Jon Opstad

Silent Witness and Black Mirror composer Jon Opstad gives M the low-down on how to write music for screen and TV. For him, it’s all about who you know…

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 15 Nov 2013
  • min read
Since graduating from film school, composer Jon Opstad has been a young musician to watch.

He’s seen his compositions adorn a variety of feature length and short films as well as episodes in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror and recent Channel 4 series Black Out.

When he’s not working on programmes such as Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe or Wonders of the Solar System, he’s also busying himself with writing and recording his own artist material.

M caught up with Jon to found out how he made it in the industry and began composing music for the screen…

How did you get involved in composing music for the screen?

It was after I graduated from studying music at university. I always knew I wanted to work with visual media and did a masters at the national film and television school. The course was composing for film and TV and I became a freelance TV and film composer after that.

I was really into Bernard Herman and Jerry Goldsmith from a young age. Great old films with great scores. They really inspired me musically.

What was the best thing about the course?

Well in terms of setting you up for the skills to work in visual media, it’s brilliant. You’re also in an environment with other people aspiring to work in TV and film. Directors, producers, editors. In this respect, it’s great for building up a network of contacts all going into the industry at the same time.

What are the challenges for composers when writing for the screen?

You need to learn to leave your musical ego behind and realise it’s a very collaborative process. In the majority of film and TV music, the music is only one ingredient. It’s important but it’s got to work with the other elements – actors, directing, editing. You have to realise you’re playing a part in a bigger picture which involves listening to others and working with them.

It can also be challenging in terms of taking criticism. You need to get used to that. Especially from people who aren’t from a musical background. You also need a broad range of musical genres and moods. You can’t be tied down to one style of music as you don’t know what you’re gonna get asked to write.

Is it hard to get work?

There is a lot out there but finding it is the problem. There’s no established structure as to how you find work as a composer. You have to chart your own path through the industry. So you need to work on building up contacts and maintaining them. You also need to have your musical skills in place too so when you do get a job, you can really deliver. Something that I'd say is very important is having a solid grasp of the music technology side of things. Familiarity with software like Logic Pro is pretty much essential. When you're needing to deliver rewrites in a short space time a good understanding of the software can make things a lot less stressful!

Establishing connections with other composers can be significant too. A lot of my initial professional work in film and TV music was through working for other, more established, composers in roles like programming, orchestration and additional music composing. It can also be a great way of gaining experience in the industry and in developing your techniques and approach. For me it also provided a lot of practice in delivering work to tight deadlines.

Which areas are the most innovative?

Well the internet has done a great deal for the industry in terms of the process of writing music and finding music. Series, dramas and advertising now offer all sorts of opportunities. There are new avenues to short films while art installations can offer work too.

The internet has made a huge difference to work flows for composers. Internet speeds are so fast, you can receive a cut almost daily. It wasn’t too long ago when people were couriering tapes to one another. Now you can download a new cut in ten minutes.

It’s increased the pace of how you have to work. But I think it’s a great thing. It’s really increased that sense of collaboration and means you’re really getting to an end result that satisfies everyone.

What are your current projects?  

I’ve been working on a docu-drama – Black Out – for Channel 4. It’s a drama based on found footage set in the near future, if there was a power supply crisis in the UK. I’ve also been working on a contemporary dance project. It's visual media but not for screen. Plus various short films for new directors. That’s a great way in, working with emerging directors. It’s not financially lucrative but it is creatively. It’s an environment where people are keen to experiment and keen to work on something that will give exposure for everyone.

Which projects have you been most pleased with?

The Charlie Brooker drama episode of Black Mirror was really great. it's a dystopian drama set in the near future. That was through an editor actually who I knew from film school. She knew my music well so when the director asked her to recommend a composer she mentioned me. The director liked my work and I got the gig that way. I hadn’t worked with the director before. It was a very rewarding project to work on.