Videomaker visited the award-winning Romanian-Canadian film composer, Catalin Marin in his suburban studio near Toronto where he shared the twists and turns of an unconventional career trajectory, toured us through his state-of-the-art basement studio and traded in the secrets of his process.
In William Shatner’s 2014 documentary, Chaos on the Bridge, the audience is given a ringside seat to the infighting among writers and producers during the creation of the iconic TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation. Accompanying the parade of insider talking heads, unpacking the backstage intrigue is a wall-to-wall music score that fits the tell-all spirit of the film like a glove.
“It didn’t feel like a Star Trek film per se, it was about the politics of making it,” says Chaos composer Catalin Marin. “Obviously there were star-trecky scenes with a full orchestra, but Shatner also wanted some tongue-in-cheek so I used bluegrass, blended it in with some orchestra, and it worked.”
From Craiova to Toronto
Marin, 47, who takes pride in his hybrid approach of mixing musical genres, didn’t start composing for film and television until he was well into his thirties.
Growing up in the bleakness of communist Romania, music was like nourishment to young Marin’s generation. It all started when his parents gifted him with a guitar he’d asked for and a music teacher encouraged his enthusiasm and prolific progress. When his parents bought a piano intended for his sister, improvising on the ivories became Marin’s favorite pastime. He remembers as an eight-year-old driving his piano teachers crazy, extemporizing on the practice pieces he was made to learn.
“In hindsight, these were my first attempts at composing,” says Marin who went on to study music theory and composition. But careers in artistic expression were tightly controlled by the authoritarian regime.
“Not only were the themes propaganda-tied, but nepotism was strong and only a handful of musicians were ‘allowed’ to express themselves creatively,” says Marin. “Things were better for performers, but not for composers. So the usual career for a composer would have been that of a music teacher.”
He got his first electronic keyboard when he was in junior high school and started to follow the 1980s electronic music scene, becoming a big fan of Tangerine Dream, Michael Oldfield and Vangelis, the Greek composer best known for his Academy-award winning score for Chariots of Fire (1981). Vangelis would become a major influence on Marin. It was during this time Marin started to get serious about his own composing and won several student competitions.
“However, my artistic inclinations were regarded only as a cool hobby,” says Marin. “I was preparing for a technical career in computers.” He completed his education in the U.K. where he earned a Master's degree in Automation and Computers at Middlesex University in London.
After the 1989 anti-communist revolution brought down Nicolae Ceaușescu’s repressive regime, Marin decided to shift gears and to combine his technical skills with his artistic aspirations. “I got into radio production. This meant jingle composition and producing commercials.”
Working on a variety of DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) platforms, Marin learned audio engineering producing radio commercials. But he never stopped composing and released two albums of electronic music in the 90’s.
“While I was still writing ‘music for the ear,’ building material for my next album, I started entertaining the idea of making music that would be part of something more complex,” says Marin. “I was always told that my music was evocative, that it had the power of stirring images in the listener's mind. So, as a challenge, I wanted to create music that would tell a story, that would support images. I would watch movies with the sound turned off, imagining what soundtrack I would create.”
I wanted to create music that would tell a story, that would support images. I would watch movies with the sound turned off, imagining what soundtrack I would create.
Imagining a better future than what was available in Romania, Marin uprooted his family in 1999. He brought his wife and daughter from historic Craiova, an ancient medieval city tucked deep into the south of Romania, to the glass and steel of Toronto, a vibrant international music, film and television production hub.
“Looking back, I can see how naive I was, imagining it will be easy to integrate and work towards fulfilling my dreams of signing record deals and skyrocketing to fame. My excuse: I was young.” Marin says moving to a new country was ‘overwhelming, stressful and scary.’
Without the support network of family, friends and professional associates Marin found himself starting from the ground up. Mostly he says he was trying to figure out how and where to convert his knowledge and skills into “hard currency” in a society with different rules and values. Until his family was secure and well established in their newly adopted country, Marin shelved his musical aspirations and went back to what he knew.
“So when I came to Canada, my first jobs were as an audio engineer at a recording studio in Toronto and a bit later as a production manager at a radio station in Hamilton.”
