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Interview With Composer Brian Ralston

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By Marie-Anne Fischer

Award winning composer and conductor, Brian Ralston has scored a great variety of films for over 17 years ranging from his score for ‘Crooked Arrows’ which he conducted with the Hollywood Studio Symphony orchestra to action thriller ‘Awaken', ‘Planet of the Sharks’ and most recent drama ‘Rose’ to name a few. Brian is an instructor in the UCLA Film Scoring program and has co-hosted the SCOREcast podcast for film composers. I caught up with Brian, who generously gave of his time to answer a few questions.

 

It’s wonderful to get in touch again since your last interview with Jan Hoeglund in 2016 and it looks like you have been very busy since then. Congratulations on ‘Rose’, which opened with great appraisal at the Lone Star Film Festival. Could you tell us about the process of how you realized your musical ideas for ‘Rose’?

Thank you Marie-Anne. Rose was such a wonderful project to be a part of. We premiered at the Lone Star Film Festival but also played at the Sedona Film Festival this past February where it won their Best Feature Film award. In my mind, there were two stories going on and both of them were journeys for the main character Rose. To paint a picture here, Rose is an older widowed woman (played by Cybill Shepherd) who at the very outset of the film is in a doctor's office getting the results of some tests. She essentially learns she is dying of a yet unknown degenerative brain disease. She only has months to live. She decides to go on a soul searching journey throughout her state of New Mexico in her powered wheelchair, spa hopping place to place to search for some end-of-life solace. While on this trip she meets an older widowed cowboy / ranch-hand (played by James Brolin) who she quickly falls in love with. But she does not want to tell him that she only has months to live. Drama ensues as she deals with her relationship with him and her degenerative decline towards her own death. It is a journey film. Rose is on a relationship journey with a cowboy, which to me needed to be a small, western/country music inspired score. And she is also on a spiritual journey throughout the southwest. Which to me I wanted to portray that as Native American influenced music as the southwestern united states, especially the state of New Mexico, are heavily influenced by Native American Culture. The music in American Indian culture is very spiritual. And it is that spiritual quality as she journeys towards her own death that sees the score get more and more influenced by the Native music and chants and less by the country western music the film starts out with.

How do you approach scoring a new film technically, do you have a preferred process regarding setting up your gear and template?

I use Digital Performer software. After spotting the film with the director (which I strongly believe should always be done IN PERSON by the way)...I input my general hit points into DP as markers. I then break off where each cue begins into a different DP project file. Then each project file is set up to where its corresponding measure 1 is located for that particular cue. I then use a feature in DP that no other DAW has, and that is to determine my cue tempo using their "find tempo tool" and all of my hit points are assigned a value as to their importance in needing to be hit with a beat. I give DP a range of tempos I am thinking of for the cue (let's assume 100bpm - 110bpm) and DP will in turn calculate and tell me if I write this cue at 106.25bpm...I will hit every hit point in the cue on a beat or within a certain number of frames of the hit point. I will make the best tempo selection from that recommended list and technically now my cue is set up to compose. I have a roadmap of what I need to write. And all of this happens before a note is written for that cue. The entire cue is at one tempo and all I need to do to hit markers on a certain beat of the measure is change my meter to make those hit points on a down beat or whatever I want creatively. This is what I teach in UCLA's film scoring program and it is a process that has served me well. Determining tempo is very much dictated by the picture edit. It is something I strongly feel one should do BEFORE they begin to compose a cue and it makes the composition process so much easier to actually score TO PICTURE because it gives you an exact roadmap of what you need to write. There is little guessing of how to hit things you want to hit compositionally. It is all there in front of you. If you ever go to live musicians, trust me that they will perform better in less time if you do not have a click track that is changing all the time. If the cue really needs a tempo change, conceptualize it as a new cue. Or a 1M1a, 1M1b, 1M1c if need be to put those sections back together as a music edit. It is much easier to break things down into smaller parts and you will get what you need faster out of the live orchestra in less time. It is all about efficiency.

What helps you with your creative process?

Certainly a deep discussion with the director. We are trying to realize THEIR vision for the film and solve or support many film issues creatively with our knowledge of music. Music is a character. You have to research it like an actor researches their role. Really getting into the director's head about details of the film and each scene is very important. I also like to surround myself for a bit of time in a genre of music I may be exploring for the score, especially if it is in an area I know little about. For ROSE I was fortunate to be pretty well versed on Native American music because of my previous work and research on the film Crooked Arrows which also had a strong Native American influence in its score. I even had the same native flute player from Crooked Arrows, Chris Bleth here in LA, perform for me again on the ROSE score.

How do you communicate with directors during scoring, for example, do you send music back and forth or do you prefer meeting face-to-face?

