1) JAKE, HOW DID YOU GET YOUR BREAK INTO THE WORLD OF TV ANIMATION? WORKING ON ‘DINOTRUX’ AND SO MANY OTHER SHOWS MUST BE A THRILL!
It is for sure! Somewhere between spring and summer of 2014, I had started working a little more formally with Sarah Kovacs over at Kraft-Engel Management. A few opportunities came up where I was able to submit demo reels for shows like Dinotrux and Be Cool, Scooby Doo, among others that didn’t pan out. Within a few months of each other, I made it to a final round where I was asked to do a spec demo for each show.
Dinotrux had four scenes, each about two minutes long, which was a little daunting for a spec. It totaled eight minutes of music based off of the briefing: “Blue Man Group PVC Pipes meets Stomp meets Rock”. I experimented a little bit with actual PVC pipes and found them to not be as sonically flexible as I was hoping, so I decided to not take the briefing as literally, but try to find something in the same world that I could play. I purchased a full set of Boomwhackers (pitched plastic tubes, typically kids’ toys) and Amazon Prime had them to my door the next day (phew!). I found different ways of playing them that sounded a little more interesting, from banging them on the floor or on each other, to hitting them with mallets while slowly covering the hole on one end to bend the pitch down. This combined with other non-pitched percussion (big metal file drawers to small shakers) helped me form the unique characteristic of what I was submitting for my spec demo. I then added some guitars, bass, drums and a little bit of orchestra to help accentuate certain things, while keeping the unique percussion at the forefront. I also submitted a short, minute-long video with my spec introducing myself and showing some of these instruments in action.
Around the same time, I had the opportunity to spec for Be Cool. This was one scene that was under two minutes, but had a few very different ideas that needed to be addressed from sleuthing, to slightly more silly comedy, to the crazy transformation of the mystery machine. There wasn’t a whole lot of direction in the musical brief for this show, so I just did what felt right; a slightly more subdued, almost jazzy, feel for the sleuthing theme (brushes on drum kit, upright bass, bass clarinet playing the main theme) which played nicely with the more traditional orchestral accents for the comedy.
Shortly after, I had a meeting on Dinotrux and everything went great, so I began work on the pilot to really hone in the sound of the show. Then a few months later I got a call about a meeting for Be Cool. At that point, the challenge was to figure out how to make all this work!
2) WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES YOU FACE WHEN YOU HANDLE AN ANIMATED SERIES?
I had a very silly misconception about scoring for a TV series… I thought, “Great! Nine months on, three months off, a music editor that could start tracking in some of the cues after having the first few episodes written, this will be a piece of cake… two shows? No problem!”
I had a very quick wake up call.
Both shows are pretty much year-round with 26 episodes each year (so averaging an episode every two weeks). There must be at least four times as many notes that need to be written for an animated show/film vs a live action one.
All that aside, probably the most challenging part is keeping the score as musical and cohesive as possible while commenting on almost everything that happening visually and acknowledging all of the comedic beats. This is especially challenging for Dinotrux. Dreamworks set out wanting to make this (and many of its other shows now) like HBO for kids, each episode should feel like a mini-movie, very cinematic. It’s not “kids’ music”. Instead of 40-50 very short cues like in Be Cool, there are typically 9-10 longer cues that really help bridge story arcs from scene to scene, over an entire episode, and even the series as a whole. While very musically satisfying, I have to think a lot more about what I’m doing 🙂
3) CAN YOU PLEASE COMMENT ON YOUR EXPERIENCES WITH CHRISTOPHE BECK? HOW USEFUL IS ASSISTING AN ESTABLISHED COMPOSER?
Whenever someone asks me if they think it’s a good idea to be a composer’s assistant or intern, I always respond with a resounding ‘YES’. Having some experience working in your field before opening your own business can only help you, whether you’re learning what really works or what doesn’t. Fortunately for me, I was very lucky to work with Christophe Beck for almost eight years and I’m very thankful to have had this mentorship. I learned countless invaluable things from dorky, tech related stuff, to programing better mock-ups, having attention to detail, orchestration techniques, handling more political situations, managing and coordinating a team leading up to and during scoring, and even how to be a better foosball player (sweep the leg, Lou).
I’m sure everyone has a very different experience, but Beck took the time to be a great teacher and I try my best to do the same now with members of my team.
4) YOU HAVE A RATHER LARGE COLLECTION OF UNUSUAL INSTRUMENTS! CAN YOU DESCRIBE THEM AND COMMENT ON THEIR USEFULNESS?
I think it was during one of the first sessions that I sat in on with George Doering, where he pulled out some three-stringed shimmery thing, bowed it and then tapped it with little hammers, layered it and all of a sudden there was this incredible texture that I never would have thought of. From that point, I have tried to have a different way of looking at objects, whether found or build, and how to ‘play’ them. A lot of the more percussive toys I have I put together myself. I was introduced to a guy named Rich Briggs, who travels around to flea markets selling handmade cigar-box guitars, and I bought a little cigar-box ukulele from him. I loved the sound of it as it’s a little tighter than a normal uke. When the opportunity to spec for The Stinky & Dirty Show came around, I thought this was a perfect chance to use a lot of these handmade string instruments. One of the main concepts of the show is the two main characters solving problems using trash, so I talked to Rich about doing some custom instruments. He created a hubcap banjo, a copper pot electric slide, and a larger upright bass type from two wine crates. All could be played similarly to the instruments they were mimicked after, but have a slightly different, less pristine sound to them, giving them their own unique character.
5) AS A YOUNG COMPOSER, WHAT ADVICE CAN YOU GIVE TO COMPOSERS IN GENERAL, WHO ASPIRE WORK ON FILMS AND TV?
Oh I have so many opinions and so much advice haha!
If you’re going to take the assistant route, my biggest piece of advice is to make yourself indispensable. Learn how to anticipate what your boss, or even the other assistants above you, might need before they know they need it. I personally think that’s the most impressive thing, personality-wise, that you could exhibit. This helps you learn how to predict director or producer needs a little quicker when that time should arise. This job is about composing, yes, but it’s also about so much more. Personality has so much to do with it.
There are more and more of us out there now, so what’s going to be the thing that sets you and your music apart from everyone else? You may be an amazing musician, have been classically trained, have incredible mockups, but how is that different than the ten other composers with your same background? What is your “attention grabber”? The sooner you find that, the sooner you’ll launch your career.