Composing music for clients can be a balance of humility and knowing when to speak up. Get to know Zach Marsh and how he manages this seemingly daunting task.
First things first, Zach Marsh has a lot on his plate, and he makes it look easy. Not only is he a full-time composer for clients including VeggieTales, Netflix's Daredevil and Fiat, but he also teaches piano through his YouTube channel (we highly recommend his insane "Coffee Covers" series), and directs an original musical starring children with autism. For him, music lives, breathes and grows and it's critical to grow along with it as it transcends to different mediums.
Marsh's music is beautiful. His cinematic and often grandoise songs, spark an emotional potency in every project. When approaching music as a full-time career, Marsh has developed his life in a diversified way. Whether he's writing music for a TV show, or teaching students, he navigates and cultivates an "emotional intelligence" when collaborating with others. Each project is balance between the natural push and pull between following the vision of the director and imparting your own creative voice into the mix. We chatted with Marsh about his respected career and how he's able to navigate the varied life of a working musician. Enjoy.
Marmoset: What makes a good composer?
Zach Marsh: Good composers are good psychologists because they get into the head of the director and the viewer. Music in media is all about hitting the emotional nail on the head, so composers have to be really psychologically in tune with the story. If you can tell a good story, if you read a lot, and if you can quickly hone in on the emotions of a scene, you’re halfway there. Basically when you’re writing music for TV or film, music is the given. It’s the rest of it — the technology, the business, the relationships, the emotional intelligence — that’s what takes a lot of time to develop.
M: What is your favorite instrument to compose with?
ZM: I started piano and it’s always been my go-to for performing and composing. I write with other instruments like guitar and drums every once in a while, but when I’m working on tight deadlines it’s easier for me to quickly get my ideas down at the keyboard.
M: When starting off in your profession, what instrument would you suggest one learn to play first? Why?
ZM: I’m biased, but I always point people toward the piano. Not only does it give you a really clear visual reference when learning music theory, but it’s also the most common way to input MIDI info into your computer. The better pianist you are, the easier any type of production work will be. It’s like getting good at typing.
M: When and how did you start composing music for Veggie Tales?
ZM: Ironically, most of my best music projects have come from people outside the entertainment industry. I was volunteering at a homeless ministry in Pasadena, where “networking” was the last thing on my mind, and one of the other volunteers mentioned her husband was the composer for Veggie Tales. A few months later I told her if he ever needed help, please let me know, and she said he needed lots of help, please help. So, I started working for him and writing additional music for the show as a ghost writer. All that to say, you never know where you’ll find music projects, so I think getting out there, being really active, and doing a lot of different things (especially if you live in LA because everyone's a filmmaker) is a great way to meet people. Another example: I work out at a gym, I met another composer there, one time he called me because he couldn’t take an orchestration job... fast forward a few months and I’ve done two projects with the theater company he referred me to and I’m now their resident orchestrator. When I started out pursuing a career as a composer professionally, I was looking for any type of road map or path that most people took to become a composer, and now that I’ve been doing this for a while, I’ve realized there’s no one path to making it happen. If you want to be a composer, and you’re resilient, you can make a living at it. It’s also easier than ever to be a full-time composer because we all have access to the same technology. I’ve sat in with some of the biggest composers, and besides maybe some external gear, the majority of the tech they’re using is the same stuff I use in my home studio. Twenty years ago it was a job reserved for the elite, but now it’s more of a working class job: no one’s getting filthy rich, but there are a lot of hard-working people out there providing for their families as full time composers. That’s what’s important to me.
M: How do you feel that composing music for the show shaped your career?
ZM: It’s definitely still shaping my career. Producing music for TV/Film/Web is difficult to learn in the classroom. There are some really great computer music academic programs, but for me, I’ve learned the most from working in the field. Robert Watson, the main composer for Veggie Tales, started out assisting on Pokemon and other animated series from the 90’s, so he’s been working specifically with animation for a long time. Having someone who’s both a veteran of the trade and invested in the quality of my music has helped me a lot. Since I’m ghostwriting for him, he’s always making sure the music I write for him doesn’t suck, so that's pushed me to keep getting better. Aside from writing for the show, just having a household name like Veggie Tales in my portfolio has provided a lot of other writing opportunities for me. One of the catch 22’s of composing is that people won’t give you big projects unless you’ve already done big projects. So working as a ghostwriter in some ways is like a backdoor in to getting those bigger projects. The Veggie Tales reel I sent to Marmoset was also the only music of mine they said they could use, so it also helped me get in there.
