So You Wanna Be a Film Composer, Part II: Phases of the Game

As promised last time around… a self-test to get you started.

Football has offense, defense, and special teams; we have the categories below. Rate yourself in each phase of the game to see where you stack up.

Note that you shouldn't add these to reach a total number of points—in several cases, having four or five points may mean you're spending too much time away from composing (!). Rather, think of this as a bar graph, where each category has a sweet spot in which you want to operate.

Music composiiton: Plain ol’ tonal harmony
1. Piano sound pretty! (Sometimes)
2. I have a basic understanding of scales and simple common practice period harmonization.
3. I can perform a Roman-numeral analysis of, say, a Bach chorale.
4. Secondary dominants, predominant chords, chromaticism, modes… all familiar territory to me.
5. Tonality is my playground—to be used or transcended at will.

Music composition: Advanced harmony/modern techniques
1. Um, why are all those ugly notes in there?
2. I’ve studied a few serial and atonal works, and can “think in octatonic” or other scale forms.
3. Alternate tunings and notations; minimalism; musique concrete… I’m cool with all that.
4. I’m just as comfortable writing outside the tonal system as I am working within it.
5. The full range of sonic expression is at my fingertips. I’m involved in creating what comes next.

Music composition: Contemporary styles
1. Who is this Dre of which you speak, and why would a physician be involved in music?
2. I can crank out a lead sheet.
3. I’ve studied production in one or more styles: Jazz, Hip Hop, Latin, etc.
4. I work regularly in one or more contemporary/popular music genres.
5. Whatever a client desires, I can deliver—regardless of style.

Orchestration
1. Hey, the big instruments play lower! Handy to remember, huh?
2. I know the instrumental families and have a pretty good grasp of ranges.
3. I understand balance and blend, and know the idiomatic tendencies of most standard instruments.
4. Orchestration is an integral, instinctual part of my process from the moment I conceive a musical idea.
5. I could teach Ravel a thing or two.

Conducting
1. Floor, wall, wall, ceiling… but what if the cue is in 3/4?
2. I know basic conducting patterns and recording session protocol.
3. I’m comfortable at the podium, conducting a variety of ensembles and/or styles.
4. My skills and experience allow me to interpret a performance—not just survive it—regardless of the musical terrain.
5. I am a full-time professional conductor.

Mixing
1. …These go to eleven.
2. I understand basic signal path, but my mixes aren’t consistently solid.
3. I have a strategy for building my mixes and a set of go-to tools for fixing problems.
4. My mixes are an expression of my musical opinion and personality, executed with the same control as the writing itself.
5. I’m a full-time professional engineer or music scoring mixer.

Music Performance
1. Never picked up a musical instrument in my life [um… seriously? —LHS]
2. I’ve dabbled on one or more instruments, but never taken lessons.
3. I’ve studied, but wouldn’t be comfortable putting my performances on recordings.
4. I’m a competent musician on one or more instruments.
5. I’m a full-time professional musician.

Music Prep
1. Every Good Boy Does Fine; Good Boys Do Fine Always.
2. I can copy music by hand… and players can even read it!
3. I have experience with a major music notation software platform (Finale, Sibelius or other).
4. Copying scores and parts is a snap. I've customized my software and/or key commands to my preference.
5. I'm a professional music copyist.

Gear: Hardware/Software
1. I haven’t really started thinking about my own studio. I have a computer, but no other gear.
2. I can use my computer to record sound. Not that it’s sound someone would pay actual money for (yet).
3. I have a functioning home studio, but I’d like to expand in order to get a better sound.
4. My home/project studio is more than simply adequate—it’s a resource, and sometimes an inspiration.
5. Those guys at Remote Control… they’re cool and all, but they could use some more gear.

Gear: Sound Libraries
1. You mean people sell sounds? That you can buy? Weird!
2. I have a basic set of samples, but nothing fancy or exotic.
3. My studio is armed with a reasonable variety of samples, loops, virtual instruments, synths, etc.
4. I can call up pretty much any sound I need, in nearly any style I’d be asked to write.
5. If it’s out there, I own it. If it’s not out there yet, I’m probably beta-testing it.

Gear: Expertise
1. I know where the ON switch is, but I’m afraid to start pushing buttons.
2. Where’s that manual again? I’m digging in, but have a lot to learn.
3. I can run my gear with no problem, but some of the power-user commands are a mystery.
4. I've created my own macros/custom key bindings, and each piece of gear is optimized for my work flow.
5. I build my own electronic gear and/or work as a developer for a manufacturer.

Film Music History
1. Buncha old guys wrote some tunes. What’s the big deal?
2. I know the basic history of the art form, and a few of the “big names.”
3. I’ve listened to numerous scores from across the decades, and have a working knowledge of film music history.
4. I’ve written (term papers count) about multiple film composers, studied scores old and new, and can identify style and approximate historical period from a “needle-drop.”
5. Bring it on, Jon Burlingame… I am a veritable Film Music History encyclopedia.

