Composer Interview: Elliott Wheeler

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where do you come from and what do you do?

I’m a film composer and producer from Sydney, Australia. I studied classical composition and jazz at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and have been working in film, TV and theatre for most of my adult life. I work from a wonderful studio in Surry Hills in Sydney with a great team of beings. I play basketball badly on Sundays.

You worked on The Great Gatsby as an arranger and provided additional music. How did this come about, and what exactly did it entail?

It came about after having worked with Baz [Lurman] and his music supervisor, Anton Monsted, on an earlier project, and I happened to run into Anton again at the airport in LA as he was beginning post production on Gatsby. I now have a soft spot for airport taxi ranks.

The official role was Arranger and Additional Music Production, as well as some original score for the film. My role ended up having a couple of main focuses. Baz, Jay Z and Anton had assembled an incredible range of artists who were contributing music to the film, and a lot of what of I was doing was helping Baz to bring all of those disparate voices together to make them form a single voice that would serve the story. Baz has such an incredible knowledge and feel for music, a lot of what I did was just facilitating how he saw all of the various voices melding together and bringing that to fruition.

The other main focus was bringing to life another of Baz’s visions, which was to allow a contemporary audience to appreciate what it would have been like for the characters in Fitzgerald’s time to experience the type of extravagance and grandeur that Gatsby was offering, whilst still reminding the audience of the period in which the drama takes place. So we got to do a lot of arrangements of the work of contemporary artists, doing a 1920′s foxtrot version of the Lana del Ray song, working with Bryan Ferry and his Jazz orchestra to realise a period specific version of Back to Black or one of Craig Armstrong’s gorgeous original themes for the film. There were score elements and arrangements for the Jaz Z tracks, jazz elements for Will.i.am, strings for Florence + the Machine, orchestration over Jack White’s “Love is Blindness”. It was basically whatever needed doing to allow to achieve the weave of eras and score that would make the story sing. It was an amazing musical experience.

You’re currently due to release a new album called “The Long Time”. Tell us a bit about the album and who your inspirations were.

Each piece on the album was inspired by a scene from one of my favourite films of the 60′s or 70′s. I love that era of cinema and I found incredible inspiration from that particular time in cinema making. There were scenes from Bonny and Clyde, the Conversation, the Sting, Chinatown, and a bunch of others. I’d usually find some moment, a line, a sentiment that had been captured, and use that as a starting point to journey from musically.

Musically, there are always so many influences. For this particular album I’d say Jerry Goldsmith, Richard Evans, Portis Head, the Muppets. Joplin, Morricone, Miles.

Many composers argue that in order to be “successful” nowadays, you need to be in LA. Coming from Sydney, do you agree with this, or do you think its better to focus on the opportunities in your own country?

Really, I don’t know. There are arguments for both. Having been in LA, it is true that just being in town can lead to opportunities because you are just there when stuff is happening and things pop up that don’t if you’re on the other side of the world. That said, everyone seems to be in LA, and that means you’re fighting for every meeting and possibility. I’m a big believer in just doing the best work that you can on every project. That way you can die knowing you wouldn’t have done it differently if you’d had more time/money/opportunity. And the people you work with get it, and they tell the next people they work with, and that’s how you get work. You can spend your life hustling for the next meeting, the next big showreel fanfare. It doesn’t mean a thing if you haven’t blown the last person you worked with away with what you’ve done. Let other people talk about you if the work’s there. And if it’s not, work harder. Much better to put your time into that than networking.

And move to LA.

Elliot

What does your studio currently consist of hardware/software wise?

We’ve got a few mirrored systems so we can be working between rooms on projects and know stuff will sound the same no matter where we open them. We’re lucky enough to have some beautiful live spaces to record in, so there’s a bunch of nice analogue gear, mics, pres, etc. The mics that probably get the most use are some Neumann 47s, a tube and fet version, an AKG C12, and an bunch of old and re-issue ribbon mics. The Coles 4038‘s get a good work out. We love the aurora pres and have a bunch of them, some api’s, chandlers, a bunch of distressors, some original Urei 76′s, LA-2a’s, a beautiful AWA 2G58250 mono compressor that is just golden, and a bunch of vintage spring reverbs and echo chambers. We’re very lucky with our gear set up, we can cover a lot of sounds. I compose mainly in Logic, but use Tools for a lot of editing and running picture lock as a slave to Logic until they get their external picture functionality going again.

Whats your favorite software right now and what software are you looking forward to most in the future?

As above, Logic still does it for me for actually composing, as the way it handles instruments still seems to be the best. But more and more I edit in Tools, and especially on a project like The Great Gatsby where you’re working so closely with music editorial and the mix stage, you have to operating in Tools. In the future? One system to rule them all so you can actually compose in Tools and be able to use all the 3rd party plugins without it falling over, or being able to work to picture in Logic at a professional standard.

What was your favorite project to have worked on so far?

Gatsby was amazing. It’s rare in your professional life to be able to work with so many incredible artists with that strong a vision driving it. And the team behind it were just the loveliest people you could hope to spend that much time with.

What do you do in between projects when you don’t currently have something to work on?

Back up. Travel. Try to get fit. Play piano. See my loved ones.

What’s your definition of success?

Being able to do the kind of work you want to be doing at a level that constantly pushes itself, with people you want to be around who feed your life. That and being able to look after and provide for the people you love, and make them a part of what you’re doing.

How do you stay fresh as a composer?

By working with new people, listening, and remember to play just for yourself. And trying to make it interesting for yourself each time you doing something. You can always find something new to play with each time you write. Otherwise you’re just illustrating.

Where do you see the scoring (film/game/tv) industry in 5-10 years time?

Healthy. The industry has been in a state of flux since people first put music to pictures. It won’t be the same as it is now, but people always respond to music, it’s just a part of us. If the business model changes, people will work out how to make it work. They’ve just got to be smart and good at what they do. The end isn’t nigh. And if it is, what’s the point of worrying? No one’s going to care about a soundtrack if the world is ending.

What advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time to when you were originally starting off?

Don’t stay at the studio if you’re just procrastinating.

Your studio is on fire and you only have time to grab one thing – what do you take?

My archives. You can replace everything else.

Can you recommend any useful books on composition/mastering/business etc. that you’ve read and enjoyed?

Um, not heaps, no. I’ve learnt most of what I know on the job, which sounds facile but is true. Coming Through Slaughter, a novel by Michael Ondaatje. It doesn’t have a lot to with mastering or business, but is a beautiful composition about trumpeter Buddy Bolden, written in the style of a jazz improvisation. It’s as useful as any other book about music, and will fill you up.

 

Written by: Emmett Cooke

Emmett Cooke is an Irish composer for film, tv and video games. His music has been used around the world by high profile companies including Sony Playstation, Ralph Lauren, ABC, CBS, NBC, Lockheed Martin and many more.

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www.FilmandGameComposers.com offers a wide range of interviews, reviews, guides and tutorials for composers and musicians who are interested in writing music for film, TV and video games.

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