- Written by: Stefanos Tsarouchas
The interview with Nicklas Schmidt, composer for THE GREAT BEAR took part in February 2011 in Berlin.
Stefanos Tsarouchas: I took a look at your website and read, that you trained composition in Russia, in St. Petersburg. Why there?
Nicklas Schmidt: It's a pretty curious story. The reason, I choose to go to St. Petersburg to study, came from a, like I would say, half part personal story, half part professional. My dad is an architect and for his work, he got acquainted with architects from Minsk, Belarus, who where ethnic Russians. They came to visit us in Denmark, when I was about 16 years old. It was right after the collapse of the Soviet Union. So it was very new for all parties, very interesting for me as a young man to get to know this for me very foreign culture and people and then as a result from that I choose to study Russian in our high school and with that little kind off language package I managed to get the idea, that once that I had finished music studies sort of pre-conservatory school, I thought, why not try to go to Russia. So I simply phoned the St. Petersburg conservatory and asked some questions, what does it take to come to study there, and then I had set up a meeting with the dean of the composition faculty. I went there with my scores, what I was doing and like in a matter very short time, I was kind of admitted to go to study there and so it started out. It happened quite sudden, I would say, and it was a bit of a crazy idea. Suddenly I was there and I was a student, admitted to the program. So it came about I would say, not so consciously maybe, but suddenly I was there and I got very gripped by the Russian, yes, specially the teaching environment there and fantastic conservatory with like very good pedagogues and also just the Russian society and St. Petersburg as a culture town, which was just like for me, I don't know, in Danish we would say, I felt like a fish in the water, you know! I really felt right home.
S. Tsarouchas: How many foreign students where there?
N. Schmidt: I think, it's a pretty big conservatory. There must be something like 1600 students at all together and from those, maybe around 150 – 200 were foreigners.
S: Tsarouchas: The studies were in Russian?
N. Schmidt: Yes, the studies were in Russian. I would almost say, luckily, because it also sort of forced all of us foreigners to learn the language on a quite high level, because we had to talk about, I don't know, Mahler's symphonies or double counter point in the Russian language. So we had really to learn it as well, and they taught us well. So it was, when I think back on it now, it's almost like a present to have Russian almost like a second language.
S. Tsarouchas: Can you talk about the tuition fee. Was it high? You had to rent an apartment.
N. Schmidt: Yes, I got kind of a state scholarship from Denmark, which sort of took care of my everyday needs like living expenses and apartment and stuff like that. I think, it was a 3.000 $ yearly tuition fee. So compared to like British or American schools, it was considerably less, but still some money, that I had to find every year. So I was looking for all sorts of private sponsors, because naturally I wasn't making any money, while I was studying.
S. Tsarouchas: On your website it says, one of your teachers was also trained by Shostakovitch. So, your musical influence is from Shostakovitch. Let's say it in this way.
N. Schmidt: I think, it's inevitable, that I had been influenced by his thinking musically and not just my composition teachers, but my teacher from musical form and instrumentation. I mean, practically all composers in the conservatory had been his pupils. So he was almost like the grandfather, that was always present, without being there and of course references to him were made very often, but also I would like to say, that coming there as a Scandinavian composer, we have quite a different way of looking at art and another sort of style. So when I was there, they told me that my music sounded so Scandinavian, and when I came back to Denmark, they always told me: “Oh, you sound so Russian now!” So I suppose, the truth is somewhere in between.
S. Tsarouchas: You met the director of THE GREAT BEAR, Esben Jacobsen, I think in 2006 for HAVING A BROTHER, the short film, which was really nice with the hedgehogs. How did you two met?
N. Schmidt: I think, we met through some people from the Danish film school, that we had both worked with. I was being recommended to him by one of the teachers. We had not so much time to work on his first short film, but it was a very fruitful experience at least for me. I think for him as well. So it felt sort of natural to continue that cooperation.
S. Tsarouchas: Do you remember your first film score, and how did you got it?
N. Schmidt: My very first film score … It was a short film, that I did also for a student, that was later admitted to the film school in Copenhagen as well. It was just through an old friend of mine, who was a starting as a producer. I had never been trained in film scoring. I had to sort of make up everything as I went along. So it was this kind of, I remember coming back to Copenhagen just for a quick meeting, and the director wanted me to have something written already, because they needed the guy in the film to whistle one of the tunes from the film, and naturally I had nothing written yet. So I was in this very crazy situation and this was my first film, I actually had to go like to another room and sit for, I don't know maybe 15 minutes and come up with a tune and then go whistle it. She recorded it on her mobile phone and that was it! Tat was a very peculiar way to start actually.