Marin recalls how once he landed in ‘Hollywood North’: he didn’t want to settle for steady employment in his industry, but decided to go full-throttle after a career in composing for film and television. One of the best moves Marin says he made was enrolling at Boston-based Berklee College of Music. He highly recommends the college’s film scoring program for its immersive music-for-film boot camp and invaluable instructor feedback.
“Next step was to apply what I learned,” says Marin. “So I started approaching seasoned composers, armed with my demo, enthusiasm and my willingness to get into the composing for film field.”
The other best move Marin says he made was knocking on the door of award-winning senior statesman composer, Christopher Dedrick (The Good Times Are Killing Me, 2009).
“The stars aligned, I guess, and by lucky timing, Christopher Dedrick, the president of the Canadian Guild of Composers at the time, was planning to initiate a mentorship program.”
After passing a test to get into Dedrick’s program, Marin continued with his radio production work and enjoyed collaborating with his teacher and mentor who would soon become a creative partner.
“I had the opportunity of real-world practice. During this period, I got introduced to the not-so-glamorous but oh-so-necessary aspects of the craft, like spotting and playback sessions.” Spotting is when the composer and director take notes of where the film needs music and playback is the screening of completed film with director, producer and others from the creative team to make notes of any necessary music changes.
"I started taking on more and more responsibilities from Chris. I composed for films he was hired for and, through his immediate feedback, learned the dos and don'ts of this craft. My relationship and I’d like to think friendship with Christopher Dedrick helped me tremendously in starting my professional network and be ready for flying solo.”
Tragically this productive and blossoming partnership was cut short with Dedrick’s untimely death in 2010.
Taking Care of Business
Once Marin found himself composing full-time for film and TV he discovered, like many creative freelancers, the necessary burden of self-promotion.
“This part can be tiring and draining, as it has very little to do with your craft as an artist,” says Marin. “Especially in the beginning of being a composer for film, a relatively large amount of time is allocated to networking, promoting yourself, making demos on-spec and pitching for projects. You need perseverance, the greener you are, the more you need to show, and you need the inner strength to get over the disappointment of not landing a gig in order to bounce back and be creative at the drop of a hat.”
Marin says he is not comfortable being a show off and has trouble promoting himself. “I believe in convincing clients through my results, through building a trust relationship. However, all these things take time. I did not experience a one-time break-through. It was always steady, constant work, and that is the rule, rather than the exception in this industry.”
There is no downtime for a film composer says Marin. “When you have a break between gigs, or even during, you have to tend to your professional network, to learn and practice what's new out there.” He says he stays on top of industry developments by keeping up with trade publications, participating in online forums, or enrolling in master classes by well-established composers.
When not busy tweaking his studio gear, Marin finds himself updating software tools and plug-ins to ensure he consistently delivers state-of-the-art music and post-audio production services to his film and television clients.
Sitting at the consul of his workstation, Marin looks not unlike like Capt. Kirk presiding over the flight deck of the Starship Enterprise. With his computer background Marin has programmed his workstation exactly to the way he works, creating finger-tip access to ultra-customized controls in his Cubase DAW.
“In order to keep their music fresh and meaningful, a composer has to keep up with the trends in interpretation techniques and styles, with up-to-date sound libraries and with the technology,” says Marin.
Years ago he reconfigured his studio, which used to be “more geared towards recording” and a much smaller room but with a narration booth.
“Now I’ve changed the strategy. It is important for the control room to be rather large so that the bass waves can properly form. It’s the acoustic physics. No matter how good your speakers are, if your room is small, you don’t properly get to hear the low frequencies. I also no longer use a voice booth; I do all the occasional live recordings in the main (control) room and I love how it sounds. It was very important to also implement a solid acoustic treatment solution using acoustic panels, bass traps and acoustic diffusors.
The other skillset Marin brings to the table, not typical of most film composers, is his audio engineering and production expertise. “This comes easy to me from my years of audio production and proved very useful because nowadays directors and producers expect the highest production quality for the music. In other words, regardless of whether the score will end up being recorded with live musicians or not, the ‘mock-ups’ of the cues or the score itself need to be breathtakingly good, not only creatively, but also from a production point of view — mixing, processing, MIDI programming, etcetera.”
“All they’re doing, set-designer, writer, composer, we try to create worlds. I can tell you everything you need to know in one word: story.” — Hans Zimmer (score: Pirates of the Caribbean series)
Marin agrees with Zimmer, a Hollywood icon and one of his musical heroes.
