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Chatting With TV/Film Composers Ah2, Toby Chu, Fantini Brothers, Tyler Traband and Geoff Zanelli

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A Conversation with TV/Film Composers Jeff Lippencott & Mark Williams (Ah2), Toby Chu, Marc & Steffan Fantini (Fantini Brothers), Tyler Traband and Geoff Zanelli

Mike Ragogna: You are basically responsible for how the viewer absorbs the emotional and sometimes subtler elements of a script and performance. Does that responsibility ever weigh particularly heavy on your shoulders? Can it also be the reverse, an invigorating challenge? Maybe both?

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photo credit: Zan Passante

Ah2 (Jeff Lippencott & Mark Williams): Many of our programs are not known for subtlety. The dialog between ourselves and the producers is often about bringing as much emotion to the viewer experience as possible. Perhaps it is someone who has struggled with a life of making poor choices and it is all revealed through very emotional storytelling. Those intimate moments are accentuated through creating a moving underscore. On the other hand, certain programs allow us to develop recurring themes which help tell the story of a character, event or location.

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photo courtesy of Toby Chu

Toby Chu: It's certainly something that I don't take lightly. Although it may seem daunting, I'm invigorated by the responsibility and being an integral part of the film making process. Besides which, there's nothing a musician enjoys more than a good challenge. For better or worse, every project invariably comes with its own set of circumstances.

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photo courtesy of CW3PR

Fantini Brothers (Marc & Steffan Fantini): We are fans of the show as well so we are conscious of fulfilling the story as viewers as well as composers. We feel a responsibility to deliver our part with as much respect as the writers, actors and the crew who give their hearts and souls to bring us this great show each week.

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photo courtesy of Tyler Traband

Tyler Traband: Music is all about emotion. As I read the script, see a story board or watch a particular bit of footage for the first time, once in a while (if the fates are aligned) I immediately know what the right music for a scene is going to be. I get so excited when I can imagine the instrumentation and the beginnings of a piece! Other times, it can be a real challenge, but experience has taught me to be patient. The ideas always come, and whether it's loud or soft, in your face or tender, I am here to support the story. Even after the ideas have started to flow there are always problems to work, whether that's the instrumentation, the performances or the transitions. These are the parts of the job that keep everything fresh with some new issue to solve or a new direction to go. For me, working all these pieces into the finished puzzle is a big part of the appeal. Whatever happens between inception and completion, I am always excited about what I've put together, and am always eager to share it.

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photo credit: Alexis Ostrander

Geoff Zanelli: For me, it's certainly both an invigorating challenge and heavy responsibility to add a subtle emotional layer to any project. That responsibility is especially heavy when it's a show about American history. I've had a lot of experience with that, and whether it's Killing Kennedy, The Pacific or Into The West, I find it keeps me up at night, cause it concerns actual events and I don't want to disrespect people's true-to-life experiences with the subject matter.

MR: How much do you submerge yourself into what's being presented on the screen to be able to assist the storyline?

Ah2: This really depends on the particular series. We have been working on "The Quest" for ABC which is a hybrid television format where scripted fantasy meets an epic reality challenge. The Executive Producers from "The Lord of the Rings" and from "The Amazing Race" joined forces to create this series and really gave us a lot of artistic freedom. It was very important to the producers for us to compose a score based on what was happening on the screen. From recurring character themes to big action sequences, we covered a wide range of music. We were very fortunate to have the support from ABC and the producers to record a live orchestral score for this series.

Toby Chu: Time permitting, I try to get as familiar as I can with the story and character arcs. That being said, it's also important to try to maintain a fresh perspective, which as you can imagine can be arduous after watching a scene hundreds if not thousands of times. The key is to sustain the experience of watching the film as an audience member and instinctually feeling how much musically to step on the gas (or brake) on a given scene.
Fantini Brothers: We work extremely hard to become another character of the film or television show. We get involved with everything from creating themes, finding and sometimes inventing original sounds, adding emotional elements which could range from terror to tenderness for each aspect of the project. It is very important that we understand what the filmmakers are looking for so that we can bring their vision to fruition as much as possible. I think one of our jobs is to translate what is in their minds to actual music while at the same time, bringing our musical originality and ideas to the project.

