As a film composer, you need to start somewhere, and Harry Gregson-Williams happened to start as a composer’s assistant to Hans Zimmer. Now a highly sought-after film composer, orchestrator, and producer in his own right, Gregson-Williams has composed music for more than 100 movie titles, video games, and television shows. His work can be heard in the Metal Gear series, The Chronicles of Narnia, Spy Game, Shrek, Phone Booth, Man on Fire, X-Men, The Martian, and Disney’s live-action version of Mulan.
In this exclusive video series, Gregson-Williams reflects on his career and shares his advice for establishing your own career as a film composer. He shares how he got started in the industry, the advice he has gleaned from working alongside Zimmer, and exactly how he would go about his composition career had he not started out working with a film scoring legend. Hint: he would not go it alone!
1. Film Composing is a Team Sport
In this first video, Gregson-Williams compares film composing to a team sport. He explains that not only do you need to have a collaborative mindset if you want to work in this profession, but you need to enjoy being a team player.
2. Storytelling is Everything
In this next video, Gregson-Williams shares that storytelling is critical to a film composer’s brief. In the film that he is currently working on, he is attempting to convey the feisty, yet sweet qualities of a character, which is difficult when it is not explicitly expressed in the film. Gregson-Williams shares that storytelling through music is all about how you translate a character’s qualities into notes. He also talks about where in a film’s arc he starts his composition process, which is the scene that defines the essence of the main character. Gregson-Williams says that he actually prefers composing for film more than TV because there is more time to tell the story through music.
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3. Every Film Composer Needs a Toolbox
Next, Gregson-Williams stresses the importance of having a strong musical foundation before you pursue film composing. He explains how he learned to read music by the age of seven while he attended boarding school. Gregson-Williams contrasts his experience with Zimmer, who didn’t have formal piano lessons or composition training, and yet is a storytelling genius by means of technology. Although they both come to music composition from different angles, Gregson-Williams’ process was extremely influenced by Zimmer. He says that most importantly, a film composer must be able to translate what’s in their head onto the screen. Ultimately, he combines his musical background with technology to fuse a purist and innovator mentality.
4. Technology is Critical
In this next video, Gregson-Williams explains how sequencer technology helps a music composer share their vision with a director in a realistic manner. He says that before sequencing, a composer would share their music in progress with the director by playing all of the parts on the piano. With sequencing, a film composer is able to demo a film score so that a director can have a very clear idea of what the score is going to sound like when it is recorded live. Knowing how to translate music electronically in its early stages is a skill that modern film composers need to know.
5. Gain Experience
Finally, Gregson-Williams shares how you can start gaining experience as a film composer and practicing your craft. He says you’ll want to look for work in places where you’ll find film directors who are first starting out, like film schools. There, they are usually seeking out a film composer who is looking to gain experience and exposure over a big payday. Ultimately, Gregson-Williams suggests finding a balance in the work that you take on at the start of your career. Don’t aim for a blockbuster film right away, but don’t settle for a 10-second blip on an app: look for something in between.