How do you score for television and film?

Alex Menzies, artist name Alex Smoke, has long operated on the peripheries of club culture. Much like his work, which refuses to conform to dancefloor expectations, Menzies refuses to conform to those of the industry, opting to share the music he makes with minimal self-promotion. Musically speaking, absent are the big beats and dramatic breakdowns; favoured instead are subtle textures and atmospheres, creating a thick sonic mist that’s engulfing, stimulating, and participatory.

Over recent years, Menzies’ sound has steadily drifted into more ambient and experimental realms, and he now focuses much of his attention on scoring for television and media, where he has worked on various documentaries for the BBC and various other outlets, forming part of a growing number of contemporary musicians moving into scoring for picture. Only this month, after releasing his Ad Absurdum’ album on Huntleys & Palmers, he completed his first score proper, for Ninian Doff’s Boyz In The Wood, a lysergic comedy of teens, lords, guns, and the Highlands that recently premiered at SXSW. We're told that the score is something like a traditional Hollywood orchestral score, except all the brass players have been spiked with LSD. In support of this, we dialed in Smoke to learn more about how scoring for picture compares with music production and performing, and how to go about making the switch. 

My career so far is probably most obviously associated with music for clubs and albums that fall into the sort of club music for home listening. But for the last six years or so, I’ve been increasingly working in the field of music for picture, both for TV and more recently for film, too. This is not such an uncommon situation these days, with many highly trained and talented musicians having first started in contemporary music and then later stretching their legs and using their training to explore more expansive terrain. Recent examples include names like Mica Levi, Colin Stetson, and Jonny Greenwood, as well as electronic artists like OPN and Lustmord. It’s an exciting time for music for film, and also a time of change and consternation for many more established composers. Who the hell do we think we are? I am barely in a position to offer tips, but this is my experience, for those wishing to branch out into film and television scoring, or collectively writing for picture. 

Getting the work

Let’s start with how to get the work in the first place.

With touring becoming increasingly competitive and the electronic music landscape more crowded than ever, it’s no wonder that many musicians are looking to music for picture to help fill the gaps in their income. Of course, the multitude of new artists making club music and touring is reflected in the vast number of new musicians making music for picture, so it is becoming increasingly competitive too, made all the more acute by the fact that software is driving down the price of entry and driving down the cost of the work as well. 

If you are already known for making music then you may have an advantage as there is a chance that a director or an editor already knows and likes your work. This is what happened to me, when a friend who is an editor put me forward for my first BBC job. 

Part of the battle is letting people know it’s what you want to do and that you can do it, so another tactic that I used myself was to score a film off my own back and put out my stall. Ultimately, I wasn’t thinking of it in those terms—I just wanted to score a silent film—but it serves the same purpose in alerting people to the fact that you have an interest in such things and can hopefully produce something of quality. The making of "Faust," my first score, put me in a hole financially but it was very satisfying and has certainly opened a few doors. 

There is also library music, which is a whole separate game, but it can work well for many artists who have a huge amount of unreleased music. You can hand over your unreleased works to a company that whacks them on a server and hopefully gets them placed on TV shows and adverts, although you should be well versed in the legalities and make sure you don’t get cornered in an exclusive deal which casts your music into a one-way server vacuum, never to be seen again. Make sure you either get money up front, so that the company has to put your music to work to recoup costs, or make the deal non-exclusive, maybe after a few months of exclusivity, so that you can exploit other avenues. For those interested in this kind of work, it is simply a case of looking up some library companies and sending them some music, and if they think it has what they need they’ll let you know.

Trailer music is yet another valid route for making money from music, but it is probably the toughest and least creatively stimulating of all. You work for no money up front, producing perhaps eight versions of something that is "amazing," only to be told after two months of slog that it wasn’t actually amazing or perfect, but useless. BUT, and it’s a big one if you do place your trailer for a movie that hits cinemas you can make some very serious money. US$100,000 is not unusual but you’ll lose a lot to your agent, whom you will invariably need in this side of the business.

Some ideas to start with:

01. Practice writing to picture. In my case, I chose silent film as it has no dialogue in the way, but you can use anything.