M: In your opinion, what role does music play in film?
ZM: When you’re a songwriter or composer for the concert hall, you’re writing music for you. When you’re a composer for film and TV, you’re always writing music for someone else. In most cases, you’re coming on to someone else’s creative vision and you’re trying to write something that you can be proud of and that everyone else likes as well. That can be really tricky sometimes. I’ve often showed a new cue to a director that I’m really passionate about and they don’t like it because it’s saying too much in the moment, or it’s being too important. Even though I’d love to flex my compositional craft more in film scoring, sometimes a single note works best for the scene, or just one instrument instead of the whole orchestra. That’s part of getting more projects and working with lots of different types of directors; you gain that restraint that says, "this job isn’t about me and showing everyone my cool music chops, it’s about writing something that helps tell the story."
M: When you are first brought onto a composition project, what questions do you tend to ask? What information about the project do you prefer to know?
ZM: I always like to listen to references they send -- that’s a good starting point. A lot of filmmakers want to use musical lingo to communicate things, which can be kind of rough sometimes, so I usually start by asking them to talk in terms of emotion instead of musical styles. I think it’s easier to find a starting point if you’re thinking emotionally, since saying something like “rock feel” can mean a lot of different things musically, but saying “somber feel” immediately limits you into a specific tempo, chord structure, timbre, etc.
M: Are there any changes you’ve made to you approach to creating music over the years?
ZM: My goal has always been to make a living making music. I haven’t had a job outside of music since freshman year of college and for me that’s success. When I was studying composition in school, everything was from a theoretical perspective. I was entering into a grand tradition of great composers, trying to learn everything I could by studying their works and all that. As soon as I left school, it was all about business and technology. Like I said before, music is the given. I still work on developing my compositional craft, but the majority of my time is spent figuring out how to use the technology to my advantage and help me be more efficient, and then the rest of the time is spent building relationships with people and building up my business as a composer. I’d say the biggest change has been being okay with writing simple music, learning how to say more with less elements, and shifting my mentality to understand the music I write is for someone else.
I used to be more concerned with the fact that I don’t use a lot of live instruments. I’d be really self conscious when I saw other composers tracking a bunch of string parts or guitar on their cues and I’d wish I could play other instruments well enough to do that quickly. What I’ve been learning more recently is that almost all TV shows are using exclusively fake instruments. I wrote a few jazz cues for season 2 of Daredevil, and originally I just sent them demos that we all decided would be re-recorded with live instruments in a big studio, but they ended up liking the demos so much they just used them in the episode. So I’m more comfortable now, especially for TV work, using sampled instruments for cues.
Field Notes Interview #55: Cameron Ingalls, Wedding Filmmaker
When it comes to his craft, filmmaker, Cameron Ingalls views his art as serving people with his camera. His wedding films capture an authenticity that only comes from his 13 years of experience. Every film he creates brings another chance for him to fully express genuine moments filled with, as he states, "love, light and beauty." He always knows where to point the camera.
A big factor in Cameron Ingalls' work is finding a harmony between sight and sound. Much like capturing the chemistry between the couple getting married, he finds a natural connection with music and emotion. Ingalls takes this relationship very seriously and isn't afraid to get philosophical about it. We learned this when we chatted with him about his life as a photographer, filmmaker, father and music lover. There's a lot in this one. Enjoy.
M: Why film? What compelled you to be a filmmaker?
CI: I had been photographing weddings for over a decade and became restless with story telling only in stills. I wanted to show another dimension. I craved movement and music to accompany my images. And not a slideshow. I wanted my images to breathe, to dance, to sing. So, one day while shooting a wedding in West Virginia I began to flip my camera into video mode and capture sporadic clips. Not knowing anything is sometimes the best way to start. I did know enough about composition, light, and chemistry. I also knew enough that I was getting myself into a vortex of learning. I was proud to have worked 10 years to become an excellent photographer and all of a sudden I was a bit terrified and at the same time elated because I knew that I starting from the beginning with filmmaking. With just a bit of a head start.