Tyler Traband: I can easily get submerged and often very intimate with a scene or section, much like an actor in a role would. When things are sweet and happy, if I am doing my job right, you may not notice my music at all. It's just a small but important part of the whole picture. Other times, it needs to hit you--the audience--right where you live. This is when I dig into my personal history and experiences searching for an emotional place to start. It may be a memory from long, long ago, but if that's what it takes to find the necessary emotion, then so be it. It could be a long-lost love, or a terrible experience. Just remembering can take you to that place, and then I draw on those emotions. It can be too easy sometimes, to find that dark place.

Geoff Zanelli: I submerge myself as deep as I am able. I'm at my best when I can relate to something directly, or draw from my own personal responses and experiences to something when I'm writing.

MR: What are the most challenging aspects--technically or emotionally--in creating the score?

Ah2: It is impossible to separate emotion from our music, but it is important to remain pragmatic about the potential placement or editorial choices that are out of our control. At the end of the day, we are here to serve the creative vision of the directors and producers who choose to work with us and therefore, we cannot hang on to our "art" too tightly. From a technical standpoint, we have a wonderful team of professionals who keep our studio and process streamlined. If one of our rooms is down, we can jump over to another room and continue writing.

Toby Chu: Every project comes inherently with its own unique challenges. For example, to musically establish a story point that otherwise wasn't apparent. Tight timelines can also create additional stress.

Fantini Brothers: I would say the challenge for TV is time. There is no negotiation on this. There is an air date for each episode, so come hell or high water, you need to get this music done. We have worked being terribly sick with the flu and even with a broken arm. The show must go on. After a while, you learn to work well under pressure. For film, there is normally more time however, if we are going to be doing an orchestral score, time gets eaten up very quickly. Normally we would do a "mock up" with our electronic sampled orchestra sounds of what the music will sound like. Once that is approved by the filmmakers, an orchestrator will be brought on board to prepare our music for 90 musicians or however many people make up the orchestra. This is also probably the most rewarding part of our job on films. Getting to hear your music played by a massive orchestra of incredible musicians is better than you ever imagined. It is a true gift.

Tyler Traband: I tend to grapple most with the technical aspects of scoring. Sometimes I get ahead of myself, and need to be reminded of things as simple as the effective range of a certain instrument or in adding articulations. I learned all of this ages ago, but I've spent many years writing with a computer. My history as a pop/rock performer and singer/songwriter makes it easy for me to communicate the language of popular styles. I can explain to a guitarist or a bassist exactly what I need out of a performance. Arranging horn parts, roping in drummers, these things I can do well. When writing orchestral music with virtual instruments, I perform parts to the best of my ability and move on. In these situations, I instinctively play articulations and dynamics the way I feel them, and I don't have to worry about communicating them to performers. I see this as both a technical and a communication problem, and I wonder about it often. Today's software is so amazing, and I do not want to lose sight that communicating with live musicians is important too.

Geoff Zanelli: No matter the era, technology always brings with it its own set of challenges, but nothing compares to the emotional challenges a composer faces. With Killing Kennedy, the real tightrope act was how to score Lee Harvey Oswald. On the one hand, he's clearly a despicable man, a villain, but the show was built around showing the parallels between his life and Kennedy's and the bizarre synchronicity between the two. One challenged adversity and took a path through life that led to the presidency, and the other was only able to view adversity as a driving force to commit the most resonant murder in the history of America. So the challenge, which was truly daunting, was how do you score Oswald without making him a sympathetic character?

MR: What is the collaboration process like when working with a director or showrunner? Do you mostly work in tandem together, or do you have more freedom to create the music you feel fits a particular character or scene?

Ah2: This varies depending on the director or showrunner we are working with. Some want to work closely together at the beginning when the conceptual phase is being vetted. Others choose to let us work very independently and present our ideas. We understand both the hands on and hands off approach and adapt as needed.

Toby Chu: It varies. Generally, collaboration involves discussions about what might work, what might not, style, and perhaps important story points to highlight. What it boils down to is coming up with ideas and presenting them to the director and/or producers.

