Field Notes Interview #94: Brian Vickers, Music Supervisor
First impressions are important. So what do you do when you have three minutes or less to convince an audience to see your film? Music supervisor, Brian Vickers, is no stranger to this challenge. Working at LA-based agency, Trailer Park, Vickers places music alongside movie previews, often distilling the most important emotions of entire films down for maximum viewer impact. Over the last 10 years, Vickers has worked as a supervisor on film, TV and blockbuster trailers -- like Mad Max: Fury Road or this year's Suicide Squad -- all the while honing his skills to deftly choose songs with the best arc, mood and emotion.
We got the chance to chat with Vickers about how he broke into the industry, the way music can influence the perception of a film, and the importance of making a memorable impression. Enjoy.
How did you get into music supervision? Tell us your story.
Brian Vickers: Growing up, I'd always really loved music. My mom grew up singing and my dad was in the marching band, so there was always a lot of music played. But… I also watched a ton of TV. It wasn't until watching “The Bernie Mac Show” that I realized the actual title of a music supervisor. So at the time, I'd just do some basic research as to how I could get into something like that.
After finishing school in DC and Orlando, I moved in with my uncle here to LA. I still knew that I wanted to go into music but didn't know where or how. I found out about an internship opportunity with a major production company (Bunim/Murray Productions) that was walking distance from my uncle's house. So I ended up working in the music department as an intern there, and that’s where I learned the ropes. I worked under the music coordinator and music supervisors and really got a chance to learn and grow there. Eventually, they brought me on as a music coordinator as well, and before I left, I got my first music supervisor credit with them.
Were you always interested in supervising of scoring music for trailers, or did that come as your experience evolved?
BV: As a kid, I think that one of the coolest things about a big movie was the music. The hero themes made me want to be the hero, and the heavy tension stuff made me act out the fight scenes in the big blockbusters. So yeah, the interest was always there. It just made sense once I actually saw it in the job descriptions for a bunch of the jobs I ended up applying for (before I got to where I now am!)
How do you think supervising trailers differs from full-length film?
BV: Supervising trailers is pretty different from doing full-length features because we only get about two minutes, 30 seconds to grab your full attention and make you want to see [insert movie title]. So we have to have things that are dynamic, build anticipation, and really ramp up the emotion (whether that's happiness, anger, fear, sadness, comedy or whatever else). Also, the music has to really give a solid "overall" sound and feel for what we wanna do with the movie.
Meanwhile, a full-length feature film has a lot more liberties because it can take its time and be patient to tell the story. But before the film can do that, it's our job to get you there to see it!
How do you feel music can alter a viewer’s perception of and/or desire to see the film your trailer is promoting? How have you seen this done well?
BV: The music is one of the most important aspects because its job is to actually drive the perception of the film. Think about it… the deep, dark, scary-sounding song is gonna give you the chills long before you even see a ghost or villain on stage. And if you hear that nice, light and upbeat song, that'll either let you know "hey, this might be a hopeful movie," or "hey, this might win an Oscar or something." So yes, the music definitely dictates how the movie is being sold -- whether it's gonna be a comedy, drama, horror or anything else.
I really liked the way the music was used in (our own) trailer for Suicide Squad. We used a trailerized version of the song "I Started A Joke" by The Bee Gees because, the joker… he's nuts and he tells jokes. He's the villain in it. Also, I really loved the intensity of the music in the trailers of both The Revenant and Whiplash. Both were relatively building, had some strong tension and showed the movies as fiercely intense. Loved them.
What do you tend to see licensed more often in trailers, songs with vocals or instrumental-only? Do other variables affect this (i.e., genre of film, audience, etc.)?
BV: More instrumental stuff gets used… because (of course) you want to hear the dialogue taking place, or whatever the voice-over is that's driving the trailer. So I usually tell folks that submit to include instrumentals for any vocal versions because instrumentals make it easier to hear about what we're selling… the movie. There are also instances where the vocals drive the tone of the trailer, but even then, the instrumental is recommended because if there's a cool part of the song that the editor feels might be a bit better, at least it gives them the versatility to make it it happen. But a good vocal will tell the story, whereas a good instrumental will set the tone. Both are needed but… it's more important -- for trailers -- to hear what the movie is about through its dialogue, voice over, etc.
