Composer talks keeping standards high

For an aspiring composer, the temptation to take any job may be great. However, Oscar-nominated and Grammy-winning composer Michael Giacchino told the 12 participants in the 21st annual ASCAP Television and Film Scoring Workshop that there are practical reasons to keep their standards high even if their morale is low.

“I’m telling you to say ‘no’ to things when you have no work,” said Giacchino at ASCAP’s West Hollywood offices July 28.

“The truth is you’re going to work your entire life and the only thing you’re going to have at the end of that is a list of what you did,” he said. “You have a chance to shape that list the way you want to shape it.”

The composer of films such as “Up,” “Ratatouille” and “Star Trek” admitted that advice coming from someone at the top of his game may seem a bit disingenuous. However, Giacchino stressed that he followed his own credo even when he didn’t have enough money to pay his car insurance.

“The minute the insurance ran out, the car was stolen,” he said. “[My wife] and I figured it out…I continued with the [belief] I have to make the list work. You have to trust the work and your choices.”

While other speakers in the three-week workshop have discussed the value of young composers apprenticing for established composers or aligning themselves with burgeoning filmmakers, Giacchino told them them to widen the net. Giacchino worked in the publicity and marketing departments for Universal and Disney.

“If you want to score video games, find a video game company that you respect and get a job answering phones there,” he said. “If you do that for several months, people there will get to know you, an opportunity will come around and it will be much easier to give you a shot” than someone else.

And that’s exactly what happened to Giacchino. While working at DreamWorks, a video producer who had an impending meeting with Steven Spielberg asked Giacchino to write music overnight for “The Lost World” video game. When Spielberg heard the music, he asked Giacchino to score the game.

“That only happened because I was there working as an assistant producer,” he says. “When that chance came up, it was being prepared and being at the right place at the right time.”

After getting his start in video games, Giacchino moved into television via his relationship with director JJ Abrams. The pair worked on the TV series “Alias,” “Lost” and “Fringe,” as well as a number of features. However, it was TV that proved to be a trial-by-fire training ground.

“You would have three days on ‘Alias’ to write and orchestrate 35 minutes of music,” he said. “‘Lost’ is frequently two days. You learn to trust your instincts… Or you hear it and go, ‘I fucked that up’ and you won’t do it again.”

Giacchino said the unifying thread that runs through most of his projects is that he and his collaborators “have respect for the audience. [The directors] tell the story in the best way [they] can, not the most obvious way.”

Giacchino also stressed the joy that comes from finding a team of likeminded creators. While many composers are brought in at the tail end of a movie, Giacchino often comes in at the beginning and is on the set during shooting.

“Filmmaking is hard enough as it is,” he said. “If you can find a group you love working with, it makes it just a little bit easier.”

That includes gathering the best musicians around you as well. “The morning of the [recording] sessions is always my favorite thing,” he said. “Just saying ‘hi’ to the musicians. It’s the equivalent of Dr. Frankenstein bringing the monster to life. Without them, you’re left with just black dots on the page.”

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