S. Tsarouchas: Can you talk about your collaboration for THE GREAT BEAR? How did you workt with Esben Jacobsen?
N. Schmidt: Esben had an idea. He wanted the film to touch certain things, that sort of speak directly to children, and he 's been very careful with how to come about it. We were trying to stay away from to many cliches in film. He said for example, if magic is happening in the film, it's not like Disney fairy dust being cast on it, it's like things in the nature are magical by themselves and from there it will arise. So the music doesn't need to deal with any of that, which was already like, set kind of a path for me. So I knew, I didn't need to write this kind of telling music, that was like telling what was going on. We tried to make the music work in a way, that it would go in and deal with the emotions of the children, who are the main characters. In that way also the music came to be a part of the forest as of this kind of mythical place, where the story takes place. So it could sort of enhance the atmospheres, but with out telling us ,what we needed to tell. We were very careful always kind of establishing a feeling in the picture or in the story telling, then the music would be come in afterwards and sort of enhance that or tell something more about it that we couldn't do with the picture.
S. Tsarouchas: Did you start composing before the filming started?
N. Schmidt: Yes, I mean, with cartoons it's kind of a funny thing. It takes quite a long time to make the cartoon. Until very late you don't really have a final picture, which has to do with the way it's produced in the computers and so on. So for quite a long time I was just making music with a kind of gray sketches, that had no light, no surface information. I could just see, what was moving. I could see, what I could hear, what they are saying and so on. Esben would tell like, here it's night or here it's like, we can see very fare here, because I couldn't see this. Tt was a little bit challenging for me, well, to find emotion out of this, but of course there were some very good sketches and to return to your question, I started working with Esben maybe 1 ½ years ago already on the film, where we just met, discussing things. I was just starting out doing some sketches, looking through existing music like classical music, some of my concert pieces and stuff like that and slowly we sort of found our way into the world, that we thought was right for the film.
S. Tsarouchas: Was there kind of an idea to cut the movie to your music or a theme of your music?
N. Schmidt: I would say, it worked both ways. Some of the scenes were the music was finished in quite an early stage. So they started animating for that on …
S. Tsarouchas: Can you tell me where?
N. Schmidt: For example the beginning: The first maybe 15 minutes was all like made to the music, but a lot of the other things, I had to wait till the animation was in a stage, where we could also rely on the duration of each scene, because we had to then go to an orchestra and record it. So I think, mostly we sort of were chasing the film rather the other way.
S. Tsarouchas: What do you think of temp tracks? You said, that they used or you used kind of pieces from yourself, classical pieces. What are you thoughts in general about temp tracks?
N. Schmidt: I think, if you ask any film composer, 90% of us would say, we hate temp music, because … it is not something that this nice to deal with, unless you have a very clever director, that knows what he's doing, but often of course the danger is, that this director will fall in love with the temp track, and then he will ask you to do something similar and not just that in itself is like, you can say, that can be fine as well, but then if a piece of music sounds like something else, it will also maybe even take you out of the film, because then sudden you're like: 'Oh, this sounds like that and that …', I don't know, whatever famous piece of music and then you suddenly, you have some connotations as a viewer with those, with that music, that takes you out of the whole experience of the film and then you like lost the whole process on the ground, but actually in this film Esben didn't had any time to cut the movie for any temp music that was not mine. So I actually made also like temp tracks, where I made improvisations or quick sketches that we would throw in and then a lot of those went out again. We never used them, but I really liked, that he trusted me that much, that I could sort of be part of that process as well.
S. Tsarouchas: Is it easier for you to compose for film, because you are classically trained? Or is it harder? From the composition point? Maybe, if somebody is coming from a rock band and then starts out making some film music, doing more synthesizer, you do more classical symphonic scores.
N. Schmidt: I feel quite at home working with film music, that is based on a symphonic orchestra. There are of course some particularities, that you have to take into account, there is speech and sound effects and a lot of other things, that are to be to coexist with music, but I don't feel, that its a very big step to take for a classical trained composer to do it. If you look at the film history, there has been quite a number of all sort of big composers like, Prokofiev, Shostakovitch in Russia. They make huge scores, that I loved to this day.
S. Tsarouchas: You talked about the sound design. On your website you state also that you try to work closely with the sound designers. Why is it so important for you?