Do you think song recognition is more or less important than the mood in trailers vs. film? If so, why do you think that is?
BV: This is a tough one, and a lot to break down. I would say the mood is more important when it comes to trailers. In film, the mood can often change because, as I mentioned earlier, there's enough time in a complete story to go through a myriad of emotions and feelings. In a trailer, not much time, so setting the tone and making it memorable is very important. Also, there are many instances where folks won't know the song, but they'll remember how a trailer made them feel. That's what's important -- when folks remember how the tone of a trailer made them feel about the movie itself. We love our feelings, right?
Have you ever seen a song used in the trailer influence the music used in the film? Or is it generally the other way around?
BV: It's a case-by-case basis… depends on the film director and the liberties they're willing to take. Usually, there's a direction that's in place from the marketing team, but there are also instances where music from the trailer makes it to the film. When we did our trailer for Mad Max: Fury Road, one of the songs used in the trailer ended up getting used in the film. That's not a common situation, but it does happen.
What do you find challenging about scoring movie trailers? How do you overcome, as well as learn from these challenges?
BV: Souping music trailers is challenging because of how incredibly subjective it is. There are often times where we KNOW a song will work for a trailer, but the editors, producers, or even the client may see otherwise. So it gets pretty tough when it comes to dealing with (and understanding) the tastes of those that you work with, but the challenge is really balancing what fits their tastes with what we just know (for SURE, for sure) what would work. And yeah… always fun when we have to binge out on certain styles to get the right sound… so hours upon hours of horror music or sad, sobby, "make you cry" music can be a bit rough at times as well. But… it comes with the territory!
How does the briefing process for trailers differ from full-length film and TV? Do you think this allows for more/less creative freedom?
BV: I'd say that budget plays into the briefing process… for everything. When we're going through how we want the trailer to sound (music-wise), the first thing that we usually ask them is about the budget. This is because the stuff that we end up searching for usually depends on how much our clients are willing to pay for music. If the budget is bigger, then naturally, it allows us to be more creative. But when budgets are smaller and we're a bit limited, it can certainly change the overview of what we're doing. And that's usually the case whether it's trailers, TV, film, or anything else. But of course, everyone wants a big-budget sound no matter what their budget is, but it's all a matter of direction. And either way, we have to do our best to make the music be one of the big factors in getting folks to see our client's project.
Any advice for those looking to get into a career in music supervision for movie trailers?
For the creators (composers, producers, etc.)
- I always recommend that folks understand their strengths and weaknesses. If you know you're great in EDM, but you're not that great in hip-hop, then work more on EDM. Go with what you know.
- Quality is FAR more important than quantity. I'm not a fan of 30 songs if 28 of them are just fillers. Quality is key.
- For trailers, pacing is very important. All of your songs should have some sort of "arc"… meaning that if they start one way, they should all build and build and BUILD as they get near the end. That arc is very important.
- Give a listen to some of the music libraries that are out there. Take a listen to the quality of your stuff and compare it to theirs. Also, have a solid understanding of the "emotion" or "mood" of your cues. If your cue is a fun, upbeat cue, don't name it "sad party." And don't give it a wack, general name like "Fun General Song." Gimmie SOMETHING cool, team.
For the music supervisors.
- Listen to everything, learn everything, love everything. No matter what your preference is, get good at knowing and understanding what's hot and what's not.
- Figure out what makes movie orchestral cues so different, and have an understanding of composers -- know your James Newton Howards, Hans Zimmers and Junkie XLs of the world. Go ahead and just give a listen to some stuff.
- Learn how to organize your music. Folks work at lightning speed, so have a way to grab and listen to everything in a hurry. Organization is everything.
- Have fun… and whatever you do, don't suck. And if you do your absolute best, you won't suck.