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I started film composing around six years ago, apparently. Facebook reminded me of that yesterday. The ‘On This Day’ feature popped up a photo of my “studio” February 2010. It must have been right after we bought my mac desktop and loaded up my new film composing software (Digital Performer) and a few synths and orchestral libraries. As you can see I have everything set up on the dining room table, right across the breakfast bar from the kitchen. What is the saying? “Curse not the day of small beginnings.”

Studio Then and Now

I remember being all excited to dive right in and then almost immediately being stalled, struggling so bad because I couldn’t even get the metronome to work. THE METRONOME! My ego was bruised (“But I am So Good with computers!!!) and I was fearful of all the hard work that lay ahead. However, I acquired some expert help. I kept working, kept learning and here I am today.

The last six years have been interesting. Thankfully I made some decisions early on that have paid off down the line. The main driving force behind the decisions was the idea of investment. I was painfully aware at the beginning that even though I believed I was good at the craft (and getting better every day) I had few credits and no years of experience specifically in film scoring. But everyone starts at the bottom, so I decided to look for people who were at the same place at me but were most definitely going places.

How do you tell? I have no crystal ball, I assure you. Here’s what I look out for: do I like the project? Does it have legs? Do the meetings feel productive and exciting? Good vibes and happy feelings go a long way: we’re working in the arts after all. Other things: organization. Good communication skills. Lack of flakiness. Invoices paid on time. Happy cast and crew. And remember: if they are good, they are watching you for all the same things. Are you delivering on time? Are you easy to work with? Are you putting out a good product? This is definitely a two-way street and there’s not point investing in them if they never want to work with you again.

So: what if the project doesn’t have legs? What if the director is a flash in the pan? Should you not take the gig? Or if you do, should you feel bad about it? Nope. There is someone else you must always invest in: you. One way we invest is making good music, and it is even better if we get paid to do it, right? I take gigs that are low paying or potentially will go no where simply because it gets me off my arse and writing music and getting paid to do it. I always make sure to retain full ownership of the music, that is key. Then something you got paid only $100 for you can now reuse and keep making more and more money off it. In addition to cold hard cash there is experience, credits, and relationships with that other person on the crew that clearly will be working on better projects very soon.

The most important thing to do in this business is to have a long term view. The life of a film composer, or an actor, or a writer, is all about being relentless. Hanging in there. Not giving up and continually finding ways to survive while simultaneously creating and innovating. Everything you do should have a place in your overall game plan of making it; making an enjoyable existence in your field. Note: it is OK that the game plan this month is different than last month. That is all part of evolving and learning.

So: happy investing, people. Invest in yourself and find other people in your field that are equally worthy. I’d love to hear your stories of your investments paying off! The thing that is exciting about my career right now is that people I invested in at the beginning of our careers are now coming back with bigger budgets and cooler projects and they still want to work with me. It is amazing and incredibly gratifying. I wish the very same for you.

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Don’t Just Talk About It: Do It!

We are coming up to the New Year. Time to make all those new years resolutions which are so often abandoned come February. It is December, 2014. In 12 months time, looking back, what do you hope to have achieved?

Since I am asking you to examine yourselves it is only fair I do the same. I am proud of what I have achieved since coming to LA two years ago. I have worked on three feature narratives and 2 documentaries. I have done commercials, video games and short films. My budgets have become larger, the minutes of music to dollars ratio has improved. I am seeing progress in my career and that is encouraging. Have you? Please, you need to ask yourself that question. If it has not, you owe it to yourself to ask why.

This year I plan to do more. I am not going to go into specifics but project-wise things for me are already looking encouraging for 2015. I have a number of gigs on the cards so it will hopefully be an exciting year. I still have a lot of hustling to do, though. No resting on one’s laurels, no matter how positive things look. In the film industry things can fall through without warning.

What do I want to improve? I want to be more prolific in my composing. I hope to write every single day if possible, in order just to have more material there when I need it. Also, I believe it is good to write out all the bad stuff so the good stuff has room to come through! I want to create more music this year than any year before. And this year I plan to carefully track my productivity as a way to both encourage myself and create accountability.