Fantini Brothers: Depending on the project and people involved, the amount of creative freedom varies but generally they will always want us to push the envelope and go for something special and unique. For television projects like Criminal Minds and Army Wives as well as film projects like Mom's Night Out or Space Station 76, we spent time early on with the showrunners, directors, writers and producers discussing the characters and the stories and other aspects of the show or film. We then take all that with us back to our studios and begin to create a sound and musical identity. There is a good deal of trial and error and searching in the beginning, but somehow through it all you come up something that works and, hopefully, helps tell the story musically.

Tyler Traband: When working with directors, freedom is fantastic. It can mean you are trusted to make the right choices, to create the appropriate vibe, and that is very empowering. For Chasing the Ghost Particle, I was only asked to make one major musical change, and that was to bring the pace up even further for the "climax" of the film. I was free to develop the themes, interweave them, and wander off to new places as I saw fit. I think we all appreciate being trusted in this way. On the other hand, working closely with a producer or director can be very rewarding too. It's just a different kind of trust: trust that you can help to reach a shared vision. Sometimes, a director/producer has a specific style or genre in mind. I listen very closely to the ideas being suggested, and keep notes of most conversations. I refer back to these often as I work, reminding myself of any special words used to describe or denote a particular theme, scene or character. Having a precise definition from the visionary helps me find my legs and/or a starting point. I know for me, sometimes getting started is the hardest part. Once inspired, the ideas flow and take on their own inertia. Communication, respect and understanding are the key elements in this type of relationship.

Geoff Zanelli: I'd say it was actually both of those things. I had a very collaborative relationship with both director Nelson McCormick and producer David Zucker on Killing Kennedy. My process was to write a first pass of the score, present it to them, and then start a conversation about where we could make incremental improvements on the score to clarify the storytelling. I've always had a knack for creating an environment with the filmmakers I work with where everyone is comfortable discussing their ideas for the film. So in the first pass, I had complete freedom, and then we'd work in tandem.

MR: With each series or movie needing a different feel, are you often having to create music outside of your comfort zone in order to accomplish the appropriate score?

Ah2: The benefit of having a team approach at our studio enables us to offer a diverse palette to our clients. We rely on each person's strengths instead of trying to become something we are not. This authenticity translates on the screen and keeps the creative process always moving forward.

Toby Chu: To be honest, there's always a bit of working outside your comfort zone. In the end though, I find that it actually helps with the creative process. I've been very fortunate to have worked on over 50 films and done several solo projects including multiple seasons of television, so I'm at the point now where I find myself thinking, more often than not, that I've been on this rodeo before. Of course, I'm sure I've jinxed myself now!

Fantini Brothers: Yes, and that is the fun of being a composer. When we were recording artists it felt a bit confining and that is when our love of film and tv music blossomed. It felt liberating and fulfilling to write music in so many styles.

Tyler Traband: Nearly every composer has a deep and diverse background. I have performed so many different styles of music in so many different situations! With that said, I hope I am never afraid to step--or perhaps run--out of my comfort zone and try something new or even a bit reckless when presented the opportunity to do so! My favorite musicians always took chances. The Beatles, Miles Davis, Vivaldi just to name a few. I try to take chances often, and go for a swim in unfamiliar waters, but I do always seem to come back to my roots. I've learned a lot from my forays into the unknown, from figuring out the architecture of a new synth to learning what keys Cellists hate to play in. I guess the limit is really only your imagination.

Geoff Zanelli: I'm almost embarrassed to say that I don't feel like I really have a comfort zone. Instead I feel like every note I ever write is hard-earned. Sometimes I've got to incorporate cultural influences far outside my real-life experience, like the Lakota music in Into The West for instance. Sometimes I have to be in a very dark place to write from the perspective of psychological turmoil. Killing Kennedy's Oswald music and The Pacific are both good examples of me dragging myself into those places.

MR: What do you think the ultimate goal of a composer is and what are the "absolutely have to do this"s and "never do that"s?

