Scoring in Los Angeles

Alumni find their niche writing for video games, animated TV shows, documentaries, feature films, and more.
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The demand for original music that can accompany visual media is expanding at an ever-increasing rate. There is a corresponding increase in composers trying to break into the field. Two alumni composers interviewed for this story found opportunities on Craigslist. In the hunt, one discovered that one film, a nonpaying student filmmaker’s project, attracted nearly 400 responses from composers around the globe.

Those interviewed here built careers by leaving no stone unturned and by demonstrating a strong work ethic while doing internships, assistantships with established composers, and other preparatory jobs. Not surprisingly, all interviewed learned that talent is a requirement for success, but other personal traits—reliability, follow-through, a can-do attitude, serious dedication, and more—must also be present. So while the competition is intense, there is room for gifted composers capable of working hard, learning what it takes to do the job well, and building relationships in the industry.

Gaming the Music

Immediately after earning her film scoring degree in 2007, Sarah Schachner came to Los Angeles with her computer, a collection of stringed instruments and keyboards, and optimism that she’d catch a toehold as a composer in L.A.’s competitive marketplace. Her musical back story is that as a youth, she’d performed with her sister and father in bands playing Celtic music, blues, and classic rock. Early classical violin studies and jazz piano instruction during her high school years gave her a strong foundation complementing her performance experience in diverse musical styles. She discovered her love for composing in the studio before she enrolled at Berklee. Then, after arriving in L.A., where to start?

Sarah Schachner '07
Sarah Schachner '07

“I looked on Craigslist and got lucky,” she tells me over lunch at a café in Sherman Oaks. “I found a guy who was doing reality TV and trailers and he hired me three weeks after I arrived. I worked with him for a year and got my first experience writing.” Composing for reality TV required cues reflecting tension and drama. Developing the ability to create the right moods would come in handy later when Schachner got the chance to compose for video games. But there were dues to pay first.

When her stint in reality TV ended, she sought an apprenticeship with an established film composer. “But some random jobs—like writing music for regional political ads— started coming in from various people,” she says. “I was earning enough to pay my rent, so I figured I’d just keep doing that kind of work. Then I met [composer] Brian Tyler through a mutual connection and we started talking online. We had so much in common and hit it off right away.” Tyler’s résumé is filled with credits for TV, movies, trailers, and video games. A year after meeting Schachner, he offered her a chance to write some game music with him.

“Writing for games wasn’t in my mind before I started working with Brian,” Schachner reveals. “But I loved it. The action-adventure music needed was the kind of stuff I gravitated toward. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 was one of the first games I worked on. I was so excited to be on a project of that level.”

Schachner did live sessions with Tyler and also recorded a lot of tracks in her home studio. For four years she worked on and off creating additional music for a range of projects, learning a variety of lessons. “Brian has a gigantic room full of instruments and it clicked in my mind that I play a bunch of instruments, so I should utilize what I have,” she says. “I played a lot of the instruments for the additional music I wrote for Assassin’s Creed for Brian.”

In 2014, Shachner was hired directly to create music for the game Assassin’s Creed Unity. “A second composer and I worked on different parts of the game,” she says. “I was handling the combat music.” The game is set during the French Revolution and the score called for a nod to period music. Schachner blended analog pulses with classical-sounding instrumentation for cues she describes as “action Baroque.” The International Film Music Critics Association nominated it in the Best Original Video Game Score category and her cue “Rather Death than Slavery” later appeared in the Game of Thrones Season 5 trailer. That same year, Schachner made her debut scoring a thriller film, The Lazarus Effect, notching her first two official credits. During 2015 and 2016, she scored Activision’s blockbuster game Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, which will be released on November 4. Her poignant melodic theme for the game has cemented her reputation as a promising new voice in game music.

When we met, Schachner had just returned from recording string and brass sections for the second half of Call of Duty in Nashville. That game and others she’s worked on don’t require cues designed to segue seamlessly and instantaneously according to game play.

“In an open-world game, the players have lots of freedom to do whatever they want,” she says. “That creates more possibilities for how the music needs to integrate. A player might engage in combat and then decide to leave and do something else, it’s up to them. In first-person-shooter games things are much more structured and linear. Some audio teams put the burden on the composer to make sure things loop properly and that layers can come off and transition smoothly. But for Call of Duty, they would tell me that they needed a four-minute suite that covered certain levels of action. I could put them wherever I wanted. That was great because I could write a massive piece of music and not worry about technical stuff, the editors took care of that. I think you get a much better result that way.”

