Paul Spencer is creative director at Ignition London, spearheading movie campaigns for the likes of Universal, Amazon, Lionsgate, Studio Canal and Sky and eOne, on movies such as the all-conquering Fast and Furious franchise.
With several decades of experience working with movie trailers, we asked Paul to give his tips and thoughts on how music ties into this collaborative process.
What is the process like for working in the movie trailer music world? It must feel like such a great achievement when things pay off.
Off the back, it's so difficult. The stars really do have to align for us to even get the trailers finished and out into the world. They might go through multiple different music choices — and you could be working on something for several months with a track — and then somebody somewhere a producer in Los Angeles might have a problem with that piece of music. And then suddenly it falls off and we're scrambling around trying to find something else.
The trailers, depending on the scale of the film, can take anything up to a year from when we first get asked to look at it to actually going out in the world. So, obviously, it's a slow burn process. You have to be patient. There's so many stakeholders, especially if it's a studio movie like a lot of the Fast and Furious movies I've worked on over the years. That can really be a long process to get things across the line. And ultimately, you know, it might be Vin Diesel himself that has to sign off on certain things.
Are pieces of work usually commissioned for a specific trailer?
We've worked in the past with composers who have written things for us who aren't following a particular brief, but totally independent from a piece of work. They’ve just said, ‘Here's a composition. This sounds like the sort of thing you're talking about.’ And then we'll take that and start working with it from an editorial perspective, so that we can really manipulate the song to support what the visual dynamics are doing.
'There can't really be much greater an opportunity to reach as many people as possible.'
As a way of getting your music seen and heard by a a lot of people, having something going into a movie trailer must be monumental. Especially when a big release comes out.
Absolutely. Yeah, the reach of these things is phenomenal. When we released a retrospective piece ahead of the release of Fast and Furious 9, called Dom's Story, that took a long time. Obviously, Covid happened in the middle of that, which prolonged it even more, but that took a long time to get out there but that got 52 million views in just the first 24 hours. So there is no better way to get your music out to people than having it attached to something like Fast, which is a bit of a cultural commodity in some ways. There can't really be much greater an opportunity to reach as many people as possible.
How much of a difference can having music appear in a movie trailer make to someone's career?
When the trailers are posted on YouTube and you look at some of the comments underneath, there will be a lot of, 'What's the track? I love this track, where can I hear this in its entirety?' Careers do launch off of certain tracks for certain artists or composers out there. Having even one or two trailers under your belt, you're definitely on the road to having a career because people will want to go where they've heard things that that they thought are inspirational. That obviously is a huge reach for a composer, the gold medal really in the big game of it all. I think it was a Game of Thrones trailer that used a Chelsea Wolfe track. It was very good, I don't have my finger on the pulse of youth culture but I'd never heard of her as an artist. And when I heard that track, I was like, 'Wow, that's incredible.' Then I sought it out and became a bit of a fan. I definitely think it can expand your existing fanbase.
What tips can you give writers or composers for creating trailer-friendly music?
I think from a writing perspective, there's lots of things that you can do to your compositions to make them trailer friendly. Having lots of different tonalities in there, separate bits of dynamics, and a lighter moment here, something really beat-y to drive it to the end. Trailers tend to be quite fashion-oriented as well, lots of trailers will be doing similar things. And then as time passes, the fashion in them morphs. Right now, the ‘stop-down’ is such a big dynamic in all trailers. There’s always a moment where everything stops, and it's a pithy line or some action or you revert to sound design with no music. Having moments in your composition where things stop all of a sudden, and then pick up again, makes them really trailer friendly.
There's obviously a big trend at the moment where trailers are using classic songs that are slowed down and almost feel mournful.
I think it felt for a while, maybe sort of eight to 10 years ago, that almost every trailer had a classic reworking of a well known song. And I think we thought this is going to come to an end, we can't keep doing this in every trailer. But there still seem to be a lot of pieces out there that use those ideas, and I've been involved in them myself on many occasions. There is definitely a market for that, but I think it tends to be about taking the message of that song and repurposing it so that the lyrical dynamic will somehow align with the general themes of the movie that you're writing it for. But your musical interpretation might be very, very different. It might be very haunting and eerie, with a song that's actually quite cheerful and poppy in its original version. But often, when you take the lyrics away from the music, you realise that there are deeper emotional themes at play in them that maybe you don't really think about when you're listening to a chirpy little number. It does really work. And I think it's about what dynamic can I add to something like this to make it, to really re-present this, to reframe it in a new and interesting way.