M: What's the toughest decision you've had to make as a filmmaker?
CI: To begin. To just go for it! Originally when I dove into photography I also wanted to pursue filmmaking, but decided against it because It was a whole other set of cameras and software. I knew I needed to stick to becoming excellent at one thing because I’m a slow learner. Being self taught has its disadvantages when the teacher has no experience!
The second time I wanted to go for it was after I got married in 2007. My good friend, Jose Villa, volunteered to experiment shooting Super 8 at my wedding. The film that came from my wedding was the most dreamy - beautiful thing I had ever seen! I got the bug again for filmmaking; this time with Super 8! I gave it a shot and was quickly overwhelmed switching mediums and being terrified that something would go wrong with my film. I stressed myself out and once again decided I needed to focus solely on my photography.
Then it happened… After I got the Canon Mark IV over three years ago I realized that not much was keeping me from capturing clips in between the stills. Nothing except for fear. Truth is... I was afraid! I knew there was going to be these awkward months (and years) where I just didn’t know what I was doing. The learning curve of new software, shooting technique, rendering, syncing, capturing audio, shooting stable clips!!! Where my films sucked and all I could do was keep shooting and try to make things better. However, somehow I embraced that fear, wrestling it into submission and finally just went for it! Reminds me of a quote my friend Lloyd likes to share from some Clooney war movie; "Courage is the thing you get after doing the thing that scares the shit out of you”.
I’m a lot more confident after these 3 years of going for it. I just made my favorite film to date and I’m proud of the story I managed to tell with the mess of clips, music, and audio. It’s far from perfect, but I’m only just beginning. I have so far to grow and I’m just so thankful for every person that sees something in the way I see love and capture movement. I’m blessed by every couple that commissions me to tell their love story!
M: How do you feel music has a role in film?
CI: It may not be the main character, but it’s a supporting role that without, I’m not sure there would be much of a film. Is it true that since the beginning of films accompanying music has followed? Weren’t the first silent films shown with a piano player or orchestra hammering out the soundtrack nearby?
When music underscores a film, it gives everything a real 'story' feel. It replaces the need for constant dialogue and gives the viewer the opportunity to put themselves in the character’s shoes. Music is the emoticon of cinema. Music and film causes a story to swell with feeling. The filmmaker has the power to direct the viewer's emotions with music.
It’s funny because real life doesn’t have a soundtrack playing at all times. However, when we hear a song it has the power to remind us of something we felt at a time when we heard it first. Those sounds, tones, words, bring us flooding right back to that hard time in past or, long drive across country; maybe memories of a first love. Why is that?! I’m sure there’s science behind it but I think it’s because music is in all of us. It’s in creation all around us. Ok… I’m getting a little transcendental now. Next question!
M: How do you feel music is misused in film?
CI: I’m going to speak to wedding films because that’s my jam right now. I think the best way to kill your story is by putting overplayed, familiar music on top of it like an exaggerated red bow. It’s like when the Wedding DJ plays ‘We are Family’ just to get everyone dancing. Every weekend. Cheap move. Just because its a love song, doesn’t mean it works for this love story.
"When we hear a song it has the power to remind us of something we felt at a time when we heard it first."
When telling a couple's wedding story I do my very best to show their uniqueness. And because they are forming a brand new love story, I do my best to feature new, fresh music; something that isn’t too mainstream. I want them to watch their movie for the first time and develop a whole new flood of memories! I don’t want them remembering their first love or that really hard time in their past. I want them in 50 years to bust out their DVD (or whatever we will watch things on) hear that song and instantly feel what they did when they first witnessed their exchange of vows, their first kiss, that delightful walk through a field at sunset.
M: How do you feel your wedding films are different than other films?
