Workshop helps composers fine-tune skills

Chris Lord is handy with a baton. His music company composed the theme for Disney/ABC’s “At the Movies;” he is a Sundance Composer fellow. And on this Friday evening, he has a 60-piece orchestra under his command, charged with creating music to enhance the experience of watching Tom Cruise leap from rooftops.

Lord is discovering it can be really hard to hear the click track when you’re on a studio soundstage in the middle of 60 instruments. Over and over, Ethan Hunt chases “MI:3″ bad guys and Lord must stop conducting because, without the clicks, it’s almost impossible to track the music’s place in the scene. Later, Lord said he’d never worked with an orchestra quite so big, or a written for a work that demanded so much volume. “It was loud, really loud,” he said.

Moments like these are what make ASCAP’s Television and Film Scoring Workshop invaluable for the 12 participants selected from hundreds of applicants each year.

The composers spend four weeks getting advice, access and the chance to record their own music using the same state-of-the-art resources afforded to the entertainment industry’s top composers.

The composers take the equivalent of a final exam on Warner Bros. Studios’ Eastwood Scoring Stage, having spent the past 10 days scoring a three-minute scene. Now they’re surrounded by professional musicians who are masters of on-the-fly interpretations of complex and emotional compositions. If the piece doesn’t work, there’s little doubt as to why.

The assignment wasn’t entirely new for any of them. Lord and J.J. Lee, another workshop participant, have a 4-year-old music production and scoring company, Overtone Prods., and credits on films like “Iron Man 2″ and videogames “Prince of Persia” and “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” Damian Montano has written commissions for the L.A. Chamber Orchestra and performed as a bassoonist on scores for “Alice in Wonderland,” “Bolt,” “Hancock” and “Spider-Man 3.” Pete Seibert worked on the recent “Fame” remake as a conductor and pianist, while Australian Justin Kearin has seen his works performed by national orchestras.

However, many of their experiences lie in composing smaller musical scores or serving supporting roles in larger projects. So for four weeks, the composers have received indoctrination into the world of film and TV scoring.

They worked on scoring cues with music editor Michael Ryan (“Eclipse”), got mixing tips from John Ross (“Sex and the City”) and spent a day observing composer Brian Tyler as he worked on 2011 release “Battle: Los Angeles” on Sony’s scoring stage. It’s all overseen by composer-arranger Richard Bellis, who has served as the program’s leader for the past 12 years with ASCAP execs Mike Todd and Jennifer Harmon.

Of course, there’s no guarantee to what this incubation will yield. However, the 22-year-old program has seen the development of a number of significant composers. And the proximity ASCAP provides doesn’t hurt.

On this evening, while workshop participant Eric Jasper conducted his interpretation of “The Bourne Ultimatum,” Ivan Reitman stopped by to observe. He was in the studio next door to work on his untitled romantic comedy starring Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher. Reitman has a second-degree connection with the program: Workshop alum Mateo Messina made his name as the composer for Jason Reitman’s “Juno.”

The workshop wraps Thursday with a screening of the scenes and their compositions at the Directors’ Guild. However, participants said that Friday, when each was allotted 16 minutes to conduct, was likely the emotional peak.

“I forget about the people in the booth, the time,” Lee said. “All I can think of is the screen, the orchestra and the music.”

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more