Film History
1. Nouvelle vague… emphasis on the vague.
2. I know about Rosebud and Tara and Rick’s. The classics, in other words.
3. I’ve studied the history of cinema around the world.
4. I’ve done in-depth research and/or read widely in the field. I might even own some Rohmer-era issues of Cahiers du cinéma.
5. I can pontificate for hours about the relative merits of, say, Huang Jianxin versus Wong Kar-wai.

Film Terminology
1. Words of the day: Director, camera, movie.
2. Dutch angle, cinematographer, pickups.
3. Slug line, walla, cigarette burns.
4. Brute, overcranking, chromakey.
5. Abby Singer, diegesis, zoopraxis.

Organization
1. I wanted to finish this quiz, but I forgot the website location. And I lost my laptop.
2. Car keys and the rent—I’m pretty good about the obvious stuff.
3. I have an organizational system in place, and attend to it fairly regularly.
4. I create my own custom templates in FileMaker/Excel/Numbers.
5. My backups have backups, and nothing is more than a keystroke or two away. Total organizational control.

Physical Fitness*
1. Low.
2. Fair.
3. Average.
4. Good.
5. Superior.

*This one is no joke. Ignore your physical health at your own risk. Seriously, composers like to brag/complain about how many all-nighters in a row they've had to pull, and how bad their nutrition is. It can be funny, but ultimately it's self-destructive. There's a fine line between hard-ass and dumb-ass; don't cross it. A good resource for overall fitness measurement and goals can be found here.

Personal Presentation
1. Dorito-stained t-shirt? Check. Spinach in my teeth? Check. Let’s take a meeting!
2. I have reasonably good interpersonal skills.
3. People say I’m a good hang… and it doesn’t mean they want to hang me.
4. I’ve spent time and energy—and money—cultivating an image, an impression. But I’m not, like, a jerk about it.
5. It’s like there’s an aura around me. I am an “it” machine.

Team-Building
1. Pee Wee Herman said it best: “I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel.”
2. No longer a lone wolf, but there’s tension in the pack. And I’m not quite sure how to be alpha.
3. I’m working on finding the best qualities in the team I assemble, and inspiring them to become even better.
4. I’ve put together a well-oiled team that is stronger than the sum of its parts.
5. Jack Welch, Winston Churchill… and me.

Professional Network
1. I know the number for Domino’s pizza.
2. My friends and colleagues are solid resources for each other, but I don’t really know too many Industry people.
3. Hanging out with filmmakers, studio execs, etc. is a regular part of my social calendar.
4. If there’s an opportunity out there, chances are I can hook into it with a text or a tweet (or an e-mail… or a phone call, if I must).
5. I am the Hollywood Creative Directory.

Social Media/Personal Brand/Marketing
1. I have a Facebook account.
2. I have a loyal core of Twitter followers, and post regularly.
3. I'm psyched that Instagram is now on Hootsuite.
4. My Klout score is 70+. Building my personal brand is integral to my career plans.
5. Gary Vaynerchuk texts me for advice.

Psychology
1. Most of the time I find myself wondering why people do things.
2. I understand people’s basic emotions and drives.
3. Insights concerning others’ motivations and desires are common for me.
4. I can instinctually position my interactions to get the most out of my relationships.
5. Freud? Amateur.

Collaboration
1. I’m surrounded by idiots.
2. I can get through a meeting without a fistfight breaking out. Usually.
3. Contributing to a positive environment while getting my viewpoint across is a balance I’ve learned how to strike.
4. I know how to get the most out of a creative relationship, and understand the nuances of interacting with my colleagues.
5. Patience, young Jedi…

Current Events (General)
1. I know who won the last Presidential election.
2. Headlines? Sure, I follow ’em. Maybe even browse the news sites in the morning.
3. I consume news regularly. I'm always up to date on the latest events.
4. Maybe I’m spending a little *too* much time catching up on C-SPAN.
5. I’m a news junkie. My favorite news sites refresh in the background as I work/eat/sleep/shower, and the TV is locked on a news channel.

Current Events (Industry)
1. I know what movies are out this weekend.
2. If there’s a major studio or network shake-up, I hear about it.
3. I read the trades, and I know who most of the players are.
4. My expertise extends beyond the latest script sale or studio green-light. I’m up on all the latest.
5. Variety calls me for the latest scoop.

Current Events (Culture and the Arts)
1. Elvis on velvet.
2. I’ve watched the Kennedy Center Honors.
3. I keep tabs on the local, national and international art scenes and major cultural “happenings.”
4. I’m actively involved in local/regional culture. I even travel to take part in major national or international cultural events.
5. I know where the hippest gallery openings and art-world scenes are… because I host them.

Graphic Design
1. Hand-labeling my demo CDs isn’t that bad… is it?
2. I know enough to avoid Comic Sans font at all costs.
3. I can navigate a graphics and/or layout app, and know a bit about typography.
4. I understand the concepts and principles of graphic design, and apply them to all my work.
5. I am a pro-level graphic designer.