N. Schmidt: I think, it's very important, because on a film, both music and sound coexist. It's such a delicate matter and if there isn't a collaboration between composer and sound designer, you might end up that, when you mix the film in the final stage and often of course the music is ready quite late and the sound also quite late, it's like you both meet with your two armies sort to speak and then you have like a fight. Who's gonna be louder in the scenes and so on. So, if you kind of try to take those fights earlier, I think you somehow be able to get a much better result. There is also this kind of golden rule for sound and films, that there is like two and a half elements that the mind can f concentrate on the same time. So, if there is speech already, then there can only be like either sound effects or music full sort of attention. The rest is something, that's either going away or coming in and if you try to do the whole thing at the same time, its just too much.
S. Tsarouchas: Many European films here at the festival have very little or no music at all. What are your thoughts about that? We here natural sounds, but otherwise we have sometimes no music at all.
N. Schmidt: Do you hear any music now? (laughs)
S. Tsarouchas: No (laughs). It's quite natural, that there's no music playing, when we are talking, but sometimes for me, in the movies, it's really boring, but when the opening titles are coming up and I hear some music, I feel kind of introduced to the film. I missed that often in films here at the festival, because I'm waiting and waiting and may be, this film is not for me, but I feel no emotions, and I'm waiting for the music and maybe, if they thought about using music, at least for me, it would have helped. I think European films don't have so much music, I don't know why.
N. Schmidt: What we are talking about here, has of course something to do with expectations and tradition and of course, if you think about the history of film actually, the music was there before the speech in the old days, but I can see, what is going on as well, the sort of American, Hollywood approach, where the music is constantly in the film and overpowering a lot of stuff and takes us by the hand everywhere, can also be too much. Maybe we are growing a little bit, I don't know, like when you eat too much, you have this feeling of being full and going the opposite direction with no music at all, I see this as a choice for the film director. I perfectly understand that, and I think in a lot of movies it makes very much sense to do so, because as soon as we hear music something happens to us. I mean, the room of which we are experiencing the film, becomes larger somehow. It gives us some kind of way to interpret, what is going on on a bigger level, but that sort of trip when the room is getting larger, can also disturb the storytelling. So I understand sometimes directors that stay away from music, because they feel, their story is strong enough to be told, because there isn't music in real live. If you want truly depict real-life, there is music only, when a band is playing or from a radio, but for me as a composer, I feel also, what the music can do. Sometimes it has the power to really lift the movie up and to lift some scenes and to give it life and just tell something in the picture, that is not there. That's where I think, it helps to use music and that way I think, it has its strongest job to do.
S. Tsarouchas: Did they do test screenings and may be you had to change some music? Because I talked to a German composer, who composed music for children's film. At the test screenings children said, it was too scary, because of the music.
N. Schmidt: For this film there were no test screenings with children. I'm not sure, why that was. This has to be answered by the production, but I know that the censorship, that we have, who is rating the film, they said initially, that it was meant for kids only about 11 years old, which was like a catastrophe for the film, because it's clearly meant from at least age 7. So we had to go in the mix and the sound designer had to take everything down a notch. So the bear was a bit like a monster before that, and he made the bear much more, how do you say, friendly in the late version, because it was too scary. The music was also at some point too loud and too bombastic. We didn't re-record anything off it, but it was just taken a little bit down and made more comforting. So in the end we got the 7 year rating.
S. Tsarouchas: You composed about 40 min. of music for this film. How much time did it took you to write the music? Have you done the instrumentation by yourself and do you conduct?
N. Schmidt: I think, I worked with this kind of looked picture for almost half a year before the recording sessions and made most of the music in my computer first. So the director had an idea, what it was going to sound like, i which is very helpful for him, I think and that way I'll also kind of orchestrated it in the computer. Then of course after wards we had to sort of translate the midi‑computer recordings to a real score, which is like a long process. It just takes a long time. It's a lot of work. For that I had one assistant to help me, but as a rule I sort of had the orchestration idea in the computer already.
S. Tsarouchas: And do you conduct?
N. Schmidt: No, I don't conduct myself and I'm pretty confident about that. I mean, I have very great respect for conducting and I think, that it's something, that you should devote your time to chieve something good. I think, I would be more in the way, than I would help, if I conducted myself.
S. Tsarouchas: You recorded music in Prague and I think than in Copenhagen. How important is it for you to have the right orchestra, because composers hear the difference in the playing of the orchestras. I am not. Why is it so important?