I also want to keep better track of my networking and hustling for gigs. Who did I talk to and when? Who do I need to follow-up with? How many filmmakers have I reached out to this week? I want to make sure I am as on top of this as possible. It is just too much to keep in one’s head. To be successful in this business you need to be on top of the administrative aspect. I believe I will do better if I am more organized.

What are you planning on doing? The key word is “doing”. I feel like a lot of people are talking. Posting on FB. Writing on forums. But what have you done and what do you plan to do? What have you actually achieved? It isn’t enough to look like you’re working. It isn’t enough to want to do this – whether ‘this’ is being a film composer or anything else. It isn’t enough to have a slick website.  Are you Doing It?

Film Composers: How many films have you actually scored? I can almost guarantee that if you score more films you will get better – especially if you are willing to work, receive feedback and then accept said feedback and improve. Composers have asked me “How do you find films to score?” My answer: HUSTLE. Meet filmmakers. Go to places filmmakers are and build relationships with them. Find out what films are being created and build relationships with the people making them. Make sure that you are providing music that they like, that speaks to them (after all they are the client) and if you aren’t, do that! Do the work. Do. Make sure you are doing and not just talking about doing or complaining about how difficult it is to do. What is in your way? Identify and find a way to clamber over that obstacle so you can Keep Doing!

Another question: Who is mentoring you? Who is giving you advice? My two cents: make sure you align yourselves with people who are Doing and not just Talking. People active right now in the scene where you want to be active. People who make a living doing the things you want to do – whether it be composing for film or writing or making films – whatever your profession of choice.

When I decided to become a film and media composer I reached out to every active composer I knew. People who had very recent and impressive credits. People who were in this career for the long haul, scoring the movies and shows I wanted to be scoring. The fantastic thing I have found is that there are so many amazing successful people who are open to help the up and comers. Reach out to successful people you admire and you may well be surprised with their willingness to answer your questions. Just make sure you are prepared and ready to ask intelligent ones – don’t waste any opportunity you are given!

Our time here is short. We all have daily reminders of this sobering fact. So I say to you, and to me, please don’t waste any more time. Put aside your negativity, your regret, your frustration, your fear of the obstacles in front of you, and focus all your energies on achieving something that moves you forward, as soon as possible. Take the time to share your ambitions, and your step-by-step plan to achieve your goals, to someone you trust and become accountable to them. Don’t let 2015 go to waste. Make it a doozy! And please feel free to write and tell me all about it, I would love to hear from you.

About Catherine

Catherine Grealish is a composer for film, games and media. Her most recent credits include the feature-length documentary The Art of Walking Barefoot, the video game The Hole Story and the short film Pearl.

What do I need to know to be a film composer?

This is a question I have been thinking a lot about over the last few days, especially thanks to a webinar I participated in hosted by Deniz Hughes. There were a lot of answers presented to this question but after much thought I came to a surprising conclusion.

Some background: I had excellent musical training as a child. I formally studied classical voice and violin, and attended a highschool, St Michael’s Collegiate, which not only provided me with an excellent music education but also had many ways to practically apply it. I participated in choir, madrigal group, orchestra, string ensemble and professionally-produced musicals. I also sang in church, in rock bands, and learned about jazz and how to improvise. My childhood was a musical playground. Then I went on to study Jazz performance and composition for my undergraduate degree at Cornish College of the Arts and received more academic music training in my masters of music degree at Boston University. I am so thankful for all of this.

But then I ventured into the world of film composition. While all of the above helped, at a times helped a lot, I don’t think they are the keys to this career choice.

What is film music? It is music in a film that supports the picture. Enhances the story. Communicates the vision of the director and producer. It has to be music that the audience – Ms. or Mr. regular non-musically educated person – can hear and immediately connect with. If they don’t connect then they are taken out of the film and the composer has failed to do their job. (Or the director has failed to direct the composer in a way that helped them be successful at their job – blame could arguably be directed at either individual).

Therefore, what a film composer must be able to do is write music that supports picture and connects with people – the filmmaker and the audience.

