WRITERS ON THE WEB: Hiring a Composer for a Web Series

Rebecca Norris is a writer, producer, web enthusiast, and creator of the award-winning web series Split with her production company, Freebird Entertainment. Follow Rebecca on Twitter at @beckaroohoo

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Film Composer Benjamin Roberts

Film Composer Benjamin Roberts

I truly believe that music is the most important part of a film, TV show, or web series.  If you edit your own work, then you’ve seen your scenes before they were scored and after, and WOW, what a difference music makes.

Through music you can direct the audience’s emotions where you want them to go, whether you want to bring people to tears, evoke tension or suspense, or make the audience laugh out loud.  For web series creators, I highly recommend putting a line item in your budget for original composition, no matter how little money you have. It elevates your work to a new level.

Our budget was so tiny for my web series Split, that we didn’t know how we’d be able to hire actors, let alone a composer.  However, people really want to work and ply their craft, and if you have a quality project, you’d be surprised how many people will vie to work on it.  Despite our tiny budget, we had well over 300 composers from all over the world apply for the job when we were hiring a new composer a few months back. (We used Mandy.com for the job posting, which offers one free post per month.)

Through virtue of his sheer awesomeness, one composer stood out for us: Benjamin Roberts. A Massachusetts native, Roberts began his career as a Jazz Pianist and composer, leading him to graduate from Berklee College of Music with a dual major in Film Scoring and Jazz Composition in May of 2013. After working as a Jazz Pianist for several months, Benjamin relocated to Los Angeles, California where he produces musical works to be synced to picture. He delivers amazing-quality music with a quick turnaround, which is perfect for a web series.

I asked Benjamin to give some advice about hiring a composer for a web series, how to choose the best one for your project, and how to communicate with a composer to ensure the best results possible.

Rebecca: Tell us a bit about your background.  How did you get into scoring for film, TV, and new media?

Ben: I began studying music as a pianist and drummer as a kid.  By the time I was in High School, not much aside from music interested me. I played drums in a rock band that gigged often around my hometown, while also producing and recording our own albums.  At the same time I was the pianist in the honors Jazz combo for the high school, which met every day.  After receiving a generous scholarship for piano at Berklee College of Music, I began my path to become an audio engineer, but realized that I had more of a love for composing music.  It wasn’t long before I fell in love with the Film Scoring program at Berklee, and composers such as John Williams, Michael Kamen, Alan Silvestri, Hans Zimmer and many more.  Upon moving to Los Angeles, it was a bit of a scare realizing how hard it is to even get one feature film.  Fortunately for me, writer and director Bryan Michael Stoller discovered me and gave me a shot at his latest feature family film “The Amazing Wizard of Paws”.  In just six months after that I had completed four other feature films, as well as two web series, some shorts and a plethora of library music.

Rebecca: What is the process like scoring a web series?  How does it differ at all from other types of projects?

Ben: A web series differs from other media in the sense that it doesn’t start and end with what you are scoring.  You have to think in the long run.  Where are these characters coming from?  Where are these characters going?  What is the largest development within the episode for them?  In a movie, although the characters have lived their life up until the point of the first scene, you are first being introduced to them, and the music reflects their introductions.  In a web series, the character has been introduced and has grown in previous episodes.  You must maintain their musical themes, but not go overboard like you can do in feature films.  If you do, you run the risk of becoming cheesy.

On the other side, web media always has a lot going on in a short period of time.  One of the hardest things to do is find the balance between hitting the action (and it develops much more quickly than in a 90 minute piece of media) and smoothing out the transitions.  Most people watching media don’t realize how much the music is helping the cut breathe.  Lastly, deadlines are almost always far shorter in episodic web material than in film.

Rebecca: How would a filmmaker go about hiring a composer? What should a filmmaker look for when hiring?

Ben: One of the biggest hurdles for a composer is proving that they are a great asset to the project.  I find that filmmakers often only look for a composer who can compose in the “style” they are looking for.  To me, this is dangerous for several reasons.  Number one, most modern composers who have actually done work can compose in any style of music.  Split requires a mix of orchestral and electronic elements, but I’ve written jazz, rock, electronic, hybrid and virtually anything you can think of.  Every project is different, and we know that better than anyone else.

Number two, filmmakers often jump the gun to hire someone who can write exactly what they are looking for, but has little experience with film or the process.  The process is everything!  You would be shooting yourself in the foot to hire someone who has never worked with SMPTE [Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers – the standard timecode that’s used in editing], taking notes, delivering on multiple systems, conforming cues, scratching cues, etc.  There is a lot more that goes into this than writing music at a sequencer for a few hours a day.  My last point is that all filmmakers should ensure the reliability of their composer before hiring.  You might find someone who fills the other criteria, but they drop off the face of the earth for three days before deadline.  You don’t want to do that to yourself when you are juggling color correction and post-production sound design.

Rebecca: What is your own personal process for matching music to the footage?  (For instance, do you get into the emotionality of the characters and then have the music reflect that?)

Ben: I have a pretty specific process for starting.  First thing I do is watch the cut.  Then I watch it again.  Then I might watch it a third time.  At this point it’s usually hard for me to hold myself back from firing off an email to the director telling them how much I like the piece… so I do.

Next step is to mark up the scenes for hits.   Some media needs more than others.  A show like Split is about half and half.  It’s easy to hit too much and make it look like a cartoon.  Then I start playing the characters’ themes on the piano to remind myself.  It’s important to be connected emotionally for me.  I can’t speak for every composer but when I work on a certain project my mood reflects it.  I wrote eighty minutes of music for a very sad documentary about a month ago, and I was depressed the entire time.

Honestly, I can’t give a roadmap for the next step.  Once I know where I’m going I just write, and it just comes out.  I haven’t had a problem with writer’s block yet, and as one of my favorite professors and the assistant chair to the film scoring department at Berklee would say “There is no such thing.”  In my opinion, she is right.  That’s about all I can say without giving away my entire bag of tricks.

Rebecca: Any advice you have for filmmakers, or things you wish filmmakers would do to make your job easier?

Ben: Most filmmakers I work with are extremely knowledgeable. At the low budget level where they are usually handling ten things, they are forced to understand every part of the process.  So, this advice doesn’t translate to everyone:

BE CLEAR.  If you as a filmmaker are going to name instruments, make sure you know what their real names are.  I have had people tell me they want epic horns in a piece when they really meant lush strings.  Very big difference, and very big waste of time to create a piece only to scrap it.  If you are talking about emotions use standard words like “sad, happy, anxious, fast, slow, etc.” not words that have little relation to emotions like “purple, honey, hot, red, etc.”

Also, give notes with timings, not with actions.  Saying “let’s put this hit at 53:21:03” is much clearer than “let’s put this hit when John turns around.”  John may turn around 4 times in that scene.

Thanks, Ben, for this fantastic advice!

Check out Ben’s music at his Official Website: www.benjaminrobertscomposer.com or on his Sound Cloud at: www.soundcloud.com/harmonic-motion!

Hear Ben’s work in the season two finale of Split!

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