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An Interview with John Schuermann

John SchuermannMany composers complain about the lack of time allotted to score a film or television show, often times having to compose and mix 30-45 minutes of music in a matter of weeks. John Schuermann, a Colorado Springs composer and CFVA member, has not only been scoring films for most of his life, but also working as the sound designer, audio editor, and final mixer, usually all within the time that a normal composer would be allotted for music alone. John broke in to the Colorado film and music scene in the mid-80s, while still a high school student, with a script and a film score to Hick Trek, a parody film that has been shown at numerous sci-fi conventions. Since then, he has been able to work on a number of Colorado films with local production talent, as well as films outside the state.

Is there any particular style of music that you love to compose in?

When people ask me what my music sounds like, I usually respond that I write more in the style of John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith, who are my “film score gods” (along with Bernard Herrmann and Akira Ifukube). In the past, I used to gravitate more toward projects that would require larger, more bombastic orchestral flourishes, however, these days I think I am into more sensitive, emotional “interior” things. HALCYON [a recent film score by John] would be a good example of the latter technique, at least for the non-ambient sections of the score.

Do you sketch out ideas first or finish a “near complete” mix before sending them to the filmmaker for approval?

I think I have been extremely lucky in that almost every filmmaker I have worked with has practically given me carte blanche to go with my instincts. (I say very lucky as just about every composer interview I have ever read is full of horror stories of having to follow temp tracks and of arguments with the director over musical approach.) As you might gather from this, my usual method is to turn over essentially a finished piece, properly mixed into the film as well.

What are some of the challenges and solutions you face when working with filmmakers?

There have been a few instances where I have felt extremely restricted to essentially aping the temp track. The other major issue is one of time. I think it pays to remember that it is ultimately the director’s picture. I am here to help them tell their story more effectively, in a more intellectually and emotionally impactful manner. Most of the time their instincts are correct. However, there are some times where I think that the director is too close to their film and that I can bring something more to a scene. I think the best way to work through this type of situation is to ask questions that will help me draw insights from the filmmaker as to what emotional or sub-textural points are important to them. From my experience in this regard – indeed, from my whole life experience – is that if I want to be heard, I need to listen first. If the filmmaker really knows you are listening to what they are saying and know that you have a genuine desire to make their film the very best it can be, they will often listen to your input. There is also the chance that you can learn something from them as well.

Walk us through a brief summary of your workflow from start to finish of a film score.

As with most composers, the whole process begins with a discussion with the director / filmmakers as to what they are after in terms of overall sound and emotional / sub-textual content. This is then followed by a “spotting session,” where we sit down and go through the entire film scene by scene, discussing exactly where the music should go and what it should “say.” Once that is done, I go through the actual process of composing. Once I have a few cues written, recorded and mixed, I will usually play these back mixed within the film itself to get a reaction. Once my overall direction and intent has been affirmed, I finish the score and work with the filmmakers on balancing things out for the final mix.

You not only compose music, but also do sound design, audio engineering, mixing/dubbing, and even a screenwriting and directing. How do you balance your different roles on a given project?

One nice thing about doing the final sound mix is that I can make sure that the music does not get buried under tons of other sound elements. To run you through a brief overview of the process: First, I start with straight dialogue editing to make sure we have the clearest take for each line of dialogue and to remove any extraneous sounds from the set. Then I do a noise reduction pass to clean the takes so we can use as much location sound as possible (I hate ADR – many times the energy of the performance gets lost). Then I do initial sound design and Foley, laying in basic sound effects and backgrounds. Usually at this point I start the score. The advantage to doing things in this order is that I can work the score in with the final overall sound design so that they both complement each other.

When you first get involved on a film project, what kind of information do you try to learn first?

Unlike many composers, I usually want to read the script first, unless of course the film has already been edited. I find I can at least get a feel for what kind of music the film needs and see if my perceptions line up with the filmmaker’s. Budget negotiations revolve around whether or not I am doing the sound mix as well. One of the things that I try to avoid is to work for “profit percentage,” as my real world experience is that even successful films do not really see a back-end profit.

How do you work within filmmakers' budgets, as these can vary drastically from a couple hundred dollars to thousands, and still produce high-quality, emotional music without sacrificing on the lower end projects?

For me, every film absolutely requires that the film composer open his or her heart to it in a very real and genuine manner. Even if the film itself may not be the work of art the filmmakers intended, it deserves the composer’s full emotional attention. For each and every project I work on, I start first by allowing myself to empathize with the characters and the emotional arc of the story. That, to me, is key. I have allowed myself to get choked up over emotional elements of films that may not seem to deserve these types of reactions, yet if the filmmaker intended the viewer to feel that emotion, I need to let myself experience it as authentically as possible. This keeps my film score above all, honest. No matter what the project or budget level, I endeavor to keep the music honest and true to the filmmaker’s intent.

How do you meet filmmakers in Colorado?

Mostly by ensuring that I can be found in places where filmmakers can also be found. This means attending film festivals, meetups of filmmakers / screenwriters, attending film premieres, joining the CFVA, etc. I try to position myself as a resource to filmmakers, not only as a sound designer and film composer, but also in terms of giving genuine (and hopefully helpful) feedback on various projects when it is asked for. I also hold seminars on “The History and Art of Film Scoring” at various venues, and I find those to be a great deal of fun.

Aside from CFVA, are you a member of any other Colorado-based organization or society that have social gatherings or events you attend?

Yes, several: The Video Production Network, The Denver Screenwriters, Film In Colorado, The Colorado Acting and Film Network, The Colorado Professional Videographers Association, others.

Do you have any tips for aspiring film composers in Colorado?

Yes – first, make sure your people skills are top notch. Learn how to be a good – and empathetic! – listener, and apply those same skills to your craft. Empathy is all-important. When filmmakers know that you “get” them and their film, they will in turn trust you. This same skill allows you to do your best work.

How do you like being a member of the Colorado Film and Video Association and how important is it to the Colorado film industry?

I find the CFVA to be a great resource not only to help people find me, but to help me to find others. As a filmmaker, I find myself turning to the CFVA to find others with skillsets that I do not possess. I also find the CFVA to be the number one source of visits to my website.

John is currently in pre-production on his own film, and will be wearing multiple hats once again, working as the screenwriter, director, composer, sound designer and mixer. He is active in the Colorado film and music scene, CFVA production guide and runs his own studio with full THX pm3 5.1 mixing capability. He can be contacted at jsmusicsound@gmail.com or 719-460-8182 and has additional information on his website at www.jsmusicandsound.com.

Read the Full Q & A

Chris Joye is a Denver-based film and television composer and multi-instrumentalist.  A dual-major graduate of Berklee College of Music in Film Scoring and Bass Performance, he has credits in numerous feature films and documentaries, television and web commercials, and has music being licensed with companies such as Red Bull Media House UK, The New Yorker, MTV, and VH1.  He is currently finishing his fifth album geared towards commercial licensing, composing for a feature film in Chicago in production and working on a number of web-based ads. Contact him through the Production Guide today.