02. Approach young film students and offer your services. There is no money but it could turn into other opportunities and provides useful experience.

03. Mention your intentions to friends, or on social media, without becoming tiresome. Plant the seed and be patient.

04. Speak to anyone you know who already works in this arena, even if not directly in the music field. As I said, my break came from an editor friend.

Leave your ego at the door 

Compared to being a performing artist, whose sole responsibility is to turn up to gigs, perform music, and not get too hammered, working in film is a whole lot more professional. The focus is not on you at all because the film is the master. For many people coming to this world from the world of touring, I imagine this will be a great feeling of relief, and it certainly was for me. Others will also find it challenging, and struggle to adapt because being part of a huge team certainly puts you in your place. 

When making music for yourself, your only responsibility is to your own conscience, but in film, you must answer to a number of people, many with different backgrounds to your own and with a different take on music. The director is first and foremost, as it's their vision that you are working towards, but you have to be good at reading between the lines and offering suggestions that you can infer from what you are told, and by several people. People who haven’t studied music, or whose main input is visual, often describe music in different ways from a musician and it can be a struggle to join adjectives like “swervy,” ”robo,” or “mental” to sounds that genuinely fit the bill. 

One of the main things I’ve had to get used to is having music turned down that I've thought is perfect for the job, and at first I couldn't help but try to persuade the production company or director that I did indeed know better than all of them. Of course, you don’t, and you quickly learn that the consensus is what counts.

Another facet of this is knowing when the music has to sit in the background and when it has to draw more attention to itself. Some critics put themselves firmly on one or another side of this divide, claiming superiority for one approach over another, but I think it’s fair to say there’s a place for both. It’s about knowing when not to draw attention to your incredible talent. Ultimately though, being a sound and patient individual whose ego is under control makes you into a useful team member, especially in a business as stress-laden as this one, and by being accommodating you will make everyone else’s lives that bit easier. After it’s all finished and released, it’s nice to look at a product of craft and creation that isn’t a personal embodiment of anything, and lives on its own, divested of your ego.

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Learn to be an individual

The music for picture industry, like the music industry in general, is becoming increasingly crowded and increasingly homogenized. And the challenge for any new entrant into this world is to set themselves apart from the crowd. 

One of the things that has opened the field to more than just professional composers is the universal availability of software and instruments that can be used in film scoring, and we’ve all noticed a constant stream of articles in music mags relating to “how to write for strings” and “how to score a movie with just Tinkle Keys Pro.” This is all well and good, and some of the software is indeed amazing for creating a very professional result, with many top composers also falling back on tools that get fast results. 

But the knock-on effect is that all too familiar result of ’taiko drums’ and ‘Hans Zimmer staccato strings,’ where everyone starts to use the same tools to create the same effects, especially in TV where the timescales can often be short. If you don’t know what I mean, watch “Pirates of the Caribbean” and recognize that the same musical elements have been featured in just about 80 percent of all action films and TV since. Or those uber-shitty sequenced auto-gate percussion things that appear all over “24” or Tony Scott movies. The irony is that Hans Zimmer himself uses a huge array of experimental approaches to scoring, but the plugins that recreate that sound are now what everyone else uses. 

So if you want to be involved in making music for picture then it is of fundamental importance that you develop your own sound and your own approaches, and only make very limited or careful use of any plugin aimed at “media composers.” Or you can hammer them, update them every six months, and absolutely coin it, provided of course that you already have your foot in the door, and can live with yourself. 

There is also the question of your musical background and your past experience and this is where you may well have a unique selling point. Many directors and producers are looking for a modern take and electronic artists for them represent something edgy and exciting, more-so probably than many of us realize. Providing you can fit into the other aspects of working for film, then this can stand you in good stead. 

Learn to work fast

Talking of what else you’ll need in the business of writing for film or television, one thing that everyone needs is the ability to work insanely fast. This is probably less of an issue for many these days, as we’re already used to working quickly, but it deserves to be said. 

