The world of film music owes a great debt of gratitude to Richard Bellis. Having enjoyed a successful career composing for a variety of films, TV movies and theme park attractions, Richard now dedicates much of his time to the music community: he serves on the ASCAP Board of Directors, ands travels the world to guide, nurture and encourage the next generation of composing talent.
In this episode of the Career Study podcast we uncover:
- why Richard considers procrastination to be an essential part of the creative process;
- tips on how to absorb the music around you and incorporate it into your own musical vocabulary;
- the important skills a composer needs to flourish in the contemporary scoring industry;
- and much more!
This year Richard celebrated his 20th anniversary as host of the renowned ASCAP Film Scoring Workshop in Los Angeles. In this conversation, Richard provides an insight into how the 12 annual participants are chosen from over 300 international applicants, as well advice on what to submit and what to expect from the workshop, should you be selected.
o:oo – Intro (track: Main Title: Stephen King’s IT);
2:13 – Richard’s early film-making experience as a child actor;
3:14 – Transitioning from acting to music in his teens;
4:33 – Honing his arranging during high school;
6:30 – Going on tour with with Johnny Mathis;
9:00 – Transitioning from arranging to film/TV composing;
12:37 – How Richard’s wide musical background aided his film music;
13:03 – Musical “incest”;
13:57 – How to “ingest” different types of music into your own compositional vocabulary;
15:07 – An example of how Richard would immerse himself into writing in a Dixieland style;
19:20 – Procrastination versus Percolation;
22:55 – The importance of giving yourself compositional parameters;
24:46 – This mis-assumption of “getting creative close to the deadline”;
25:38 – Richard’s analogy for creativity: your mind as a musical archive;
30:07 – Skills needed by emerging composers in the contemporary scoring industry;
31:19 – The role of expert vs servant;
33:33 – Richard’s routine for maintaining optimum health;
38:10 – the ASCAP Film Scoring Workshop in Los Angeles;
43:00 – Advice on preparing an application for the ASCAP workshop;
45:40 – A ramification of the evolution of film scoring;
49:00 – Outro (track: Main Title: Stephen King’s IT)
At a glance
Here are a few of my takeaways from our conversation:
Procrastination versus Percolation
Whilst anyone could sabotage his or her own career by delaying going out into the world and finding work, as outlined by Tim Urban in his TED Talk, Inside the mind of a master procrastinator, once you have momentum with your career and have a new scoring assignment in front of you, Richard considers that a brief period of procrastination – which her refers to as percolation – can be beneficial to the creative process.
During this period, the subconscious mind can go to work scanning one’s musical archive, allowing relevant ideas to bubble to the surface and fuse together in a way that is original and personal to our own life experience.
In order for this to work effectively, a composer requires a deep and varied musical archive from which to draw inspiration. If one simply draws inspiration from other contemporary film music, this can result in what Richard terms “musical incest”.
During the percolation period, in addition to analysing our personal archive, the mind is also hyper-sensitive to other ideas that could be integrated into the musical landscape of our score. For instance, in Richard’s masterclass, Creativity on a Deadline, he illustrates how the varying settings on his hairdryer – and the resulting change in pitch (an interval of a major 7th) – provided the seed of an idea for his main title theme for his score to IT, which subsequently earned Richard an Emmy.
During our conversation, highlighting how film scoring schedules have nowadays become far more condensed as technology has evolved, Richard stresses that it is important to build percolation time into a project. He warns that, by neglecting to do this, there can be a temptation to rely on the temp track for inspiration, resulting in the writing of a score that merely imitates rather than innovates.
Although a percolation period may feel unproductive, Richard argues that those composers who invest in this time, both to lay solid musical foundations and to limit themselves to a specific toolkit and sound palette, are then able to become exponentially more productive as a deadline approaches.
Act the role of a composer
Richard’s involvement in film-making can be traced back to his work as a child actor. Although his acting career was brief, as he didn’t enjoy “giving himself over to the director”, Richard has occasionally found it helpful to become as immersed in the composing role as actors are in playing their part.
For instance, when once tasked with arranging music in a dixieland style, Richard found it helpful to “sit at the writing table, and try to imagine myself in 1920s Chicago” whilst asking himself: “will this impress the other arrangers in town (in 1920) when they hear it?”
Richard also considers that emerging composers may benefit from acting in order to help navigate new situations during the outset of their career, while maintaining the appearance of being an expert in the eyes of the director. Richard suggests, for example, that, during a spotting session, one might consider putting themselves into the mindset of Hans Zimmer or James Newton Howard.
Richard gave me similar advice when I participated in the 2016 ASCAP Film Scoring Workshop. During our conducting rehearsal session – which was my first ever time on the podium – my inexperience got the better of me and the players could tell that I was lacking confidence in this area. Richard advised me that, for the final recording session – which would take place with a far larger orchestra – I should take on the role of an experienced conductor and act accordingly. I won’t claim that this immediately transformed me into Gustavo Dudamel, but it certainly helped me feel considerably more at ease: the advice got me through a situation that was at the time beyond my comfort zone.
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