In Part One (Issue 140), Guy Michelmore revealed many insights into what it takes to be a successful composer for TV and for film. Here he tells us more about what contributes to the success of a well-oiled creative machine and the work required to get the best possible results.
Russ Welton: Could you give an example of where imposed restraints on the creative process are both beneficial and conversely, disadvantageous to productivity?
Guy Michelmore: You are always working within somebody else’s creative universe. You are coming on board to serve a creative project that has been produced or directed by somebody else. Whether you [are] working in film or television, that is always the job of the media composer [someone who composes for various media such as film, TV, animation and video games – Ed.]. So, there are constantly constraints.
The problem normally comes when directors try to micromanage the music and give you specific instructions as to what to do. At that point they are failing to manage and starting to do, in which case they have to take total responsibility for the music, as you are no longer completely in charge. The best creative relationships involve a conversation and involve a certain degree of freedom. Equally, just being told to go and do your thing isn’t always the most helpful approach either. You need creative input from directors and producers to do your best work. The life of the [music] composer is [in] producing something you think is perfect and brilliant, and then being told by the director that [it] is not. With hindsight you usually realize that they were right, and that is why your best work often comes from working on professional projects [where you collaborate with others].
RW: What have been some of your most challenging or involved projects and how so?
GM: Without naming any particular name, the most professionally challenging projects are often those which have significant problems within them. In the world of animation, a lot of the time there are multiple co-producers in different countries. Many [TV and streaming] networks in many different parts of the world have different expectations of the music and they may all have the right within the contract to give you notes [directions for making changes in the music – Ed]. That can of course be a recipe for disaster. The best scenario is if you have a good executive producer who effectively negotiates with all the stakeholders [and] who comes up with one agreed [upon] set of notes. If that doesn’t happen then it’s carnage.
RW: You are such an entertaining educator through YouTube. Can you tell us about who your greatest inspirations are for your own creativity?
GM: I suppose it is the logical meeting of my background as a television broadcaster and my background as a musician. But the real motivation was that I found it very difficult to engage with traditional music education when I was young and I think that was a terrible shame. There was only one form of music education [for me] and that involved barcaroles (songs sung by or in the tradition of Venetian gondoliers). I think the world has changed and I would like to try and share some of my more pragmatic approach to music theory and composition with a wider audience, and that’s what we try to do on the YouTube channel.
RW: Do you have a different approach to recording music for TV, and for cinema reproduction?
GM: Surround sound is becoming an increasingly important part of the picture. But there is a limited amount of point in delivering a 5.1 [surround-sound] mix when all the instruments [in the score] are sampled, as most sampled instruments are only in stereo and even with multiple microphone positions what you’re going to end up with is 4.0, not 5.1. So normally in television we deliver multiple stereo stems [groups of audio tracks], then a 5.1 mix. With cinema you are always working in 5.1 and often 5.1 stems. The difference – [in movie production] there is of course [a bigger] budget as well.
If you are recording [a] live orchestra or live musicians, then working in surround is an absolute joy, but it does increase the budget and normally means you need to mix in an outside studio.
RW: Does the listening environment influence the scoring from a stereo to a surround mix?
GM: It doesn’t influence the scoring, but it does make mixing a very different experience. To mix properly in 5.1 you need a studio which has been set up acoustically to work in 5.1 and most composer’s studios are not that. Therefore, it is almost always a good idea to go to an outside studio to mix [for surround]. It also means getting an extra pair of ears involved, which is never a bad thing.
RW: What is your next musical project and who would you love to score for?
GM: We live in a world of NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) and so it is almost impossible to tell you what I’m going to be working on next. I have a Netflix show in the pipeline, plus add to that, wildlife films for the United States, but unfortunately, I can’t tell you any more about either of those projects just yet.
The person I would most like to [write a] score for is the person who is open to new ideas. A lot of the time a director has hired someone because they sound different, but then [they’re] asked to sound the same as everyone [else]. To work with a director who is open to new ideas and does not have a specific idea in mind when they start the project is an absolute joy. Collaboration is a great thing.
RW: When you listen to music for your own pleasure, what hi-fi equipment do you enjoy?
GM: I mainly listen in the car but when I do listen at home it tends to be a Sonos set up in my sitting room and kitchen.
RW: What is your personal favorite music format to listen to and why so?
GM: I almost always listen on Spotify just because it is so simple. What I’m listening for in a new piece of music is just something different, challenging and interesting. Like finding a new cuisine or a new ingredient or a new flavor. So, I rely on friends and family, particularly my 16-year-old daughter who has very eclectic musical taste, to guide me to new ideas I have not yet encountered.
RW: What do you wish you had been asked but never have been?
GM: To be honest there is not much that I haven’t been asked, and the answer to the question which I’ve never been asked in an interview is: beans on toast with one slice of bacon and a little brown sauce.