N. Schmidt: Each orchestra is like a person of its own. So it's almost like asking a director, why do you need different actors for your films? They bring something to the music, each of them, that is unique. I think in Prague, they have a wonderful, wonderful string sound, which is really warm and reminds me also like the way they play in Russia. I really love them. They are a great orchestra and the Danish orchestra is also absolute top class, the state national Symphony Radio Orchestra . They have all the qualities as well! They have very good strings as well, but I think for example on the woodwind side, they have very good soloists, very good brass. So each of the soloist's powers, they bring something special to THE GREAT BEAR. We needed this sort of 'Sibelius' and woodwind world. So it was very important. For example the bassoon was just top notch.
S. Tsarouchas: You worked with different directors. Was some of them musically trained?
N. Schmidt: Just a few of the directors I worked with, had like musical training. It is a problem in some way, that you are lacking a common language to speak about the things, because perhaps if the director is saying, it's too fast here, maybe he doesn't talk actually about the Tempo and he means actually, that too much is going on. You tried to change something and he says, no, no, you didn't understand, what I meant. So it can be a bit of a problem and the ideal situation for me is, I'm getting enough space to bring my own knowledge and experience into the picture. Hopefully I can then sort of change the things according to his wishes, when I understand, what he doesn't like about it, hopefully not ending up in the situation, where that director wants to be also the composer, which is then a not so nice situation. He starts given suggestions, no, no try to do this and in my experience it is rarely a good idea to follow these advices.
S. Tsarouchas: So it's best for you, that the director describes everything in emotions?
N. Schmidt: I think so. Also describing in storytelling, because everything in the film is storytelling! So if he says, the story needs this, then it's much better for me, than saying, here I need to cry or So. There are so many ways, that you can talk about film. Each situation, each collaboration with the composer will always be different. So also in the beginning, you have to find the way, how will this work, probably talk together.
S. Tsarouchas: Are you trying to work always with leitmotifs?
N. Schmidt: Not really, no. For THE GREAT BEAR we didn't use Leitmotifs at all. This was also like a kind of a dogma, a rule, that was used from the beginning. It shouldn't be, that we see every time the bear in the beginning, that we need a certain theme. Like the boy has his theme and so on. The only sort of Leitmotif that there is, that goes through the film, is sort of the film's theme. So we had this very minor second polyseting theme, that you can hear going through and at the end you have kind of a positive theme breaking through, being more and more like a resolution of the whole problem. So it's more like a very grand development in the music.
S. Tsarouchas: I listen to the music samples on your site. It sounds like ,you are doing some kind of Hollywood style, I don't know, maybe Max Steiner from the 50s and earlier. Is it because of your classical training? I don't know, if it's true, but for me, it sounded this way.
N. Schmidt: Yes, but I don't think, I have a conscious sort of, that I'm trying to sound like someone. I think, each project is individual and then you should, you just write, what you think is best, what you agreed on with the director, if you're talking about the music. What I love is this sound of that, sort of Avantgarde technologies, that I have also learned of that conservatory, compared or like applied with a more romantic area, big orchestra like from Ravel, Mahler, Strauss, Prokofiev and so on. That's where I feel most at home, I would say.
S. Tsarouchas: You composed also music for documentaries, short films. What genre do you like the most? What feels more natural to you, if you have a genre?
N. Schmidt: It's hard to say, but of course it's always a blast to be able to have the Symphony Orchestra at your disposal to use, which is where you can express so many details, but also sometimes it it can be great to have just the piano and that's it and if that is ,what it takes to get to the finish line, then that's it. It'ss my boyhood dream to work with the orchestra, so I always enjoy that enormously.
S. Tsarouchas: You wrote many classical pieces as well and now film music. Where do you feel more at home? Or where do you want to go?
N. Schmidt: I would very much like to stay home in both worlds. I think, it is possible to do that. The good thing about writing concert pieces is, that you are your sort of master. Nobody is telling you, when the piece is over and what you should do about. You can like be a writer writing a novel. It is all your work. Nobody is interfering, but in the film of course you also, you're bringing something to a much larger audience. There can happen some things, you can never achieve on your own. So I get enjoyment from both worlds and I hope, I can sort of continue in both.
S. Tsarouchas: We talked about pieces, that we can listen to, if we go to your site. Are there CD available with your music, concert pieces or film music?
N. Schmidt: There are only a few pieces available on very small labels, but I really hope, that we can release THE GREAT BEAR score also, now that the film has been sold to various countries. For example it's sold now to China, Brazil and France. So I think, we probably release it on iTunes for example, but it's still to be decided.
S. Tsarouchas: What do you think about the future of CDs? Will music releases be only digital and maybe you have to be afraid of downloading and copying and you get nothing as a composer?
