It's funny how film professionals in New York City can sometimes feel like the country bumpkin cousins to their kin in L.A. Fact is, making a living as a film composer is a much safer bet in California, as it is close to the massive and well-organized Hollywood studios. New York City film scorers are a riskier bunch, taking a chance at getting work in exchange for the magic of the Big Apple.
For every established film composer based in New York City — giants such as Carter Burwell and Terence Blanchard — there are dozens more working hard just under the radar. Case in point is Wendell Hanes (www.bangworld.com), a prolific visionary who's just one lucky break away from entering major studio land and never looking back. The commercial/TV work (Sports Illustrated, VH1, NFL, Porsche) is steady, the indie film portfolio (Ghetto Dawg, Sucker Punch, The Fittest) is growing and the theories on movie composition today are flowing. “The key is to take what's current today and use that as a musical foundation for the nuances that you score. It's basically staying current with pop culture,” Hanes observes. “While I think the traditional approach is still prevalent in movie scoring, what I find as an independent composer is that the traditional is not the direction that most of the films in the indie world takes.
“They want the young, edgy vibe or the alternative ‘create me something I've never heard before’ vibe, and that's where I've found my niche: Creating the music you would not necessarily expect in some scenes, as well as being very conscious of contemporary music and what is current. That's where my commercial experience has helped me out a lot because I'm always told about target audiences. Target audiences are key for movies, as well.”
Working out of a comfortable production room in Bang Music in Manhattan's bustling Union Square neighborhood, Hanes is currently scoring for the film Kiss of Chaos from director Ricardo Sean Thompson, working extremely quickly in stereo or surround with a power-plant combo of Yamaha 02R96 consoles and Pro Tools. “Everybody asks me, ‘You use Pro Tools, so what do you need a mixing board for?’” Hanes says. “I look at it as if I have Pro Tools and an outboard mixing console, then I double my power. Some of the sounds I create are made by having the capability of using effects in the computer and in the board.”
While the New York City base can be a problem for getting the mainstream jobs, Hanes is more than willing to work with the challenges. “Out of sight, out of mind,” he acknowledges, “which is why I try to be as versatile a composer as possible so I'm not limiting myself any further. I do, however, believe you can score films in New York City with the production base being in California by using MP3 technology as FedEx technology. At the same time, I think there's an advantage to being a New York City creative composer. You see so many different characters, the club scenes are so widespread and there's so many different styles, you can't be in a better place to listen for and hear new music that's budding up in the underground.”
While he may be decidedly aboveground in the pop world, another composer working the film system in the underground is Duncan Sheik (www.duncansheik.com). As the writer/performer of one of the most enduring hits of the 1990s, “Barely Breathing,” it would be easy for Sheik to rest on his laurels. Actually, Sheik points out that his great track record on radio has made him twice as determined to prove himself all over again in film. “As happy as I am that people enjoyed the song, they relate you to that one particular style if you're not careful,” he says. “I've been working hard in other areas to get away from that, so in a certain way, it's good because it forced me to move into these other mediums.”
For Sheik, the opportunity to write songs for major Hollywood films opened up his eyes to the magic of scoring for picture, leading to recent scoring assignments such as Michael Mayer's A Home at the End of the World and the upcoming basketball documentary Through the Fire. “This whole idea [is one of] understanding what it means to have music move through a scene where it's constantly changing mood and tempo and changing instrumentation over maybe 30 seconds or a minute or two. Whereas when you're writing a pop song, you have five or 10 elements that happen through the song and that's that. This is more nuanced.”
Sheik's studio, housed comfortably inside his spacious and airy downtown loft, is enough to inspire creativity no matter what the situation. With a Pro Tools/Logic-based command center that also includes a 32-channel computer-based Calrec console acquired from the BBC, Sheik has quick access to a select group of keyboards, guitars and even a small live room with a killer drum set. “I wanted to get the Calrec instead of a digital Mackie or 02R because I felt I've got to be able to put [the music] through something that's alive in some way,” he says. “The workflow is very ergonomic now, but that was a process that took a couple of years. I had all these keyboards before and I got it all out of there so I could maneuver. That's the main criteria: to really know how to use the things that are in my studio.” [For more information on Sheik's studio, see the July 2001 “New York Metro.”]
For the busy multimedia veteran Steve Shapiro (www.xylophobia.com), whose recent film arranging credits include Disney's Chicken Little and promotion for The Incredibles, the key to his workflow was moving his studio out of Manhattan and into a spacious barn north of the city.
A producer/arranger who helped pioneer the construction of MIDI studios in New York City in the mid-'80s and a successful vibist with his own project called Low Standards, Shapiro knows what he's missing in California and he's fine with it. “I basically made the choice not to move to L.A.,” he explains in his high-energy manner. “I've had opportunities there and I like the weather, but I said, ‘I'm going to be a New York City guy.’ I've always been into the jazz thing, and New York City is the heart of that. Plus, with all the Internet communication, Disney didn't seem to mind.”
Running Pro Tools with a Digital Performer front end, MOTU 896HD, Gigasampler and Reason via OS 9 and OS X on Mac G4s, along with a SONAR drum kit and his beloved vibes, Shapiro has honed his studio to ergonomic perfection. “For recording a live band, such as the Low Standards CD, I'll run the room from a laptop so I get no fan noise,” he says. “Then I move back to my dual-processor G4 for mixing. The instruments are ready to jump on, so if I need a jazz drum part — I never program that — I sit down and play it. In Digital Performer, you can replace things so easily, I'll just take an audio track and immediately trigger MIDI. But the idea is to get any resources — your sampler, digital audio sources or live stuff — at any moment. That's the way I've always wanted to work.”
When he moved his studio out of Manhattan in 2001, Shapiro took a gamble that broadband would soon be in full bloom for music production, making New York City, L.A. or lunar locations irrelevant. Naturally, he was right. “I have my own 3GB server,” he notes. “It has a fast DSL connection, so I can finish a session with singers, and an hour later, they have it in Burbank [Calif.]. Even a year ago this wasn't the case, but now everyone's got a high-speed connection and you're not just talking about putting a two-mix up, you can put up a whole Pro Tools session. That's the way everybody works now.”
Send your New York City news email@example.com.