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How to Score with Your Documentary Composer: An Interview with Richard Fiocca

By Kathleen Fairweather

Richard Fiocca is an Emmy nominated composer who has created and scored music for IMAX, ShowTime, PBS, HBO, ABC, NBC, CBS—just to name a few. His most recent work may be heard on the newly released Discovery Pictures large format documentary film Wildfire: Feel the Heat.


How did you create the music for Wildfire: Feel the Heat?

The music for Wildfire was created over a three-month period, with about one month devoted to writing and demo-ing the score on synths, a month and a half to orchestrate the music and have the parts copied, and about two weeks to record, mix and layback to picture. This is a pretty relaxed schedule for a project of this type, but then since I did the all the orchestrations myself, I was literally writing on the plane to Seattle to record with the Northwest Sinfonia.

Most of the themes that I used were created during the process of scoring the trailer, which I was hired to do almost six months before the film was completed. Mick Kaczorowski (the producer) and I had discussed what the film needed in terms of a score and we both agreed that the music had to be grand and very action-oriented to convey the sense of excitement that firefighters experience when they're fighting wildfires. We decided early on that the score had to sound "big" and that a large orchestra (we ended up using 85 pieces) was going to be needed.

The cues themselves were created initially using Digital Performer software (a music writing program) in sync with a video of the film, with me arranging demos as I composed so that the producers could get a feel for the music. A danger with this approach, by the way, which I tried to avoid, is to over-arrange, the result being that by the time a live orchestra is actually called in to re-record, the composer is simply left to "reinvent the wheel," and everybody ends up feeling a bit underwhelmed. The demo-ing process, however tedious, is a fact of life these days, though.)

Once the cues were approved and the picture had been locked, I printed out a rough sketch and orchestrated (the old-fashioned way, i.e., with pen and score paper) without any further reference to synths or keyboards. Everybody has their own way of working, but I truly believe that in order to take full advantage of an orchestra, you shouldn't be hemmed in by the physical limitations of a keyboard or music program.

The orchestra recording took place over a three-day period, with a three-hour session in the morning and afternoon, for a total of nine hours. The orchestra was recorded in a chapel to take advantage of its superb acoustics, and a specially designed sound truck equipped with a state of the art SSL console and 2 24-track machines handled the entire session. Most of the cues were recorded to a click track I had prepared from the sketches, and we had live playback to picture available as well, which was helpful when the few inevitable snafus occurred. All in all, the recording went very smoothly for such a big group, and I have great respect and admiration for all the musicians and engineering people involved.


Describe the process of creating a doc or TV composition.

It varies, depending on when I become involved. If it's preproduction, then discussions with the director or producer are very important. Every film poses different questions, but it eventually comes down to, What is the film about, and what can the music add? I always try and get as much information as possible from the producer/director, because understanding the filmmaker's vision is vital to creating a good score. This is so important—in TV, DOCs, or film—that I don't think it can be overstressed.

Even when the schedule is much tighter, and I'm asked to score a finished film, I try and take whatever time is necessary to achieve a meeting of the minds with the filmmaker, before I start writing the score. Often I'll prepare sketches or do a few important cues to help the process along. Once I feel confident that we're on the right track, I'll begin writing. Very often, when the music is "right" for the film, the music almost seems to write itself.


How did you get involved TV and doc film composing?

Early in my career, I was involved with musical theater here in New York, mostly orchestration and music direction. Since the amount of work in live theater is very limited, a lot of people in theater also worked in film and TV.

Eventually, I started to get calls to do shorts, commercials, and independent features. My first exposure to network TV was back in the early ’80s when a friend of mine who was a music editor for The Equalizer asked me to do some sketches. To my astonishment (I really hadn't done any "commercial" TV at that point) the director loved them and I was hired to score a few episodes while the show's regular composer ,who happened to be Stewart Copeland, was on hiatus. Shortly afterward I was hired as a staff writer at a company that did a lot of work for ABC—news, game shows, soaps, stuff like that. It was a good learning experience, but I felt a bit frustrated eventually and just decided to do it on my own. I was fortunate in that my decision coincided with the cable TV "explosion" and the tremendous growth in demand for programming, and I ended up being very busy very quickly.


What in your opinion makes for a good documentary music composition?

That's a tough one. It's a bit like asking what makes a hit song. I'm not sure anybody really knows. I guess what I'm trying to say is I don't think there's any distinction between "documentary music" and any other kind of music. If it's fresh, has a point of view, and moves me in some way, I like it.

Personally I'm always attracted to scores that add an element to a film, or bring out something that's not immediately apparent, rather than just highlighting the obvious. This is one reason I like scoring docs; there's more room for this kind of inspiration.

Paradoxically, one of my own favorite "scores," is not a score in the traditional sense at all. For the HBO doc Liberation: A Survivor Remembers, I used production sound, nat sound, sound fxs, spoken word and various other "nonmusical" elements to create a music concrete "score" that I think worked magically to enhance the film.


How should a doc filmmaker choose a music composer?

First and foremost, choose somebody whose music and style you like and think will work for the film. For a composer, there's nothing more frustrating that being asked to do a score in a style that's not your metier. Of course, in a perfect world, composers would simply turn down such offers; but in reality, whether it's because of scratch music or because the composer was hired by the producer or channel (and not the director), whatever the scenario, the composer can find himself in a position where he or she is being asked to "imitate," rather than create.

Next, make sure you can communicate musically with the composer. Not all composers (or filmmakers) think or talk about music in the same way. Taking the time to establish a solid rapport, creatively, will save a lot of frustration and disappointment down the road.


At what stage of the filmmaking process should the filmmaker enlist a composer's services?

I like to become involved as early as possible—at the script stage, if possible. Even if I'm not scheduled to start on a project for months and am busy wiring entirely different things, I often will jot down notes or sketches for upcoming films.


Are there any licensing issues that filmmakers should be aware of?

Well, probably yes. But that's not really my area. As far as the composer is concerned, make sure you have a written agreement before you begin. That's helpful for everyone.

If I could stress one thing it would be this: if you can get by without scratch music, don't use it. Leave room for inspiration and surprises! But if you must, don't ask you composer to supply it from his or her archives. Asking a composer to re-create the wheel in that way is the sure-fire way to get an uninspired score.


Richard Fiocca lives in New York. He may be reached via email at Kathleen Fairweather is editor of Documentary magazine.