By Justin Sanders
Every creative working in film has a different story for how they got their break. For Canadian film composer Jeff Morrow, it began with a Google search.
“One day, I just decided I was going to drop off a CD of my jazz compositions to someone in the entertainment industry,” he told CreativeFuture. “I searched for ‘music production in Toronto’ online and took my CD to the first place that popped up.”
A trombonist specializing in jazz and Latin music, Morrow had zero experience pairing his compositions with moving images – but his boldness paid off. That search result, a company called Eggplant Studios, happened to be looking for a young composer at that very moment.
“They called me the next week,” Morrow said, “and the week after that first call, I was writing a score for a television show.”
Now a resident of Los Angeles, Morrow has collaborated on the music for blockbuster movies such as Ant-Man, Trolls, and Disney’s Ralph Breaks the Internet. He has also served as lead composer on indie features such as the eerie drama Cast No Shadow (for which he was nominated for a Canadian Screen Award®) and, most recently, National Geographic’s inspirational documentary Science Fair.
Set in and around the International Science and Engineering Fair, Science Fair follows a group of brilliant high school students as they design and present projects that promise to, as the New York Times put it, “revolutionize aeronautics, arsenic testing, vaccinations and neurological research.” To write the film’s score, Morrow took on the mindset of a teenaged genius, limiting his instrumentation to the kind of lo-fi electronic equipment that a kid would have access to.
“The idea was, ‘what if some high school kids made synthesizers for their science fair projects?’” he said. “It was fun taking these things that just make little bleeps and bloops and turning them into something that is as inspiring and, hopefully, emotional as the characters in the film.”
CreativeFuture caught up with Morrow at his home studio to learn about his journey from scoring preschool kids’ shows in Toronto to writing music for some of the world’s biggest Hollywood films.
JUSTIN SANDERS: When I imagine a composer’s upbringing – film or otherwise – I see a prodigy playing intricate music on the piano from an early age. Is that how it was for you as a kid?
JEFF MORROW: [Laughs] I’ve always been into playing and writing music, but I actually played trombone growing up. I played all through high school and one of my first summer jobs was playing trombone in a touring big band. Then I studied jazz trombone at college in Montreal and performed in jazz clubs with big bands, Latin bands, and jazz quartets.
JS: How did you end up picking the trombone as your instrument?
JM: I think it picked me. I’m pretty tall and when you’re 12 years old, only the tall kids can actually reach the sixth or seventh position on trombone. If you are 12 and short you just can’t play trombone. [Laughs] So, the music teacher said, “You will play trombone,” and that was that.
JS: I haven’t spoken with a ton of film composers (okay, none) but I have to imagine that most of them did not get their start on the trombone.
JM: [Laughs] It’s not a very good way to pay rent. Nobody really wants a trombone player in their band – which I actually feel grateful for because I feel like playing this kind of unwieldy instrument helped push me into composing, and I’m so happy that happened.
JS: What was the moment when you went from playing trombone to the pursuit of composing as a profession?
JM: I’ve always been hugely moved by film scores, but I didn’t think it could be a career. In my teens and early 20s, I thought I would become a chef or an architect.
Then one day, I just decided I was going to drop off a CD of my compositions to someone in the entertainment industry. [Laughs] I googled “music production in Toronto” and brought my jazz trombone CD to a company that popped up called Eggplant Studios.
JS: You just sauntered into the Eggplant office and handed over a CD full of jazz trombone compositions?
JM: [Laughs] Yes, I did. I looked them up, found their address, walked in the door, and handed my CD to the receptionist. Luckily, one of their staff members – a guy who would become my first mentor named Steve D’Angelo – was a reformed jazz musician himself. He could hear through the jazzy “tromboniness” of it all and I guess he thought I could write some music. They happened to be looking for a young composer that they could train at that very moment, so he hired me and a week later I was writing my first television score. It was crazy.
JS: What was the first television show that you worked on there?
JM: It was a preschool kids’ cartoon called Poppets Town. It actually still plays all over the world, which is kind of hilarious when I think of myself in its early days, on my laptop, writing its score. It’s very far removed from what I’m doing now, but it was a great way to start, to just get thrown into the fire like that.
JS: What did “getting thrown into the fire” teach you about the business of composing for the screen?
JM: I came from more of a jazz and improvisation background, doing 10-minute long compositions and things like that. It was a big learning experience to work on a show that had a narrative arc and that required me to serve all these emotions and feelings. Preschool kids’ cartoons are fairly un-subtle – so I learned the craft of fitting music to picture in a very direct way at Eggplant.
JS: How did you then make the transition from Eggplant into scoring for feature films?
