The composer should score what you can’t see, the SFX sound design enhance what you can

Veteran NZ film composer Graeme Revell (DEAD CALM, THE CROW, THE SAINT, THE CHINESE BOX (Gold award, Venice Film festival), BLOW, SIN CITY, CSI MIAMI, GOTHAM) gave an insightful and honest account of his career to date – with composer Victoria Kelly moderating.

He talked about his ongoing collaborative relationships with directors.  Some of whom he has continued to work with over many years such as Philip Noyce whom he worked with on Dead Calm and then many years later on The Saint.  Part of working with directors and filmmakers is finding a language that the creative team uses and understands – and of course this will vary on each film project.

The huge variety in his work is interesting – whilst in some ways he thought he had never got that “important film” he had the opportunity to work on a large number of films in a whole range of genres and styles.  He admitted to sometimes feeling typecast as the “ghostly voices guy” but has continually made effort to try different styles.  Coming from a background in industrial and sonic experimentation perhaps this was a given.

When asked “How do you become a film composer?” Graeme says just to “write music” and keep doing it. 

He believes that a composer is every directors “secret weapon” to complete a film and that part of working on a film is changing and rolling with the punches to complete a project.

For approaching key scenes in a film he had interesting advice to offer – especially in regards to romantic scenes that can easily veer into schmaltzy territory.  It’s best to ignore the actual ‘moment’ and create beautiful moods on either side instead.

For his work on Sin City with Robert Rodriguez the Noir-ish score was based around a lot of audio experimentation using samples of a trumpet mouthpiece and old melotrons to create interesting effects and ambiences.

He was critical of action movie scoring where a composer can be locked into what he calls “Mickey Mousing” – trying to just write music between cuts rather than writing themes.  Where the music becomes more of a percussive sound design than a recognisable score.

But he has been fortunate or determined to avoid repeating himself musically.  Whilst he considers himself to be a really bad musician he does really understand sound and SFX – The composer should “score what you can’t see” (interior monologue or characters) and SFX/sound design should “enhance what you can see” – but acknowledges the lines do blur.

Graeme tends to work alone and does his own orchestration these days – he also works with lots of ethnic instruments – being very open minded and researching in your down time to find inspiration and new and original ways of doing things; such as the Ney flute player he discovered working in Upstate New York laundry.

He also talked about the contraction of the film industry and working with shrinking budgets. He talked about what he terms “Hip-hop scoring” where you collect, record and sample material constantly to try and create more “bang for your buck”.  He has been lucky to be able to store in his library samplings of major orchestral sections – but acknowledges that more and more filmmakers are expecting the sound of a 90 piece orchestra for a fraction of the price …

He did however talk about the need sometimes to invest or “take a hit” on jobs to get ahead and sometimes unless you “show the client they won’t believe it” – He personally paid for recording live strings himself on The Crow as the director could not hear it working.  For the film Pitch Black he also covered the fees for the horn section.

The ideal for a composer is forming long term working relationships, but that not all relationships work out and not all jobs develop into long working relationships.  Rather focus on what you’re really good at and keep writing music!