April 2016

Joe Kraemer has been composing for movies since the age of 15, going on to carve out an eclectic career scoring all manner of projects.

Here he discusses the significance of his working relationship with director, Christopher McQuarrie, the trials of reduced post schedules and how the industry has changed over the last couple of decades… 

Can you tell us about your journey through the film industry? My first experience in film happened when I was 15 and I acted in an independent film in upstate New York.  During the shoot, I asked the director, Scott Storm, what he did for music.  When he said that he raids his record collection to find tracks to use for score, I told him how I had a home studio with a four-track and some synths, and asked if I could do the score.  He agreed to try it out, and by the end of the shoot, I was starring in and scoring my first movie.  

I attended Berklee College of Music in the early 90’s, when they were just about the only school offering a degree in Film Composing.  I moved to LA in 1994 and immediately lucked into a job cutting sound effects and dialogue while I scored short films and indie features for free.  

Back in high school, I had met Chris McQuarrie through Scott Storm.  After McQ won the Oscar for writing THE USUAL SUSPECTS, he began to direct films and brought me on board as his composer.  We did THE WAY OF THE GUN together.  That score was temped into a lot of films which got me some more work and kept me busy until JACK REACHER in 2012.  That led to MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, and that leads me here to today.

Your career history is laden with outstanding work, do you have any favourites?  I am very proud of the work I’ve done.  I’ve always tried to make a contribution to the films beyond just ambient wallpaper.  I’ve tried to reinforce the story telling with themes and motifs.  I also work to be better on every job.  So these days, I’m very fond of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE and a short I scored for Scott Storm just before that, called THE APPLE TREE.

You've worked on features, shorts, TV and documentaries. How do they differ?  Documentaries are the most different from features, shorts and TV, since their music is less reliant on matching the cutting of the film.  The music in a doc is much more utilitarian in setting mood and tone, and not so much on pace.  

Features, shorts and TV are all essentially the same from a compositional point of view.  They all tell stories that need music to enhance the drama, blend with the editing and sound, and help the audience interpret the director’s intentions.

What industry changes have you seen since you began? Digital editing (Avid, ProTools) has had a profound impact.  When I took classes at Berklee, computer editing was in its infancy, and wasn’t even being taught there yet.   The first films I worked on in LA were cutting on film on a Moviola.  Now that process is extinct.

The two biggest aspects of digital editing that affect composers are the schedule and the temp score.  Post-production used to be a process measured in months (i.e. six months, eight months, ten months).  Now it is measured in weeks (i.e. 16 weeks, 12 weeks, etc.).  This has compressed the amount of time a composer has to get the score ready for the film.  That compression has resulted in more and more scores being written by teams of composers using computers.  Fewer and fewer scores these days are the work of one composer writing at a piano.

The second aspect is the temp score.  Now composers have always had to deal with temp scores, from the earliest days of sound film.  But the analog editing equipment always kept the temp score in a realm of broad strokes, where it was used to suggest a general idea and direction for the music.  Now with digital editing, a temp score can be crafted that catches every cut and nuance of a scene, so much so that the composer is straight-jacketed into mimicking it as closely as possible.

How do you think a competition like The Music+Sound Awards impacts the industry?  The world has become a very noisy place, and not just for our ears.  Our attention is constantly being grabbed by television, radio, social media, the internet, and more.  Awards can be a powerful way for a composer to stand out from the crowd and be heard above that noise.  This competition, in recognizing the contributions music AND sound design make to visual media, gives composers AND sound designers just that chance!

What are your top 3 favourite film scores? (not including yours!)  Given my age at the time I saw it, the first Star Wars film had a profound affect on me.  It’s my favourite score of all time.  I also love All The Presidents Men by David Shire.  Those two scores have probably influenced my work more that any others, at least on a conscious level.  A third score would be Vangelis’s Blade Runner, which I adore.

I’m not saying these are my three absolute favourites, but they are three that I return to again and again for inspiration and enjoyment.