CI: Since I’m still beginning I’m not sure what my definitive style is yet. Give me a couple more years to figure it out! ;)
But if I had to say… I think my films are honest. There is a genuineness to my work that resonates with people. I want you to feel like you know the people after you watch a film of a couple’s wedding you've never met. And more so if you know them, I want you to say by the end of it; ‘That’s totally them... That’s their love story!'
"Music is the emoticon of cinema."
I’m also love portraits in nature as a photographer so my films are heavy laden with portraits of the characters usually surrounded by trees, fields, hills; you name it.
M: What's the most recent album you've listened to?
CI: Home by Josh Garrels. That guy! He’s hitting something deep in me with his new album. I’ve been listening to it this whole week. I even used two of his songs on my most recent wedding film. I just love the passion that he creates with. His music has soul. I’m not like a die-hard Garrels fan. He just seems like someone I would be friends with if we were in the same town... With or without lyrics his songs seem to have a message; an emotion that resonates with me. I’ve been thinking a lot about family lately. About what it means to be a father and also about continuing to be a son. About being a husband... and I guess ‘home’ starts with all of that.
M: How do you know when you're finished with a project?
CI: When I’ve polished it so much that I can’t think of what else to do to make it more impactful. I want the film to flow as seamlessly as possible. For there to be as little distractions from the story as possible for the viewer. I know that differs from viewer to viewer, but my main goal is to please my clients! With video there is so much that can go wrong. So much that can take the viewer away from loosing themselves in the story. If the audio sucks because of wind or bad levels or the camera shake makes a viewer think I tripped when filming a shot, I’ve misdirected their attention to me. I’m doing my best to grow in all areas as a filmmaker so I can create more fascinating, believable and honest stories. I’m pretty sure it’s much harder to master than capturing stills!
M: What makes a good story?
CI: For the subject of story I learned in school about character, conflict, rising action, climax and all of that jazz. But in the end I think in dealing with music and motion you can defy gravity a bit. To have good story there must be intrigue. Sights, sounds, words… Something the viewer identifies with or is completely surprised by. There has to be something that hooks the viewer so that they give you some of their most precious resources; time and attention.
M: What's coming up on the horizon in your life as an artist?
CI: More films! I’ve photographed weddings for 13 years with the past 3 combining the learning of filmmaking. I really want to come into my own as a filmmaker. I don’t necessarily need to feel like I’ve mastered it, I just want to be really good at it consistently. I want to get to the point where I can tell an amazingly beautiful, meaningful story with whatever characters and moments I’m afforded.
I’ve also been apprenticing my teenage nephew, David Delmore, in filmmaking and photography the past couple of years. He’s been editing and shooting with me since he was 15. I’m excited for him to turn 18 this fall so he can take over my business like he keeps threatening. ;) He is very much involved in the development of our film style. I love raising up young creatives like himself and seeing what they will create in this world. The kid is crazy talented and plays about 9 instruments. I’ve had him record songs in garage band for a couple of our soundtracks, but he’s had to focus on finishing high school so I can’t take up all his time yet. I’m looking forward to the day when he can begin to really score some of our films! Hopefully he will license some of his music on Marmoset like some of our friends.
There are so many verbal ways to express appreciation, yet artist Jason Jägel takes another route -- he chooses painting. In this beautiful new short film by director, Noe Chavez, we get to see an artists' way of giving back to a neighborhood he loves: the Mission District.
Brimming with meditative, slow moving shots of San Francisco, Jägel's voice narrates his artistic process and "deep, personal conversation" with himself. Paired with the beautiful soundtrack of "Sun Through The Clouds" by Matthew Morgan, Jason Jägel not only tells his personal story, he tells the story of a city. Enjoy.
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Field Notes Interview #46: Luke Randall, Animator + Director
When the short film The Walrus was shared with us from its filmmaker, Luke Randall, a bizarre, yet captivating breeze swept through our studios. The film immediately captured everyone's attention over here. It wasn't just the unique nature of the film that enthralled us, it was in the pacing. Driven by the soundtrack from Marmoset Artist, Henry The Rabbit, the story unfolded at a natural speed and with subtlety -- something that's only learned through experience and maturity in the craft of storytelling.
