Finding my footing in film music: Interview with Rachel Elizabeth Jacobs

headshot of composer Rachel Elizabeth Jacobs

Composer Rachel Elizabeth Jacobs (née Matthews) received a Master of Music in Composition from the University of Texas at Austin and a Bachelor of Music in Music Composition with a Certificate in Music Business from the University of Georgia. More than 30 of her original compositions have been premiered nationally and she has scored a wide variety of films.

ASN: Can you tell me your post-school musical journey? What have you been up to?

REJ: After I graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, I got married and moved to Little Rock, AR. It was definitely difficult to find my musical footing in a new place where I didn’t know anyone or have any connections. I started focusing on setting up remote film scoring work, starting with working on student films from UT-Austin. Since then, I have expanded to indie short films, feature length films (Sirona and No Ordinary Love, both of which are on Amazon Prime), and a web series (Melvin). I have also worked on a one-act opera Closing Costs with my writing partner Jill Suzanne Morgan for Emory University.

ASN: Since you compose both concert and film music, could you tell me how you approach composition? How do these fields differ?

REJ: The approach for concert and film music differ a good bit. For concert music, it is mostly my own ideas or working with a partner that start off the process. For film music, since I am writing to picture for a director, the story and the director’s creative vision come first and foremost. Once I get a starting place, then my ideas can begin. The actual composition process is different, as well. For concert music, I know that every note played and word sung must be on the page. Every musical idea must be fleshed out and must pass a “can this realistically be played” check? Usually, my time constraints are not very tight for concert music, so I can sit with my music for a while and tighten and nudge the music until it is “perfect,” which is rare but after a while, you just have to accept the music as done. For film music, depending on the genre, the actual notation and music are a lot more fluid. I know I have sample libraries in my DAW that are powerhouses that can flesh out things for me. Since a lot of my film scores are texture-based, more than melody-based, I often keep the melodies basic and the harmonies a lot more interesting, so I can let the libraries and sounds speak to me.

ASN: How do you line up projects for film scores? What do you have to decide or negotiate with the filmmakers?

REJ: Since I work remotely and most of my directors live elsewhere, I find my gigs online or through networking at film festivals. I look through postings on pages like IMDbPro and projects on crowdsourcing sites and apply with a cold email and a reel of my past works. For negotiations, since most of my projects are in the indie world, I try to always keep my copyrights since I don’t get paid enough to let them buy out my copyright. I let them use the music however they see fit, but at the end of the day, royalties from streams and views will come to me through my Performing Rights Organization, ASCAP. I also negotiate my fee, but since most of my projects are lower budget, it is a compromise between my fee and what their realistic budget is.

ASN: Tell me about your process for creating the recorded score. What tips do you have for this part of the work?

REJ: My first step is to talk with the director about the creative vision. Do they know the sound they want? What feelings do they want to invoke? Do they have a temp score already in the film that they want me to emulate? After that, I usually start in Finale notation software with some basic ideas, flesh them out a bit if I know I’m working with classical instruments, then export the midi into my DAW, Logic Pro. There, I have a lot of sample libraries that can flesh out or arpeggiate chords for me. I move around the melodies and harmonies to a variety of different instruments until I get the sound I want. Then the tedious part of making the sample libraries sound realistic begins, and then I finish with either mixing and mastering myself or sending it off to the editor. Since most of my films are indie, I am usually the whole music department and have to edit everything myself before sending it to the director to lay it in. Sometimes I am fortunate enough to be able to hire one or two musicians, or a small ensemble, that can record remotely that I can use in my score to give the music the “human” quality that sample libraries can lack. 

For bigger budget films, like a Williams or Zimmer score, the composer works with the director on the style of the score and spotting (where the music will be) and often just writes the music. The composer then works with their assistants and orchestrators to flesh their ideas out. After that, they record with live instrumentalists at a studio, versus in-the-box (aka with sample libraries), and send that over to music editors and sound editors, who do their magic. 

My biggest tip is not to be too “precious” with your music, as I was told at the beginning of my career. Since you are creating something that serves a greater purpose and you are writing it for someone else, if a director doesn’t like it, then that is it. I always tell my directors, “You will never hurt my feelings if you don’t like something. Tell me everything you don’t like, be it big or small, or even things you are on the fence about. I am here to make your creative vision happen.” Another tip is to write down that silly idea. Even if it sounds dumb or simple at first, there is often a kernel of a good idea in there, and maybe it is just in the wrong instrument, octave, or tempo. More often than not, the turnaround time for a project is very fast, only a few weeks for a short film usually, so you don’t have time to sit with a theme for a while. The more you do it, the better the initial ideas will be. So, keep doing it.

ASN: Outside of composing, how do you like to spend your time?

REJ: Outside of composing, I like to spend time with my husband and two sons! Since my boys are little (a preschooler and a baby), we are basically attached at the hip. We like to go to the park, go hiking, watch Bluey and classic movies, hang out with other families with kids for even more chaos (but also talking with other adults), and read books!

Thanks for telling us about your work and process, Rachel! Readers, check out to hear more, including cues from the 2023 thriller Sirona, which you can also watch on Amazon, AppleTV, and YouTube.

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