What I Learned from Working on Hollywood Films and TV Shows

By David Bawiec, Spire Contributor | October 2, 2018

What I Learned from Working on Hollywood Films and Tv Shows

I've been a very fortunate guy. Despite my relatively young age (at the time of writing this article, I'm 33), I've been able to work on the music for some pretty exceptional Hollywood films and TV shows, including NCIS, Arrested Development, National Geographic and Marcus Nispel's Exeter.

As a graduate of the Berklee College of Music Film Scoring and Contemporary Writing and Production departments, I knew I wanted to make a career out of writing music for different types of media. Film scoring, pop, you name it. Having moved out to Los Angeles, I was about to enter the film and music industry with vast knowledge and an extraordinary education. I had learned everything there was to know. I was ready to take on the world.

Or so I thought.

Little did I know, some of my biggest lessons were yet to be learned. And to my surprise, I would learn them working on the various projects that lay ahead.

Some of the things I learned helped me deliver music with more confidence, others allowed me to stay sane under crazy deadlines. Some of them I learned from the incredible mentors I had along the way, while still others I had to figure out on my own.

In this article, I’m sharing some of the most important lessons that have helped me throughout the years, that I believe may benefit you in all your music ventures moving forward. The great news is that almost all of these approaches can be applied to every aspect of music creation. From songwriting to music production, mixing, and mastering.

1. Trust your musical instincts and learn to let go

When you're working on a TV show, you're frequently dealing with crazy deadlines, a lot of pressure, and tight turnarounds. On NCIS, each 40-minute episode had roughly 30 minutes of music. With a new episode airing every single week, that meant we had seven days to compose, arrange, record, edit, mix, and stem out all the music for an episode in preparation for the final mix (where it would be combined with dialogue and sound effects).

And you still have to factor in the distribution time.

And you haven't even given yourself a day off.

In reality, we would have five days for all of that. Five days to deliver 30 minutes of completed music. And the moment the episode would air, we would do it all again, preparing the music for the next episode. (Yes, I'm saying we, but more on that later).

The built-in stress that comes with such a tight schedule will stretch you to your limits. One of the first things that I had to quickly learn was the ability to let go. When you're working within such a compressed timeline, you don't have the luxury of time to continually second guess your decisions. It's normal for all of us to ask, “Is this the best I can do? What if I had the melody jump up a fourth rather than just a third? What if I changed the chord here?” All of these questions are valid. And if there's room for improvement, you should take those opportunities to improve.

However, there also has to come a moment when you say "this is good enough," accept your music for what it is, and let it go. The truth is, it probably isn't perfect. In fact, it will probably never be perfect. And that's OK. As author Elizabeth Gilbert says: "Done is better than good."

Trust your musical instincts. They're probably correct.

If you're working on your own music and find yourself getting stuck in the endless loop of tweaking and fixing, give yourself a deadline. And don't give yourself permission to push it in time. Asking a friend to be your accountability buddy is a great way to keep you on track and make sure that you actually finish the projects you start.

2. Deliver before the deadlines

This one may seem straightforward, but it ended up being a pretty big unlock for me. For my entire childhood, I was the kid that would get things done last minute. I learned early on that I was actually pretty good at buckling down and completing a ton of work in a short period of time. Knowing that, unfortunately, meant that I would give myself permission to slack off and wait until the last minute to anything done. And sure, I would complete it by the deadline, but it also came at a cost I didn't yet know.

I was once hired to write music for a project that was due at the end of the month. I had an entire month to get it done. It wasn't a complicated project, so, as usual, I waited till four days before the deadline to begin work on it. The day I began work I got two phone calls about two different projects. Each was a much higher profile project and paid triple what I was getting paid on the current one. Each was due at the end of the month and would have taken two days to complete. As thrilling as they sounded, there was no way for me to take on either of them. I was already swamped trying to catch up and deliver the first one, let alone trying to work on either of these two. So I had to decline them.

I lost two great gigs, both of which could have taken my career in very different directions. Those projects never showed up again. The moral of the story is: had I actually started work on my first project right when I got it, I would have been available to take on additional work when it came my way.

Don't deliver your work at the deadline. Deliver it ahead of time. Doing so will make you look professional. And if you're actually free and available to work on it earlier, get to work on it right away. You never know when another exciting opportunity may come knocking at your door. You want to make sure that you're free to say yes to it when it does.

Spanish film composer Javier Bayon

3. Be versatile

When you're working on a film, you're frequently having to do many things on your own, including negotiating contracts, scoring the film, editing, mixing, preparing cue sheets, registering the copyright, and doing all of the above while handling the different personalities that you're interacting with.

The more you know how to do, the more you're able to balance everything and get it done on your own. If you're a music producer, the ability to write and negotiate your own contracts is going to be essential to your financial success. If you're a songwriter, being able to create your own professional sounding demos means you won't have to rely on somebody else just to get your song presented to a music producer or artist. (And if you're not using Spire Studio for that yet, check it out!).

