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February 1, 2021

Oliver Schnee: Thoughts from a young film/TV composer


First off, allow me to say that it is a great pleasure to be here, and that I appreciate and respect Puremix because I believe that there is always more room to grow, learn, and get better at my craft. I never want to plateau. In no way am I someone who claims they've "got it all figured out". I checked my ego at the door years ago, watching brilliantly talented people lose their gigs because they were egomaniacal jerks (to put it mildly). That said, I might have a few words of wisdom to share with any composers/songwriters/record producers dealing with orchestras, string players, horn players, directors, producers, engineers/mixers and more, both in the film and record industries (of course some of this wisdom was learned by making mistakes, both my own and from others). If you're interested in film/tv composition as well as arranging strings/horns for records, I hope you'll enjoy these words written by a quarter-Jew-Native American dork from the San Fernando Valley who loves Henry's Tacos (bonus points if you know the joint!). Okay, here we go with the article.

Who Is This Guy?

This is where I struggle - I absolutely hate talking about myself, it just plain feels yucky to me. Maybe it's because I grew up in the studio business witnessing some of the worst egomaniacs on Earth. Maybe it's my Jewish blood, or maybe it's because instead of looking at my past achievements to get a quick ego boost, I choose to look forward towards the next project, simultaneously looking up to my role models and their career paths. However for the sake of giving readers some sort of context as to who is writing this article, I will now vomit out a little bit of my background. To be sure, the name of the game in this business is to stay busy and connected. That requires doing a lot of projects even if they don't see the light of day. Even if a project doesn't have a big name attached, there is always something to be learned in every experience. Some of my best lessons have been learned this way. I have been fortunate enough to have scored a number of feature films and projects with multiple Academy Award winning filmmakers, such as Robert Zemeckis (known for "Forrest Gump", "Back To The Future", "Cast Away"), Dame Helen Mirren (known for "The Queen", "Gosford Park", "Monsters University"), Robert Duvall (known for "The Godfather", "Apocalypse Now", "The Road"), Davis Guggenheim (known for "Training Day", "It Might Get Loud", "An Inconvenient Truth"), and Oscar nominee James Franco (known for "127 Hours", "Spider-Man", "The Disaster Artist"). In addition, I have had the incredible pleasure of scoring numerous projects and films with National Geographic, all of which have been wildly fun and rewarding - a real dream come true for me. In 2018, I was hired to write an album of music for Warner Chappell Production Music, which featured the wonderful Utah Symphony, and has been licensed in numerous films, television shows, and advertisements. A recent highlight in my career was working closely with Academy Award winning filmmaker Chris Buck (known for "Frozen", "Frozen 2", "Surfs Up", "Tarzan") on a powerful and inspiring audiobook. Most recently, I was hired to arrange strings for 13 time Grammy Award winner and Pulitzer Prizer winning artist Kendrick Lamar. As I write this, I'm finishing up a string arrangement for a wonderful artist named Kyd the Band who is on Sony, and we are very excited for our string date this week!

I spent three years with Grammy and Emmy award winning film composer - who's also an eight time Oscar nominee - James Newton Howard (known for The "Dark Knight", "The Hunger Games", "King Kong"). James really took me under his wing and taught me many incredible things about the film scoring industry, composition, collaboration, the psychology behind film scoring, and more. Fast forward to today, and he is not only one of my greatest mentors who I still ask questions and seek advice from, but who has become a close personal friend who somehow always beats me at ping pong (he's got a killer serve). In addition, I have spent time with John Powell and Henry Jackman, two other film composers who are at the top of the game. All three experiences were incredibly insightful, because I saw three film composers doing the same job - but completely differently. This allowed me to form my own way of doing things in the studio: adopting this, leaving that, etc. so that I could become my own composer, making my own decisions and knowing why I'm making those decisions.

Composing Music Professionally

Composing music is so much fun. If you're not having fun, yikes. Yes, of course there are intense demands such as deadlines, revisions, rewrites, budgets, and "difficult" people one must work with. But if you have the privilege of writing music for a living, please don't take it for granted (I promise I'm not trying to sound preachy), and try to remind yourself to be thankful for it. I sure am, and I have bruises on my arms from all the times I've pinched myself.