JM: It seemed like the logical next step. I was lucky to have a steady gig composing music, so during the day I would write music for TV shows, and then at night I would write for any student short film that I could get my hands on, usually for free. I would scour the internet for anything along the lines of “short film looking for composer” and ended up with this demo reel of seven or eight shorts when all was said and done.
That helped me get accepted into the first year of the Slaight Music Residency, this composer program at the Canadian Film Center. It was headed by OscarÒ-winning composer Mychael Danna, and, through it, I ended up with amazing mentorship opportunities with industry veterans and also met a lot of filmmakers who were at similar stages of their career as I was.
JS: After composing for television for several years, what was it like composing for film?
JM: It is all still storytelling, but the one nice thing about film is that you can do it, generally, over a longer arc. In TV, you’re often writing 30- to 40-second pieces of music, but in film you can get up to five, six, seven, or eight minutes. So, it wasn’t a challenge so much as it was exciting to put myself into these longer, more intricate compositions.
JS: What was the first feature film project that you scored?
JM: It was a dramatic feature film called Cast No Shadow. The director, Christian Sparkes, was someone I met at the Canadian Film Center, and he is immensely talented. It’s this really small indie produced in Newfoundland, but it’s an amazing film. It ended up getting nominated for a number of Canadian Screen Awards®, which are the big film awards up there. It was a tiny film with a $250,000 budget that was up for Best Picture and Best Original Score against the biggest films in Canada.
JS: At what you point did you make the move from Canada to Los Angeles?
JM: While at the Canadian Film Center, I also met Cristophe Beck, who ended up becoming a huge mentor of mine. He is an A-list film composer here in Hollywood, and a few years after I met him he needed some help, so I moved down to L.A. and immediately started helping him with the score for the first Ant-Man movie. It was a completely different scale from what I’d been doing in Canada.
JS: How exciting was it to suddenly be working with these comparatively vast resources?
JM: Oh, it was incredible. What’s exciting about working on these big films is that you get to work with this big team of orchestrators, copyists, and engineers, who all work to make your music come together and sound amazing with this insanely talented 90-piece orchestra. You can basically write anything you want for these musicians and put it in front of them, and they will play it perfectly the first time.
JS: According to IMDB, Cristophe Beck was the lead composer on Ant-Man and you were a “composer of additional music.” How does the workflow break down in a situation like that?
JM: It is very collaborative and fun. In Los Angeles, there is this whole team structure in place around the film composers. One part of that team is the composition help, which is where I come in, taking Cristophe’s themes and arranging them and fitting them to picture by making mock-up recordings of a live orchestra on the computer. Then Cristophe has a conductor he works with who lays those digital recordings out on paper for the actual live orchestra. Then there’s a whole other team of people who takes that orchestration and divvies it up into all the parts for the musicians. There’s even a guy whose only job is to hire the orchestra!
It was a thrill to step into this well-oiled machine that has been happening in Hollywood for more than 100 years. Sometimes, for instance, we would be recording at Fox Studios, where they recorded The Sound of Music, and the company that we were using to make the parts for the musicians has been around for more than 50 years. They were writing the parts for the original Star Wars movie by hand, you know what I mean? It’s pretty cool to be here in Los Angeles!
JS: So, does scoring a film generally involve writing an overarching main theme and then writing sub-themes for each principle character?
JM: It’s not necessarily the case that every principle character would have a theme. A superhero movie is pretty operatic in the score, so if Ant-Man shows up onscreen, you get the Ant-Man theme. In the case of a smaller, more indie film, the themes become less on the nose. It’s more about a mood – or perhaps a pivotal scene will have something to do with, say, a character’s childhood, so there would be a theme for whenever this character is thinking about their childhood.
JS: One smaller, more indie film you were lead composer on was the Netflix comedy Ibiza, starring Gillian Jacobs. How did you go about writing the theme for her character?
JM: That’s a movie about a woman who goes to Ibiza and parties in a bunch of clubs. One might imagine that the music I would write for something like that would be fun and clubby, but it actually wasn’t. The club music was all taken care of by licensing. My job was to take care of the emotional side of the story – her transformation and her falling in love.
I wanted to make a piece for Gillian that, like her character, could start one way and end another. So, the thought was, “Maybe start with the end – start with the complete version of her character that’s gone through this transformation and then pull little fragments from that.” The movie begins with a very incomplete version of her theme and sort of concludes with something once all the pieces have come together, for her and for the viewer.
JS: Then you did a bit of an about-face with the National Geographic documentary Science Fair. How did you come aboard that project?
JM: One day, I went with some friends to a beach north of L.A. known for an oyster truck that parks there. You go and buy oysters and shuck them yourself and drink wine and sit on the beach. It’s amazing.
