Interview: Jon Opstad – how to write for film and TV

‘It’s quite a diverse skill set that you need in this role, beyond just the ability to compose’: says film and TV composer Jon Opstad.

Jon’s own assorted skills are very much evident across his work to date which includes scores for a wide range of films and TV series.

He has worked two episodes of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian series Black Mirror, the Masie William’s starring TV movie Cyberbully and more recently the upcoming science fiction drama The Feed for Amazon, which stars David Thewlis, Michelle Fairley, Guy Burnet & Nina Toussaint-White.

His composition Ignis IV could also be heard in the trailer for space thriller Ad Astra, which features Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones.

Having studied music at Cambridge University and film music at the National Film & Television School (NFTS), Jon has since combined his classical training with contemporary techniques by marrying acoustic instrumentation with electronics which characterises his unique sound.

Here Jon takes us through getting into composing for film and TV, its challenges and rewards, and offers some solid advice for budding composers hoping to score large and small screen works…

How did you first get into writing for film and TV? What drew you to writing for those mediums?

I’ve had a really strong passion for music, film and film music for pretty much as long as I can remember. I watched a lot of Hitchcock early on that introduced me to Bernard Herrmann’s music, and James Bond with John Barry’s music.

I quickly realised how profound the impact of the music was on the films and how it makes you feel. There was a series of 70s crime films that Mark Kermode introduced on TV in the late 90s that had a real impact on me and introduced me to the music of composers like Lalo Schifrin, David Shire and Jerry Goldsmith. Goldsmith’s score for Chinatown remains one of my favourites – it’s a masterpiece. Later, I discovered more electronic scores like Cliff Martinez’s score for Traffic, which I still think is one of the best electronic scores ever written.

In my teens I also got strongly into music production and recording technology – experimenting at first with a 4-track cassette recorder borrowed from my next-door neighbour, and then with some basic recording software when my family got a computer. None of my teachers at school were ever into that side of things at all so I had to work it all out myself, which I think is the best way. I recorded an album at home when I was 16 or 17 and managed to get Fopp in Bristol to stock it. I think they sold about four copies!

One of the other things that I love about composing for film and TV is how wide ranging it is musically and how many influences you can draw on. I’ve never felt that I fitted wholly into one individual genre, be it classical, jazz, electronic music, etc. I’m constantly influenced by a really wide range of music and composing for film and TV really allows that and nurtures it.

The problem from then was finding a path into the film and TV industry. It’s really hard. Just over a year later I went on to do the two-year composing course at the NFTS, which was amazing, really the best time I’ve had in education. The course set me on a route to what I’m doing today, but it was still very hard work and daunting to find a path through the freelance maze. My first route in was mostly working as an additional composer for other composers on film & TV projects, which was a very valuable learning experience as well as getting my foot in the door. I worked for some really brilliant composers in that way who have all influenced me – Jocelyn Pook, Martin Phipps, Max Richter, Sheridan Tongue and Ruth Barrett.

What special skills does a film and TV composer require?

It’s quite a diverse skill set that you need in this role, beyond just the ability to compose. The technical side is really important – knowing DAW software like Logic in enough depth to be really efficient in how you’re synchronising the music to picture. This becomes especially important on something like a multi-episode TV series where you’re needing to move material around between different scenes, adjust tempos, adapt cues to new scenes, and often to work extremely fast to meet the deadlines.

A while ago I saw a post on a forum online discussing whether it’s possible to work on pencil and paper and have somebody else do the technical side, and you just think, ‘well, not really!’ These days the whole process has become so wedded to the technology that I think those days are gone. That’s fine for someone like me who gets a lot of enjoyment from experimenting with the technology side of things, but for composers without that background it’s really important to get to grips with it as much as possible.

It’s also basically expected these days that you will be delivering demos that are pretty much 95 percent of the quality of the finished music, so sample programming and mixing skills are very important. For a lot of projects, the final music mixing is done by the composer too for budget reasons, so it can be important to hone these skills. This can also have an impact on the way you compose too, particularly in thinking about things like what frequencies work well under dialogue or certain sound effects and which instrumental colours can achieve this.

Being versed in a wide variety of music is important too. There are obviously some examples of composers who compose within relatively narrow parameters and who are known for quite a defined ‘sound’, but this tends to be artists who have a strong following on the music scene outside of composing for film and TV.

Continuing the above theme, being adaptable and open to feedback is extremely important. If a piece that you’ve been working on for ages and that you think is working really well for the project gets rejected by the director or producer and they have completely different ideas then you need to be able to deal with this and react to it in a constructive, positive way. There’s no point in burning any bridges by reacting badly to these situations. To some extent a lack of ego is important in these situations.

