1) MARK, YOU ARE ONE OF THE BUSIEST TRAILER COMPOSERS ON THE SCENE TODAY. A LOT OF MEMBERS WOULD LIKE TO KNOW IF THERE IS A FORMULA FOR WRITING EFFECTIVE TRAILER MUSIC SO, CAN YOU PLEASE DESCRIBE THE PROCESS?
Sure – basically pedal on D minor for about a minute or so, throw in some BWAAMS here and there, then go between D minor and Bb major for another minute! OK I’m half kidding : )
These days there are generally two kinds of trailers for films: theatrical trailers and TV spots (commercials).
The theatrical ones (playing in theaters before a film) run for about 2:30, and have a very specific form, which should be familiar to anyone that’s seen a trailer over the past ten years:
- act 1 – where the music generally gets out of the way, usually drones and creates atmosphere and intrigue.
- act 2 – bigger, more energy, possibly percussion introduced
- quite often a breakdown where the music is minimal at first and crescendos into:
- act 3 – a massive realization of the material introduced in acts 1 and 2.
- a finale, where nothing is left on the table – you go as big as you absolutely possibly can
Sometimes an outro intended for the ‘COMING SOON’ text, where you recap the opening material and use one last moment to compel the audience to go watch the film when it comes out.
Almost all trailer music sticks to some variation of this form. The real grind is the third act and finale – without a great ending, a track has little chance of being used.
In contrast, TV spots (commercials that air around the time the film comes out) only have 15 to 30 seconds to compel the viewer to go see a film, so there’s no time for subtlety or the development of musical ideas. There’s often a voice over or a lot of dialog, whereas theatrical trailers don’t usually have voice overs anymore. For all these reasons, TV spots tend to feature tracks that are musically simple and heavy on effects and percussion.
Something to consider is that while a big budget film might have just three or four different theatrical trailers, there could be upwards of 20 shorter TV spots for it.
Structure aside, for a piece to be effective trailer music, it needs authenticity (does it actually sound like trailer music, or just an attempt at it?), and a lot of gravitas (does it truly move you within seconds?). Production value is of course another important part of the equation, as is some degree of originality and uniqueness…within the confines of modern trailer music.
2) CAN YOU TALK ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCES OF RECORDING ORCHESTRAL ENSEMBLES FOR TRAILER MUSIC? PLEASE INCLUDE ANY RELEVANT INFORMATION FOR LOCATIONS AND STUDIOS.
The limited amount of live orchestral recording I’ve done for trailers has been with European groups. Every orchestra has been great (Prague, Poland, Budapest), but in particular, I really liked the recordings I got back from sessions that Dynamedion produced. I’ve been lucky enough to record at Abbey Road a few times and aside from the incredible experience of being there, the musicianship was everything I imagined and more.
I’ve found the biggest challenge with recording live orchestral parts for trailer music is getting the blend right. You still need to incorporate some samples into the mix to get that huge stacked ‘epic’ sound – particularly in the third act. However, there’s often a sense that the live performance should be featured out in front when a lot of money has been spent on it.
Unfortunately, with the mindset of “a lot of money has been spent on this, the live parts better be loud and clear”, you can easily end up with a thin sounding mix with live instruments awkwardly popping out. Creating a cohesive mix that gives the illusion that every instrument is playing together is something above my skills as a mixer… as much as possible, I try to put any track featuring live parts in the hands of a much better, pro mixer!
3) OVER THE YEARS YOU HAVE A AMASSED A CONSIDERABLE FANBASE, SOME MIGHT EVEN DESCRIBE IT AS HUGE!! HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN YOUR POPULARITY OR THAT OF SIMILAR TRAILER OUTFITS SUCH AS ‘TWO STEPS FROM HELL’? HAS TRAILER MUSIC COME OF AGE?
Two Steps From Hell are in a league of their own – they really are the superstars of trailer music. Check out CDBaby’s homepage – they dominate the top 20 albums of ALL genres! If somehow you don’t know of Thomas Bergersen’s incredible talent as both a composer and producer, do yourself a favor right now and check his music out. Just prepare for a very humbling experience!
I’ve been fortunate to get placements in a handful of high profile trailers, which explains some of the great support I’ve had on social media and YouTube. I think what also helped was doing a decent job of leveraging those placements and engaging with fans on my FB page, using incentives to like and share my posts (like early access to new music).
Much of the recent rise of trailer music’s popularity is tied to how massive trailers have become. It’s no exaggeration to say that a new trailer released for a big film is now a news story.
4) HAVING SCORED EA’s ‘MADDEN NFL 15’ VIDEO GAME, DO YOU SEE YOURSELF EXPANDING INTO OTHER MEDIA REALMS?
Absolutely! I’ve scored a few dozen indie films in addition to trailers, TV, commercials, and the occasional game. It’s creatively refreshing to work on something that develops a set of themes and concepts over a longer score. As much as I love doing it, writing trailer music can be exhausting at times and is a bit like trying to squeeze the entire emotional arc of a film into 2:30.
5) YOU WERE BORN AND RAISED IN NEW ZEALAND AND STUDIED AT BERKLEE COLLEGE OF MUSIC. SO WHAT ADVICE CAN YOU OFFER TO COMPOSERS WHO WANT TO MOVE TO LOS ANGELES?
Everyone’s situation is a little different – age, experience and success, finances… they all come into play when deciding about moving to the LA area. Preparation is critical, but on the other hand, waiting too long might also be a bad idea.
A common route for music school graduates is moving up some version of the career ladder: from intern to assistant, to writing additional music and eventually, fully credited composer. You start out paid very little for a while, so support from family or some form of extra stable income is vital. Expect to need at least $3000 a month to live in a decent, shared apartment and also cover all your other expenses in LA.
When moving to LA, I didn’t have the luxury of being able to take on much low or unpaid work. Being on an artist visa at the time, I also wasn’t allowed to take on non-music related work. (yeah it was tough!) I sought out ways to make a living from writing music full time, based on my limited experience. I found that first in writing for libraries and additional music for TV shows, then later as my production skills got a bit better, trailers.
For non US based composers – someone with a lot of experience and success in their own country will have a much smoother move out to LA. Good credits, awards and recommendations will make getting an artist visa or green card a lot easier. For anyone making the move – with honed skills, you’ll bypass much of that typical, aforementioned career path.
Something else to consider is that you might only have one shot at trying it out in LA. It seems, just from my own observation of friends and colleagues, like hardly anyone comes back again after leaving. Being prepared with marketable / valuable skills and establishing solid connections beforehand will make all the difference. It might pay to wait a few years after graduating. On the other hand, you might get too settled and comfortable in your hometown, and roughing it is much easier when you’re young… I guess you just have to decide what’s best for you and your own unique situation.