4. Identify your strengths/weaknesses and figure it out

This may seem odd at first, but trust me, it's much more important than you think. Imagine this scenario: if I hired you to work with me on a project, and I know you're great at programming drums, I'll have you program a lot of my drum grooves. It's obviously something you're excellent at and something you enjoy. The more I know what you're good at, the higher the chance I will call you for help with those elements when a fast turnaround project rolls in.

Everyone around you should know what your strengths are. Spend the time to figure them out, and then make sure everyone around you knows what you're good at.

However, knowing your weaknesses is equally important. First off, it's a way for you to gauge what you still need to learn. If there are blanks in your knowledge, try to fill them in. Watch tutorial videos, take an online course, or ask a friend for help. Do whatever you can to learn the things you don't know.

There are many situations in which I was asked to do something that I had no idea how to do. Whether it was troubleshooting a non-functioning DAW plug-in, or setting up a networked set of computers that had to communicate together. Knowing that I'm great with technology, I knew that although I'd never done that specific thing, I could probably figure it out. It's the "Let me try and see what I can do" attitude that got me the jobs. I can do a Google search like nobody's business, and so a couple articles and tutorials later, I had figured out where the problem lay and how to fix it.

Be willing, especially on the spot, to troubleshoot and try to figure things out.

Of course, you won’t be a pro at everything. It would be impossible to be outstanding at every single thing. So also be realistic. If this is something that's outside of your comfort zone and not something you want to learn to do, don't, and add it to the list of things you don't do. There's nothing more disappointing (and aggravating) than hiring someone to perform a task, only to get mediocre results and discover that they aren't great at it at all—particularly with limited time.

If there's something you're not proficient in, be upfront about it. Find out who is good at it and recommend that person instead. You'll be much more valuable that way than struggling through it and disappointing someone in the process. Plus, being able to admit that "I'm not that great at XYZ, but I'm a pro at this and that" makes you look much more reliable and professional.

Identify your strengths in music

5. Build a team

Tying right into the last tip, one of the things I learned working on so many high profile projects is that rarely are they the result of one person. Movies aren't created by one person—you've seen those credit rolls which list the hundreds or thousands of people that worked on a film. Why should music be any different? Some of the best projects I'd heard/worked on were created by entire teams of people. On NCIS there were six of us working every week. Brian Kirk was the lead composer overseeing the entire process. Next, there were three additional composers with varying skills (my specialty on that show was actually programming all the action sequence grooves. And I loved it!) Then we had a fantastic music editor and one guy whose sole job was to mix the music and make it sound great.

Building a team of people that you can trust is an essential part of getting work done quicker and at a higher level. My general mantra nowadays is: if there's somebody else who can do something better than me, I will let them do it. After all, when each one of you is focusing on the things that you do best, you're all giving 100%, which means that the final result is going to be much better. Building a successful team of talented people will take time, but it's worth the effort. So make mental notes on each person you interact with. Who was great to work with? What tools could they bring to the table? Grow your musical family.

6. Listen more than you speak, and do what they ask

This is another tip that seems pretty obvious, but again, it's something that has to be mentioned and that will probably take practice. When you're working on a film, you're often hired under a work-for-hire situation, meaning that you are paid to create something under precise specifications. Although there's frequently space for artistic creativity and liberty, you're still often given certain parameters to work within. Where many beginning composer and music producers struggle is understanding that you're not really the boss. The boss is whoever is paying you, and since they're paying you, it is your job to do what they want.

You may think, "but what about artistic integrity?!" I'll be the first to tell you that it honestly doesn't matter. You can have all the artistic integrity you want on your own projects, but if the director or artist you're working for is asking you to do XYZ, it's your responsibility to do what they're asking of you. Of course, if you think a better result could be achieved by doing things differently, make the appropriate suggestions, but never fight.

The same applies to being a bandmate, a session player, or a music producer. At the end of the day, you are an employee. You're hired to perform a specific service, so focus on delivering what's expected of you before you start painting outside of the box.

Film-composer-aaronzigman-john-legend

7. Be willing to kill your babies

It’s a highly dramatic heading, but it's an important lesson that I learned from film-makers. Every film student will tell you that the hardest thing is deciding on which scenes to cut from the final film. After all, they put so much effort into filming each one.  Each one of them is like a perfectly crafted baby. Each one looks stunning. Each one sounds wonderful. The actors performed beautifully. But in the grand scheme of things, something about the scene just doesn't work. So you have to remove the scene from the final film.

This is called “killing your baby.” And it's a very difficult thing.

The same editing process exists in music. I'm sure you've experienced it. You've spent a couple days working on a section of a song. And on its own, the track sounds fantastic. The groove, the strings, the build-up. But the moment you brought in the vocalist, you realized that it's not what it needs to be. That whole section has to drop completely, be super simple, intimate. And as difficult as it will be, you have to ultimately make the adult decision to cut out the great work you put into it. Ego is the first thing that will hurt. But what I've learned with time is that if it doesn't work, it doesn't work. No matter how pretty it was.

So get rid of it for the better good. And who knows, if it's as good as it seemed, maybe you'll be able to reuse parts of it in another project in the near future.