Ah2: The ultimate goal of a composer is to create music that comes from your soul, fully abandoning outside opinions which are always subjective. The goal of a television or film composer is quite different...compose what you've been asked to deliver. A composer must absolutely deliver on time and never let their ego get the best of them...if they want to continue working.

Toby Chu: It's about using music to complement the picture. And while that's easier said than done, one must be unapologetically passionate about the process. I think it requires artistry and humility too.

Fantini Brothers: Helping to tell the story is the ultimate goal of a composer. We don't think there are any absolutes however the "do nots" are mostly a personal choice. I'm not sure you can ever fall in love with what you have done as you can have your heart-broken when you think you have written the best piece of music ever and someone else thinks it completely wrong. Being able to take criticism and turn it into the right piece of music for the director or showrunner is very important from our perspective.

Tyler Traband: My goal as a composer is to move you; to help you get to where the picture is taking you. If I have to slap you, I'll do that. If I need to hold your hand, I'll do that too. My hope is that you love what you're hearing and that even without the picture, you'd like to hear that piece of music again! For me, the "have to do this"'s are listen more. Much more. My pop chops are pretty good, at least through the early 2000s, but in classical music alone, there are HUNDREDS of years of amazing music to listen to and learn from. I haven't even scratched the surface -- "never do that"s? I try to never make assumptions about people. You never know what someone has seen or been through.

Geoff Zanelli: Storytelling, storytelling, storytelling. I'll never forget David Koepp telling me "everyone who works on a film should have 'Assistant Storyteller' written on their business card." I don't have many "never do that's" except maybe "never go to sleep if staying up will make the film better."

MR: What do you find are the challenges in scoring for television that may not be present when scoring for film? Or even between broadcast and cable television?

Ah2: The biggest difference is time. From our experience, television demands a much higher volume of composition in a shorter period of time. This has become a way of life for us over the past 12 years, so we are quite comfortable with the deadlines television demands.

Toby Chu: Personally, the biggest challenge in scoring for television has been the copious amount of music coupled with quick turnarounds. Although this happens increasingly regularly with film, it's the continuous nature of television, which spans over several months, that makes this issue particularly pronounced.

Fantini Brothers: Delivery times on TV are set in stone. Whether you are sick or your equipment breaks down that music needs to be delivered on the same day each week. However, pilots are the most stressful of all. Tons of pressure and very quick turn-arounds combined with things always changing in the 11th hour can be quite difficult.

MR: What advice do you have for new composers wanting to pursue this field?

Ah2: Be teachable, hone your craft, always have a good attitude and finally, be willing to make sacrifices to succeed. If you can't do those things, you probably should pursue something else.

Toby Chu: Pay attention in music school, apprentice for a composer, and don't lose heart!

Fantini Brothers: Never think about money if you are asked to do a project when starting out. Do it for the love and to learn. When we started, we worked on countless projects for little or no money. We were just thrilled that someone gave us a chance and that we could hone our craft and work with talented people. If you can intern for an established composer, that can be a great opportunity as well.

Tyler Traband: My advice for new composers is to practice and be competent on your instrument. I practice more now that I have in years. I want to keep learning, and I want to keep improving. Knowledge is never going to be a hindrance to your success. Learn the language of music and the language of production. Learn and keep up with the technology. Play gigs. Play with friends. Play with strangers. Take chances. Love the music, and share that love! Have fun. I can razor focus with the best of them, and I can crank music out like an insane maniac. Still, I always try to have fun throughout the entire process, and strive to be a real easy, fun-loving person to work with. Even with looming deadlines and crazy time lines, I love what I do, and am thrilled to have had these opportunities. Surround yourself with professional people, and always act like a professional.

Geoff Zanelli: Get an internship right away. I tell people that all the time. You have to be immersed in this if you're going to have a chance, so find a mentor you can learn from and absorb everything you can. I made a decision early in my career that on my way up, I'd rather have a tiny role on a project with brilliant filmmakers than anything else. I wanted to hear how great directors and great composers talk about film, and music and story. I remember delivering coffee trays into meetings and walking as slowly as possible out of the room so I could hear Jeffrey Katzenberg give a note about music.