The Faces  Behind the Music

The Faces Behind the Music

For folks used to toiling behind the scenes, the impromptu portrait studio and group interview set-up in the common area of Bleeding Fingers amused the group of composers, who sized up the novelty with one another in a symphony of accents. They landed at the Los Angeles music scoring company from seven countries, sporting backgrounds ranging from formal orchestral composition to electronic dance music. While accomplished as individual artists, their combination of talents is the secret to the firm’s success on pedigree shows such as “Blue Planet II,” “Planet Earth II,” “The Simpsons” and most National Geographic fare. Join them in a roundtable talk, moderated by Susan Karlin. Illustrations by Nikkolas Smith, based on photographs by Ryan Forbes.

Text: Nikkolas Smith, Illustrations: Nikkolas Smith, Photographs: Ryan Forbes

Do you need to master an instrument 
to be a composer?

Andrew: To be honest, I’ve never really mastered any instrument because I’ve always wanted to do everything. I use my production software as an instrument. 

Austin: I agree. Piano is what I trained on the most, but the computer really is an instrument in itself. It’s such a deep black hole of details and learning how to produce music from scratch is a life-long process. I think all of us would pretty much agree that the computer’s our primary instrument as a composer. 

Josh: I come from more of an electronic music world, being more of a soundscape kind of textual artist. Before I started here four years ago, I didn’t know anything about orchestral music, not even what staccato was. I’ve learned a lot from these guys though, and now I’m able to do some orchestral stuff. 

What are some of your creative processes and influences, and how you go about tackling a score?

Austin: First, I’ll ask what story we are telling. A lot of what comes through melody, for me, is deciding the voice of the music – is it sad, hopeful or inspiring? I have an upright piano in my studio. I’ll sit down there to get away from the computer for a moment, to have a more reactive primal experience with it, rather than being stuck behind ones and zeros on screens. I try to find some theme that speaks to me outside the vacuum of technology and get it into the real world. From there, it will expand to pacing and setting: Where is this story taking place? How big is this story? Is it one person or a whole nation that’s experiencing this? And that plays to my instrument choices. 

Andrew: It’s project-specific. I’m currently the primary composer for “The Simpsons.” For a lot of that, the creative process is: you don’t have time to think, so you just do it. If I’m pitching or developing themes for something more expansive, I’m a bit of a traditionalist. I come up with the main melodic ideas and basic orchestration and let it flow. 
Denise: My background is marketing, having studied management in college. So I always think of the big idea first and that’s how I write my music as well, whether big rhythms or melodies. Sometimes I start listening to music I like and get inspired by that. You just have to play different sounds and figure out what sticks and what doesn’t. Sometimes the first sound I come up with doesn’t even end up in the track. 

Christian: I have an upright piano at home, so try to plunk around for a melody first thing in the morning. Usually the best idea comes out when nothing is really functioning in my brain except for what I’m doing at the moment. 

Anže: I studied classical composition before film music. As a concert music composer, you’re your own boss and dictate what you’re going to write. As a film music composer, the picture and story line dictate what you’re going to write. If you’re commissioned to write a concert, you have time to think about what you’re going to write. The process can be weeks, months or even a year before you actually write the first note. Here, we’re in a very fast-paced business. I always go with my first bad idea – the first melody, the first chord that I get in my head. I never go back and delete, until the revision.

What are the time frames for projects? How many days do you work?

Jacob: At the inception of Bleeding Fingers, I was working probably 12 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s changed with fatherhood. Now I work seven days a week, but I go home for dinner. If I have to come back I might work through the night, but I’m a lot more protective of making sure I have time with my family. This media stuff works at breakneck speed. Even if you think you have three months to work on something, you actually get maybe one month to work on the first episode and two days on the last. You’re like, Oh, I have all this time! But you’re tricking yourself into thinking that everything is going to be evenly split up. I’ve never had a project where they’ve handed me the schedule and that’s been the schedule. Without fail. Seriously, without fail.

