How I Became a Film Composer

Graeme Stewart on recording with the Ulster Orchestra, why John Williams' 'Jurassic Park' score is peerless, and the process of writing music for the moving image – listen to exclusive tracks from his debut feature 'A Nightingale Falling'

As a composer, how did you get into writing music for film and television? 

There is something about writing for picture that’s incredibly addictive, and satisfying. The first films I did were short films for students at Queen’s University when I studied music there. I remember putting up a few notices on message boards around the university and got a few responses from students with films they were making as part of their courses. Eventually I went to study film scoring in London at the Royal College of Music, and began doing orchestral arrangements for the BBC, and from there began writing music for radio dramas and eventually a few TV projects. 

Was composing for film always something you were interested in pursuing?

From a young age I wanted to write music for film. I used to go to the cinema all the time, and loved the old Curzon cinema on the Ormeau Road in Belfast, with its huge Screen No. 1. Composers like John Williams (Jaws, Indiana Jones, Star Wars), Jerry Goldsmith (Alien, Basic Instinct, LA Confidential) and John Barry (James Bond, Zulu, Dances With Wolves) were all huge influences on me. The way they could conjure up these amazing scores to amazing images was a great inspiration and every time I listen to their soundtracks they still bring back memories of those films.

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How does writing for film differ to composing for other mediums? 

As a composer writing for film, the movie is everything, along with the collaboration between you and the film makers. You are one element among the many creative people involved, and what you do has to support that same artistic vision. Writing music for concert performance is very different. Those pieces are self-contained works on which you can completely let loose your imagination and take it in whatever direction you want. Of course you can do that with a film score as well, but you are always working within the film. It’s a blueprint as well as the thing that provides you with the stimulus for the music you’re writing. 

Describe your process from start to screen. 

There are several stages to writing music for movies. The first is a meeting with the director and producer(s), having a chat with them about the film and what they feel they want from the score. The next stage is the ‘spotting session’. This is one of the most important stages for the composer, when you sit down and watch the film from start to finish and ‘spot’ where the music cues will begin and end, what their purpose is, the tempo of a scene, whether or not it needs to have ‘sync points’, where the music underpins an important piece of dialogue or an action. It can be the case, and often is, that you watch the film many, many times to get a feel for all of these elements before you begin writing a note of music. 

The next stage is writing the score. I prefer to begin by coming up with some kind of theme or themes, whether it be for a character or a location or a mood. It helps to get into the score, and with the stylistic features of the music. Once the score is complete, if there are any elements to be recorded by live musicians, the music gets scored out in written manuscript format and recorded at a studio session to a click track to keep everything in sync. And from there, those recordings get married to your other audio and the soundtrack is mixed before being inserted into the film in the final sound dub. 

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How has composing for film changed with the rise of digital?

Composers now usually use sequencers, samples and other audio programmes to write the soundtrack in sync with the film. It allows them to hear almost exactly how it will sound in the end, and also allows the director to listen back to your ideas. That’s an important thing: what is the sound world of the music? Will it be for a full orchestra, or will it have synthetic elements? Maybe it’s for a smaller group of players, or a solo instrument. As soon as you put music on anything it has some kind of influence, so as a composer you have quite a bit of influence on the final score. After all, the score is one of the best tools a director has to manipulate an audience.

Tell us about some of the projects you have worked on to date. 

In the last few years I’ve had the opportunity to work with some fantastic people on a range of varied events and projects. In 2012 I did the orchestral arrangements for BBC Northern Ireland’s The Great Northern Songbook with the Ulster Orchestra and a whole array of bands and solo singer-songwriters, performing their own versions of a top ten list of Northern Ireland’s favourite songs voted for by Radio Ulster listeners. That was a very special night. The highlight for me was my arrangement of 'Stairway to Heaven' performed by the Ulster Orchestra with The Answer and Tim Wheeler from Ash.

Another great project I did was for the BBC’s Knowledge and Learning department, an animation made by Holywood-based animation company Flickerpix called Not Again Farley, to teach kids languages. That was the first animated programme I worked on, alongside another composer named Garth McConaghie, who created the sound design. Animation is interesting in that the only sounds you hear are the ones you put into it – there is no recorded atmosphere on a set, you have to build the music and sound to create the overall soundtrack. The sound design has to complement the music, and vice versa, so it was a great collaboration.

