LAFF 2013: 10 Things We Learned About Composing From Atticus Ross, Brian Tyler, and David Sardy

By  · Published on June 19th, 2013

One of the staples of the Los Angeles Film Festival is the festival’s Coffee Talk series which bring together top names in the industry to discuss their craft and offer inside insights on what it is like to be a working director, screenwriter, actor, or composer. This year’s “Coffee Talks: Composers” panel featured The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo composer, Atticus Ross, John Dies at the End and Iron Man 3 composer, Brian Tyler, and Zombieland and End of Watch composer, David Sardy.

It was an interesting panel with Tyler and Sardy sharing the experience of composing for big budget films while Ross had avoided some of those studio pressures to pave his own way through the industry. All three have different backgrounds with Ross coming from a band member’s perspective, Sardy a music producer’s perspective, and Tyler from an indie film into big blockbuster perspective, making the moments where the three agreed and disagreed all the more meaningful.

Here are 10 things we learned.

1. Composing music for films is something one has to do, not simply something one wants to do.

Sardy commented that anyone who gets into film composing should do so because they cannot keep themselves away from it. Being a film composer is not easy so you have to truly love it when there are so many other things out there that are easier to make a living doing.

2. Some composers learn by playing the instruments laying around the house, others learn from “Disco Danny.”

Ross’ father (Ian Ross) founded the first pirate radio station, Radio Caroline, after he bought a boat so he could bring rock ‘n roll music to the United Kingdom. (Although Ross noted the film Pirate Radio was a bit of an exaggeration of this movement.) After bankrupting the family, they moved to Los Angeles where Ross’ father started a disco club and Ross met “Disco Danny” who taught him how to mix music and piqued his interest in the process of creating music.

3. Record producers are becoming writers.

Sardy explained that his background as a music producer made for a seamless transition into writing film scores because being a record producer these days is not much different than writing music. The production aspect of the process is anchored in writing instead of the sound. Sardy admitted that while similar, writing for film was certainly a new challenge because it presented a different set of goals than writing for an album.

4. Sometimes temp tracks can be helpful.

Most composers will tell you they do not like temp tracks because it affects the way they absorb a film for the first time and it sets up the threat of the filmmakers getting “temp love” for music that is not yours. Tyler had a different experience with his music being used as the temp track in various films, saying that temp love led to him getting hired for the job. Tyler agreed that while having his music temped in helped him get work, a composer’s natural instinct is to get as far away from the temp track as possible, which is especially tricky when it is your own music you are trying to get away from.

5. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was composed without ever having seen any footage.

There is a reason Ross and co-composer Trent Reznor created so much material for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (a 3-disc box set to be exact) – they were composing to the script without ever having seem a frame of film. Ross prefers this more free form method as it allows him to create the music from a fresh perspective and get deeply involved with the team bringing the film to life.

6. “You have to imitate yourself before you can imitate anyone else.”

Sardy admitted that admiring and getting inspired by other composer’s work is a good thing, but you have to be careful you do not end up imitating their work instead of following your own instincts to find your own voice. All three composers warned against becoming a knock off of someone else, noting that the only way to achieve long-term success is to know who you are as a composer and what you bring to the table.

7. The combination of art and commerce is a tricky business.

Tyler explained that a composer should become allies with a film’s director, but it is usually a three-headed monster with the film’s producer and the studio also having a say. Composers and directors come from a more creative standpoint of wanting to do something new and exciting whereas producers and studios prefer a safer return on their investment. Sardy agreed that it is important to have musical chops as a composer, but it is just as important to have the skills and temperament to navigate these complicated relationships to end up with what is best for the film while keeping everyone satisfied.

8. It is always more important to understand the “why” instead of the “how.”

Sardy said his best composing experiences have been working with directors who not only understand how things are happening in the film, but also understand the characters and motivations. Tyler agreed that it helps when a director is honest about what is not working which can then allow the composer to understand if music can help or if silence is the more powerful “music” in those moments. As a composer, your goal should always be to get to the heart of the matter so the music can reflect that.

9. How the navigate the war with sound design

Sardy and Tyler both agreed that working on films with big action scenes can be difficult because the effects and sound design can drown out the music. Tyler said he found a way around this problem when composing for Iron Man 3 which he discovered when re-watching the final scene of Star Wars.

John Williams established a melody early on in the film so that when he brought that melody back during the big scene with the Death Star, your ear subconsciously remembers it. Tyler utilized this trick in some of the bigger action scenes in Iron Man 3 to help his score seep through despite all the sound design and effects competing with it.

Ross took a different approach to this problem and used the noise of the floor cleaner in the scene leading up to Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) being forced to fellate her new guardian and the tone in the music to seamlessly shift into the next, uncomfortable, scene.

10. Styles and trends come and go; good writing lasts forever.

Like any enduring rock and pop songs, Tyler credited good writing to the music and scores that have and will continue to stand the test of time. Music that follows current styles and trends in the industry can certainly endure, but the key is to root the music in the writing.

It is currently an exciting time in music with recording equipment readily available (and affordable!) which has allowed a whole new generation of musicians and composers to come to the forefront. Sardy commented that this change in the industry is making trends happen faster, but following trends when dealing with film music really comes down to the goals of the filmmaker.

You can always duplicate a hit, or you can take a chance and do something new. Tyler noted that this onset of accessible technology has certainly leveled the playing field, but Ross noted that it does not mean better music is being created. Ross elaborated saying trends are ultimately not important because music should be able to stand on its own, and always be moving things forward.