Andrew: What this does, it creates discipline. Every day, we have to come in, even when you might not feel like it. We have to create that skill and discipline of producing everyday and creating something good. And that’s a skill. 

What are some examples of unusual pairings that resulted in inventive compositions?

Austin: Two examples come to mind. The first was with Adam Schiff, when we worked on an episode of “The Simpsons,” which stands out as the most fun I’ve ever had on a Bleeding Fingers project. It was difficult, but we laughed for an entire week – shooting back cheesy dad jokes left and right. The match-up was interesting – I’m from a small town in Tennessee and Adam’s from South Africa, we come from very different backgrounds. I was doing this orchestral thing and drawing from the sounds of “Scooby Doo.” Adam had this funky guitar ’70s thing going.

Another time was with Andrew Christie on “Symphony for Our World” [a touring symphony of Bleeding Fingers music and National Geographic photography], which was split up by different environments – oceans, land, sea and air. When we got all the different movements then we had to decide which immediately inspired each of us: I wanted the oceans and Andrew grabbed the land.

Andrew: Our backgrounds – he’s American, I’m Australian – have a lot in common: wide, open spaces. We brought that to the forefront in our own unique ways. 

Laurentia: I had one project where we struggled a lot trying to find the right sound for the episode. I experimented with different versions of the same cue, and ended up doing things I’ve never done before, which expanded my sound palette and approach. When the client’s demand is for something different, you’re forced to think out of the box and search for new tools. It’s like reading between the lines. This has taught me how to find balance between presenting something unusual and offbeat sonically while tapping into familiar and expected emotions, so the music doesn’t take away from the storytelling experience.

How does collaborating help improve your game and push you to try new things?

Adam: With a lot expected of you, you push yourself. But you don’t feel like you’re pushing yourself in a vacuum. There’s a support system here, so you can go next door to the orchestral genius and ask, “Do these cellos work over here? Or should I do something like this?” and that piece of advice will be forthcoming. 

Jacob: I was working on the family theme for “Blue Planet,” which I thought was finished. Jasha Klebe heard it and said, “This is great, but it’s missing depth; take everything that was going with the chords, put it on a long strings patch, and mix it throughout the piece,” he told me. This advice, which added scale and scope I didn’t even know was there, made me realize I had a lyrical voice. 

What about when no one knows what to do with a project?

Adam: Sometimes actually, you get very interesting results when you put people outside their comfort zones. Then they will write something no one particularly thought of doing for that project. When [Netflix’s] “The Package” came in, we had no idea what to do style-wise. It was a romantic comedy but … how do you put this politely … a rather raunchy teen comedy! Russell thought I was perfect for that (laughs). I mean, it was a bit of a stretch and they weren’t sure what they needed either. This is a classic case of “collaborate to innovate” – when there’s a ton of experimentation with the team here and lots of input from the client – and the “no idea” turns into the “big idea.”

Austin Fray

AUSTIN FRAY

Hometown: Knoxville, TN
Training: Middle Tennessee State University (audio engineering) 
Instrument: Piano and synthesizer
Credits:  Sony’s The Parts You Lose; BBC’s Big Cats; NatGeo’s Symphony for Our World, Savage Kingdom; A&E Networks’ Intervention: The Heroin Triangle; MTV’s Fear Factor; Wevr / Dreamscape’s theBlu: Deep Rescue (VR)

Andrew Christie

ANDREW CHRISTIE

Hometown: Melbourne, Australia
Training: Box Hill Institute (music composition)
Instrument: Cubase music creation software
Credits: Fox’s The Simpsons; NatGeo’s Symphony for Our World, The Flood; Discovery’s Alaskan Bush People

JOSH ATCHLEY

JOSH ATCHLEY

Hometown: Little Rock, AK
Training: Self-trained
Instrument: Guitar
Credits: Sony/Columbia Pictures’ Superfly; NBC’s Little Big Shots (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) Award); A&E Network’s Live PD