The Return of Colmcille was also another project it was great to be part of, the flagship event of Derry's magical year as the inaugural UK City of Culture in 2013. I was musical director, and the experience was tremendous. It was a large-scale outdoor theatre event produced by the Culture Company and Walk the Plank, which involved a pageant and huge finale show on the Foyle River. I got a chance to collaborate with some really talented people, and wrote original music and sound design across the whole show. Definitely something I will always remember.

Most recently I completed the score for an independent feature film entitled A Nightingale Falling, from directors Garret Daly and Martina McGlynn, and starring Tara Breathnach, Gerard McCarthy and Muireann Bird, based on a book by PJ Curtis. I was lucky enough to conduct the Ulster Orchestra and record the score with them in Glenmachan Church of God in Belfast last year, and that was one of best experiences of my career so far.

I was also able to work with the Ulster Orchestra on Puffin Rock, an animation made by Derry-based animators Dog Ears. I worked with Icelandic composer, Einar Tonnsberg, and the team at Smalltown America Records on that. Tonnsberg wrote the main themes and I wrote the orchestral arrangements and adapted some of those themes to use in the underscore. It's been a really satisfying experience seeing the completed episodes of Puffin Rock aired on RTEjr and Nick Jr. 

Did you have to channel your inner kid for the Dog Ears project? 

It goes back to what I was saying before about the programme being the paramount influence. Puffin Rock is an animation for pre-school children, so it’s a whole plethora of things: it’s fun, exciting and informative. It's voiced by Hollywood actor Chris O’Dowd, and his personality as narrator really added so much to all of those elements. Working on the music, you have to remember your audience. Kids are very perceptive, inquisitive. The music supports what is happening in each episode, and in a way that helps kids to understand the mood of a particular scene, or to underpin what is happening with a character. It’s actually very ‘grown up’ music. Sometimes it’s playful and at other times it’s actually quite emotional. I think kids will respond to that.

Which other film composers are you most inspired by? 

Like a lot of composers my age, and older, John Williams has to be the main influence for me. He is one of those composers who, in a few bars, can find the right tone for a film. His themes are universally loved by everyone. Just think of the soaring strings in ET, or the brass in Star Wars – they transport you to the cinema where you first watched those films. Williams is also one of the best, if not the best, orchestrator of any film scores you will hear. The amount of colour he gets from the orchestra is incredible, and that all feeds into that John Williams ‘sound’. 

The same goes for Jerry Goldsmith. His use of synths and other non-orchestral elements in his scores really give them personality. His score for Total Recall is still timeless, as are other scores such as Basic Instinct and Planet of the Apes. Like Williams, he knew what a film needed and you just can’t imagine those movies without his music.

What is your favourite ever film score? 

For me it has to be Jurassic Park. That may be because it was the first film I genuinely remember going to watch in the cinema and thinking, 'Whoa, this is amazing.' It was also the first film to really use surround sound on a major scale in the cinema.

John Williams’ score is so evocative of the world it inhabits. The main theme is fantastic, but the ‘snarling’ woodwind lines, and action cues, are in my opinion some of the best music he has ever written. A good theme is a good theme, no matter if it’s played by a full orchestra or, as on the recent trailer for Jurassic World, on a haunting, echoing solo piano. It still gives me goose bumps. It’s a film and a soundtrack I can watch and listen to over and over again. 

What is your favourite television theme? 

Television series have really become major pieces of work now. I think they’re different from films in that characters have longer to develop and stories longer to unfold. For the composer, this is a big advantage. You can develop themes and motifs across different episodes to build a large body of work to represent the story.

Sean Callery’s music for 24 is definitely some of the best I’ve heard. It really gets into the DNA of that programme, a fantastic theme tune. More recently I think the music for Broadchurch by Ólafur Arnalds is very effective. It’s different from a series like 24 – it’s slower moving and has a deep emotional quality. It has a very static and solitary feel and uses some really interesting music and sound design to carry the drama. Arnalds is a really interesting composer.

Finally, what advice would you have for any budding composers hoping to one day compose for film and television?

Learn how to actually write music first. There is a craft there, whether it be writing for an orchestra or on a guitar or piano. And listen, listen, listen to everything you can: pop music, jazz, classical. One of the skills you need in this industry is to be able to turn your hand to different genres and styles. It all feeds into the same thing, and gives your music a personality. Aside from that, just get out there and start getting your own projects to work on and build up contacts, people you want to collaborate with. It’s a career that definitely has its challenges, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. 

Graeme Stewart spoke with Culture Northern Ireland ahead of Creativity Month, a celebration of creativity and the creative industries, which runs in venues across Northern Ireland throughout March 2015. Visit the Creativity NI website for full listings and more.