (a lesson that could be easily mapped on to many concert music situations as well):

“…[Zimmer] is also very aware of what the power structure is–who really makes decisions. I was fired—or more accurately not hired after a trial period—from a film because I jumped through hoops for the director who brought me in while not spending enough time figuring out what the producer—the actual power—wanted. Rather than being sympathetic, Hans told me I had failed in a fundamental task: determining who was my boss. He was right, and I haven’t made that mistake again.”

These insights not only illustrate the pitfalls and challenges of a very competitive and stressful creative environment, but they serve as a reality check for those who dream of attaining such a position, as well as for those who have high hopes of reaching the pinnacle of any artistic endeavor.

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