ReelCrafter Artist Spotlight is a new series where we get to know our customers and learn more about their work and background.
In this inaugural Artist Spotlight, we’ll be picking the brain of Craig Marks, a prolific LA-based composer whose music you’ve probably heard if you’ve ever watched Food Network.
So Craig, I have to start off asking about Iron Chef America: 238 episodes over the course of ten years, 100% you. Kudos to you on that! How does that workflow differ from, say, a dramatic series where you’re working against a narrative?
Thanks so much, Sam! Yeah, it’s been an unexpected and amazing run. Neither budget nor schedule allow the shows to be “properly” scored, so it’s a custom library we’ve been building and adding to throughout the run. For special or unusual segments, like Michelle Obama’s appearance in the White House Garden Challenge, I get to score to picture. The rest is pre-scored based on producer requests.
More often than not, the music is being chosen and edited by the video editors so I don’t deliver stems. I tend to massively overwrite the cues and deliver numerous alternate mixes in an attempt to ease their process and avoid the tedium that can come with so much reuse.
That’s a fantastic opportunity, by the way, to be involved in something long-term like that! How did you come to work on Iron Chef?
I was a fan of the original Japanese series during its brief US run. When I read in the trades that a production company I’d recently worked with was developing Iron Chef America, I made a call, set up a meeting, and started prepping my pitch. The original order in 2004 was only a four-episode mini-series. I don’t know that any of us could have dreamed it would be as popular or run as long as it has.
You used to work with Hans Zimmer back in the day. How did you get that introduction and what was it like working with his team? What were you working on?
I had no real connections in town so started out making cold calls - admittedly a more feasible approach before the advent of caller ID. Hans was in Europe when I called Media Ventures (and, I’m sure, wouldn’t have taken the call anyway) but there was an opening in their nascent intern program. Twenty minutes later I was in the middle of an interview.
During my two years at MV I did everything from sweeping the parking lot to second engineering sessions. Experiences around Prince of Egypt, The Fan, and Preacher’s Wife stand out in my memory, but many other projects came through the studio during that time as well.
I learned production and recording techniques, how to run sessions, how to handle clients....... I would sit for hours just quietly learning, watching and listening to Alan Meyerson work. I even remember working on orchestration homework during some downtime with Bruce Fowler looking over my shoulder offering constructive criticism.
Media Ventures was really my graduate school and professional training wrapped into one. It was an amazing experience for which I will be forever grateful, but if I never have to pin another ELCO connector it will be too soon.
Tell me about one of your recent favorite projects. What was it and what was special to you about it?
Yeah, so…… Sometimes life happens when you least expect it; I had an accident two years ago resulting in some extensive injuries that forced me to hit pause on music. I was committed to getting back in shape to make music again, so healing and physical therapy became my full-time gig. It’s been a long haul, but I am finally starting to get back in the swing of things now.
Back in 2014, I received a commission from the Dallas Chamber Symphony to create a new score for the Buster Keaton film Sherlock Jr. (1924). It’s an amazing film and Keaton was decades ahead of his time in terms of the visual effects he developed for the project. The goal was to create a score that “my director” would have approved while also making it accessible and exciting to modern audiences.
Working with DCS and my team to create the score was an amazing experience, but what I didn’t realize when I accepted the assignment were the personal connections I had to the film. That I spent most of my time writing at my piano, which was built in 1924, just seemed appropriate. In preparing the program notes, my research revealed that a prominent sequence was filmed less than a mile from where I was living. That was just the beginning.
My great-great-grandfather, Herman Wacke, had a hotel/bar on Coney Island called the Trocadero and is widely considered to be the first commercial exhibitor of motion pictures in the United States. They showed movies for free to encourage patrons to stay and order more food/drink - not all that different from the current state of things, really. All the greats, including Buster Keaton, performed live on their stage and Sherlock Jr was among the films shown at the venue.
Wow, that must’ve been surreal! What a serendipitous way to work on something that was in some way linked to your great-great-grandfather. For anyone curious, the first film the Trocadero showed was The Wrong Doors, in around 1903.
The funny thing is that in all my research it’s been far easier to find records detailing how much of which beers were sold than to find a rundown or schedule of films. The more things change, the more they stay the same, I suppose.
Got any favorite new plugins or sample libraries? Or something that you just consistently love to use?
Besides ReelCrafter, you mean?
VideoSlave and VEPro have probably changed and improved my workflow more than anything in the last 10 years. Plugins and sample libraries, on the other hand, are really just a means to an end. There is an overabundance of amazing tools on the market - I mean, I probably have two dozen eq plugins and another two dozen compressors available. While I certainly prefer to work with some more than others, any of them will allow me to dial in the desired adjustment. That being said, I always find myself going back to Slate VCC, Eventide, House of Kush, and SoundToys plugins to really dial in a mix.
What’s one of your biggest “pinch me because I must be dreaming” moments in your music career?
Standing on the podium or even just being in the room while an orchestra plays music I’ve written is something that NEVER gets old and always reinvigorates my passion for this crazy business. But….There was a period of about a year and a half where I found my music parodied by the Simpsons and also multiple times by South Park. It was a total surprise and a whole lot of fun. I have no idea what, if anything, it means….. but it left me feeling like I’d finally arrived. (Laughing)
As we wrap up this interview, any advice for aspiring composers out there?
Technology has been a remarkable equalizer - a staggering financial investment is no longer required just to have the tools to do the work. It’s awesome, but it also means that virtually anyone can be sitting at home working with the same exact samples and plugins that John Powell, Danny Elfman, or Michael Giacchino use. In a world where everyone has the same tools, it is your uniqueness and your voice that will most stand out. Create your own sounds, develop your own voice, and be yourself.
Since this is ReelCrafter, let’s talk about reels too. Two basic rules:
- Your demo is no place for your ego.
Your demo should communicate that you can do the job and solve the project’s musical “problem” in an effective, efficient, and inspired way. You may have written a heartbreakingly beautiful choral passacaglia that makes everyone cry and truly shows the depths of your talent, but if it doesn’t bear directly on the horror project you’re pitching the director/producer will, at best, not care or, at worst, be confused by your pitch and therefore less likely to follow up.
- The 5-Second Rule.
This one started as the 3-Second Rule, but I’ve realized some wiggle room is helpful depending on tempo so I’ve tried to adjust accordingly. Simply put, get to the heart of the piece - the thing you want the director/producer to hear - within 3-5 seconds. Attention spans are short and directors/producers are likely listening to many other demos as well. Don’t give them an excuse to skip the track or the rest of your demo by letting them get bored.
Definitely solid advice. And since ReelCrafter can show you when someone skips certain tracks, that can help you decide to move those lower in the reel if they’re not catching your listeners’ interest.
Getting that type of near-real-time feedback on reels is absolutely amazing, Sam. ReelCrafter is so good on so many levels, but that is definitely a killer feature!
Thanks for taking the time to chat, Craig!
You can find Craig online at craigmarksmusic.com.