When he’s not busy teaching at Collarts, Al Harding is one of Australia’s most sought after, fast working and versatile composers for film and television.
His most recent project saw him taking on the superhuman feat of writing 74 pieces of music in just 6 weeks for the score of the ABC two part documentary Howard on Menzies. We had to know how this was humanly possible, so Collarts’ Yama Indra sat down with Al to talk through how he approached this project and how to get started in composing music for television and film.
Howard on Menzies screens on the ABC this month in two parts across Sunday the 18th of September at 7:40pm and the following Sunday at 7:40pm – take a listen to some of Al’s score in the trailer below.
So how did this job scoring the “Howard on Menzies” documentary come about?
I’ve known of Simon Nasht (the co-producer) over the years as a writer and through his work with Foreign Correspondent. Simon has almost always used Mick Harvey (The Bad Seeds) for soundtracks in the past, but this one wasn’t quite right for his style – it needed to be more semi-orchestral. Luckily my mate Michael Letho was onboard as the engineer and said to Simon Nasht “I’m telling you, you’ve got to get Al on this” so Simon decided to try me out.
As a demo brief, they sent through the opening titles plus the first scene (two and a half minutes) and had me come up with something for it. Simon came back and said “it’s exactly what I’ve been looking for, go for it!” so at that point I’d landed the job. It’s been one of the most satisfying jobs I’ve worked on – 74 pieces of music in 6 weeks, but it was enjoyable in the sense that Simon trusted me, which is such a massive thing.
Working with Simon was great because he had a clear vision, gave me a clear brief and was always decisive about what I showed him. Almost everything I submitted to Simon, he’d come back and say “I like what you’re doing, keep giving me more of that”. When you’re lucky enough to get that kind of feedback it really opens up your creativity and makes the work so much easier – especially when you’re on a tight timeline. In the end, of the seventy-four pieces I only had to redo three. Whilst it was hard and I was often working until 10 or 11pm at night, it was enjoyable because of how well things gelled between the director, myself and the final product (the film).
What kind of preparation, planning or pre-production do you do before commencing a project like this?
For a job this size, I usually do around two days pre-production before I start writing, plus a “spotting” session with the director/producer – so it’s around three days of preparation and planning altogether.
At first we did a six and a half hour “spotting” session together with Simon Nasht (the film’s co-producer). This is essentially a briefing session with the director in which you go through the footage together and the director communicates all of their existing ideas around how each moment or scene should feel and what type of music or sound design they had in mind. Essentially, the director will pause the video every few minutes and say something like “ok this is at 2:35 (timecode) when Sir Robert Menzies walks into Kirribilli house – I think we need a general swell there and then when the narrator says he handed in his resignation we need some kind of impactful sound etc.”.
I also do a lot of pre-production before commencing. I try to set out the sound palette (i.e. this strings sound, the piano sound, these other orchestral elements, etc.) and the tools (plugins, hardware, instruments) that I think I need for the particular job. Then I’ll set up templates in Logic Pro with everything I’ve planned for my sound palette, in there ready to go. It can be quite time consuming, but really worthwhile. I do still keep the planning broad though – it’s more about “these are the sounds I think I’ll use primarily throughout the film”, rather than getting too specific about what will be in any exact musical track.
Committing to a sound palette isn’t just about getting the right instruments, it also saves you heaps of time throughout the project. If you’ve got a few consistent sound palettes across 74 piece of music, then when it comes to mixing everything it means your mix doesn’t have to change too much from piece to piece. Also nowadays plugins like Spectrasonics Omnisphere has thousands upon thousands of patches and sounds, and I know there might be a hundred sounds that are similar to the string sound I like, but committing to using just a handful of string sounds keeps me from spending too much time browsing.
What are the best ways to get started in composing music for film and television?
Buddy Up – One of the best ways is to find a friend that’s in film school or is starting out in film and get involved with writing music for their projects. This helps not just to build up some material for your portfolio, but more so, it gets you connecting with a network of people that are starting out in the industry.
Network & Promote – Connecting through social networks and online groups of other musicians and creative types can help you meet the right people and build relationships. Also you’ve got to share your projects and music with your social networks so that people become aware that you’re doing that type of work.
Listen, analyse and study your references – If you’re starting out, make sure you spend lots of time listening to and analysing the music you want to be able to understand and create. If you like a piece of music you should try to work out what they’re doing – the key, chord progressions, the sound palette, the textures, etc. Not only does this add those ideas to your own repertoire, you’ll often find yourself getting inspired in the process and coming up with a great idea you can make your own.
When you’re watching a movie or Netflix, ensure you’re aware of the music so that when you hear something interesting happen – like the music changes the mood of what is happening, stop and try and work out how they’ve done that. You’ll find lots of tricks (and cliches) just by analysing other people’s work – eg. when there’s a scene change or mood change they’ll often go up or down in key by a minor third, or a cheesy happy scene will often focus around a major 9th sharp 11th chord – there’s so many cliche but effective techniques you’ll discover just by listening intently.
Don’t stop learning – Keep yourself curious and If you’re having trouble understanding something, don’t avoid it – try immersing yourself in it and studying it until you do get it. I had a student recently saying they were having a lot of trouble hearing Major 7th chords, so I sent them off to listen to “By Fire” by Hiatus Koyote because every single chord in that song is a Major 7th. Now that student not only recognises Major 7ths really easily, they’re using them non-stop in their own songs.
Howard on Menzies screens on the ABC this month in two parts on Sunday the 18th of September at 7:40pm and the following Sunday again at 7:40pm.