I sat down next to Cristina Costantini, who is the co-director (with Darren Foster) of Science Fair. We got to talking and she said, “I’m directing this film about science fairs.”
I definitely would consider myself a bit of a science nerd, so it seemed like an exciting project. I sent her team 10 or so pieces of music from my library and they ended up going with me.
JS: When you say you’re a “science nerd,” what do you mean by that?
JM: In high school, I was very into both music and physics, and I was really bad at many of the other subjects. Music and physics were the two things that kept me going in my very awkward high school years.
JS: For a creative person, physics is an interesting subject to be good at – you don’t normally associate physics with creativity. It’s a very hard science for most people.
JM: It’s funny – I found it easy and I found chemistry and biology to be just impossible, so there’s something going on with my music brain that goes together with physics.
CF: You then got to literally be a science nerd for Science Fair. Talk about how you brought science into the creation of the film’s music.
JM: They wanted something that was unique to the film, that could only exist for their movie – so the idea was, “What if some high school kids made synthesizers for their science fair projects?”
So, everything I used to record the music with was either handmade, or really lo-fi, or had some sort of open source programming that you could do with it.
CF: How does open source programming apply to making music?
JM: I’m not very good at it myself, but I have this synth that you can plug into the computer and write code for, and it will do all sorts of different things. There is this whole community of people online who have written code for this little synth, and you can just download their code and use it to make music. It’s pretty cool.
JS: Had you worked with synths much before?
JM: Yeah, definitely. The physics nerd in me has always been interested in them. In the case of Science Fair, it was cool to limit myself to these lo-fi, cheap synths. I wasn’t pulling out the big studio expensive gear. I tried to make it all out of stuff that science fair kids would be able to afford. It was a fun project in that I really got to know these little, quirky, cheap synths. [Laughs] The filmmakers and I actually called them the “dinky synths.” They kept saying they wanted more dinky synths.
JS: When you say “dinky,” my first thought is that it must be challenging to be dinky with the music, but also big enough to work as a cinematic score.
JM: Yes, it was fun taking these things that just make little bleeps and bloops and turning them into something that is as inspiring and, hopefully, emotional as the characters in the film.
Of course, I’m using all of the modern tools available to help me along. I’m recording all of these dinky synths, but then once they’re in the computer, I’m shaping them and moving them around and spacing them out to create the score.
JS: With the advent of technology, does a good composer even need to be a good musician nowadays?
JM: I don’t think it is necessary to be a good instrumentalist, but you still need to put in 10,000 hours on something to master the craft. Nowadays, it doesn’t have to be piano or the violin. It could be your computer. That’s what’s nice about technology in music – it has democratized composing. You don’t need to spend all sorts of money to make a great film score. It can be done on a laptop. Anyone can have their hand at it.
JS: What downfalls do you see in the merging of music and technology?
JM: Sometimes I find the existence of the internet to be a huge distraction when I’m composing on the computer. That’s why I have my piano in another room, so that if I really want to focus on coming up with a melody or some harmonies, I can walk away from the computer.
Or, I’ll go on a walk and just try to hear melodies in my head before sitting down with this beast that has the internet and all the sounds in the world on it. Then I have a clear idea before I get on the computer, and I’m not distracted by all the bells and whistles.
JS: Wait, you can just walk and hear melodies in your head?
JM: Yes. The melody for Science Fair was definitely conceived on a walk around the block.
I find that the best ideas happen when you’re away from technology in any form – and I’m counting the piano as a piece of technology here. What can happen is that if you sit at a piano, your hands might start moving in ways that they have moved before, just because you’ve done it so many times.
JS: So, try stepping away from your tools for a bit and see what pops into your head. That’s one great tip. Any other advice for folks who are interested in composing as a career?
JM: Just do it as much as you can. I’ve been lucky at a few critical junctures, but in order to create that luck I needed to score 10 short films for free. If you are someone who enjoys making music, go on the website of your local film school, if that exists, or go on Craigslist, and just start writing for films and working with directors. That’s the only way to learn how to do it.
And don’t feel like you need to buy the latest and greatest gear in order to make a piece of music work. Try to work with what you have.
And then just remember that at the beginning of every film, you’re going to feel like you can’t do it. I’ve even heard Hans Zimmer – who has done like 100 films and is maybe the most prolific film composer alive – say that every time he sits down to write for a new film, he feels like he can’t do it, that he doesn’t know how to score movies. I think a lot of people working in creative fields probably have that feeling, and I think it’s a good thing because it means you’re striving for something. You’re not just settling on the first idea that comes to mind. You’re self-editing.
You have those piles of doubt because you’re grasping for something that is maybe beyond anything you’ve ever done before.