Behind the music

Composers of original music for factual television can sometimes be the unsung heroes (pardon the pun) of the genre. Here, realscreen talks to several of the artists that make music for your moving pictures.
November 1, 2009

Gregg Montante
Los Angeles, U.S.
Main instrument: guitar
Length of time in the industry: 15 years
Select credits: Deadliest Catch, The Alaska Experiment, Ice Road Truckers, Ax Men, Eco-Challenge

You’ve done a lot of work in dramatic television but much of your recent work is in non-fiction. How did you end up working in factual television?

Bruce Hanifan is a composer who has had a lot of his success through reality-based shows like Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers and Ax Men; I do a lot of writing on those shows. They hired me as a guitar player and they realized I could compose as well as play and they leaned on me for that, [as] Bruce had other projects going at the same time.
I find in the reality show business the creators have a tendency to lead the way as far as what they want it to sound like. They’ll send over temp tracks and they want you to get close to that kind of vibe and then you have to make it your own.

How would you describe the process of composing for a factual project?

In the old days it used to be that they would send us video and then you would have a little bit more of an open slate… The guy who is doing the bulk of the work [now] is the picture editor. They’re not only picture editing but music editing, music supervising, taking our work and chopping it up and placing it to picture. That’s probably because, especially in the reality-based world, up until the last second [when] it actually airs, there are probably a lot of visual changes that go down.

How do you get inspired?

I try to really keep my finger on the pulse of what’s happening musically today. Even if it’s a piece that has a traditional base, I try to throw in some colors that a younger person can relate to.

You have to integrate [your influences] into your own work and make it your own, where it doesn’t sound like anybody else… In this business there are a lot of samples and loops that are available to all of us and a lot of guys use them and then you end up sounding like every other composer using the same library of sounds. I try to stay away from that and create whatever I can on my end and then have my library of my own samples.

Chris Dedrick
Toronto, Canada
Main instrument: trumpet
Length of time in the industry: over 30 years
Select credits: Death or Canada, Aftermath, The Great Canadian Polar Bear Adventure, My Dad is 100 Years Old

How does composing for non-fiction projects differ from composing for fiction films and television?

My two recent docs that earned Gemini nominations couldn’t have been more different from each other. Death or Canada was like writing for a feature film – almost every cue [was] meant for emotional, dramatic impact, and not a lot of work to support talking heads or information packets. The Body Machine was like writing 50 TV commercials, mostly for all different products. Each cue was a little power-packed production number.

I seem to get a lot of the dramatic non-fiction, lots of re-enactment, big disasters or discoveries, and the producers really want million-dollar, Hollywood-sounding scores. But non-fiction includes transparent ‘thinking’ music, newsy, pulse music, or wallpaper under constant VO music. It’s very interesting to find the vibe or soundscape that is really right for each film.

What instruments or music software do you usually work with?

I use Cubase software with all kinds of sound and sample libraries and plug-ins. Not nearly as extensive and sophisticated as some of my peers, I’d imagine. I like to use instruments that I play: keyboards, brass, guitars, as well as voices when appropriate. I often hire other live players – as many as affordable, whatever is right for the project. I sometimes deliver to the mix in ProTools sessions, sometimes Nuendo, sometimes right out of Cubase.

You were in the band The Free Design, and you have worked with such artists as Simon & Garfunkel and Peter, Paul & Mary. Is it ever problematic for you to combine your love of music with work?

I try to keep a balance in my creative life and do some things purely for the ‘art’ on a regular basis. I also treat the paying work as an art form. It’s considered that in Europe. There is always a team, a captain, a common goal. Who said working for Paul Simon or Peter Yarrow was a walk in the park? My work in the Free Design has opened many doors for me through the years.

Dain Blair & Brad Chiet, Groove Addicts
Los Angeles, U.S.
Main instrument: Blair – guitar; Chiet – piano/guitar
Length of time in the industry: Blair – 17 years; Chiet – 19 years
Select credits: Extreme Makeover: Home Edition; Tattoo Highway; Extreme Makeover; Super Nanny

You started working together on television projects with Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. How did the two of you come together?

Dain Blair: It was fate. It was an online dating service [laughs].

