Q. What is the goal of film and television music?
A. First and foremost it has to serve the drama of whatever it’s meant to accompany or convey. Ultimately, music is always in service of the picture. But film and TV music is also music. So we have to create something that’s not only meaningful, but can stand on it’s own legs and be interesting. Because if it’s not, it’s not going to be much of anything.
I think good film and TV music needs no explanation. You understand the emotion instantly. If the music is doing a good job it should evoke some emotional response.
What makes a film score good?
Like anything, there’s some degree of natural talent involved. For me, I think there’s two aspects of a good film score. One, I like to call “immediacy of feeling.” It has to work great and accomplish it’s purpose with the picture dramatically. If you’re watching the picture and you’re really ensconced in the scene and the music is hammering it home for you, then that’s really it’s primary purpose. So if it’s fulfilling that purpose then it’s successful already.
But for me, really great music has a way of branding a property, be it a film, video game, or TV [show]. It’s a way of leaving a lasting impression and giving a recognizable brand to something. For example, when you hear the John Williams music for Star Wars or Indiana Jones - his music did wonders for that property. So that’s separate from the dramatic aspect of the music.
What is your process?
I’ll take a look at the picture and I’ll have a few ideas about what this music needs to be, based on what I think it needs to accomplish for the picture. [The film] will also give me an indication of the style of the music. I’ll have my own ideas, and sometimes I’ll end up writing a piece of music that I think is appropriate for the film, or encapsulates the film, but ultimately the director’s vision is most important. So sometimes, I’ll come and sit down with the director and we’ll have a conversation and end up going in another completely different direction.
Who is at the top of your industry? Who are some of your favorite composers?
That’s pretty clear, at least the top two. John Williams, I think, is the best film composer of all time. A lot of people might disagree with me, but most film composers are in awe of John Williams. The other one, I think it’s undeniable, is Hans Zimmer because he has made such an empire. He’s made some really great scores, and the way that he’s been able to infiltrate every aspect of film and television and video games is amazing.
Underneath that, I think it comes down to taste. I like Alexandre Desplat a lot. He’s a Parisian born composer who does a lot of period dramas, and he’s done the last two Harry Potter films for example. I think Michael Giacchino is really great, I love his work. He does a lot of the Pixar films, like Up and Ratatouille. Those are probably my top four.
What is the career path for someone who wants to be a film and television composer?
It differs a lot. The interesting thing about film music is that there’s no set path to becoming successful. Danny Elfman’s career is an example of an untraditional path. I should have included him in my top composers, he is really amazing. He comes from a rock background, he was with Oingo Boingo in the eighties, maybe even earlier. It was a great band, and then he transitioned over to doing film music. He has this whole relationship with Tim Burton, doing all of his movies.
Hans Zimmer comes from a pop/rock background, he played keyboards and did a lot of pop stuff in the eighties and then he came over. Some composers come from a classical background. John Williams was obviously classical, but he came up in a completely different time. It was a different era, back when there was more studio controlled music, and you could work for a studio and there would be regular work every week. He played for a lot of the studio orchestras. Now, composers aren’t really a part of the studio system.
Occasionally you can do it from an assistant route, if you link up with the right composer and you’re good at what you do. You eventually kind of come into your own and there can be a transition. A lot of composers started out working with Hans Zimmer for example. John Powell, for example, worked for Hans Zimmer at one point and eventually transitioned out of that and did the Bourne Identity film trilogy. [There are] many paths and everyone’s is different.
What is success?
When you get to a place where you can pick and choose what you work on. You get to a place where you only accept work that you’re really, really in love with, and that you know you’re going to create something really amazing for. There are composers in both television and film that I think are really successful.
Originally published May 26, 2014.
Sebastian Cano-Besquet is a Los Angeles-based music composer for film and television. He was classically trained at Yale, then moved to USC’s world renowned graduate program in Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television. His introduction to composing for film came during a summer in which he worked with film composer Tyler Bates on director Zach Snyder’s blockbuster Watchmen (2009). More recently, Sebastian has worked on the record setting Chinese film The Monkey King (2014), and Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas (2013).