John Ottman

Awards

2003 - Saturn Award Nomination for Best Music for X2
1999 - Emmy Nomination for Best Underscore for "Fantasy Island"
1997 - Declared one of Daily Variety's 50 People to Watch
1995 - Saturn Award for Best Music for The Usual Suspects
1995 - British Academy Award (BAFTA) for editing The Usual Suspects
1995 - American Cinema Editors (ACE) nomination for The Usual Suspects

Essays

Breaking In - Do, Do, Do!

"John as an Editor" (an essay and bitch-fest, by John Ottman).

Breaking In - Do, Do, Do!

Countless times I get emails asking how to "break in" to the business and make connections, namely in the film-composing field. My selfish reason for writing this is that I end up emailing back the same advice every time - and man, do I loathe typing. So I hope this helps, even if in some small way. 


Obviously there's no magic answer on how to break into the business. It boils down to five things: Tenacity, excitement, luck, diplomacy… and talent. If you believe in your gut that you have a knack (and stomach) for writing film music - or any other intense high-profile creative job in the business - then by all means go for it. But go into this field because you love it. If your primary goal is to make big bucks and be "famous”, your work will succeed less in being anything more than hollow or soulless. Lack of zeal or creativity can be sniffed out. The reward for true passion is the fulfillment in having been able to express it. The fringe benefit that follows is notoriety, more work, and hopefully, some deserving compensation.



Since significant financial compensation doesn’t come until later, you must plan a way to "afford" to pursue this field. I worked a 9-5 job for six years after graduation, writing music and editing films after work and on the weekends. I didn't even want to edit films - but it was part of the "do do do" rule. (Ironically the editing ended up leading to scoring work; and both unwittingly lead to my directing a movie.) The plan was that my day job allowed me to have a steady income and job-future should things not work out for me biz-wise; and it also afforded me to pursue writing music for the joy of it. Diminishing the survival element allowed my music to remain an untainted hobby. This is by no means an answer for all. Everyone has to find out for themselves what game plan will work. But because it's a field that doesn’t pay in the beginning (or many times even when you're established), part of that plan has to be how to afford to pursue it. Keep expenses low and it will free up your creativity. Better options than what I did may be to work for other composers or music related jobs. Many composers can thank the time, sometime years, they put in as a composer’s assistant/ghost writer by eventually branching out on their own as a result of earning opportunities from their work with other composers. You just have to be prepared to ask yourself where the assistant jobs may eventually lead and how happy you could be with them indefinitely. For instance, many editing assistants end up having careers as first or second assistant film editors, and making a very good living at it. As with any job in this business, the hours are unrelenting and brutal. You must be prepared to be at peace with this lifestyle and what toll it may take on your personal life.

After you've formulated this general plan, my over-riding advice, although seemingly trite, is to just "do do do with no attitude."

INFILTRATE

Get yourself in proximity to film students. The best crop of budding filmmakers will be at film schools like USC, etc. But not everyone can make the expensive move to LA or New York, nor can everyone get into the top music programs. However, let's be real. Your likelihood of building filmmaker connections is far brighter where there's a higher concentration of filmmakers. And, that's Los Angeles. This isn't to say that there aren't masterful future directors in Blodget, Oregon. But they’ll be far more difficult to find; and they, themselves, will find it even harder to get noticed not being in "Tinsel Town."

If you're attending a composing school, wherever that may be, that's terrific - and depending on where you are in your life, it should be a goal; but remember, your future is the film-makers, not so much your fellow music peers. And, just as importantly, it’s also in practical experience - by DOING. Your music friends can be good shoulders to cry on, (or perhaps future employers, ie being their orchestrator, arranger or conductor) but they're fighting for the same scoring future as you are. Infiltrate the film school. Get to know these guys. Go to THEIR parties. Talk their language. Even take a film-making course! Put up your ads on the film school bulletin boards, find out what projects are coming down the pike, and contact these directors. Some film schools have a production office posting planned projects. Also, find out what independent short or low budget films are in production in town via internet listings and publications. Contact these new filmmakers while they're accessible. Put yourself out there by scoring any project you can. Even the lamest, most inane film is often the one, when you look back, that was responsible for where you are in some odd way. Someone's uncle's brother's aunt's nephew may know the dolly grip, who noticed your music - and this nephew may be a budding filmmaker, or son of an influential exec. Who knows?

