Today I’ve got the great pleasure of interviewing award-winning movie, TV and trailer music composer Jacob Yoffee on how he got started in the business and his approach on creating amazing custom trailer cues.
Jacob has created custom trailer music for blockbuster movie advertising campaigns like The Jungle Book, Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and most recently the upcoming Star Wars: The Last Jedi. As a TV and feature film composer, Jacob has scored dozens of movies including David A. Armstrong’s heist thriller Pawn and the popular MTV series Finding Carter as well as Disney’s celebrated Andi Mack.
HOW IT ALL GOT STARTED
EPICOMPOSER: Jacob, please tell us a bit about yourself! How did you start out as a composer and what is your musical background?
JY: I’d always set out to be a composer, but discovered modern jazz in college after meeting the saxophonist, Gary Thomas. I was a student at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, studying orchestral composition at the time and began diving into improvisation pretty heavily. The discipline of jazz and the amazing harmonic knowledge that comes along with that was intoxicating. I ended up leaving with degrees in both Jazz & Composition and then made a living playing in jazz, rock, hip-hop, country, neo-soul & music theatre groups for several years.
In 2008, I was in New York, rehearsing for a concert with Michele Rosewoman (a fantastic composer & musician) and was crashing with Russell Kirk, another great jazz musician who at that time was a student at New York University. Randomly, he mentioned their film scoring department and told me about a teacher named Deniz Hughes, who had orchestrated Elliot Goldenthal’s ‘Interview With A Vampire’ score. That happens to be my absolute FAVORITE film score and a major reason I wanted to be a composer.
I took that as a sign from above. I’d been getting the composing itch again anyway, so I applied that night for the program and was determined to study with her. Luckily, I was accepted and the next few years were crazy intense, amazing and exhausting. I made the move to Los Angeles in 2010 and haven’t looked back. And, it turns out that all that experience performing non-classical music was the perfect counterpart to the orchestral training for a film composer. I couldn’t survive if I hadn’t developed those skills.
CREATING CUSTOM TRAILER MUSIC TRACKS
EPICOMPOSER: You recently composed music for Disney’s movie theater trailer campaign to the eagerly awaited Star Wars sequel The Last Jedi. How did you feel when you got the call and how did your initial process look like when starting with the composition?
JY: There are a handful of composers that get called to develop music for the Star Wars campaigns. It’s an incredible franchise that deserves more than the average movie so it’s an ‘all hands on deck’ situation. You’re working with picture editors & music supervisors to come up with as many ideas as possible to keep it interesting, keep it fresh and most of all give you that Star Wars feeling. Often one person’s idea inspires another, which inspires another – so it’s amazing to see how it all comes together in the end.
Ultimately, I’ve just been so excited to be involved and continue to develop as a composer through the intense pressure-cooker process.
EPICOMPOSER: In almost every trailer campaign you scored for the Disney franchises, you used motifs or parts of the respective movie’s theme(s) alongside common trailer music elements. How do you go about incorporating those distinctive melodies and themes into a musical context that might not always seem privileged for big melodic content?
JY: You’d think it’d be easy to ‘trailerize’ these iconic themes but it’s actually quite challenging. Over time, the cultural weight of these franchises builds up in our minds and there is a huge expectation of emotional intensity – whether it’s the feeling of adventure, fun, poignancy or nostalgia. So the most important thing to consider is what audiences would expect and work to create something that takes a small step forward doing something slightly different. It’s got to feel current, with a sense of urgency – this is NOW; not a re-hash.
Of course the biggest challenge is using these lyrical melodies in a trailer track – an environment that is not well suited to lyrical melodies. And, although in some cases the final track gets re-recorded with a live orchestra, mostly it’s just you & your rig so you’ve got to get those samples to SING. There’s muscle and aggression and beefiness that we’re all accustomed to in trailers and it’s definitely difficult to keep that while also presenting a sing-able line.
Ultimately, there has been a massive amount of experimentation by everyone involved and, thankfully, the samples have gotten so good you can at least create decent mockups quickly. You find ways to bring heightened energy without dropping Inception ‘bwahs’ everywhere and crushing the drums.
TRAILER MUSIC MINDSET
EPICOMPOSER: With quite a few heavyweight trailer music campaigns under your belt, you surely have established a certain kind of workflow or mindset to help you start a new track. Could you let us in on your approach to composing a typical trailer music cue – what are the challenges, how does your preparations look like and are there any common practices
you use while composing and orchestrating?
JY: If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past few years, it’s that the sound of trailers keeps changing. Setting out to write a badass trailer track has never worked for me – it’s always when I start with a very small, almost delicate idea that it seems to click. You can always orchestrate and produce along the way to beef up and trailerize something later – but it seems to be more difficult to make a generic bombastic track more musical.
