Filmmakers Global Network ::
Community Spotlight with Joe Sanders
Film Composer, Songwriter, Producer
I’m a composer who primarily composes film/TV scores and assists other composers on their projects. Working with people I really respect and vibe with, is a huge priority for me. A little unsolicited advice here: do surround yourself with people like I just described. Life is too short, this path is too brutal to do it with people you don’t click with. Anyways, onto those current projects.
My most recent film project is a film called Goodnight America, which is a dystopian film about a fascist nation that decides to deport an entire race of people. We explored some very dark themes while working on the film that are unfortunately very relevant to the current climate for people wishing to make a better life for themselves in our country. I hope the film serves as a message that no human is illegal, and that we all deserve equal opportunities. Other recent credits include music for NASCAR, other pro sports, Good Trouble on Freeform Network, Wong Fu Productions, and assisting composer Emily Rice on her score for Miss Juneteenth which just screened at Sundance.
Film Composing Creative Process and Workflow:
Working with Feature Films, TV, and Independent Filmmakers
Feature Films. Usually we spot the film first (decide together where music will go and what it needs to achieve in those spots), then settle on some character themes and a general sonic direction, then start actually scoring the film. I like having as much time to think about the music before I actually need to write it if possible. No one likes to feel rushed especially with the sheer volume of music that a feature film can require. I also LOVE reading scripts for films because they can relay important subtext that can inform how the music is written.
TV. My experience in TV is mainly with writing for premium catalogues like Universal Production Music and BMG that license music to TV shows. Whenever you browse a production music library those pieces are refined and refined to the point that you can search for just about any emotion and instrumentation and find something. It’s way different than scoring a film. The music catalogue folks will typically ask people on their roster to write a certain number of tunes in a certain style, and to hit certain emotions and/or intensities at certain time intervals. This incredibly specific attention to form and build allows for a more streamlined editing process… the shows cut to our music, so it is kind of backwards from film scoring.
Independent filmmakers. I hesitate to draw much of a line between features and indie productions, because there are high and low budget features, and high and low budget shorts. A good composer sees every project, no matter how big or how small, as a musical jigsaw puzzle that is waiting to be solved. A true professional never phones in a low-budget project, because there is something to be gained from every experience that hones our craft. Now, because budgets are usually smaller on indie productions, usually that doesn’t allow for as many bells and whistles like live recording, score mixing from a 3rd party, etc., so this must be taken into account by the composer and the filmmaker in order to ensure proper expectations and workflow. If your budget’s on the smaller side, consider not trying to emulate the gigantic Hollywood cinematic sound for the score and instead going with something more offbeat.
Film Composing Challenge and Solution:
I’ll share something that I recently came up with for Goodnight America, the film which I mentioned earlier. While discussing one of the later scenes in the movie, the director Nathan Xia requested something metallic to drive the pulse of the music to convey a sense of looming danger. Without giving too much away here, one of the characters was trapped somewhere surrounded by metal and Nathan wanted to use that pulsing metallic sound to reinforce the sense of dread and suffocation the character was experiencing. So, I dug around in my house for metal objects that could be recorded and processed in such a way that they could communicate that feeling. I eventually settled on recording a metal shoe rack I hit with marimba mallets and later drenched the recordings in multiple kinds of reverbs. This resulted in some pretty haunting, otherworldly stuff which ended up really driving home the point of the music during that scene. That was a pretty fun problem to solve.
Top 3 Tips for New Directors Working with Film Composers
(#1.) Strike a balance of knowing what you want versus letting your artistic collaborator, the composer, do their job. If you strive towards achieving this balance, I promise you will get optimal results from your composer. The two extremes you should avoid are temp love and complete lack of direction. If you become too attached to the temp music or stifle us to the point that we can’t breathe artistically, it essentially stops being a collaboration and becomes an imitation contest for us. If we’re not given enough direction initially, that makes it very difficult to do our job because we might miss things that are really important that you want to convey. Tell us what you want the listener to feel, point out the major spots you the filmmaker want the music to address, and explain why the temp, if you’re using temp, moves you a certain way. Try and use emotional and filmmaking terms for direction/feedback rather than musical ones unless it’s something really fundamental like tempo or instrumentation.
(#2.) When communicating with your collaborators… text messages are not ideal. Unless it’s super basic info like setting meeting times. Email is okay, phone calls are better, and in-person meetings are best. In this current crisis, in-person meetings aren’t as doable or responsible, but I would encourage everybody to Facetime or Zoom or use some sort of video call while communicating with your collaborators rather than just doing an audio call or email. Why? Because so much is lost when we remove the visual element of communication. I want to see somebody’s face when I tell them my ideas and interpretation of a scene. I want them to see how I respond to their ideas. I’ve also found this practice really helps forge deeper connections and working relationships with your collaborators. Talking to a person if even just through a screen instead of a wall of text is far more satisfying.
(#3.) The last one is just some workflow tips. First, try and stick with a very close to locked or completely locked cut of the film as the one you send to us when you begin the scoring process. This cuts down on drastic edits to the music that might affect the way it is perceived by the audience and allows us to spend more time on refining the existing music rather than trying to solve the jigsaw puzzle over and over again. The moving goalposts that is scoring an ever-changing cut is a very surefire way to kill our creativity and passion on a project. Next one… please, please, please, make sure the cut of the film you send us has timecode burnt into the picture. This is a very important line of defense against synchronization snafus later on down the line. Last, I would highly advise anybody who is directly dealing with approval and implementation of the score – composer, director, audio mixers, music editor, etc. – all have access to a detailed workflow/progress spreadsheet that is constantly updated. Here is a link video by composer Anne Dern which is a very good example of how to do this: https://youtu.be/52zNy0iwKxw.