Moreover, even though the project may suck, it's an early project. The director may have better ones. The enthusiastic "can-do" composer will be the one who is pulled along in the future. And even if you feel this director is done-for and his project is the worst thing you've ever seen, find something in it that inspires you. Make it your personal mission to do what ever you can to improve the project via your music! Film music should not be self-serving. The joy of your challenge should be how to make a dog of a film at least have a whimper in the end. Your passion will pay off either from your reputation, or, at the very least, gaining your own personal satisfaction and experience on the project. The more challenges you face on problematic projects, the better your work will be. Again, do do do. I couldn't wait to score my friend's student film, The Burrito From Hell! I remember how much I learned just scoring that one project. There were so many musical timing issues; and that reason alone made it an invaluable exercise. Simply, the more you do, not only will your work get better and better, but with every gig, you exponentially increase your chances of making connections that will pay off later. You meet a lot of people in the course of working on a film, such as a film's crew. In film school or even beginning filmmaking, it's often not just the director who wants a career as a filmmaker. They're all around you - and they'll remember you if you make an impression.

DEMOS

Yes we need them. We also know that demos are largely ridiculous because all they prove is that someone can make cool-sounding synthesized mock-ups. That's a value to be sure, and sadly, often the highest quality recording or mock-up can turn on a new filmmaker to hire you. What demos don't show is how and if you can score a scene! That's what the art of film scoring is all about. Heck, a dreary drone might be the inspired idea that saves a scene - but it's not too interesting to hear on a demo. Nevertheless, the better the samples and synth renderings you can do, the better. This is especially important when the low budget film you're scoring needs a synth score as the final product. The general rule is that a demo should not be more than 15 minutes. Rarely will anyone listen too much further. The most ideal demos are tailored specifically to the gig you're looking to score. Even if you have nothing in your arsenal to put on the demo, write something for the director that's along the lines of his film. This approach can follow you all the way into a professional career. There have been a couple films I've been hired on that hinged on a demo I wrote specifically for the film. For instance, on Gothika they gave me a reel of the movie and asked me to score one small scene. I got so inspired by the material, I ended up scoring the entire reel in just a couple days –because I was so excited to be in that world. Doing demos to get on a film can be a drag, but that's where the "joy" of your craft must come into play. You have to want to and enjoy writing the demo, even if you may never get the gig. See it as an impetus to write more music of another genre, and you'll have more experience and material for a reel if you don’t get hired.

STUDY?

Yes, it's a must to know classic scores and classical music – namely from the Romantic and 20th Century eras. Deconstructing the orchestrational mysteries of your favorite scores can be fascinating and valuable, but also don't get into the dangerous area of using what you've learned as a crutch. The best gift a composer can give him/herself is a unique sound and sensibility. The less imitation, the more creating new ideas on your own will pay off. Do what feels right. This comes with the confidence you gain as a film-maker/story-teller with every job. Pretty soon you're not listening to other scores anymore. You're just doing what you believe his best creatively and pragmatically for the film. And this is when you feel the most free - and gain the most personal satisfaction. Because the craft of film scoring is mostly about how you apply music to filmic scenarios, it's far more valuable to go see movies and see how music is used in powerful ways. And power can be found in subtlety, going against the grain of a scene, intertwining with sound effects. Seek out the classics of all genres. Ask yourself - independent of musical thought - what scenes in your favorite films affected you the most on a visceral level. Which scenes send a shiver up your spine? Which ones choke you up? Which ones will you never ever forget? Then listen to how score was used in these moments. You may be surprised how the music is being approached. You may have never noticed. Maybe you'll save yourself from scoring a scene in too obvious a way. When you tackle a film, you should create a game plan for your score - how it is going to develop and evolve. In other words, how are you going to tell the musical story? But this is another subject.



Music theory is also a wonderful thing to absorb, but you've got to find the power and delight in thinking outside the box. There are few rules you can't break. This is film music. Don't be afraid to break them. Sometimes you almost have to force yourself to ”unlearn what you have learned” to avoid getting too caught up in the musicality of what you’re creating. Try to think as a film-maker and story-teller as much, or more than, you are a composer. Film music is often an entirely different animal.



Get practical experience. There are so many unforeseen situations on every project that a class could never teach you. In all scenarios, you'll learn that half of your talent must be in the field of diplomacy. The more you can eloquently communicate your ideas, yet be flexible and "can-do", the more dramatic your chances will be. Be passionate, but always remember that there are many ways to skin a cat. Your advice will be sought. But you're also there to serve and understand the needs of the filmmaker, suggest options and be a team member in making the film the best it can be.