'Trailers tend to be quite fashion-oriented as well, lots of trailers will be doing similar things. And then as time passes, the fashion in them morphs.'
How do you know whether it’s going to fit the mood?
Because people respond to it. A lot of things we do in trailers we have made go into testing for quite some time as well. They're played to audiences all over the world, and they're scored on how effective they are. And this kind of research, often evidence is out that people respond well to themes and songs they recognise, even if they are presented back to them in a very different way. So there is a resonance there and there's lots of work you can do around representing classic songs in trailer friendly and modernised ways.
What's your favourite use of music in a trailer in recent years?
I really love the way the song Downtown was used in the Last Night In Soho. It's just used in a really kooky kind of way, it's got such a sort of recognisable song melody. But the backing is all very different and very unnerving. And what really nails that piece for me is the sonic motif of the clicking light switches. Really, really creepy and very effective. So that's something that I've seen recently that falls very much into the category of what I said earlier. It's a great chirpy little sixties song, but presented in a way that has a really different resonance and a really different meaning. There's lots of examples of great use of music in trailers, like in the movie Cherry. That's got some great use of tracks in unexpected ways.
What advice can you give to people wanting to get their song licenced or synced?
Demonstrate what you do. If we're focused on reworking classic numbers for a contemporary feel, get examples of what you do out there. Post it on YouTube yourself, post it on SoundCloud, post it wherever you can. People that do what I do scour these things looking for that unique little sound, something that's the perfect fit for something you've got coming up. It's very difficult to brief a composer and say, we want something that sounds really cool but slow, classic but modern. You can get so caught up in contradictory aims for something like that. But when you hear something, it can just click in your mind and you almost get that hairs on your arm stand up sort of feeling. Because in our small industry, if you land on a perfect track that's unknown, but something that people will notice and remember, then that is a huge win. It's such an important dynamic of what we do, and I suppose if I had to give advice I would say, get it out there, get people's ears on it.
'If you believe in it, and it is genuinely good, then someone will listen to it, and someone will pick up on it.'
How does a composer or writer begin to get their work noticed by agencies?
Having your stuff out there is definitely one of the things that I would recommend for anyone who's aspiring to try and get their music into trailers and stuff. Make it accessible, put it anywhere you think people might discover it. Because it's very competitive with composers now, as the technology behind music creation is so good and available now. It's made so many people able to set up studios in their homes and produce things that sound truly wonderful, like they had six months in a studio. We are contacted almost daily by people who've set themselves up as composers, and they're looking for work. It's a bit hard to sort of sift through them all at times. But if you can say, ‘Look, I did this, this is the kind of thing I do,’ I think it says a lot more than an introductory email. An email saying you're a composer that writes stuff and you'd 'love to talk about what you might do for a company’ is all very well, but they will be getting a lot of those. I would recommend simply sending a message saying, ‘Check out my work here.' If you believe in it, and it is genuinely good, then someone will listen to it, and someone will pick up on it. I think the evidence of your imagination and of your vision is what would really get you noticed. And again to compose sympathetically for trailer usage.
Lastly, with composers, what's the most common mistakes that they might make when approaching these campaigns?
I think to potentially write a sweet six minute track, when really that's going to be too long. If you're really aimed at trailers, keep things to two and a half minutes in length. But really have it count, have lots of different dynamics in there that are all forming part of a bigger piece, with a main sort of theme if you like. Keep it all very sympathetic to trailer uses and don’t over-write, overthink and be flexible. Supply it with all the stemmed elements and give them every possible conceivable thing they can use to manipulate it. That will encourage an editor to embark with it and to engage with it more. If some sound design would really support that, almost present it like a kit for a trailer. I would suggest that way you'll get editors to really dive in and be enthusiastic about what you've presented to them because they know they've got lots of opportunity to manipulate it and make it genuinely bespoke for that particular creative. Flexibility is what people are looking for. If we're working with a contemporary track, we can often get stemmed elements for it, although the bigger the artists the more reluctant they are to let you play around with them. But when you're talking music that's for a singular purpose, I would say stemmed stuff is absolutely critical. You'd be reluctant to embark on it without the ability to sort of arrange it yourself or to best suit its requirements.
The Production Music Awards 2021 takes place in London on at 6:00pm GMT on November 12 2021.