That being said a few things I always keep in mind are simplicity, repetition and strength. In the end, a picture editor has to work with your material and if it’s not obvious how they can cut with it you won’t get anywhere. The musical phrases have to be clear, with sensible repetition & build and there has to be some strength in the mix. Bottom end is crucial but with real color and energy in the orchestration.
SCORING FOR FILM & TV
EPICOMPOSER: In your soundtrack to David A. Armstrong’s heist thriller ‘Pawn’ you’ve extensively been using electronic and synthesized elements alongside a traditional symphonic orchestra. Since this kind of hybrid composition technique is an absolute staple of trailer music, did your work for one sector sparked inspiration for the other?
JY: Absolutely – I never set out to do trailer music really and it still only represents about 30% of my musical output. But I always joke that it’s like the Olympics of composing. It forces you to write and produce at the maximum level of your capabilities AND you have to do it fast. It’s been fantastic training for television writing (for speed) and has helped in everything else just for my production skills.
One of the most exciting things about the time we live in is that technology is giving us better & better tools all the time. The samples allow us to write realistic orchestral music, convincingly, at a faster pace. When you combine that with everything else at our disposal it’s pretty inspiring.
EPICOMPOSER: You recently scored MTV’s renowned teen drama ‘Finding Carter’ whose soundtrack combined contemporary pop music with traditional orchestral scoring. Did the presence of pop music present any special challenges to you regarding your compositional process?
JY: There were two roles to play on that show for the composer: the first was to supply a consistent sound for the underscore and the other was to help smooth over all the song syncs in the show. By that I mean I had to create intros, outros, song overlays or even last-minute replacements for anything that didn’t quite work on its own.
That was particularly challenging because if I had to create any music to support a song it would have to match the instrumentation and mix of the licensed track. On any given episode, I would be writing acoustic guitar/folk-y stuff all the way to mainstream electro-pop to dirty grungy stuff. Then you’re getting into matching the mix, which takes a lot of time & energy.
Overall, it was exciting and educational. I learned a lot from studying and trying to recreate those mixes and sound worlds alongside producing the underscore. As the show progressed, I found ways to keep the score holding its own against the songs so that I could easily shift the score towards a more orchestral or a more pop sound.
JACOB’S WORKING ENVIRONMENT
EPICOMPOSER: Can you tell us a bit about your working environment? Which system are you working on and do you have certain virtual instruments and sample libraries you find yourself using the most?
JY: I’m housed in the Dubbing Brothers Post facility in Burbank, in a great sound-proofed room. My monitors are ATC SCM-45s, which are fantastic for mixing music, very even-keel through the frequency spectrum and as powerful as I’ll ever need. My main DAW is Logic Pro, but I deliver everything in Pro Tools for final mixes. Native Instruments products are everywhere in my setup – Kontakt of course is the center point, but I also use many of their sample libraries in my TV work.
As for the orchestral stuff, I’m of the mindset that you really need all of the libraries. They each have a different sound – most obviously because they’re all recorded in different rooms. But also because of the tastes and approaches of their creators.
EPICOMPOSER: When you’re not working, what activities do you like to pursue to clear your creative mind and gather new inspiration?
JY: Wait, people spend time not working??? I’m joking but, seriously, I’m still trying to take more time off. It’s hard not to work seven days a week! But my wife & I do enjoy sampling all the amazing restaurants LA has to offer. It seems like the city attracts so many talented and innovative chefs that I’ll never grow tired of going out to eat here.
THE NOW & THE FUTURE
EPICOMPOSER: With a second season of Disney Channel’s ‘Andi Mack’ just around the corner, are there any other exciting, upcoming projects you’re able to tell us about?
JY: There are two projects I’d love to talk about: First there’s a great feature film by director Travis Milloy called ‘Infinity Chamber’ that we’re just finishing up. It’s a sci-fi/drama set in the not-too distant future that deals with our relationship to technology and its (possible) pitfalls. With his cult hit ‘Pandorum’, Travis is definitely a seasoned screenwriter but this project shows that he’s a more-than-capable director. The collaboration with Travis and the rest of my music team was a real joy and I’m quite proud of this score. The soundtrack will be released later this year.
And, second, I’ll be working on a beautiful project filmed in Nepal by the Sherpas Cinema guys here next month. I can’t say too much about it yet but, just like all the other projects I’ve worked on with them, the cinematography is gorgeous and the storytelling is timely and powerful.
EPICOMPOSER: As always, the final question: If you had the opportunity to collaborate with anybody– deceased or alive – who would you choose and why?
JY: I’m always hoping to get a film project where I can call Gary Thomas to collaborate on the music. Not only was he my mentor but he’s got the most interesting saxophone tone I’ve ever heard and I’ve got this idea that somehow it could work with a sci-fi action orchestra sound. Plus it would be awesome to intermix that harmonic language with mainstream film. I hope someday it happens – or maybe I just need to write the music first?
EPICOMPOSER: Jacob, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions! I wish you much success and luck for the future and I’m sure we’ll see and hear a lot more of you in the future.