By Jan Hoeglund
There are many different types of musicians, producers and composers. Without a doubt one of the best types are the ones that want to give back to the community and share their experiences as working musicians. Award-winning composer and conductor Brian Ralston can most definitely be counted into that category. Not only does he teach Electronic Composition for Film and Television class in the film scoring certificate program at UCLA Extension in Los Angeles, but he also co-hosts the SCOREcast podcast for film composers. An industry insider show discussing all facets of the entertainment industry from a film composer perspective.
Thank you so much for taking the time Brian. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
I started playing the piano around age 6 and trumpet by age 10. So I have been involved in music for a very long time. I started composing music for myself at the piano in high school where I also became a huge film score fan. My favorite scores at the time were The Rocketeer, Willow and Krull. I never even took the time back then to know who scored them, I just loved them. And one day I noticed they were all done by the same person, James Horner. That started my quest to collect any and all Horner recordings I could get my hands on. Going into undergraduate college...I was playing my trumpet in all the college groups but still had it in my head for some reason that I wanted to go to medical school. I was a Biochemistry major at the University of Arizona and I completed that degree. My senior thesis was working on a breast cancer research project for over a year developing a technique the lead researcher would go on to use in other studies. I took the MCAT test for medical school (did fairly well) and also worked for a Neurologist for many years doing clinical research in Alzheimer's, Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson's and other Neurological disorders. I was even a nationally certified EMT. While I enjoyed the science of it all very much...music kept calling me back. I completed my Biochemistry degree and yet withdrew my applications to medical schools in the middle of interviewing. I had to pursue music as a career and specifically music for film. It was truly my passion and something in me came to the conclusion that one must follow their passion in life and give it their all. I was always in music...I had just now decided to make it my career and soon had my sights on USC's Scoring for Motion Picture and Television graduate program. I began taking formal music classes at Arizona to prepare for applying to USC and essentially started a second undergraduate course of study in music. A few years later I was accepted to USC's program and felt very fortunate Buddy Baker who ran the program at the time, gave me a chance. And I am forever grateful.
After graduating college, what was your first job in the music industry? Did you ever have additional jobs on the side or were you able to make it a full-time gig from day one?
Upon leaving the USC program I did a little assisting Rob Kral on the TV show Angel and also began working on my filmmaker relationships. It took a while to start really making it in music. I would do anything and everything I could. I even orchestrated and arranged on a stage musical that ran at the Matrix Theatre in LA called "SnEauX The SINsational Gothic Horror Figure Skating Musical." I was a riot and such a great time. I played in the live band on the show and got to work with many great folks who went on to become some heavy hitters in the industry like director Andy Fickman, producer Glenn Gainor (who is now VP of Production at Sony Screen Gems) and actress Kristen Bell. After that show I mostly focused on independent feature film work but of course always take the opportunities I have to write and work on music seriously. I have even arranged marching band shows for high school programs and still do to this day for some of my band director friends.
Do you notice a difference between film music students of the early 2000s when you were in college and your students now? Has the approach of teaching music for film changed and if so, how?
Things have changed a lot. When I was going through USC technology was just about to explode on composers as a whole. Gigastudio was a new concept to streaming samples from the hard drive. You use to have to have lots of Akai rack mounted samplers to do something similar. Everything was changing so fast. You could have an entire orchestra in one computer. Back then I had to show my fully orchestrated scores from Finale as part of my requirements to get into USC...but these days it consists of showing fully scored scenes and videos. It is completely different. Now that I am teaching in UCLA Extension's film scoring program...I have to say that composers today have to be far more technically advanced than they had to be when I was in school. As one who teaches the trade craft of scoring film...it forces me to keep on the forefront of the technology and not get complacent myself. I do think that a little bit of the craft of scoring to picture is being lost. Writing music in support of picture is very different than just writing music with a cool feel or vibe and editing it to match the picture later. Which is much of what ends up happening today. To be a truly effective film composer, I believe one has to understand the language of film. Understand story structure, character development, and the philosophies behind engaging an audience. You essentially have to be a filmmaker as well. Just one who understands the language and craft of writing music to picture. And many are not as good at understanding that part of the process. I do my best to get that across in my classes and hope my students in the end come out not only being better at the technology that allows them to create their music, but also better at understanding filmmaking and their important role in the overall process.
Of all the projects you got to work on, which one was your favorite?
Crooked Arrows. We were fortunate enough to record that score with the Hollywood Studio Symphony Orchestra here in Los Angeles at The Bridge Recording studio in Glendale. I remember going back to speak with the brass before the session started and describing the film to them as an underdog sports film kind of like The Mighty Ducks or Rudy but for the sport of Lacrosse. The Legendary Rick Baptist (who was one of my trumpets on the score) jokingly said, "Oh...we got this then. We were all on Rudy. You are in good hands." Chris Bleth beautifully performed all of the native flutes used in the score. It was a great opportunity to write an orchestral score that was heavily influenced by the Native American aspect of Lacrosse. Standing up there conducting that group and hearing for the first time, what was in my head, come to life by those musicians was the thrill of my life. It is almost to this day beyond words to describe what that was like.
Tell us a little bit more about your more recent project, "Planet Of The Sharks" for the SyFy channel. How did you approach composing the music for the movie?