What do you need to be able to do that? Knowledge of key signatures? Chordal analysis? Being able to read every clef? I don’t think so. You must be able to write the right music. That is all.

What is almost equally important – maybe half a percentage point less – is the ability to be able to communicate with your director and (often the case) producer. If you cannot communicate with them enough to 1. land the gig and 2. do the gig well then you are not a good film composer. You may be a good composer but that doesn’t matter. As a film composer you have a client and a picture that you need to serve. Your musical aesthetic will weigh in (it will certainly influence what you initially pitch) but at the end of the day it may not matter. Can you write something that you don’t necessarily think works, but your director wants anyway? If you can do that, and make your director happy, then you can be a film composer.

If you can write emotive beautiful and accessible music but cannot communicate enough to land a gig or keep a gig working for a client then maybe you are destined to simply putting your music out there, like a band or a singer-songwriter. You write music and if people hear it they buy it and use it. You can also potentially do well with licensing. But to be a film composer the communication element is critical.

So what are you saying, Catherine? Are you really saying that you don’t need to know your music theory, to be able to read music, to have a knowledge of the history of music, to have a degree – all of that – in order to be a successful film composer? Exactly. Just write music that makes people Feel, with a capital F and have the ability to be able to communicate with your filmmaker so you get what they want the audience to feel so you can compose it.

However:

I highly recommend knowing everything you can about music. Primarily because it is so wonderful! Being able to read music is REALLY FANTASTIC! Understanding the differences of the instruments, their colours, how it effects the emotion of the piece; this information will highly elevate your musicianship and give you great material to incorporate into your upcoming projects. Your filmmaker may hate it, and then you can’t use it, but it’s worth a shot! I believe every piece of knowledge you add to your proverbial musical toolbox has the potential to make you a better musician and therefore a better composer. Not only can it give you more to work with but it can also potentially help you work faster and more efficiently. Help you problem-solve your way out of musical pickles instead of relying solely on your ear. I personally do not understand why you wouldn’t want to learn theory, musician and orchestration, but there are many composers who don’t and yet write powerful film music.

I believe having the ability to do a chordal analysis of music is very valuable. I loved the Crowded House song called Amsterdam (listening to it now) and it made me feel something in the chorus. Heartbreak. Yearning. So I thought “must be a lot of minor chords” right? Nope. SO MANY MAJOR CHORDS! Happy chords, right? It was the combination of major and minor that made it so emotional, so heartbreaking, so……I don’t even know what to call it, people. It kills me. Makes my heart feel all the weird things and then starts chopping onions. Gets me every freakin’ time! And once I figured out what it was then I liked it even more. Didn’t steal the magic, just gave me the keys to create that magical sound when I wanted to.

I want to know as much as I can about music because I love it. Because I do it for a living and want as many tools in my toolbox as I can fit. But at the end of the day the thing that keeps me in business is writing something that makes my filmmaker cry. (If they’re supposed to cry – if they are supposed to laugh then….well, time to revise aggressively!)

This final cue for the film All Things Hidden came to me in a moment. I got it, I ran to the studio and out it came. It is, I think, pretty simple, and when I composed it the thought of keys, chordal analysis and clefs could not have been further from my mind. I could hear in my head what the sound was and I managed to get it out on the page. All I thought about was Dannie, driving around and coming to terms with what she had just relived. She was ready to find healing, acknowledge her horrific past, and move forward. She was finally ready for the metamorphosis. My filmmaker, Persephone Vandegrift, listened to it the very next hour in a noisy pub on her phone and started crying. If you can do that, then you have a chance to be a successful film composer. You can read more about Persephone’s experience working with me as a composer here.

P.S. This post barely covers the musical aspect of being a film composer but there is even more to consider. You are a small business owner, an entrepreneur.  You have to hustle and network to find gigs. You have to be able to learn and master the technological aspects of the gig – so much more to cover in forthcoming posts. Stay tuned!

Who is Catherine Grealish?

Catherine Grealish has been a film and game composer since 2010. She has scored many films, a number of them award-winning and she won the Independent Music Popular Voice Award for Best Soundtrack for the score to the short All Things Hidden. Find out more about her work at her website or IMDB page.