And when it comes to finding the work then networking and people skills are almost as important as the music skills. I’m not a massive networker by nature but it’s an important area to work on.

What’s the process of landing a job?

This can vary. I’ve found that in most cases my jobs have come about through some kind of prior connection – either someone who I’ve worked with in the past, whether it’s a director, editor or producer, or in some cases a director who’s come across me through work made by another director that they know. I’ve had one instance of a (very good) project coming out of the blue because the team had found my music on Spotify.

In many cases, even with a strong prior connection, you’re still up against other composers for the job and so you need to pitch for it. Often this will be a meeting with some combination of the director, producers and executive producers where you’ll discuss your ideas for the score, having read the script(s) prior to the meeting.

In some cases, it’s required to compose demo music specifically for the pitch. I often find this to be a less than ideal situation. In my view a score is developed over time through a process of working with the filmmakers, trying out ideas and refining these to discover together what works best for the project. Composing a pitch in a few days without this process isn’t really a valid representation of what it’s possible to achieve through this longer process.

What sort of opportunities are there for aspiring screen composers?

The two most common starting points for aspiring screen composers are scoring short films and working in an assistant role for established composers. Making connections with short film directors and producers can be an important way of building up experience and credits.

I scored maybe 40 or so short films at the start of my career. Most of these projects have very little money available – there’s often no fee – but they can be extremely rewarding on a creative level and valuable in making contacts and showing what you can do. We’re also at an interesting point where the avenues for screen music seem to be widening. The streaming services are making more content than ever, music for games has become a big industry, and there are also opportunities for aspiring composers in writing for promos and commercials, web-based series, production music, and other areas.

How competitive is this side of the industry?

Very. Individuality stands out. Building up credits is very important.

What project have you most enjoyed working on to date?

I was very fortunate that my first TV drama project was the White Bear episode of Black Mirror. A hugely creative team (Carl Tibbetts, Charlie Brooker, etc.) who still allowed me a great deal of freedom with the score to try out my ideas and do my thing. You can’t get better than that! I put some really intense work into pitching for that project over a 24-hour period. They sent me some footage to work to before I got the job and I stayed up through the night scoring it. Some of that material made it into the finished episode.

What advice would you give to composers trying to break into screen composing?

Passion, drive, persistence. Believing in what you can do and having the drive to find the people who want you to do it. This can take time – be prepared for that. As you become more established having a head for the business side of things is important, but don’t let this get in the way of the ‘art’ of what you do. Your individuality as a composer is what will get you hired and lead to more work. Find what is unique about you – don’t try and sound like everyone else.

Try and work in a lot of different areas before deciding if you’d like to specialise more. If you work too much in composing for one type of project, it’s easy to get pigeonholed as a composer who just does that – this can be a trap worth avoiding if you want a varied career.

One piece of advice that’s always stuck with me was something that composer Martin Phipps said to me when I was working with him. There was a cue that I was struggling with getting right. When I sent a latest draft over, he asked me before listening to it if I ‘loved it?’ That made me really question whether I had enough faith in what I’d written for that particular tricky scene to believe that it was the right piece of music for it. Since then I’ve always questioned whether I’m writing the very best music I can for any particular situation. If you don’t have real belief in what you’re writing, then it will be difficult to convince others to believe in it.

Your composition Ignis IV was recently picked up for use in the new film trailer for Brad Pitt’s upcoming film, Ad Astra. How did that come about, and how big a consideration is sync to you?

The piece was originally composed for a live contemporary dance work that I scored in 2014. The brilliant team at my publisher, Manners McDade, loved it and played it to some people in LA, including the trailer music company Pusher. I’d known for a while that it was potentially in the running for being used in the Ad Astra trailer, and I was completely delighted when it was confirmed that it was being used. It’s very rewarding to see a piece being used effectively in a different context like that, and it’s very clever the way they edited it with the imagery. As a composer working primarily in writing to picture, sync hasn’t been a big consideration for me up to now, but it is extremely rewarding when it happens.

What do you have lined up next?

Earlier in the year I completed scoring a new 10-part science fiction drama for Amazon entitled The Feed. It was quite an epic undertaking, scoring for string orchestra, analogue synths, vocals, electric guitars and more, and I’m excited about it coming out later in the year. I’ve also been doing quite a lot of work writing music for the game project Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege for Ubisoft, which I’ve been the composer for since the beginning of 2018 and which is ongoing. Ben Frost and Paul Haslinger were the original composers for the project before that – two outstanding electronic composers. At the moment I’m also finding time to work on some new album projects that I’m developing and which I’m excited about. Then there are a few different TV and film projects potentially on the horizon.

jonopstad.com.