Interview with Film and Game Composer Sarah Schachner

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Photo by Alex Exline
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By Jan Hoeglund

Being a young composer in Los Angeles (or anywhere for that matter) and hoping to have a career in the studio is tough. As many of the more seasoned professionals in the industry say: a) Diversify and b) Be Yourself.

Sarah Schachner's work certainly shows that her own sound has matured to the point where it's almost instantly recognizable. Her signature sound includes haunting Violin and Cello licks that have a bit of a folk vibe and sometimes even Western sound to them. But it's not just traditional elements that Sarah uses as part of her main musical arsenal. She is also a big lover of all things Moog which shows in her talent as a synth programmer that shine through in her cues. No surprise then that A list composer Brian Tyler frequently brings her on his projects for additional music. Sarah's credits include Call of Duty MW3, Far Cry 3, Now You See Me, Iron Man 3, Assassin's Creed Black Flag and Assassin's Creed Unity. We had the chance to sit down with Sarah to talk music industry, life and the must-have human skeleton replica that should be in every home.

Thank you so much for taking the time Sarah. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.

Thanks for speaking with me! I've always played in bands since I can remember. My dad organized a family band with me and my sister when we were very young. We started out playing a mishmash of traditional irish folk/old blues/klezmer/bluegrass type stuff at local festivals and then it evolved over the years into an instrumental classic rock cover band usually resulting in amps being slowly turned up to 11 over the course of the night. My mom would play film scores in the house all the time growing up. My family has definitely played a huge role in my creative background.

After graduating college, what was your first job as a composer? Did you ever have additional jobs on the side or were you able to make it a full time gig from day one?

I moved out to LA right after college and by some freak of nature luck found an assistant position to a TV/trailer composer on craigslist (which shockingly wasn't asking for free slave labor and first born child in exchange for imdb credit). I was a terrible personal assistant but he thankfully saw enough in my musical abilities to keep me on board with more of a music production role and that's how I got my first opportunity to compose for TV. I worked with him for one year and have been freelance composing ever since.

You frequently work with Brian Tyler. How did that come together?

Indeed. I met Brian in 2009 and he gave me the opportunity to do some arrangements and additional music on some of the earlier video games and it just kind of went from there over the next few years whenever he needed help.

You worked on AC Black Flag as part of Tyler's team which led to you writing the score for Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed Unity. The game is set within Paris during the French Revolution. Where did you draw your inspiration from for the music?

Writing action music in a classical contrapuntal framework was definitely a unique challenge. The French revolution was an interesting time because it was at the beginning of the classical period but there was still some crossover from the previous baroque era. The missions at Versailles, for instance, reflect more of the overly flourished baroque sound that the aristocracy was reluctant to let go of.

I drew some inspiration from Jordi Savall's viol da gamba playing, particularly on the score to the French film Tous les matins du monde. I love the raw emotional sound of that instrument so I had a bowed dulcimer custom-made which has a very similar sound. The combat music in Unity is a bit more restrained than some of the previous Assassin's Creeds.The music of this era was not overly rough or bombastic, but methodical and calculated. As always with the franchise, the player is periodically reminded of the sci-fi modern Abstergo element with low gritty analog synth pulses weaving in and out of the classical soundscape.

"There's a little too much Moog on this" - said no one ever.

What do you do when you're NOT working?

I'll let you know when I find out. But no, I love seeing electronic artists whenever I can, working on music for my own side projects, reading up on the latest Large Hadron Collider news, stalking dodgy modular synth dealers, drawing dog portraits, painting, sensory deprivation tanks... typical stuff.

What is your process when you're writing something that is a bit more out of your comfort zone?

I will generally take some time to just listen to music that inspires me. That's usually enough to get some ideas going. I never go into anything with the mindset that I have to sound just like something else or fit into any one genre decided by society. I feel most comfortable working in between genres without strict stylistic limitations.

Of all the projects you got to work on, which one was your favorite?

Assassin's Creed Unity and then Black Flag and Far Cry 3. I've really enjoyed working with Ubisoft. I'm also excited about Lazarus (a film project with a totally different vibe) due out January 2015.

Do you prefer scoring movies or video games and what would you like to work on next?

It's a tough question because each one has its own unique rewards and challenges specific to that medium. Scoring a game is completely different than scoring a film or a TV show. I think overall, variety is key. There is something about the interactive nature of games though that is really exciting to me. The future is bright in the gaming industry.

What does your workstation look like?

Controlled chaos. Instruments everywhere, on the floor, spilling into other rooms. My dining room table is currently covered in instruments. Mandolin Stew will be served at 6:30. I run everything through an Apollo quad and into Cubase.

How do you decide how to balance live instruments with sample libraries when you work on a cue?

If you are doing it all yourself, you are pretty limited to what you are able to play. If there is no budget for a live session and it's an orchestral-based score, I will double all string parts with live takes. I also buy instruments all the time that I have no idea how to play. They are still useful for generating interesting sounds even if you aren't a virtuoso. I do rely heavily on samples for percussion and there are some great libraries out there for that. Samples are an incredible and necessary tool, but there's something about the articulations you get from a human playing a real instrument that are impossible to recreate digitally. You can play the same exact melody on the same instrument, but if you're imagining yourself as a pirate while you play, it will come out differently than if you're thinking of yourself as Chuck Norris or something. Maybe by 2064, samples will have "character mindset" options. Also, imperfection is good. It gives music character.

What is your favorite Soundiron instrument?

Emotional Piano! It's incredible. There are so many great patches in the "FX" folder in that library. Also the Rust libraries are really unique and interesting and I have a lot of the original Tonehammer libraries which I still use all the time.

If there was a movie/game/show (past, present and future) you would have liked or would like to score ... which one would it be?

I would love to score a futuristic sci-fi about the technological singularity when computers gain consciousness. Anything along the lines of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Moon, Her, or that weird video game that was in the movie Her. That would be cool.

If you were to teach a beginner's class on film scoring, what would you tell those young composers?

Step 1: Treat every project like it's the best thing in the world and deserves your best music (even if it's a commercial about cat litter). Over deliver and outshine the project while still serving its needs. The unfortunate thing about this industry is that it's like a möbius loop erratically spinning around with no visible entry. Every once in a while there's a little opening and someone might be willing to take a risk and give you a chance. Always have plenty of music ready to go that is the best representation of you at that time.

Step 2: Don't underestimate the importance of working well with others. You are ultimately there to bring someone else's vision to life while also staying true to yourself. Be able to handle criticism and don't take rejection too personally. It happens to everyone.

Step 3: Don't forget to eat.

What would you have liked to know before stepping into the world of composing for media?

"Meetings and Conference Calls for Introvert Composers 101" should be mandatory in all film scoring programs because writing music is only half the battle.

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