When asked if she harbors hopes of becoming a feature film composer, she answers, “I wouldn’t say that feature films are the holy grail for me. I love doing games. Ideally, I’d like to go back and forth between the two. I like variety.”

Animation and Horror

Freddie Wiedmann ’04 figures he has written about 40 film scores to date but hasn’t paused to count them lately. These days his schedule is full with composing for biweekly episodes of the animated TV shows All Hail King Julien and the Disney series Miles from Tomorrowland. In May, Wiedmann and lyricist Mitch Watson won a Daytime Emmy Award for their song “True Bromance” heard in All Hail King Julien.

Freddie Wiedmann '04
Freddie Wiedmann '04

Wiedmann also completes a few feature film scores annually as well. He maintains a rigorous pace working in his home studio in California’s San Fernando Valley and venturing out periodically for orchestral recording sessions and remotely producing sessions as they happen abroad.

Wiedmann grew up in Germany and moved straight to Los Angeles after graduation from Berklee with his now-wife, Hye Su Yang ’04, who was also a film scoring major. He started out interning with documentary film composer Joel Goodman ’84 before becoming an assistant to composer John Frizzell for three years.

“John got me started on all levels,” Wiedmann recalls. “I learned how to mix a full orchestra in surround-sound with him. If you do good work for John, he is very generous about giving you credit. We did horror, thrillers, and a period drama called The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. I went to every meeting with him and got to see him sell cues to the top Warner Bros. executive. While I worked with John, we did two TV shows and 20 movies. After that I felt I knew how things were done and went out on my own in 2008.”

Horror movies were Frizzell’s forte, and before Wiedmann left, Frizzell recommended him to director Victor Garcia to score his 2007 horror movie Return to House on Haunted Hill. It was a fruitful connection that led to seven more pictures with Garcia and a full understanding of the horror genre.

“These days, horror films are more focused on textures than melodies,” Wiedmann says. “It’s all about getting the creepiest and most disturbing sound. People like to manipulate sounds into something audiences haven’t heard before. It also involves finding something unique that’s related to the story. If a film has ghosts, you might do something with voices.”

During the eight years that Wiedmann has been on his own, he has cultivated relationships with other moviemakers, including Don Michael Paul and James Tucker. “I have been lucky that everyone I’ve worked with has come back to me for seconds,” Wiedmann says. “Don Michael Paul and I are now working Death Race 4, our seventh picture. He’s been very loyal.”

Wiedmann began working in a new genre in 2011. “My first animated project was Bruce Timm’s TV series Green Lantern: The Animated Series,” Wiedmann says. “My credits were mainly for horror films and some trailers, I had never done animated or superhero movies. I was one of 10 composers who got to demo for the show and wrote three minutes of music to the scene they sent to everybody.” Wiedmann was called back to meet with the creative team. “After I walked into the room,” Wiedmann recalls, “Bruce said, ‘You don’t have any TV credits; how do we know you can do this?’ Other than just telling him I could do it, there wasn’t much I could say. They needed music for a seven-minute sizzle reel for an upcoming Comic Con and decided to give me another test run. I worked hard on it, bringing in some players to make a great seven minutes of thematic orchestral superhero music. I got an email saying I had gotten the gig. They gave me a shot, and since then I’ve done three projects with Bruce and almost every animated movie that they have produced in the past five years.”

In 2015, Wiedmann was hired to score the two-hour German TV movie Duell der Brüder [Two Brothers]. It’s a period drama about the German brothers who founded the competing Adidas and Puma shoemaking companies. Like the majority of the features Wiedmann scores, it called for a full orchestra. He and his wife, Hye Su Yang, work together on orchestral projects and went to Berlin to record the score. “She is my orchestrator and conductor," he says. “At our home, her studio is upstairs from mine and I send up the files and she orchestrates them. She’s better at those things than I am, so it works out well. I’m much happier being in the booth producing and focusing on the performance.”

When Wiedmann started his career, he felt strongly that he needed to show his employers that he was organized, diligent, a quick learner, and could get things done. “You deal with all of that stuff before you ever write a cue,” he says. “Anyone who has those qualities or is willing to learn them has a good shot at working. I don’t think I was an amazing musician at 18 or 22, but I was passionate about this. I got better and learned the ropes.” His advice to young composers? “Know what you want, know what the business entails, and be committed. Then there is no reason for you not to succeed.”

