Greetings, fellow film fans! This week I was able to the composer Jacob Shea, whose credits include many of the BBC documentary nature series like Blue Planet II, Planet Earth II, and their most recent Seven Worlds, One Planet. We talked about how he got started, his process, and his collaboration with the infamous Hans Zimmer. If you haven’t listened to the scores outside of watching the films, I highly recommend it. They are really beautiful and unique.
Jacob is a really great guy and I thoroughly enjoyed interviewing him and am really grateful for his patience with my technical problems. Unfortunately my recording equipment malfunctioned, so I was unable to get a usable audio track for you to listen to and am missing about a minute of the interview in the first third. However, thanks for reading!
D: How did you get into film composing?
J: I grew up in San Jose and I really wanted to go a music conservatory and my parents pragmatism pushed me towards UC Santa Barbara with my kind of interest in delving into other subjects. I studied composition there.
D: Did you grow up playing an instrument?
J: Yes. I played piano very poorly for about 4 years from ages 7-11, but I picked up the guitar at 13. I really gravitated toward jazz harmonies and classical counterpoints in high school and got deeper in the weeds with nerdy musical stuff. That was kind of the jumping off point for when I got to college to study composition with a bunch of composition teachers. One of which was Karen Tanaka who still teaches at CalArts (who is a brilliant composer in her own right) and helped orchestrate Planet Earth II.
At that point in college I kind of had to figure out a way to kind of make a living doing something musical. There are some kids that grow up and hear John Williams and are off the races and realize that’s what I want to do/be. I came to it in a more side door. I had rented a movie on a family vacation called Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. The score by Alex Wurman just blew me away. I sent him an email right away saying I would work for free if you allow me to come down to LA and see what goes on in this process. He was gracious enough to come down and spend the summer and he wouldn’t let me come there there without Per Diem. I basically spent a summer in 2003 kind of getting acquainted with the language of film and the language of producing a score and the technical/collaborative aspects of that with working with live musicians. I left LA that summer thinking “I’m going to come back and give it an honest effort. ”
D: Oh wow. So you knew you wanted to do composition, but you didn’t know that film was the direction you wanted to go?
J: Not initially. Because I loved Academia so much I thought I would be a professor somewhere. My now wife who I was dating at UCSB was from Los Angeles and was planning on moving back after graduation. So all these things kind of lining up to push me to try it out. Looking back, I can say that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and the music of the game Zelda and other multimedia examples were beloved by me, but I didn’t really have the knowledge that it could be a career to help create that. If I had known it I could, I would have said “yes! sign me up!” but I didn’t know.
D: It looks like you started doing short films pretty quick?
J: I went to USC and dropped my demo in a giant bin there. Same thing at UCLA. Eventually I was recommended to Hans Zimmer and his company as a tech. And he hired me and I just hung on for dear life. I came up at first helping him in a technical capacity and then moving over towards the more creative side. I assisted him for about 5 years.
D: I see quite a bit of ‘Score Engineer’ credits in your profile. What is a score engineer vs a music producer?
J: It’s kind of on purpose a little unspecific. It can go a couple different ways. Like on Angels and Demons I wound up being a midi-programmer of all these sample choirs that Hans had taken great care in cultivating. But the way the samples were being triggered by the midi keyboard was imperfect at best. Hans had a thing where he was just write the choir parts on a piano or something and I would go in and put what he had written with the actual sound he wanted. I then produced it and to where it was in tune and sounded right. It can run from that to literally printing stems for the music mixer and the dub stage and doing super detailed stuff that is the unsung hero of the process and is incredible training as a composer. You get to see the tremendous detail that is required when doing it at the highest level.
D: I’ve heard the story so many times where Hans Zimmer just takes a chance on a kid. It seems like that’s what he does and it works out most of the time.
J: He’s a truly special person in this community because he truly gets excited by having people around him that might offer up something that is complimentary or even non complimentary to the way he works. He loves to collaborate having a sound board and working together as a team. He takes chances on people that have a tremendous amount of dedication to go on that journey with him.
D: He’s a pretty busy guy. Just recently it was announced he’s doing the new Bond movie. I’ve heard of people putting stuff together really quickly like Michael Giacchino for Rogue One, but how does Hans end up doing something like that so quickly?