The film I just worked on had a time limit of three weeks from start to finish for 59 cues, and that includes rejections, re-cuts, and last-minute alterations to fit with new editing decisions. Frankly at the start that is pretty terrifying, as you still don’t have the sound world created and don’t know what sounds the director is actually going to respond to. Usually, when you work on a film you’ll be greeted with a temp track, a temporary selection of guide music chosen by the director, and others, to run alongside the film, which is great but can itself be a thing of heavy intimidation. In my case, the temp was largely lifted from one of the most successful action scores of living memory, Alan Silvestri’s score for "Predator." No pressure! None at all! I also got RSI after the first week which was REALLY worrying as I couldn’t do anything and I lost five days. But Youtube came to the rescue with a miracle massage and I never looked back (it’s here incidentally).

Create your sound world

When greeted with a new job, it can be highly intimidating, with so many creative decisions in front of you, so it is good to get the tone and style of the music fixed as soon as possible. This includes decisions such as what instruments to use, whether to go orchestral or electronic or a mixture, what ideas to lift from the film as creative cues, and whether there is any subtext to explore. So I think the most important thing, in this case, is getting the instrumentation and style fixed as to what you think works, and hope that the director responds well when they hear it in those first vital listening sessions. 

In the case of the film I was working on, called ‘Boyz In The Wood’, the director was after the classic sound of Hollywood but mixed with something much odder and contemporary. It was clear that I’d be using a full orchestra for that Hollywood sheen, but on top of this, I needed instrumentation to suggest the wilder sides of the movie. There is a subtext of fox hunting in the film and at one stage some hunting bugles are used by the ‘baddies’ so it made sense to use the brass section as their identifier, meaning that every cue with them on screen would involve brass instruments in some form. And because the film is eccentric and the characters extreme, it also made sense to make those brass parts eccentric and extreme, involving a lot of experimental playing techniques and unusual tones. Once you’re up and running with an approach that works for you and the director, you can begin to enjoy the process and tell the story. The other main consideration, in this case, was making the score as ‘Hollywood’ and serious as possible to play against the knowing absurdities in the story.

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Get to know your movies 

You can’t really score for movies if you don’t know your movies. You have to learn what works in a particular scene, and you can do this by watching films because this isn’t anything especially studied or exact; rather you’ll get a sixth sense for what works in a given situation, and also how to segue into the next scene.

It’s amazing the power you have as a composer in creating a sense of emotion in a scene, and using this power effectively is one of the things that needs attention. It’s more likely you’ll be given an outline of what the director is after and then you just create a raft of cues that they can choose between to fit a particular scene. But getting the initial tone and instrumentation is again key to making the job achievable. For example, for the BBC’s "Order & Disorder," the initial thoughts were for taking something quite ordered, in this case piano, which is nearly a cliché in itself in TV terms, and taking it into more contemporary disordered places by using prepared piano, ondes martenot, and a lot of noise. Once you have your instruments picked out, it’s amazing how quickly the ideas flow.

Flexibility is key 

Another factor that’s highly relevant if you plan on making music for picture is your flexibility. This can be taken in several ways actually. Being flexible in your availability and times is also probably an important consideration in an industry that works to such tight timescales, as well as your musical flexibility. Although it is the latter that is most important. Being asked to create a mockup of a public information film from the ‘50s or a piece in the style of Vaughan Williams is not entirely unlikely, or you might be asked, like I was, for a comedic piece of music to accompany “a cow with afterbirth hanging out of her.” Not exactly in my comfort zone! 

It’s a funny thing, because a few years ago I would have worried about such things but the more you do it the better you get at inhabiting a different mindset, and producing music to match. 

I do think that it’s important to be passionate about the craft of scoring because otherwise, I don’t see how you’re going to make anything that really captures the imagination. I certainly have a much greater knowledge of film and film music than I do of electronic music, and I guess that’s part of the reason I always imagined I’d end up doing it. But I also don’t think it’s necessary to be overly intimidated by it, providing you have something to say. There are plenty of Hollywood composers out there, proudly writing score and conducting orchestras, whose music is the height of forgettable banality and ultimately it is the quality of the music that counts. And like anything, you learn as you go and get better all the time.

So that’s my 20¢. I wish you luck.