The Documentary Doctor

Emmy Award–winning composer Joel Goodman ’84 is a specialist in writing music for documentary films. His work on narrative feature films, TV, albums, and other forms of collaborative media has kept him busy since he began writing to picture in New York after earning his Berklee degree in jazz composition 32 years ago. A lifelong New Yorker, Goodman established his career in the city as a jingle writer. That job taught him many valuable lessons.

Joel Goodman '84
Joel Goodmann '84

“Doing advertising work, I learned how to write quickly, produce sessions, work with clients, and deliver properly,” he tells me over the kitchen table in his Topanga Canyon home. “People want to work with someone who is established and that they are comfortable with.” Goodman is certainly well established after scoring more than 125 films and TV programs. As for clients being comfortable, his relationships with many filmmakers began during his New York days. When he moved to Los Angeles in 2003, they continued to seek him out.

Most films come to Goodman with a temp score. “I’ve found that very useful because the filmmaker has probably experimented with different sounds and found a direction he or she likes,” Goodman says. “I like to hear what sandbox they are playing in and try to understand what they are going for.”

On Goodman’s website, he has posted descriptions about many of the projects he’s done with SoundCloud samples from each score. The cues cover a dizzying array of moods and genres and range from introspective solo piano to string orchestra sketches to pulsing ostinato-driven cues to melodic orchestral pieces, and more. Some feature a jazz group.

When beginning to compose, visualizing the audience experience is paramount. “In verité films, the audience is made to feel like they are like a witness to what is happening,” Goodman says. “Typically for those, I’ll back the music off a bit. Maybe 35 percent of the film will have music. Depending on how the story is told and how the film is edited, you pick your moments. There is great power when the music stops and what happens afterward opens up. Music editorializes by its nature, and we don’t want to say everything. We want the audience to draw conclusions at times.”

In historical documentaries, the music plays a different role and is plentiful. “Sometimes the music is wall-to-wall,” Goodman explains. “The filmmaker may use a lot of still pictures, on-camera interviews, some archival film, or a recreation of an event. Filmmakers are looking to the music to bring those things to life.”

There are many more types of documentaries, each calling for a different musical treatment. “Frontline films use less music because they tend to be more journalistic,” he reveals. “The theme tends to be more important. I’ve worked on some Frontline projects where I only wrote opening and closing music. In science films, I tend to use more music. As with historical documentaries, there are interviews, graphics, and animations, and you need to bring those things to life.”

One of Goodman’s favorite recent projects was the PBS American Experience film Walt Disney. “I had been fascinated with Walt Disney my whole life; this was a perfect project for me,” he says. “[Director/producer] Sarah Colt and I had many conversations about who Walt was, what made him what he was, and what the central themes in his life were. We talked about him being very driven, complex, with many sides to his personality. In the theme I wrote, it was important to have the rhythmic drive, harmonies that implied uncertainty, and odd meters to illustrate that he was different, doing things no one else had done before. He always bet the farm, and if a project failed he would have been bankrupt. The tempo and the rhythmic drive were important to the theme for that movie.”

Goodman is also adept at managing his business affairs. “I’ve been a businessman throughout my career, I’ve owned a record company and a music-publishing company,” he says. “The doc world is very personal, and non-Hollywood. We do it all ourselves and it works out. The work you get comes from the work you’ve done. I always get emails from people who have seen my work and want me to do their project. I work with people from Alaska, Hawaii, Memphis, Boston, New York. Where you’re located doesn’t matter anymore.”

Goodman is also proactive in promoting his own music publishing. Most of his catalog can be licensed for other uses. He has also started the company Oovra Music, which licenses the music of other composers for various uses, including documentaries, non-broadcast programming, and some advertising.

Last year was “insanely busy” as Goodman describes it; he scored 10 films. But he’s not complaining. He believes that we are living in the golden age of documentaries. “They are about things that are real, and to me, it is a very exciting place to be.”

Epic Music

While Berklee students, Spanish-born composer Lucas Vidal ’07 and his business partner, Belgian-born Steve Dzialowski ’07, revealed their penchant for thinking big. They secured funding to produce a live recording session of Vidal’s ambitious “Film Suite” with a 60-piece orchestra before a packed house at St. Cecilia Church. As a final project before graduation, the team produced another grand event at which Vidal conducted one of his works with a 150-piece orchestra and choir in Boston’s Symphony Hall. Such events were a prelude to careers they would develop in the film industry. The two currently operate a handful of related music production businesses under the company name Music and Motion Productions (MuMo) out of their studio in Venice, California.