Kays Al-Atrakchi and I co-composed the score for this one as we have done on two previous films with the same director. Those were Awaken (starring Daryl Hannah and Robert Davi) and SyFy's Battle Of Los Angeles years ago. For this film, we knew this was going to be action driven and have pretty much wall-to-wall music in it. I don't think there is a minute of film that does not have some score. It is the nature of these films, especially on SyFy. They constantly want it moving forward and the music helps with that greatly. Kays and I each took different scenes and areas of the film to concentrate on. I really wanted to musically stamp the sharks with a unique sound from a Slaperoo. It is a unique metallic percussive instrument that we ran through a series of guitar plug-ins to get a distorted sound out of it. We created a little library of these sounds at the outset of scoring so we could both use and pull from them as we saw fit in our scenes. The film also takes place in a post-apocalyptic world...so we felt that the score needed to be big yet percussive and tribal. At the same time...there are still a lot of synth and electronics in the score buried underneath everything helping to pulse and drive the action sequences. I did use a lot of the Olympus Choirs and Mercury Boys choir in the score by the way. It wasn't the only sample choir I used...but its sweet, smooth sound was something that was definitely needed throughout. In the end...our cues are pretty evenly spaced. I do not think we go more than a couple cues back to back from the same composer. So it is cohesive and blended together nicely. We coordinated on the keys we were writing in and made sure we each knew how the other's cues were ending and starting so if they were touching each other in the ProTools session, any dove-tailing of the cues would not harmonically clash.
You are also the co-host on the SCORECast podcast. Tell us a little bit more about how it came together and why you and Deane (Odgen) decided to do work together on it?
Deane Ogden invited me to come into the SCOREcast family about 7 years ago now. We have been doing the flagship film composer podcast together ever since. SCOREcast is a really good resource for all composers looking to be part of a community whose mission is to help and support each other and not compete against one another. We have 8 (soon to be 10) community chapters around the world which can all be found on Facebook and all are very active, especially the Hollywood and London chapters. Some of our podcasts have consisted of a guest composer talking about their recent projects. We have had Chris Lennertz, Charlie Clouser, Joe Kraemer, Richard Bellis, James Sizemore (Howard Shore's assistant & orchestrator), Orchestrator Tim Davies and many more. Other shows we have focused on talking about the craft of scoring film and we have even done some film score "post mortem" commentaries where one can sync up our podcast and play our discussion with the corresponding films like Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan or Back To The Future. It really is great. And it's free for everyone to consume and be a SCOREcaster. http://www.scorecastonline.com
What does your workstation look like?
I use the latest Digital Performer 9. I host most of my instruments in Vienna Ensemble Pro 5. My main computer is a 3.43GHz 12-core MacPro with 64GB RAM and mostly all SSD drives. I also run a MacMini slave for some other instruments in my overall template. My desk is a custom built desk made just for me and my 6'2" height by KK Audio, which has now gone out of business. I think I literally got one of the last desks that came out of their workshop a couple years ago and feel very lucky I was not caught up in their bankruptcy with my purchase. I built my studio at my home a couple years ago and it was one of the best decisions I have made in investing in my business. I have a great broadcast quality music studio to not only work out of, but bring directors and producers back to and it is right here in my own backyard.
How do you decide how to balance live instruments with sample libraries when you work on a cue?
I am always looking for ways to use LIVE instruments on my projects even if the budget determines that it will be mostly a MIDI score, adding live musicians just makes it come alive. The music is not the notes we write. That is just the agreed upon language we all have to communicate what the music should be. The MUSIC is what happens between the notes. It is what you do with the notes that creates the "MUSIC." This is the best argument I can think of why live is better than MIDI. A computer is only as good as it can be programmed to be and even then, there is no soul behind it. A living breathing musician breathes life into every note and that energy and movement of air is what makes the live performed music so special. If I can at least create areas where a live soloist is on the score with a signature instrument, that will go very far in giving the score a soul to connect with the audience.
What is your favorite Soundiron instrument?
What do you do when you're NOT composing or teaching?
We have a 2 1/2 year old daughter. I love spending time with my wife and daughter. Watching her grow up is fascinating to me. Working at my home studio allows me to be here a lot more often than most fathers get to be near their daughters growing up and I would not trade these moments in life for anything. We just love her so much.
If you were to teach a beginner's class on film scoring, what would you tell those young composers?
Probably a lot more than I can write here. But in general, I will pass along some advice that was given to me by composer Basil Poledorus. He said you have to break into the business of "tomorrow" and not the business of "today." Today's directors, producers, filmmakers already have their teams and their trusted colleagues and there is little breaking into that. You have to find the young directors and producers who are going to grow and make it in the future and get in with them now. Chances are they will continue to use the people they came up through the industry with and that is the position you want to be in. You will most likely never "break" into the biz today. It is all about setting yourself up for tomorrow. Now tomorrow may come sooner or later. Everyone's path is different. But you have to be in it for the long haul. Experience and reputation are not built overnight. It is going to take many, many years. I have a little Youtube video we made to promote the Crooked Arrows soundtrack on Perseverance Records and at the end of that video, I speak a little bit about this as well.
What would you have liked to know before stepping into the world of composing for media?
The business side of what we do as film composers is something I have really learned "on the job." Academia is really about the theory of it all. But the practical day to day operations one only learns by doing it and being around it. Forming an LLC in the state of California. Hiring an assistant. Taxes. Running a business. Building a recording studio. Maintaining one's own computer systems because there is no money to hire a team of IT professionals to do it for me. Knowing these things ahead of time might have made the journey easier from a certain point of view. Not easy. But I would much rather stress about what kind of theme I need to write rather than the ins and outs of S-Corp tax election.