Considering an education in film scoring?

Every once in a while I have people asking me about my year at USC. (The University of Southern California’s Scoring For Film and Television Program). Usually it’s people considering applying and wondering whether it’s worthwhile. So I figured I’d write a blog entry about it.

The year at USC was no doubt the most expensive, exciting, tiring and physically unhealthy year of my life. I was working pretty much all the time, exercised once, drank too many ice coffees, had lunches at Burger King and slept perhaps 5 hours a night on average. And yet I lost weight.
It was still one of the most educational years I’ve ever had. Perhaps mostly because I felt that we were so much in the middle of the action. We were able to learn from the best as the faculty were people with vast experience from the industry. Some of the instructors were the lovely Jack Smalley, who has orchestrated and written music for shows like “The Dynasty” and “Murder She Wrote” and Christopher Young who has composed music for “Spiderman 3”, “The Grudge” and the Hellraiser films, among numerous other films. Another wonderful resource was orchestrator and conductor Pete Anthony, who has worked on just about any big budget film in Hollywood.

Throughout the year we wrote orchestral pieces that we recorded at Paramount Studios with professional musicians. We each had 15 minutes on the podium to record our piece and afterwards we received the ProTools sessions so that we could mix at home.
One time we rescored the whole film “The Man Who Knew Too Little”, which Chris Young originally scored. We were all assigned a scene which was recorded with a big band. Afterwards we presented the cues to director Jon Amiel and received his feedback. Very exciting and slightly intimidating!
Another cool thing was our weekly visit from a working composer, which I believe I have written about before. For this we had James Newton Howard, John Debney, Marco Beltrami, Don Davis and Teddy Castellucci, to mention a few. We even hoped to get John Williams, but instead we ended up having him at our graduation ceremony where he received an honorary degree. He was the one who gave us our diploma, which was the best way to wrap up the year!

One of my favorite parts was Chris Young’s class. Just being at his studio was inspiring. There are pumpkins and skeletons (he loves Halloween) and santa clauses all over the place. I would hate to be there alone at night. He was so passionate and sincere about his craft and went out of his way to be available to his students. One time we got to watch “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” before he had started scoring. He had just received the film to start working on it and wanted us to see what a film looked like before the music was in place. He was also open to our ideas and thoughts. I have listened to the score later, and as all of his work it was brilliantly and to the bone terrifying. I didn’t watch the film with the music, simply because I was so intensely scared the first time. For me it was hands down the scariest film I’ve ever seen and I didn’t wanna put myself through it again. I have later wondered how the fact that there was no music affected that. Sometimes silence is scarier than anything else.

USC covered a lot of ground – film composition, music technology, music notation and film music history were all part of it. Perhaps surprisingly the actual time spent on writing was very little. It was more about the whole process, from idea, to composing, to preparing for the scoring session (making scores and parts in Finale, preparing click and prelays in Digital Performer and ProTools, practice conducting and so on…), the actual scoring session (my favorite part) and mixing.
We also had classes with composer agent Richard Kraft (whose agency is presenting Danny Elfman and Alexandre Desplat among others) who talked about marketing. He reviewed our demos and talked about the importance of the right choice of music and packaging.

Another cool thing with USC was the opportunity to collaborate with the film students. Right next door to the music school was the USC School of Cinematic Arts. I scored a handful of student films during my year at USC, and had I had more time I would have done more. We had access to a scoring stage on campus as well as student players from the Thornton School of Music, so everything was available. These collaborations were up to us. It wasn’t mandatory to do a student film, but our teachers encouraged us to try to do at least one.

So would I recommend it? If you are serious about film scoring as your career choice I think it’s a great investment. Definitely one of the smartest choices I’ve made. But it is extremely expensive, which makes it important to consider why you would want to do it. Unless you have 100 dollar bills coming out of your ears every 15 minutes you don’t do this “just for fun”. Anyone tempted out there?