Consider this article the ultimate guide on how to become a film composer. We will explore what a film composer does, the process of composing a film, how much a film composer earns, and more!
From the outset, it must be said that this is an elite group. Full of people who dedicate their lives to composing, long hours, very tight deadlines, and lots of pressure. However, the rewards can be great both financially and certainly in creative terms.
Let’s have a look at the work of a film composer and how you go about becoming one – let’s go!
Composing music can be difficult using traditional methods. Many composers use loops and sound design rather than traditional notation.
There are a lot of composers who use synthesised sounds either to demonstrate what the final piece will sound like or to use as the actual final score for the film.
If you look back in time, films started out silent. However, they did not remain that way for long.
In the early days of cinema, pianists were often employed to sit in the cinema and improv live music on the piano while the film was being watched. The music they played changed the perception of the audience in relation to the film’s content, message, or feeling.
These were very skilled musicians and were ultimately, the first film composers. This perhaps was also the start of the film composer profession in the film industry. It must be remembered though, that these were live performances – the sound was not embedded in the film.
How important is sound with film? Well, all you have to do to answer this question is watch one. Your favourite one preferably, so that you know the plot and characters, then turn the sound off so you can’t hear it.
It becomes a totally different experience, not just because there is no sound. You no longer feel the same about the characters or the narrative. Your emotions are not as strong if present at all – the visual imagery seems not to have the same impact.
In short, we are so strongly exposed to music and sound in our lives that we associate feelings and emotions with sound. This knowledge is used to advantage by film composers.
First, a film is shot and edited to if not total, very near completion. A film composer is then supplied with either the rough cuts or the complete film to score.
The first meeting in a large budget film will often be a spotting meeting. Spotting is a process in which the directors and composers sit and make notes on exact requirements for music/soundscaping at very precise points in each scene.
This is a long and laborious process, but is essential in most long films. The precision is gained by use of the timecode of a film, allowing notes to be precise to less than a second or indeed to a single frame of a film.
The notes made will be global, in relation to the whole film, sub-sections of the film, and individual scenes. Often so-called guide tracks of music will have been added to scenes of the film. These are pieces of copyrighted music by other artists and composers, that the directors feel their film should sound like.
The composer will normally be expected to follow this guide and compose something similar but different for their client. It takes a brave or very experienced and respected composer to stray from this advice. It is not unknown for directors to change composer mid stream because they were not following the brief.
There will be significant iterations of viewing the scenes with the musical director and his/her team. At these viewings with the new compositions, notes will be made and rewrites of the music will be discussed, or signed off as completed at that stage for that scene.
Deadlines will be set for delivery of the newly requested edits and these will be tight, sometimes the same day or overnight.
The process is repeated until the score and soundscape for the film is completed. Other sounds, known as Foley may be added during this process by Foley producers and artists. These are the sound effects for the film, the banging of a door, footsteps on snow for example.
These are hard to record with the clarity and depth required for cinema when filming live. So, they have to be added artificially at exactly the right point in the film and totally in synchronisation with the images.
In low-budget films, there will be less opportunity to interact with the producers. The spotting and choice of the music may be totally down to the composer.
Of course, you will spot the problem with this. We all hear things differently and associate different sounds and music with different emotions. So this approach leads to a lot of hard work on the part of the composer, which may be rejected in a mere moment by the director.
In the early days of film composition, the sound was recorded live on audiotapes. All film scores were orchestral in nature, utilising large expensive orchestras.
The latter is still very prevalent in modern film scoring as is noticeable in the work of the most prolific film composers of our time. For example; John Williams, Hans Zimmer, and Ennio Morricone.
However, this is not always required or acceptable due to deadlines and budget constraints. It certainly requires an extensive knowledge of music when needed. To simplify music production, a DAW or digital audio workstation is used.
Which DAW is used depends on personal preference and knowledge of the software. There is no Gold Standard DAW. Hans Zimmer uses Cubase for instance.
What is important about the DAW you use is that it must be able not only to play the time coded film in sync with your music from within the DAW, but also be able to export it from within, with the music embedded so you can send it to the directors for review.
Even Cubase until very recently could not do this and intricate workarounds were needed with multiple machines to facilitate the process. In the last few years, nearly all major DAWs are able to perform these functions.
