From Super 8 to Pixar: Oscar-Winner Michael Giacchino's 5 Pro Tips for Making it as a Film Composer

giacchino300.jpgOscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino (Alias, LOST, Star Trek, Up, Super 8) has created some of the most memorable aural film and television moments in the last decade, notably working time and time again with a chosen few close collaborators including J.J. Abrams and the folks at Pixar. So on the eve of his latest film, the globe-trotting sequel Cars 2 (his fourth Pixar score since 2004's The Incredibles), Movieline asked Giacchino to share his pro tips for mastering the film-scoring game.

1. Learn the Ins and Outs of Filmmaking

"I grew up making movies all my life. That's all I did. Regular 8 movies and Super 8 movies -- I started with my dad's old regular 8 camera and then once they realized this was an obsession that was not going to go away, they got me a nice sound Super 8 camera. So I spent my childhood making movies, and I think that part of the reason for the success I have comes from the fact that I spent all those years making movies. And I went to film school and studied every aspect of filmmaking. I really think if you want to make movies, if you want to be a film composer, you should love movies and you should also understand how to make them.

"I'm always encouraging music students to take editing classes, take writing classes, take a directing class, an acting class! To understand what's going on behind the camera, because you're going to be communicating with people who don't necessarily know how to talk about music, but if you can talk about storytelling and filmmaking with them, it's going to make your job that much easier, and far more creative. [...] It also just helps me as a composer to understand storytelling and story structure and all of the technical things that go into filmmaking as well. It's always hard to separate yourself out of the equation, but filmmaking is a group art and you need to remember that. It's not about you and what you're doing, it's about what the group is doing."

2. Tap Into the Emotions of the Story

"I guess what I intended to do [in the dialogue-free scene in Up] was to explain to you kind of how I felt when I watched it. The film needs to work right, and if I can elicit an emotion, I want to convey to you how I felt. I want to explain to you how that film affected me, and I can do that through music. So that's why I'm very picky about who I work with and the projects I work on, because if there's not an emotional response from me, it makes it very difficult for me to give you something. I don't want to be in the position where I'm manufacturing sadness for something that isn't really sad, you know?

I like that way of putting it. It's like you're translating the film through music.

Yeah! When you're watching that movie, you're listening to how I felt when I watched it."

3. Don't Read Scripts Before Watching Footage

"J.J. [Abrams]'s scripts, he wants to know what I feel, I think, but for the most part if I can I try not to read it. Because as someone who grew up making movies, when I read a script I'm envisioning in my head how I would do it, and what happens is my brain starts working and I start thinking about it and I'm creating musical ideas in my head. But it's better to wait to see what the director's done with it, because then I can just react to that. It's not so much about what I would do, it's about what they did, and what we need to do to finish it.

"But the most important part is sitting down with the director and watching the film; you sit there and create an emotional arc together. You're not talking about music, you're talking about emotions. What are we feeling? What's the intent of this scene? How can we further this intent? That's probably the most important part of the process, and that's what they call 'spotting.' It's where the two of you together come up with a game plan of where you're going, musically.

4. If a Theme is Forgettable, Then it's Not a Good Theme

"Usually the first thing I want to do is figure out the themes. I'll usually do that; if I come up with an idea that I can remember the next day, I'll feel really good about that. If I write a theme and I think it's good and the next day I can't remember it, that's not a good theme. [Laughs] Writing is re-writing, and it's the same across the board for everything. You want to keep doing it until you get it right. And again, the people that I work with, there's no sense that they're ever finished. You always just run out of time. I like that, and you really learn that on television. Week to week, you just run out of time. So you learn to just trust your instincts and go for it and make a decision. Half of creating something is just making a decision to do it."

5. Find Collaborators You Want to Work With Over and Over and Over Again. Then Introduce Them to Each Other.

"I should be seeing [Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol] soon, because Brad [Bird, the film's director and Oscar-winning Pixar alumnus] just put together a cut of it and we're now at the point where we can start looking at it and reacting to it, but I have to say that I'm really excited about it. To think that Brad Bird is directing an action movie like that -- he's one of my favorite writers, clearly one of my favorite directors, and one of my best friends. Those three things together, it couldn't be better. [...]

"I'd always told J.J., 'You have to meet Brad, because you would get along great.' And I always told Brad, 'You have to meet J.J.' So I finally got them together, finally introduced them to each other at the Speed Racer premiere, and it was kind of like one of my goals in life to get them to work together, to find something together. And I'm really psyched that it all happened -- it's kind of like introducing two of your best friends from different parts of the world, you know?"

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  • cmzhang42 says:

    Michael Giacchino has been one of my favorite film/tv composers of the last decade. I did not mind him winning an Oscar for UP in 2009, but I would have preferred he had won for the other movie he did that year; Star Trek. Hearing that soaring, vibrant and emotional music totally sold me that this franchise was back in good hands...

  • Jen Yamato says:

    Agreed. His work with J.J. Abrams in particular seems destined to become one of the great composer-filmmaker collaborations, if it isn't too early to call it that already. (Well, it's still a bit early.) And I'm really curious to watch the films he made before he chose this path...