Face to face is always preferable. There are so many nuances to communicating with someone that are non-verbal indicators. I can usually tell from a director's facial expressions when they are watching a cue how they are experiencing it for the first time. On this film though, director Rod McCall lived in New Mexico so much of our post process was done remotely. But I did as much in person as I could. I flew out to New Mexico (at my choice and expense) to be present a few days of the spotting session and again for the final film mix that was conducted at I-25 studios in Albuquerque, NM. Rod also traveled to Los Angeles for the scoring sessions so he could be here in person for those. For all the other times in between, I shared scenes with him remotely either wetransfering the files to him or using a little online service called Pixelflow, which is like a private YouTube but you can leave comments tagged to specific frames of the film.

When you are working on a long time project, how do you manage balancing your time effectively between work, family and your personal life?

That is still something I struggle with. My wife and I have a 4 year old daughter. Since I work at home in my studio and my wife has the corporate 9-5 office job at a television studio, I am frequently the one at home with my daughter on any off pre-school days or the one flexible enough to take her to appointments. I really attribute a lot of this to my wife and her flexibility with me. When on projects, my ability to be flexible decreases greatly. I need un-interrupted studio time. She understands and supports that. When I am not on a project, our priorities as a couple shift and I become the flexible one. So far, this has worked for us as a family.

Once you have completed scoring a film, how do you process the music from your DAW to printed scores ready to be played and recorded, for instance, do you work with a team?

I do have a team I assemble for projects. I almost always have an assistant now on a film. If the budget allows, my team may increase in size accordingly. On Rose, the budget was smaller so my assistant was really handling a lot of that transfer into Sibelius from the DAW and getting parts ready for a human to play. In the past I have hired other music copyists as well. It really depends on budget. I can do the notation stuff but I am not as fast with it. It is a skill set that you have to be doing every day to be fast and I don't. So it is often better to get help in those areas if you can. You don't want mistakes on the parts. That wastes time in the recording session and that wastes money.

Young composers trying to break into the industry often find it difficult to know how much to charge for a project. Can you give us some insight on how to successfully negotiate a budget and fee with a client?

This is a long answer that is probably too steep into philosophy to properly get into. But just remember, you are not charging for your music...you are charging for YOU. You are the product. Not your music. This is why Hans Zimmer can command a 7 figure fee and you perhaps can not....yet. Since you framed this as "young composers" I would encourage them to not worry about their fee so much at the beginning and just acquire as many credits and working relationships as they can. I don't think working for free is necessarily what I am suggesting either. I do think there needs to be some exchange going on. But in general...build your network and credits. The higher paying gigs will begin to come down the road as those relationships begin to pay off.

You recently were making a film, ‘Is someone there?’ which looked like a lot of fun, are you able to reveal any information about your experience and will you be scoring the film too?

Yes...we are in post-production on the horror/thriller film now. I am producing this film with a small team of great people. Benicio Del Toro is our executive producer. The film stars Travis Van Winkle (Friday 13th remake, Transformers) and Nikolett Barabas. For now it is a proof of concept short film to show to some key industry folks to get it made into a feature. As it really seems these days one almost has to make the film before you "make the film." Production companies and studios really want to see what they are investing in and the competition for their attention is great. You have to stand out. It is a great script with a twist you do not see coming. But we will also be doing the festival circuit next year. I will also be the film's composer and we will be recording the score in late July in Los Angeles with a live orchestra. Writer/director Tim Garrick has told me he wants a more classic "throwback" score to this one. I am excited about that opportunity and also excited to be in the producing chair again with Tim and everyone who has read the script thus far.

What equipment and technology does your studio currently have? Can you please provide a brief summary of your hardware and software?

I am on a maxed out MacPro Tower, 12-core 3.46GHz, 128GB RAM, all SSD machine. I drive 3 monitors. Two LG ultra wide displays and the 75" flat screen on the wall. I use most all MOTU gear for my interfaces both MIDI and audio. And I have an 8-core UAD-2 PCIe card in the tower MAC for my UAD plugs which I love. As I mentioned before I use the latest Digital Performer software but my tower machine is currently running Mac OS X 10.11, El Capitan. I just have not been ready to jump to High Sierra yet with some 3rd party plugin incompatibilities still lingering. I also have the latest ProTools software because we always have to deliver in ProTools. And most of my instruments are loaded in Vienna Ensemble Pro 6 on either the main tower MacPro or on a separate MacMini client machine to help offload CPU cycles. And I use mostly all Blue Microphones for when I record someone live in my own studio.

In your last interview you said that Mercury Boys Choir was your favorite Soundiron instrument, does this still stand or do you have another favorite from Soundiron?

I do still love the Mercury Boys Choir library. It holds an "always loaded" place in my writing template.

Thank you very much for being part of this interview, I really appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to share this information with us.

Absolutely. My pleasure as always!

Brian Ralston’s website: http://www.brianralston.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/brianralstoncomposer/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/brianralston
Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/brianralston

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