An Interview with Guy Michelmore by John Mansell © 2010
Award-winning film and & TV composer Guy Michelmore is one of the most prolific and diverse writers around. He scores a wide range of projects from feature films to animation, commercials to natural history programmes. Since 2004, he has worked mostly in the US, scoring five feature films for Marvel and Lionsgate – HULK Vs., THE INVINCIBLE IRON MAN, NEXT AVENGERS: HEROES OF TOMORROW, CAPTAIN AMERICA (Ultimate Avengers I and II), DR STRANGE, IRON MAN: ARMOURED ADVENTURES and THOR as well as Mike Young Productions CREEPIE AND COSMIC QUANTUM RAY and TUTENSTEIN: The Movie for Porchlight Entertainment. He has also scored over 100 episodes of television for US networks. His feature films include the award winning FROZEN as well as landmark series for the BBC. He also runs the world’s largest course for film and television composers, Music for the Media. This is a correspondence course backed up by regular seminars.
For anyone who does not make the connection, you are the son of the famous TV presenter/personality Cliff Michelmore. You yourself were at one stage a newscaster/presenter, when did you decide to change direction and move more predominantly into music, or were you doing music at the same time as you were presenting?
I was doing music at the same time. Mostly wildlife films. I would have an alarm clock in my studio and when it went off I turned off the gear and went to read the news. How bizarre a life is that!?
DISTANT SHADOW was one of your early scores, which I understand won an award, how did you become involved on this project?
Like most of the early films I found short film makers with promise and got involved with their shorts which then turn into low budget full length films. It’s the best way up the tree in many respects.
You have worked for Marvel on a number of assignments which include feature films and also television series, does scoring animation differ greatly from working on other genres of film i.e. live action and documentary films, and does the size of the orchestra or the line up of instruments differ when scoring animation?
It does differ but not as much as you would think. You have to do a lot more work in terms of carrying the emotional load of the film. The cues tend to be shorter and the amount of music much larger so overall in animation you earn your money.
DEEPWATER BLUE is a company that you have set up, and your course music for media is very successful, what does the course entail and do you have an active role in tutoring or instructing students?
Deepwater Blue is the music company. We have three studios and two other composers who work here. ThinkSpace is the educational company which was born of a need to give sound practical advice to people wanting to enter the profession. Everyone teaching the course works as a professional composer and the students get a very wide range of projects from film to commercials, computer games to documentary to score. We’ve had a lot of successes. Our A students have won Ivor Novello awards, scored big movies like Guy Ritchie’s Rock n Roller and done additional music on movies like Iron Man, Pirates of the Caribbean, Dark Knight and lots of others.
You have at times gone on location for certain assignments, do you find this helpful in getting a feel for the individual project and also locating certain instruments and sounds for the score?
Yes where it is firmly rooted in another culture. I love working with non-western musicians and the best way to find the best musicians is to go to the country of origin rather than making do with local players.
One of your most recent scores is for JACKBOOTS ON WHITEHALL, which is a great soundtrack that is filled with subtle and less than subtle references to past war film scores. Was this something you had in mind when you first looked at the movie?
Not really actually. We started out with something much more whacky and off the wall in mind but when we saw the footage it was itself so different – all the characters are puppets – it was clear it needed a much more traditional score in a very British tradition… So I went for it.
What is your opinion of the use of a temp track on a movie; do you personally find this helpful or maybe distracting?
It can be but they can’t work without one so it comes with the territory. I try and get them to temp with my music if possible which helps overcome the problem.
Do you orchestrate your own music, and do you think that orchestration is an important part of the whole composing process?
Yes I do and yes it is but with the pressure of time I couldn’t possibly do the whole score like I used to. I work with Nick Raine who is a wonderful orchestrator and the scores go back and forth between us so it’s a collaborative effort.
Who would you say has influenced you musically?
The big three John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman have had a big effect on most composers. I love minimalists like Steve Reich and I think there is hardly an action score that doesn’t reflect the minimalist sensibility. One Giant Leap had a big impact showing how you can blend so many different genres into one magnificent whole. I am fairly restless in my search for something different but it comes along rarely.
How much time are you given to score an animated episode and when you are scoring a series do you at times re-use certain themes and passages of music?
Quite a lot. With over 10 hours of music in a series you are bound to go over old ground and reusing ideas and pieces of music is expected and helps with a sense of consistency and characterization.
How many times do you like to see a movie before you get fixed ideas about music?
Sometimes it comes immediately other times it takes a while and it depends what the director has in mind. Either way it always evolves and becomes something different as time goes on.
When you are working on a project do you have a set way in which you approach it, do you like to create a central theme first and develop the score around it or work on smaller cues and build up to the major ones and develop the central theme or main title from these?
They’re all different. A more subtle arty film like Frozen has more of a musical landscape, a sound and tonality rather than a specific theme whereas Jackboots is very theme driven and that’s fun too. I tend to go through the film in sequence start to finish but normally there has been some period of theme development before hand getting the sound of the film right and making sure the director is on board with that.
Do you perform on your scores?
Yup. There are always sampled keyboard parts in there and I play some bits of percussion etc so in that sense yes.
In your opinion what is the job of music in film
To help the film fulfil its potential without getting in the way or distracting from the central thrust of the film. Normally music is there to heighten emotion and add impact to action sequences but overall it adds a colour, a stylistic filter to the whole film which gives it direction and attitude. If you don’t really understand the film therefore you are completely sunk.
When you are scoring a movie do you oversee the process from the recording booth or do you conduct yourself?
Both. The more sampled pre-records there are the more I sit in the booth. I love conducting but I know Nick’s better at it technically as he does it every week. Nick Hooper gave me a good tip which is to let the conductor do the very technical pieces and he would conduct on the more emotive pieces where he wanted to put his stamp on the score. That’s a good idea. There is no question that you can’t really hear the whole sound while conducting and to be honest being in the booth is the best place for the composer.
A number of composers release promo discs which showcase their music for film, is this something you have done or have considered doing?
If I had time I would!
Did you have any input into the compiling of the Compact disc for JACKBOOTS ON WHITEHALL?
Yup, I talked at some length with Mikael and we put the track list together between us.
What are you working on at the moment?
Three Marvel series – Avengers: Earth’s Mightest Heroes, Superhero Squad and Iron Man Armored Adventures, a new series of Jungle Book and a series called Davinicibles for RAI with more films coming later in 2011.
A full life but a happy one.