Steve Dzialowski '07 (left) and Lucas Vidal (right) '07
Steve Dzialowski '07 (left) and Lucas Vidal (right) '07

Vidal and Dzialowski first met as Berklee students in an English-as-a-second-language class. Vidal was hitting his stride as a film scoring major and Dzialowski as a music business/management major when they established a business model with Vidal composing and Dzialowski handling administrative and business details. After spending a year in New York following graduation, they relocated to Santa Monica, and later moved operations to Venice, California.

Like all newcomers, Vidal and Dzialowski found the going tough in the beginning. “We got meetings with two of the top agents in L.A.,” Dzialowski recalls, “but we didn’t have a long enough résumé for them to sign us at that point. We left those meetings wondering how we would get projects and decided to just do it ourselves. I started going to film festivals and Lucas tried to meet as many people as possible in Spain and Hollywood.” After knocking on many doors, they got a movie project. “We did Cold Light of Day [starring Bruce Willis, Sigourney Weaver, and Henry Cavill] and then The Raven,” Dzialowski recalls. “After that, the phone started ringing and all the agents wanted to meet with us.” Currently, Amos Newman at William Morris Endeavor represents them.

MuMo is housed at the Venice studio that previously belonged to composer Harry Gregson-Williams. “Harry had 10 rooms, including a floating room for his studio,” Dzialowski says. “We bought this from him for much less than it would cost to build it. We added four more rooms so we could create a community.”

MuMo employs a few other composers and a music editor in addition to Vidal and Dzialowski. A stable of freelance composers and Berklee interns work there, too. Vidal is the company’s primary composer, and to date has scored more than 20 features (by both American and Spanish directors) in addition to music for TV shows, short films, documentaries, and trailers.

High-water marks include Vidal’s scores to Fast & Furious 6 (2013) and two Spanish films: Nadie quiere la Noche (Nobody Wants the Night) and Palmeras en la Nieve (Palm Trees in the Snow), both from 2015. At the February 2016 Goya Awards (Spain’s top movie prize), Vidal won an unprecedented two awards for best original score (Palmeras) and best original song (Nadie), cowritten with Spanish pop star Pablo Alborán.

Also among this year’s highlights was Vidal’s penning of the ESPN “Olympic Theme.” Mexican conductor Alondra de la Parra was invited by ESPN to conduct a piece to commemorate the first Olympics to be held in Latin America. De la Parra recommended that ESPN bring Vidal onboard to write an original theme. “We had meetings with ESPN in Connecticut,” Dzialowski says, “and they gave us some guidelines, but pretty much gave Lucas carte blanche.” ESPN wanted an epic theme that included Brazilian percussionists and singers and a full orchestra. Vidal’s noble melodic theme and use of driving rhythms embodied the dynamic spirit of the games that ESPN was seeking. The orchestra was recorded under de la Parra’s baton with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in Brisbane, Australia, and an accompanying video was shot in a Mexico City church. The video was broadcast widely during the games with Vidal’s theme being used in some 20 ESPN spots.

Two years ago, MuMo established Chroma, a new division to produce trailer music. “Trailers come from the film marketing budgets, which are exploding,” says Dzialowski. “Film marketing teams need amazing trailers and many different versions for TV spots and international use as well as the in-theater use. Often we will sell a track and make as much money as we would for working four months on a feature film score.”

Chroma releases a sampler album of trailer music nearly every month with 10 to 15 tracks. “Lucas writes a few tracks and different composers write the others,” Dzialowski says. “Sometimes Lucas collaborates with a specific artist—like Serj Tankian of System of a Down or DJ Paul Oakenfold for a whole album of trailers. I pitch the albums to the trailer houses and music supervisors.” Currently Chroma has a catalog of about 600 tracks.

Since their first feature film projects in 2012, Vidal and Dzialowski have made tremendous headway in a very competitive field. They have learned that vision and talent are imperative, but only part of the equation for success. “Talent is important,” Dzialowski says, “but willingness to sacrifice and work hard, taking care of every detail, and surrounding yourself with good people are just as important.”