Composer Interview: Mark Smythe

Mark Smythe

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

I grew up in Nelson, New Zealand – a small but idyllic coastal town that punches above it’s weight artistically and is officially the sunniest in the country. Got musical chops happening early courtesy of piano teacher Mum and a five-year stint in the cathedral choir (exposure to complex harmonies so young helps me now I’m sure). Spent my teens/twenties pursuing rock stardom (oxymoron in NZ) and dabbling in trance techno, but also studied composition with Jack Body and did some theater composing in Auckland before moving to Australia. Formed a couple of bands there but then got serious about film music. Completed a Grad Dip in Screen Composition (HD) at the Australian Film, Television & Radio School (AFTRS) in 2008 and never looked back. I’ve worked on numerous films/documentaries/media projects with quite varied stories but lately most of my scoring jobs have been orchestral and dramatic. I’ve also written a lot of choral music, with another commission for New Zealand choir Baroque Voices coming up.

Coming from New Zealand, what is your take on the statement “In order to be a successful film composer, you need to live in LA”?

Well. If Peter Jackson used local composers instead of Howard Shore, I’d high-tail it back to ‘Wellywood’ and camp on his Miramar doorstep. However, he’s very much a standalone empire and the reality is that for every extremely rare film composing opportunity in the boutique industries of New Zealand/Australia, there’s hundreds in Hollywood. It’s true that composers can work from any location, but during my few months in LA I’ve realised that meeting in person (and not being a jerk) gets you much further than an email or phone call from the other side of the world.

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

Hardware: Mac Pro, iPad, Focusrite Saffire Pro interface, M-Audio BX-5 monitors, Sennheiser HD380 phones, sE2200a II condenser mic, Casio CDP-120 controller (very basic but GREAT action; better than many fancier controllers); my beautiful blood-red hollow body electric – Yamaha SA503 TVL.

Software: nothing flash – Logic Pro, East West QLSO Gold, Finale, random music mag free sample loops…that’s it! Have a target list of additional libraries but waiting until I’m more settled in LA.

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

My brain? Probably East West Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra – I know it’s not as flash as say Hollywood Strings or LASS, but it gets the job done for all my orchestral mockups. I’ve spent time with some top guys here who use LASS / Albion, so will check them out in future…and definitely need to add to my percussion/synth arsenal. Seems every composer and their dog use Omnisphere and Stylus RMX, which I know are great but do we all want to sound the same? Open to alternative suggestions…

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

Daddy’s Little Girl – an award-winning Australian feature directed by Chris Sun. And ‘favorite’ means the sense of achievement and pride for the whole team at the premiere – the process itself was grueling at times…I wrote 84 minutes of music in 5 weeks (including 6 torture scenes) during one of the coldest, wettest Melbourne winters on record. The protagonist goes to some very dark places in the film, so with my acute focus on whatever the character onscreen is feeling, I went there with him at times. But from start to finish the project felt like a big deal. I had the luxury of reading the script pre-shoot and sent a few sketches to Chris, one of which became the main theme for Daddy’s Little Girl. I got to work closely with the editor who really knew his musical language, so I had minimal temp score to deal with. There were a few all-nighters towards delivery deadline but the magnitude of the job stretched me in good ways.

Talk us through Daddy’s Little Girl – Official Trailer. What was your writing process, how did you mix it etc.?

I really enjoyed scoring the DLG trailer because I got to combine some of my favorite elements: delicate piano, relentless choppy strings, chunky percussion and haunting choir. Most of the piano is the original sketch that became DLG’s main theme – the editor temped it in so well at the start that I left it there; added a second piano part and celeste. I had the string parts in my head and realised they’d fit sections of my choral piece ‘Umbra Animae’, which happened to be in the same key. Once I had the timing and placement right I played in the strings, taiko and low brass ‘au naturale’. Applied some EQ to the strings, mix-enhancing compression and limiting to the whole session and there you go. Very tight turnaround but Chris (who had no idea what was coming after the piano) was ecstatic. The trailer hit 20,000 YouTube views in 3 days.

What are your favorite musician/composer websites?

http://www.filmmusicmag.com
http://www.filmscoremonthly.com
http://www.scorecastonline.com
http://www.filmandgamecomposers.com
http://theaudiospotlight.com

What’s your definition of success?

Making a living from what you love doing. It can be a hard road, but totally worth it. If you haven’t already, check out this article by James Rhodes:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/musicblog/2013/apr/26/james-rhodes-blog-find-what-you-love

How do you stay fresh as a composer?

This was difficult in Australia, because the film composer community is so small and in Melbourne at least there are very few events that bring them together. In stark contrast, here in LA I’ve been to a workshop/seminar/lab just about every week and always get a boost from it. I take notice of current film and TV scores obviously. I also have a mentor here – Jeff Cardoni (CSI:Miami /Wilfred), who I catch up with frequently to chew the fat on industry stuff and composing/production techniques.

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

On Netflix!? The quality of TV shows such as House of Cards and Game of Thrones is giving composers the opportunity to score cinematically for the small screen, and I think this will become more widespread. People will always want the big movie treat, but the convenience of downloading (legally or otherwise) will keep the benchmark high – and hats off to Netflix & HBO for giving the big networks/studios a run for their money. Games will continue to thrive. Apple will release a Mac Pro that looks like a Dalek.

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

Don’t expect a small job market to suddenly get bigger. Find a bigger market. Remember that music serves the film, not the other way round.

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

The Mac Pro! All my software’s on it and I can use it to smash a window and escape.

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

On The Track – Karlin & Wright
Orchestration – Walter Piston
The Emerging Film Composer – Richard Bellis

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.

Film and Game Composers

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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