Buckle up and play that Inception BRAAAM for dramatic effect, we’re going to explore how you can become the “Aussie Zimmer”.
Every single type of content out there needs music, from the simplest of marketing pieces designed for Instagram right up to big-budget films and video games. The future of Aussie media production is in dire need right now of new composers, and the good news is, the country has the tradition, necessary infrastructure, and academic institutions like AFTRS to make it possible.
There are many ways you can become a film composer, but to make things easier we’re going to boil it down to two main routes we’ll call; the “yacht rock” path and the “punk” alternative. Both require hard work, persistence, and a dose of good luck.
Check out Cameron Patrick’s top tips for building your film score part 1:
First off, whatever path you choose, you need three essential skills to make it happen; a solid grasp of the grammar of film, a thorough understanding of music theory and styles, and a proficiency with a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW).
You gotta know a bit about film…
The value of a film composer resides in his/her ability to create music that complements what is being rendered visually. It’s not enough to create a well-produced track, if the music doesn’t work with the images on-screen it doesn’t matter how good the piece is by itself.
Film directors and producers are not necessarily well-versed in the language of music. They will often communicate with a musician in visual terms, often tracing parallels to movies or referencing specific eras in the history of cinema.
That’s why it’s paramount for any aspiring film composer to understand the basic principles of storytelling and have a tight grasp of the grammar of film. A composer who is aware of the different genres and distinctive tropes that have appeared throughout the evolution of cinema will be able to speak the same language of the director, and will be capable of either replicating or subverting the conventions depending on the project.
A great place to start is David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s Film Art: An Introduction and Film History: An Introduction. Also recommended is Conrado Xalabarder’s The Music Script in Film.
You gotta know a bit about music…
Well actually not a “just bit”, music has to be your first language. Being a film composer means you have to not just master musical theory, but also have enough musical baggage to adapt to any style. This means listening to everything from Bach to Gershwin, from Bob Marley to Kurt Vile.
The Complete Musician: An Integrated Approach to Theory, Analysis, and Listening
by Steven G. Laitz, and The Musician’s Guide to Theory and Analysis by Jane Piper Clendinning and Elizabeth West Marvin are bibles in the field.
Learn your DAW’s
Just like a writer needs a word processor or a pen, any aspiring film composer absolutely needs to master a digital audio workstation (DAW). DAW’s come in a wide range of configurations, from stand-alone hardware units to apps that you can install on your phone. Irrespective of the set up, think of them as the Photoshop for sound; DAW’s allow you to record, edit, mix, and output the final audio file.
All of them have their pro’s and con’s, and all of them work fairly similarly, so the one you end up choosing mainly comes down to personal preference. The most used right now in the industry are Cubase, Logic, Digital Performer, and ProTools, but there are several other alternatives like Sonar and Audacity (which is free).
Check out Cameron Patrick’s top tips for building your film score part 2:
The “yacht rock” path
In theory, this is the “safest” way to break into the industry, a proven route that many of the finest Australian composers have walked already. You basically start by graduating, then taking an internship, and then climbing your way up the ladder at a studio or working beside a seasoned professional. The tricky thing about this road is that most of your success depends on the quality of education and networking opportunities that your Alma Mater provides to you.
In this regard, while international students scramble to find an adequate school, applicants Down Under are lucky to have one of the most kick-ass institutions in the world at their fingertips. The Australian Film,
Television And Radio School (AFTRS) is the only institution in the country to be mentioned year after year in The Hollywood Reporter‘s annual guide to the top film schools on the planet.
Check out the information video for AFTRS’ Master of Arts Screen: Music degree:
AFTRS not only offers the best teachers in Australia but provides an interdisciplinary environment where students can network with other professionals of the field and develop relationships that will boost their future careers. At AFTRS, students have the chance to score the projects of fellow directors, weaving creative partnerships, building a portfolio from an early stage, and gaining vital experience.
AFTRS staff and graduates have won almost every major accolade you can imagine, including Oscars, Golden Globes, Emmys, and BAFTAs. Notable alumni include Antony Partos, who won an AFI Award for Best Feature Score for his work on Animal Kingdom, Caitlin Yeo, winner of APRA AGSC Screen Music Awards for her work on The Butterfly Tree, Getting Frank Gehry and The Rocket, and Matteo Zingales, who worked on projects like The Hunter and HBO’s recent adaptation of Fahrenheit 451.
The punk alternative
“My formal training was two weeks of piano lessons. I was thrown out of eight schools. But I joined a band,” Hans Zimmer said about his musical education during his famous Reddit IAMA six years ago.
Many of the hottest composers in the industry today followed a much more unpredictable route, coming from different disciplines and backgrounds. The DIY way.
Junkie XL, who blew everybody’s mind with his work for Mad Max: Fury Road in 2015 started out selling instruments at a local music store as a teen and later became an accomplished producer and EDM artist before trying his hand at film scores.
Danny Elfman was trying his luck as the singer-songwriter for the new wave band Oingo Boingo in the early 1980s before incursioning into movies, and John Williams started out as a session jazz musician in the ‘50s.
And let’s not forget, Hans Zimmer played the synths on The Buggles’ now mythic track ‘Video Kill the Radio Star’.
You can make your own path learning all the basic skills in your own time and using the internet to build connections. Sites like Reddit, Craigslist, or focalized Facebook groups can connect you to amateur filmmakers in need of musical compositions.
Create an online portfolio and attend film festivals and other related events to make yourself known in your local scene. If you’re persistent enough, you’ll eventually land that ideal project that will put your foot in the door.
Follow the news board of your local film commission and keep an eye open on which filmmakers have secured funding and what productions are rolling in your area. Reach out and establish relationships. Be kind and pass on the information you learn. Share the opportunities you can. The entertainment industry is highly competitive, and in many cases even brutal, but it’s a field where karma exists. If you’re a kind artist, people will know and will want to work with you. If you’re a jerk, people will know that too.
Check out the trailer for Mad Max: Fury Road
If you’re interested in attending the 2020 Master of Arts Screen: Music at AFTRS, applications open on July 6th and close the 16th of October. The program has a duration of two years.
The Australian Film, Television And Radio School also offers related short programs, like their “Create music for film and TV” two-day course in which students have the experience of scoring their own short piece of film at AFTRS’s state-of-the-art recording studios using a professional DAW.
There seems to be a general perception that the arts are a doomed career choice in comparison to other professions. But the truth is, with the increasing rate of automation sweeping across every industry, creative fields are the ones that will be touched the last.
But what about the rising costs of arts degrees thanks to ScoMo and friends? Not to worry! AFTRS sets its own fees on an annual basis which means it won’t be impacted the Federal Government’s plans to increase certain fee types. All of its 2021 fees will be frozen at 2020 levels.
There has never been more demand for music in history, Australia has never enjoyed more international recognition for its cinema, and the country has in AFTRS one of the best schools in the world. If your passion is music, and in your most introspective moments, you find you cannot conceive your life without it, there has never been a better moment in time to pursue your calling.