8. Stay organized

When a feature film can consist of over 80 different cues (pieces) of music, each with multiple revisions, session files, bounces, stem exports, etc., you're bound to end up with a ton of files. What if you're working on a couple projects at once? How you keep all of that organized will determine the efficiency and speed with which you're able to get things done. If a director is coming over and says, "Hey, remember that film we did 4 years ago, there was this cool instrument you used in this one scene. Can we use it again?" If you have everything organized in a consistent way, you should be able to find the right file quickly. Thankfully, nowadays there are many varying ways to keep things organized.

First, make sure you have a hierarchy system that makes sense. In my studio, I have a dedicated hard drive called "Projects". This is where ALL of my project files live. I then have four subfolders for each genre that I work in:

Movies - for anything that's film/tv related

Pop - the name says it all. If there are vocals, it probably goes here

Orchestral - this is anything that's orchestral but non-visual

Other - a place for anything that doesn't seem to fit anywhere else

Shows & Entertainment - this will include any live stage shows, musicals, VR experiences, theme park attractions, firework shows, etc.

This type of sub-division instantly lets me easily filter projects by the group they belong to. In each of those folders, you'll find a subfolder for every single project. If I work with a particular director/client on many things I may create a special folder to house all their projects in one place. Once you step into the actual project folder you'll see that each one of them has the same organization within.

Session File(s) - I use Logic Pro X's Alternates to keep all my cues and revisions organized in one place

Bounces - this is where I'll place all my audio exports and bounces

Documents - this will house any documents like notes from the client, progress spreadsheet, and most importantly the signed contract (you don't want to be scrambling to some other drive to find the contract for a specific project, that's why I have it here)

Original Files - here I'll place anything that the client sent me, be it reference tracks, video files, etc.

The important thing that I took away from some of my greatest mentors was to clearly label everything. The last thing you want is to find seven files called "Stereo Output.wav" and have to waste your time listening to it to hear what is what. So name things accordingly. If I'm creating bounces, stems or individual track exports, each will be labeled with the full song title, version number, and the optional stem/track name. If you made fixes to the mix/arrangement, the session version number should change from say v4 to v5, and any new bounce from that session should have the same updated v5 label. That way just looking at the name of a file you're able to know exactly what it is.

This may seem like a lot, but it's worth the time. It's all about keeping things organized in such a way that you're able to find things quickly. Less searching means more time to make music!

9. Stay backed up

The most terrifying thing is to be working on an important project and suddenly, when you come back into the studio the next day, the drive you were working on doesn't turn on. The drive turns out to be damaged and you have lost all the work you've put into this song! It's a truly horrifying experience. If you've never had a drive die on you, I'm sorry to tell you, it's coming. It happens to everyone. Whether it's because you accidentally dropped the drive or some kind of corruption due to aging, hard drives are physical elements that do break.

Make sure you're fully backed up.

You can use Time Machine or an advanced backup system (I use Chronosync) to keep all your backups running on an automatic schedule. I have four main 4TB drives in my studio. Each has a different purpose and houses different types of files. But each one of those drives has an identical clone backup drive. The backup task runs automatically every hour to make sure that the clones are up to date with the latest data. If anything were to happen to one of my main drives I could easily instantly swap it out using the clone and be ready to get back to work right away. Having hourly backups means that if I would have lost any data in the process, it would have been whatever I was working on since the last backup task so at the most just the last hour of work. That way I never risk losing days, weeks or months of work. Imagine, if the next Star Wars movie is about to come out and they have to cancel the premiere because the video editor's hard drive died and they have to start editing from scratch. So you want to be backed up.

Having local backups is your first line of defense. But what if something happens to those local drives (the main ones and the clones)? What if they get stolen? What if a pipe bursts and floods your studio? What if there's an earthquake and they're physically damaged beyond repair? Unfortunately, accidents do happen, you just want to make sure you're prepared for when they do. Online cloud-backup services like Backblaze, iDrive, and Carbonite are worth the investment. Most of them are super easy to set up, run automatically in the background, and cost no more than a cup of coffee a month. They'll give you the peace of mind that all your data is backed up online and stored on multiple servers across the world, giving you access to all your files wherever you may be.

10. Learn from your mistakes

Occasionally, things may not go as expected. Sometimes relationships don't work out as planned. You may mess something up. You may misjudge the time needed to get something done and be late with a delivery. You may have a falling out with your client. Sadly, it happens.

Some of those situations are easy to pick up from. Others may take years for your to recover from. However, the important thing is that you learn from your mistakes. Try to dissect what you did well and what you could have done better. Make a mental note of those errors so you can identify the patterns when they happen again in the future. We're all learning and constantly improving. So use those slips to grow and become the best you that you can be.

Conclusion

You may work in a completely different field of music, but I believe that these tips will help you become a better bandmate, songwriter, music producer, composer, and overall musician. Each one of these tackles a different aspect of life, but can be applied to many situations. I learned all these lessons from working on major motion pictures and TV shows, yet I was able to implement them in my professional life as a whole. Take the time to see how each one of these can apply to your career.

Some of these are concepts you may already be doing, and if that's the case, bravo. Others may take time as old habits die hard. But they're all worth the effort. Sometimes it's the small improvements that can be groundbreaking in the long run.