“When I first discuss a prospective project with the director I ask them about the story of the film and what message they want to convey,” says Marin. “They would tell me their expectations from the music. If, there is even a rough cut of the film available, I would watch it and start developing themes, paying close attention to the storyline and character development.”
Marin says the director composer-relationship is critical to working out how a score will best serve the film.
“Before you start working on the music and spot where the film needs music and what kind of music, you want to know what’s the philosophy of the film, what’s the character like? Do you need a theme for each character? What is the arc of the film, intensity-wise? For instance, you don’t want to reveal the main theme until the right moment for a full blown orchestral arrangement.” But, says Marin, these early ideas could change during the course of post-production. “The director will give you all these notes and you go back and you do revisions: I know we talked about starting at that moment but we should really start here. Or, wow what a beautiful theme you should use this more. Or, take out these instruments or, it’s too emotional.” Revisions are part of the work says Marin, there’s no project without revisions.
“As Hans Zimmer once said, making a movie is a complicated human experience, meaning that everything — the acting, the directing, filming and editing — have to work well together, and the music comes to unify, enhance or underline the whole.”
Marin says there is no standard recipe for film composing and there are a variety of ways a film or television project can come to a composer.
“One way would be picture-lock (final edit) with temp music already vetted by the director,” says Marin. “This is my least favorite way, because it kind of narrows the creative process, since you have to compose in-line with the temp music. A favorite way of working for documentaries is to come up with several themes, based on the director's suggestions.”
In Art of Darkness, a feature-length doc about controversial Tennessee painter and performance artist Brian Lewis Saunders the main character declares, “I got a calling to do a self-portrait every day for the rest of my life until I die.” Marin says that David Parker’s intimate profile of the troubled artist ‘trying to keep his mania in check’ was an opportunity to change the rules about how to score a film.
“The director only sent me unedited footage,” says Marin. “I extracted the audio from that, I didn’t need the visual. It was a guy talking about ideas. I got inspired and I created music themes and sent them all to the director and the editor. They edited the film based more or less on those themes. My music inspired him to edit and I got my inspiration from the audio. The final step was to have a run at the whole movie, I just needed to improve the transitions and replace some things that weren’t working.”
Another preferred way of working, says Marin, is to provide the temp music first. A temp track can be ‘canned’ or existing music from a music library and is typically used in editing to serve as an emotional guideline for a scene but will be replaced by the composer’s original score once editing is complete. “This allows me to better understand the director's views and ultimately helps in capturing the right sound and feeling when composing,” says Marin.
One of the most challenging scoring projects Marin worked on was the popular 26-episode animation series, BeyWarriors: Cyborg produced in Japan.
“I had to rely only on the character sketches and written instructions for each 2 minutes music segment,” recalls Marin. “To add to the challenge, there were about 200 minutes of music to compose with a very fast turnaround, amounting to roughly 4-5 minutes of new material per day. So, in a situation like that, the adrenaline is flowing and you feel exhilarated when you complete the task.”
Marin says after he finishes a score he feels humbled and a little afraid wondering, "would I ever be able to write like this again?” But the biggest reward he says, “is when picture and music are working together and the director confirms that your music captured the right sound and feel.”
Marin, who sometimes can’t enjoy a movie recreationally because he’s so focused on the music listening for new ideas, says he draws inspiration from many of his favorite film composers.
“I particularly like Alexandre Desplat (The Imitation Game) for his versatility and technique. I can recognize anywhere Michael Giacchino's music (Up, Mission Impossible) and I can't omit the heavyweights John Williams and Hans Zimmer. By exposing myself repeatedly to their music, I picked up subtle influences in the technique of writing and interpreting music, while striving to preserve my individuality.”
Marin cautions aspiring film composers: “One of the most challenging aspects of scoring a film is to keep quiet. Under dialogue, for example. You also have to be able to identify the moments in the film that don't need music at all, when you should not shift the focus from the acting, for example. You have to connect to the story otherwise it would be just a mercenary job. It’s not an artistic job if you don’t connect. Watch good films and try to understand what has been done there. Everybody borrows from others. You just need to add something that comes from you.”
A seasoned script-to-screen television and video producer and trainer, Peter Biesterfeld is a non-fiction storyteller specializing in documentary, current affairs, reality television and educational production.