Brad Chiet: I’m from New York originally and I came out to L.A. to look for work and Dain started Groove Addicts at the time. We started working together on a lot of commercial stuff and we decided to move into TV a few years ago. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition was the first group project.

DB: The editor of the show who later became the executive producer, Mike Malloy, was cutting together the pilot and we sent him over some music from one of our libraries and he really enjoyed what we had sent over. But then he needed a theme, and bumpers and a close, and then he wanted to redo all of the music he put in for the pilot with original music, and that was how it began.

How do you work? Do you compose together or separately?

DB: We work separately.

BC: Except when we’re doing the final band, we’ll both be in there with the band and the players and we try to do a lot of live [recording]. For [Home Edition] we used a live orchestra.

DB: The palate was very wide in terms of what they needed because they moved from an urban location to a suburban location, from the Northeast to the Southwest, and after [Hurricane] Katrina down to New Orleans, so it was pretty demanding for all the different styles and genres of music they needed.

BC: What we try to do with the show, which we do with all shows, is try to define what its sound is going to be and try to give it its own identity. I think with a lot of non-fiction and reality shows sometimes they try to use libraries and cut things together and it ends up sounding disjointed. I think to give it the honesty that the show needs and give it a unique style we really try to help them evolve the sound and if possible, when it makes sense, use live players and give it a dimension it would lack otherwise.

What do you look to for inspiration when composing for factual?

BC: What you have to score to is the arc of the show, so we have to figure out what the arc and the emotion of the show is. Especially when it’s a series, the arc in every show is usually similar. For example, in Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, there’s a bad moment in the beginning – the family has a problem – then they move out, they build a house, [there are] all these issues and problems, a race against time, [then] the reveal.

DB: What’s great is the music for certain parts of those types of shows, like the reveal, can be pretty much the same from show to show, or very similar. There’s that big heart-warming moment where everybody’s crying – ‘Oh my God, look what they did for me.’

BC: And you want to brand that moment because that’s the moment that makes the show.

Robin Forrest
Norfolk, UK
Main instrument: drums
Length of time in the industry: over 15 years
Select credits: Animal Patrol, Animal Precinct NY, Zoo Days, Extraordinary DNA, Reasonable Fear

How did you initially get into composing for TV, and in particular, factual programs?

A great friend of [an ex-girlfriend] was a producer and I did some music for his short film and his partner heard this and she gave me my first chance on a documentary for Channel 5. It’s the old adage: you get one job, and as long as you don’t do too badly, then you’ll probably get another one.

I must big up my great friend Trevor Showler from Big Blue Sky Films because he probably gave me my first big break [a documentary for Channel 5 called Disaster in the Home]. He’s a guitarist himself, and it’s always handy when you’re talking to a producer who understands music.

What do you look to for inspiration when you’re composing music for something like Animal Planet Heroes: Phoenix?

I’ll sit down and watch the uncut footage and just get a flavor and then it’s just long discussions with the producer, listening to what his vision of the music is. A lot of it is dictated. For Phoenix, [they wanted] ‘hot and dry music.’ There are certain instruments that are synonymous with certain environments. Harp works really well for underwater sequences. It’s a cliché for a good reason. The thing is not necessarily to stay away from clichés, it’s just using them creatively and imaginatively.

To be honest, I go a bit overboard with a lot of these things and it’s probably a bit unnecessary. I really research the area where it’s going to be shot, even to the point of downloading street maps so I can picture the area. I know that sounds completely nerdy.

Can you explain your process for composing for a factual program?

It’s more traditional [in the UK] to write blind, as they say. You get a list of pieces of music that they want, various feels, scenes, whatever. I write visually, so even though I’m writing blind I’ve got a scene running in my head. Even the punctuation marks, the little hits every now and then, will actually be corresponding to the piece of film going on in my head. Often the editors say, ‘How did you know to put that hit there, it worked perfectly,’ and I say, ‘Serendipity, mate.’

I’ve always said music is the other half of the film. You’ve got your pictures but without music it’s just flat. But, equally so, there are plenty of occasions where it’s better not to use music. I know that’s an odd thing for a composer to say, but when you’ve got something going on on-screen that is so poignant, you don’t always need to wave a big flag, just let the scene play out. Silence can create more tension, especially sadness. Bearing in mind my royalties, I wouldn’t promote that too much.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.