When it comes to the process of film/tv scoring, there's more than one way to skin a cat. That said, it often starts by meeting with the appropriate people, where we all vet each other to see if we think we'll be a good fit. Then we talk about creative visions and ideas, then onto logistics such as budgets and timelines. The next step is for me to read the script or see a rough cut, and then if all parties agree that we do in fact want to move forward, we will have a spotting session (this is essentially where the composer, director, editor, and producers all sit in a room with the film to discuss which spots need music). More often than not, the editor(s) and the director have cut the film to a temp score. Sadly, there are times when the client gets "demo-itis", which is when they fall in love with the temp score, and no matter how great your cues may be, there's just no pleasing them, because they've lived with the temp score for so long (sometimes months). Anyway, I'll then write the main themes and once they are approved, I try to get going on the Many times, a film composer isn't given a lot of time to write 60 - 100 minutes of music. I think it's very important to be able to work fast - without the quality of the music suffering of course - because you're always being given new information, including updated reels as the days go on (even when they've sent you "picture lock", ha). Plus it takes time to do the revisions that they ask for, when you still haven't written the remaining 45 minutes of music. And then the score still needs to be orchestrated, printed, recorded, and mixed all by a certain deadline to make it to the dubbing stage on time. The process is so dynamic, challenging, and exciting. That said, there definitely are certain parts of the process that aren't as fun or satisfying for me, but are required, and that's just life. For me personally, the pros outweigh the cons tenfold.

To help with the stress and workload, I believe in having a team to work with, such as an assistant, orchestrator(s), a copyist, and of course engineers/mixers. One incredibly talented orchestrator that I have collaborated with on many of my scores is Cody McVey. I cannot recommend him enough, so just hire him already, ok? You can thank me later. Depending on the project and its musical genre, I'll select an engineer that I feel is best suited for that genre. The same goes with which studio I book, and which musicians I hire. I believe it is all about serving the film and the filmmaker's vision; it is their film, after all. If they want the score to sound lo-fi and gritty, I'll tell my engineer this and we'll then discuss the techniques to satisfy my director's vision. If they want something where the music is more clean and traditional, I'll tell that to my engineer/mixer too. There's never too much information. For an engineer/mixer this translates to things such as studio selection, mic placement, gear selection, and mixing techniques/processing.

Film/tv composing is a lot of reading between the lines, translating a client's cerebral vision into musical terms which involve many conversations that often have nothing to do with "have this cue be in a major key and in 4/4". Many directors don't know the language of music, so besides my job of writing the score, I need to first interpret what they're saying as a filmmaker myself. One must be comfortable with this step of the process. In a band, it's more straightforward: "the song is in A major, the tempo is at 115bpm, and we're playing in 6/8" etc. Personally, another reason that I think film scoring is fun is because it creates this additional challenge for me beyond just writing the music (which is hard enough in itself for anyone, especially in the beginning when you're staring at a blank page or blank session on the computer). So even though it's not rocket science, it can still be quite difficult at times. However, the excitement of translating a cerebral idea from a director into the music that they're wanting (that also fits the scene) is just so bloody fulfilling and meaningful to me.

How To Get A Gig

All I can speak for is myself and the journey that I am on, so when someone asks me the "how to get a gig" question, for me there have been a myriad of ways. First, it's what you've probably heard a thousand times: relationships. They could be from one's childhood, college, a friend of a friend, an online posting, etc. A few years ago, I even made a contact with a female music supervisor via a dating app...nothing happened (on both fronts, ha), but still, you never know when or where you'll meet someone who could help get you a gig! The important thing for me is to make the contact, and then keep that contact coming back. Other avenues of getting a project include managers, agents, and music supervisors. One music supervisor could really change your career, like it did for me. Joel Sill (winner of The Guild of Music Supervisor's "Legacy Award", amongst working on countless Oscar winning movies and blockbusters) was that man for me. What I found even more beautiful was that a real friendship grew between us, so it wasn't just film/music talk all the time. Like James, Joel is one of my great mentors and close personal friends to this day. I cannot thank him enough for believing in me and everything that has come from our collaborations.

Lastly, with COVID shutting down Hollywood (for me personally, I had seven projects that were all 'postponed' - aka cancelled - in a matter of 72 hours), what I've been doing to stay creative, busy, and paying my bills are a lot of string/horn arrangements for records. It can be expensive to make an album, but making a film is often even more expensive. I love writing strings/horns for records for so many reasons, a couple of which are that I'm dealing with someone else's song, and second, I have a vocal/lyrics to work with (remember, I am used to writing instrumental music 75% of the time). Some of these gigs have come through avenues such as social media, believe it or not. I don't have a big following on social media, but I will literally reach out to artists I've discovered and pitch myself to them, or sometimes they'll find me and send me a message. Next thing you know, I'm writing and then we're off to the studio to record. Life is crazy. I suppose the bottom line I'm trying to say is that it's crucial to remain open minded and not have an ego. A gig is a gig, and money is money. Not every project is with an Academy Award winner or Grammy winner. To pay for my apartment lease and my recording studio lease, I work on a myriad of projects, some of which aren't "sexy" at all. But you know what is "sexy"? Being able to pay for rent, car insurance, toilet paper, and groceries, all while working in music. At least that's what's "sexy" to me.