J: I’m not privy to that particular project. But I would say that it takes a village when it’s that sort of time frame. In general I think scoring is something that given budget and pace of things and expectations of filmmakers is really hard to do it as a one man band anymore. It’s not to say that there’s not an architect that makes many of the creative decisions. I had a second composer on Seven Worlds by the name of Anze Rozman who helped me get to the finish line. It was all told 300 minutes of music in 6 months. I mean, you spend the first four months on the first episode and then the last two months on the remaining six. So, given my past experience with Hans is that he probably has some people that are going to provide additional cues for him, but my suspicion is that he’s going to do something that he has done for a long time, which is create these long intricate pieces that he calls suites. It’s basically a diary of how he imagines the music would be.
D: You mean the sketchbooks that he lists sometimes at the end of the album?
J: Exactly. He basically says “this is what I think it will sound like for the film, the twists and turns over 2 hours.” And that generally can be chopped up my a music editor and plastered all over the film. They then sit in the room with a director and go over it and then take suggestions like a key change here or something different there. Then one of his additional composers will sit down and know what to do. At least that’s my impression.
D: I’m curious, with these BBC projects, do they use temp music?
J: Yes. For sure. At the start of the project even though we had one done two series with them before (Blue Planet II and Planet Earth II) they had to have something for the pitch process because it’s BBC. They said this is the next landmark series and asked how we would do it. So Hans and I, the first thing we did without any instruction was to come up with a very simple, universal melody. Basically an overture and suite. They were very receptive to that, and from that point (even though they sent us temp music) we had an idea of where we wanted to go with it.
D: They didn’t use your music as the temp music then?
J: Correct. We had at least one piece of music that we could point to and say “this is tonally right for the bigger moments of the show” and everything was derived from that. They would send over notes with the temp music. If they hated it I wouldn’t even look at the temp music, but if they loved it I would assume that there is something in the structure of it that they are responding to or the instrumentation and try to tease out what was resonating with them and try to use that a framework rather than attempt to emulate it.
D: Asking composers about temp music has always produced the most interesting answers.
J: For about 90% of the things I’ve done it’s been something to contend with and lots of composers tend to have a contentious relationship with it. I find it to be another point of direction. As long as I have the ability to get rid of it and I have the director’s/producer’s thoughts on it, I just consider it to be another data point that gets me closer to the way they envision wanting people to experience their work. I might have my own ideas and if I have something I feel very strongly about and the temp isn’t that then I will bring it up. But overall I find it to be helpful to getting what they need. It’s so difficult to talk about music, so if you can both point to a piece of music as what they want then you can reverse engineer what is satisfying about that to them.
D: I would say that’s a very admirable attitude because it sounds like you see yourself as serving the filmmaker instead of trying to create your own masterpiece.
J: Yeah, it’s nice if you can do both! Ultimately the music is in service of a bigger experience. It’s not like you can’t write something that you’re proud of and thrilled with and satisfy the need of the director, because you can. It’s actually something I’ve picked up from Hans. It’s not so much about making the music a focal point, it’s about making the film an experience. Whatever the music does to create that feel, then you’re winning.
D: You’ve done a number of the BBC nature documentary series that my family and I have enjoyed immensely and we adore the music. Why do you think you’re such a good fit for these types of projects?
J: When we got Planet Earth II a few years ago it was really daunting. At least pitching it was. George Fenton’s work on the original series was some of the great orchestral film music that I enjoy listening to. Unfortunately that’s not who I am. I can’t be as lyrical or as sophisticated with an orchestra. In my own estimation that’s just not where my strength lies. I took the approach that makes the stuff that you’re witnessing on screen is in step with the music. Like when the action happens or the camera pans around and such. To have the music feel like it’s hand in glove with the storytelling in a visceral way. Sometimes that involves small ensembles as well as large ones. I assumed it was such a “Hail Mary” at the time when I pitched it that I thought I was just do what we would want to do on the series instead of second guessing trying to be the ‘right’ people for it. When we got the series, it was a tremendous boon and so exciting. I don’t know that we were the exact right people but we never lost sight of approaching it in a way that feels viscerally satisfying. And not thinking about whether or not the piece or the approach is in keeping with anything but what excites me in terms of color and dynamic. It’s not always easy being in the head space, especially with deadlines, but in my experience I feel like that’s the most successful route to take. Basically just going with your gut and doing a stream of consciousness approach.
D: Thank you very much for your time.