There are very few film composers, if any, working on major World class film scores who are not qualified in music or music production. However, smaller budget films are open to anyone as long as you are good at what you do.
How does a producer know this until you have scored a film for them? They don’t really, it is all down to them taking a risk on you. Perhaps based on samples you have sent them of past work – which is very important to them and why so many start out in this field by doing free work for student films.
It is likely that the first handful or more of professional jobs will be expected to be done for free or very low budget so that you can build up a portfolio of work. It is likely that you will need to accept anything that comes your way and complete it to the best of your ability.
This will eventually lead to opportunity via repeat work or recommendation. There is no easy way to speed this process up unless by luck or chance. This is one of the downsides to the life of a film composer. Even if you are good, work may not come if your musical style is not appreciated, and work may be intermittent.
So, does a degree in composition help?
This is a major advantage for an undergraduate, as it gives rise to the huge potential for future contacts who may need your services later in life.
There are loads of degrees to choose from. Perhaps you want to study music generally, either theoretically or performance-related on an instrument or for singing. The vast majority of music degrees of course include elements of classical or modern composition.
There are specific degrees on film and television or media composition. These are of course more suited as you will not only learn compositional techniques but also about the industry itself. Often from tutors who either are still employed or who were in the past directly in the industry itself.
Many of these degrees try to get students commercial experience, either from guest lecturers or directly by placements within the industry as part of the degree.
Example courses include:
A search in Google will bring up many similar courses all over the World for you to choose from. Be these diplomas, degrees or higher degrees or private company courses.
If you are not academically inclined then a degree may not be for you. However, there are opportunities for you to gain experience equivalent to degree students in the production of short film compositions.
These are normally advertised on forums and websites related to the media industry. Here, small businesses and indeed some students will post requirements for short compositions to film. For either little or no money for the composer, but the promise of a mention in the credits and the ability to use the final product as part of your own portfolio of work.
Who is most likely to get hired by a big company? Well, unfortunately, it still comes down to the old way. If your face fits, if you are willing to make the tea, sweep the floor and watch and learn, you may get a job just by being keen.
This still happens a lot as it is free or very cheap for a production studio. If lucky, after a year or so you may be asked to help with certain aspects of the process. Be these technical or actual compositions, and you may be lucky enough to become an assistant composer if you can demonstrate promise.
The golden question is where to find work and what is the process of finding work as a film composer? Where can film composer jobs be found? The answer lies in several places.
Think laterally again about this. In the age of technology, you do not have to be immediately local to the director to be able to compose for his or her film. You may be living in the UK and working for someone whose film shoot is principally in Australia for instance. Look for countries where the film industry is in its infancy and that the likelihood of an abundance of composers might be rare.
Remember to find your own niche. Target this area. Find composers that are similar to you and your musical tastes. Write to them. Follow them on social media and comment on and praise their work. Get to know them, send them examples of your work. Ask them about how to get a role in the industry and where they think you can find film composers jobs.
There is a thought that in a room of 8 to 10 random people, you will find a link to at least one of them. The same is true with jobs. If you talk to everyone you know about your new career aspiration you will find someone who knows or knows someone who knows a link into the industry.
As we noted earlier, this can be very little in the very early stages of a film composer’s career. Some have spent several years working for nothing as a side job awaiting the big break. If you are persistent and produce a volume of high quality work it will happen.
The amount of money earned depends on the size or scale of the film. This is in terms of the length of the film and the budget set aside for sound. Obviously, a blockbuster Hollywood film will have a huge budget for music. However, there will be a team of composers and runners to be paid on the audio team as well as orchestra and recording engineers’ time.
As a rough guide, film composers make on average £30,000 per year. However, this ranges from £21,000 to £40,000. There are roles reporting up to £64,000 but these will be extremely rare and may be one-off films.
In the first one to four years it is likely you will have a salary at the lower end of the range. The higher-end being within seven to ten years of experience. For many, this means the life of a film composer is one of passion for music rather than a rapid career path to a well-paid job.
So now you know how to become a film composer. Try out the ideas given, reach out to your contacts, but above all, do some composing!
Build your portfolio or showreel, make sure you have a professional website. Get known, volunteer, and make wonderful music.
We hope that you enjoyed this guide! If you liked this article, check out some others on our blog such as Famous Movie Composers, How To Get Signed To A Production Library As A Composer, and the Best Movie Franchises.
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