DENISE SANTOS

DENISE SANTOS

Hometown: Manila, Philippines 
Training: UCLA (film scoring), independent study (classical and jazz piano), played in pop, rock and alternative bands, arranged music for artists and scored features in the Philippines
Instrument: Piano and guitar
Credits: NatGeo’s Deepwater Horizon, In Their Own Words, Savage Kingdom 3, Origins: The Journey of Humankind; Netflix’s Dope; Discovery’s Alaskan Bush People

Christian Lundberg

CHRISTIAN LUNDBERG

Hometown: Helsingborg, Sweden
Training: Musicians Institute (guitar), UCLA (recording engineering)
Instrument: Anything with strings; composes mainly on piano 
Credits: UGC’s Gaston Lagaffe; Crackle’s Snatch; PBS’s The West; Amazon’s American Playboy; Discovery’s Alaskan Bush People, Killing Fields; NatGeo’s Danger Decoded, Drugs, Inc, Yellowstone Live; AMC’s The Making of the Mob; Netflix’s Dope; Fox’s Bones; Showtime’s Pariah; NBC/Universal’s Eleven Eleven (VR)

JACOB SHEA

JACOB SHEA

Hometown: San Jose, CA
Training: UC, Santa Barbara (music composition)
Instrument: Guitar
Credits:  BBC’s Planet Earth II (Emmy, BAFTA, IFMCA Awards nominations), Blue Planet II (IFMCA, Jerry Goldsmith Awards nominations); Sky Germany’s Pagan Peak; Universal’s Lone Survivor, Battleship; Village Roadshow’s Gangster Squad; Paramount/DreamWorks’ Transformers; Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean; Discovery’s Mountain Men, Alaskan Bush People (four BMI awards)

Christian Lundberg

ANŽE ROZMAN

Hometown: Ljubljana, Slovenia
Training: Berklee College of Music Valencia (film, TV and video games scoring), University of Ljubljana/Academy of Music Ljubljana (composition and music theory) 
Instrument: Piano, cello and computer  
Credits: CBS’s The World’s Best; Spirit Bear Entertainment Ltd.’s Great Bear Rainforest IMAX; Sky’s Big Beasts: The Last of the Giants; PBS’s Dogs in the Land of Lions, World’s Fastest Animal; Netflix’s Roman Empire: Reign of Blood; Dreamscape’s The Magic Projector (VR); PBS’s Dogs in the Land of Lions, World’s Fastest Animal; BBC’s Earth

LAURENTIA EDITHA

LAURENTIA EDITHA

Hometown: Surabaya, Indonesia
Training: Berklee College of Music
Instrument: Piano

ADAM SCHIFF

ADAM SCHIFF

Hometown: Johannesburg, South Africa
Training : Self-taught
Instrument: Keyboards
Credits:  Netflix’s The Package; ABC’s The $100,000 Pyramid; Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer; Discovery’s Alaskan Bush People; CNN’s Chasing Life

About the author

Ray Bennet

Nikkolas Smith grew up in Houston, Texas, passionate about art and music. Age 11, “The Lion King” made its debut and became his favourite animated film. That year he picked up an instrument for the first time and joined the middle school band. However, his passion for art and design led him to study at architecture school, and ultimately this led to Los Angeles, California, designing theme parks as an imagineer. Nikkolas now works in Hollywood as a film illustrator, designer of movie posters (e.g. Marvel’s “Black Panther,” by Lionsgate films) and children’s book author. His recent books are “The Golden Girls of Rio” and “My Hair is Poofy & That’s Okay.” His work has featured in TIME Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, Buzzfeed, Vogue, GQ and in many other publications. His latest book, “Sunday Sketch: The Art of Nikkolas,” is a collection of over 100 sketches he has created in the last five years. 

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