Things Composers Look For In Recording Engineers And Mixers

Just as important as the orchestrator, copyist, musicians, and conductor are the recording and mixing engineers. A crucial thing to recognize when working with orchestras - especially larger orchestras - is the importance and power of a great engineer/mixer. In general, I firmly believe that one could have an A-list studio with an expensive Neve/SSL/API console and all the fancy mics/gear imaginable, but if you have a moron behind the board who doesn't know what they're doing, then you'd be better off having a cheap $100 console with crappy mics, and a skilled engineer behind the board who actually knows what they're doing. The end result will be more musical and sonically pleasing. Yes, I have learned this the hard way from my own experience. Sometimes I'll pay more for the right engineer than I do for a fancy studio in this case. When I'm the composer for a film or television show, I get to select my music team. However, when a record producer hires me to orchestrate or arrange for them, I'm forced to use whatever engineer they want. This makes sense, and is totally fair - they're the boss, after all. Speaking of which, there has been a session (or two) where I came into the studio with my arrangements in hand, walked into the live room and was shocked to see not only the mics selected, but also their setup. Again, this was their session, and I'm not in charge, so it's not my job nor is it my position to question their choices. I always try to "stay in my lane".

The Realities Of Orchestral Recording

Here are a few pearls of wisdom I have learned over the years when it comes to being prepared for an orchestral session:

  • Make sure the scores and parts have as much information on them as possible, so you don't waste time having the players ask you questions such as, "What dynamic do you want here?", "What does this mean?", "When do you want the pizz to stop?", etc. Knowing music notation might not be your forte (no pun intended), so simply hire a copyist and work with them to figure out exactly what you're wanting, and then they will label everything beautifully.
  • Have your score printed on double sided paper, so you're not flipping the pages of your score every 4 seconds.
  • Have your scores printed on tabloid (11" X 17"), and have them bound. Go to a Kinkos or any print shop, and they'll do it for a few bucks.
  • Print an extra score for your engineer, because there are some engineers who like to read the music to look for dynamics and sections where certain instruments are featured more heavily ahead of time, so that they're prepared with their fingers on the faders.
  • Have all the parts on the players' music stands in the order in which you'll be recording them.
  • Be courteous and leave a couple sharpened pencils on their music stands (they often bring their own, but there are always players who forget). Again, it's the little things.
  • Arrive early to the studio and obviously have your ProTools sessions prepped beforehand. If it's a 10am downbeat, I like to arrive at 9am.
  • Make sure the bar numbers on your score match up with the bar numbers in ProTools.
  • Don't forget to bring a bloody harddrive.
  • Pay your respects to the players beforehand and after. If you piss them off or offend them, they'll let you know. I'm not saying you need to literally go around the room and greet all 75 players, but make yourself known to them, and thank them for coming.
  • Greet your concertmaster with kindness and humility. If you really want to make a difference, when you're on the conductor's podium right before the session begins (even if you yourself are not conducting), introduce your concertmaster to the room - the orchestra will often applaud for them. Afterward, introduce your engineer as well. Oftentimes, if you have a respected engineer on the date, the players will be extra happy and relieved, knowing that their playing is going to be captured beautifully. Every little thing makes a difference.
  • Lastly, a lesson I learned from my wonderful mother was to always try leaving a room making those in it feel better than they did before you entered. Again, this business is built on relationships. Don't be an ass, there are enough of them in the industry already.

To Hire A Conductor Or Not

A skilled and professional conductor can truly help bring the best out of the musicians, as well as keep the session moving along in a timely manner. In this case, they are invaluable! That said, I personally believe that a conductor is not always necessary for every session involving orchestral players. Most of today's orchestral session players are so comfortable recording to a click/track, that oftentimes a conductor is not needed. So in my humble opinion, there's no need for a conductor when working with a small section, such as a quartet all the way up to say, 11 players, unless there are serious tempo changes, or you're not recording to a click. Quite a few years ago, I was at East West helping someone with their album, and the artist asked me to conduct the strings, to which I replied, "I'm not a professional conductor, and they really don't need one anyway - they're fine recording to the click and the track". Well, it was his session and his music, so he decided to conduct the small section of 6 players himself (did I mention that he had never conducted