Originally from Tasmania, Randall spent his first 20 years experimenting with different forms of storytelling. Now crossing to the other side of the pond and living in Los Angeles, he's firmly rooted as a filmmaker and animator for DreamWorks. We chatted with Luke about his creative process, tough decisions he's had to make as an artist, and how he's learned the element of restraint to tell compelling stories.
M: When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?
LR: I tried storytelling through lots of different mediums as kid and teenager; messing around with the home video camera, drawing comics and making animated flipbooks. I was pretty isolated and didn't really understand that making films was a thing that I could possibly do though and there were a lot of digressions along the way that I can only hope were at least character building. Now I'm very much focused on writing and directing.
M: What's your favorite moment of the filmmaking process?
LR: I enjoy all parts. On set is really adrenaline inducing but when there's no budget and you're wearing all the hats and calling on favors, it can be a bit of a circus. Editing is gratifying because you have all the footage and are no longer at the mercy of the conditions of the set. It's just man vs footage.
M: What do you think defines a filmmakers' voice?
LR: As a viewer, the thing that interests me is specificity- the antithesis of generic. Taste, experience and the ability to articulate and spin the best of them into a narrative is probably what it comes down to. If you don't specify each detail of the film, the decisions get made arbitrarily and that can lead to generic results.
The films I enjoy most are auteur films, ones where you could tell who wrote and directed after a couple of shots. They are more personal and more interesting to me. Those films don't always work but when they do, they are thrilling.
M: Tell us more about your process when filming The Walrus.
LR: I wrote, directed and photographed it myself using consumer gear so it was pretty DIY. I was lucky enough to have my good friend and fellow filmmaker Jordan Chesney acting as right hand man through out which made a huge difference as he has more experience and caught a lot of things. The Walrus himself was played by my talented friend Rodrigo Huerta and his girlfriend Samantha happened to be a make up artist. I was originally going to apply the walrus prosthetic myself which would have been a disaster, it took Sam -- who is a talented pro -- several hours to get him into the full walrus get up. I was extremely lucky to have their help.
The exterior stuff was shot guerrilla style which was also nerve-racking. Driving down the heavily policed Pacific Coast Highway in a convertible with a walrus at the wheel attracts attention.
M: What's the toughest decision you've had to make as a filmmaker?
LR: Probably just putting stuff out there. You have to make things to practice and get better, but filmmaking is an expensive and communal medium so it makes sense to put it out there and experience the response, good or bad, even if you are not entirely satisfied.
M: What role do you feel music has in film?
LR: I think it's critical. It can set the entire tone for a scene without a single word or action. Even if it's no music, that's a decision that can have a profound effect.
M: How do you feel music is misused in projects?
LR: There can be a tendency to want to jump right to the touching, emotional juicy part or high energy part in a film by just turning up the appropriate music. That can feel insincere if it's not earned by what comes before.
That's the hard part. I've made a lot of mistakes myself with music trying to work it out. Less is more is a lesson I've learnt the hard way.
M: When do you know that you have something ready to show the world?
LR: It's always different. I never really feel satisfied and tend to shelve things for a while. Once I'm well on the way with a new project and have some detachment, I'll put it out there.
M: What's coming up?
LR: I've got another film finished that is sitting on the shelf. I'll likely release once I've let it stew for a bit. At the moment most of my free time is focused on writing a feature length script.
Does any of this resonate with you? Share your thoughts by commenting below... On that note, share your most recent short films with us at: firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll feature our favorites on the journal and send some sweet swag to our featured filmmakers.
It's amazing what a month of travel will do. It's a time to break out of routine, a time to reflect and a time to create badass art.
French filmmaker, Cyrill Durigon travelled through California for 30 days with his friend and hand-letterer, Hervé Marmillot to discover and be inspired. When sharing his work with us, Durigon explained that "one night in Los Angeles [Marmillot and I] decided to leave our amazing host with a gift, here's the result: A chalkboard artwork on the wall of our host’s loft."
"Fantasize (Remix)" by Kye Kye enhances the ethereal nature of the film. Everything moves and floats like a daydream. Watch how the film unfolds into a multimedia presentation that will take you to other states.
Share your work with us at email@example.com. We'll select our favorites and share them on our journal.