N. Schmidt: It's a very important question, that you asked, because it deals with what we are living from and of course it is something, that has to be addressed by the right holders. Of course we can't give all music away for free, but I think it's also part of the new sort of Internet mentality. If you go to You Tube, there is like tons and tons of music available. Its more or less used like a Juke Box , and it's also a way to build a fan base. Hopefully, when they get interested in it, through those channels, they will buy it as well, and you might get reach some people, that would never hear about your music otherwise. So it has pit holes and possibilities. There has to be some sort of golden middle way of course, but CDs I think as all technologies, they have some kind of expiration date, I mean like the old 78 LPs. They're almost like distinct now. Some people have them and you see them, but as time passes by, they slide out of the picture, but I think the CD will be around still, I don't know, 15 years at least, but than other medias will come along, but I think, it goes towards the online world. That's, what we will see.
S. Tsarouchas: Do you keep the rights to your music yourself?
N. Schmidt: Yes, in the way, that the rights holders association in Denmark, they're administering all my rights, which means that it just goes automatically like that. I don't have to think about anything there. They will take care of getting in royalties, if its played in countries.
S. Tsarouchas: I was thinking more about, if somebody wants to release a CD with your pieces, and you don't want it, because you're the rights holder, and you decide, if your music will be released or not, so you keep all the rights to your music in general.
N. Schmidt: I think in most film productions, it's written in the contract ,what is the deal which each movie and so on. For my previous feature film, that company had the rights to issue a CD for one year after the premiere and now that has gone by. I can do it by myself, if I want to. So for some films there has to be an additional agreement made, but these aren't things, that concern me so much. Maybe later it will be a thing that I have to take care off.
S. Tsarouchas: You should, yes. I don't think, that THE GREAT BEAR has an end title song. Was there any idea of doing a song, because every animation film has now an entitle song?
N. Schmidt: No. I mean, there is an end title symphonic piece there, which sort of summarizes the film. The director didn't wanted any kind of band, any kind of singing coming in the end. He thought, it would be disturbing the whole experience. So we tried to keep it kind of basic that way. That's a kind of conservative solution of course, but it was never never discussed, that there would be like a song.
S. Tsarouchas: I think, it's better that there is no song, because the expectation is always a song at the end and maybe we have some singing animals or so. Okay, he didn't do that. It's not this kind of film, but if I see a Disney film, I know, that there will be singing. It sucks for me at least, because every time singing, I do know. How about you, what would you like to do a musical?
N. Schmidt: I don't think a musical is something, I would do a lot. I've done one public musical in Russia
S. Tsarouchas: In Russian?
N. Schmidt: Yes, in Russian. … It wasn't a musical in that way. It was more like a children's performance with puppets and singing and a sort of a lot of fun going on, but something like Andrew Lloyd Webber, I don't see myself doing that. Opera would be more appealing to me probably.
S. Tsarouchas: You talked about the role of the music. Can you explain again, what do you think, what kind of role should film music play in a film? What shouldn't it do?
N. Schmidt: It should never tell us, what we need to feel first of all. I think, that this is very bad. It should never be like, anticipate that a person will cry for example . That is very bad, because then the whole moment is spoiled for me at least. It should never sort of how to say, like a truck that runs over a cornfield, like you said, the music kind of taking the lead in a way, that is not good for the film. It shouldn't be it, shouldn't remind us, that we listen to music, rather than seeing a film, because the film was the main thing unless of course that it is the intention. I mean of course you can also go the Ennio Morricone way, because he was always saying like, “My music is on. It's full fader, full throttle and nothing else.” and then of course all sound effects fade awa. It's just this very lush. It's a clear choice, but when the music is just loud and not without any effort in the scene, then it's not working at least for me, to my taste.
S. Tsarouchas: Last question, can you talk about your next project? What are you going to do now?
N. Schmidt: My next project is also an animation film. It's a Danish production called RONAL THE BARBARIAN, which is going to be released in the fall in Danish cinema. It's an adventure comedy, I would say. It's sort of taking kind of Lord of the rings world, with a lot of references with that sort of kind of movies. It's a very different from THE GREAT BEAR and the directors told me, like to do everything I would never do. I should do here, like it should be louder, than I would ever dream of and just have a ball, basically.
S Tsarouchas: And for what age group is it?
N. Schmidt: That is a family movie.
Interview with Nicklas Schmidt by Stefanos Tsarouchas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at www.filmmusic.gr.
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