Scoring for features, shorts and TV – musician Sam Thompson
Sam Thompson is composer, arranger, orchestrator and conductor who has an impressive CV. He works out of Air Studios on features and TV shows but still makes time to work on shorts and on his own personal music projects. We caught up with him to talk about his work, his influences and how his role has been affected by the Covid19 situation…
Hello Sam, thanks for talking to us. Can you describe your career journey before ending up at Air Studios, What was your training?
I studied at the RWCMD in Cardiff which was a brilliant classical training and led indirectly to my first job in film and TV. This role was assisting the composer Ben Foster on shows like Happy Valley, Thunderbirds Are Go (with Ben’s brother, Nick too) and Our Girl. I still work with Ben now as his orchestrator and/or score producer and it was through him that I made such a strong connection with everyone at Air.
Composing can be a solitary job and it’s quite unusual for a composer to be surrounded by people all the time, but the community at Air have been incredibly supportive of me and we all work and socialise together a lot.
How has the current pandemic affected your work?
Well, it’s put the kibosh on any live recording in groups so all the studio recording work I had lined up has been postponed with tentative plans to record in the summer. It’s made finding new work quite difficult as new productions have stopped but I have been finishing up on various bits and pieces that were already deep into post production and I’m lucky to have a studio at home that I’ve been working from.
A film’s music score is so vital for setting its mood and for eliciting emotions from its audience. What films particularly inspired you in this area?
Jóhann Jóhannsson died just over two years ago now but he was phenomenal at setting a mood for films like Sicario and Prisoners, I love Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s work for that too.
If you were asking who’s going to make me cry and tell a story then John Powell’s music is always so descriptive, because he works in animation so much his music is particularly important for that emotional pull.
Michael Abel’s scores for Us and Get Out in the past few years have been very inspiring in terms of the colours and atmospheres he creates with an orchestra and choir.
Having worked in TV, features and shorts, are there any particular genres you find it easier to compose for?
I think, as a composer and part of a filmmaking team, you treat all of these things in the same way which is from a starting point of what’s the story and what’re we trying to say. In terms of sheer volume of music, shorts are easiest!
Are there any clichéd troupes from certain genres which you try and avoid?
I think it’s good to know where tropes come from and why they’ve been used historically. Ultimately it really depends on the film, sometimes it’s great to try and do something new and original but tropes are tropes because they’re effective and sometimes it can work to lean into them a bit.
You have worked on some features with huge budgets and as a composer on shorts. What is it about shorts which still appeals to you?
I’ve been lucky to work in music departments on all kinds of things but the lovely thing about writing for shorts is collaborating with a director and getting to create something original for their story which might be incredibly personal to them. I always think you can learn a lot about people and human nature from fictional stories as the stories come from within a writer. I love seeing that story come to life and then responding to it musically.
With the current global crisis and the rise in online streaming. How does the way an audience will view a film affect how you compose? Without the sound systems of a cinema, can you still afford to allow for subtleties within a score?
I think you have to write the best music you can and make it sound the best it can be regardless of what people are going to watch or listen on. Some people watch films on their phones at home and some people have amazing TVs with 5.1 surround sound. The nice thing about all this streaming is that much more people are watching short films that normally get seen by relatively few people.
What advice would you give short filmmakers when approaching composers to work on a film?
I’d be looking for a composer who can tell a story with their music and provide emotion. Also, importantly, someone who seems nice and like they’d be easy to work with.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
I’m writing my first EP at the moment which is really exciting for me - I started it a while ago but have always had to put it off because I’ll put anything off if I don’t have a strict deadline, perceived or otherwise. I’m enjoying writing without picture, it’s quite freeing but also a bit terrifying.
I’ve also been scoring a couple of short films and pre-lockdown I was orchestrating and conducting a BBC series called Us based on the book by David Nicholls. The composer is Oli Julian who I’ve worked with a lot on shows like Sex Education and the film How to Build A Girl, we’re getting ready for our next recording session whenever that will be.
You can follow Sam on Twitter: @SamJSThompson