Envato Author and freelance film composer, Derek Palmer gives his top tips for creating a killer film score.
A good soundtrack can make or break a film. From crafting the perfect emotional swell to writing a fast-paced action track that packs a punch, film score composing is an impressive and somewhat elusive art form that plays a huge part in one of the world’s most successful industries. So, with the Oscars right around the corner, we’ve picked the brain of a real-life movie music maker to find out what it takes to become a film composer.
Derek Palmer – AKA palmtreep – is a freelance film composer, musician, electronic music producer, and DJ from the United States. His work spans various genres, ranging from film scoring and trailer music to electronic dance music. The talented Envato Author recently won Envato’s 16th Birthday Competition in the creative category, where he entered a thrilling movie trailer to showcase his journey to film score success.
Derek has worked on everything from short films and promo videos to blockbuster movie trailers and feature films, bagging projects with some of the biggest names in the biz, including Universal Studios.
If you’re interested in composing, creating movie trailers, or creative freelancing, there’s no doubt that this talented musician has a wealth of wisdom to share. We chatted with Derek to find out how he got into freelance film composing, the challenges of the industry, and his top tips for creating a killer film score or movie trailer.
What’s your background, and how did you get into film composing?
I received my first digital keyboard (boasting a whopping 64 sounds) when I was very young. I started taking music classes and soon began composing songs as I learned the ins and outs of reading and writing music. I got hold of a computer program called “Sonic Foundry ACID” in eighth grade, which offered a whole new world of options. After high school, I studied music at University, where I learned about the intricacies of music and composing.
Although I was learning a lot, becoming a composer wasn’t at the forefront of my mind until I watched a little film called ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’. The music blew me away, and suddenly, the idea of writing music for film hooked me. From the moment I left University, I began learning how to write orchestral music. I bought all the required software and equipment, took lessons, and watched tutorials on how to write film music. I listened to numerous film scores and composers, learning as much as possible.
Fast forward to now, and I’m writing orchestral music for the big screen just as I envisioned – but I still continue to learn as I go.
How did you become a freelance film composer?
In the beginning, my main focus was building an audience. I started a Soundcloud and YouTube channel and uploaded music as often as possible. I would showcase any new material regardless of what it was. I even opted to do a few projects without charging a fee or for exposure purposes (I don’t recommend always doing this, but it can benefit you occasionally).
I found Envato at the perfect time, just as I was starting to make music tracks for trailers. I quickly signed up as an artist and began uploading music. Before I knew it, I had a steady stream of clients coming in, and word of my portfolio began to spread. I also started a website, which is the hub for everything I do.
Now with platforms like Fiverr, it has become far easier to connect with clients. Going freelance is much more accessible than it was even 10 years ago. In my case, going freelance was about building up a following and profile for what I did; putting myself out there any way I could, such as on YouTube or Soundcloud; and then taking the leap.
What’s the role of a film composer?
The role of any film composer or musician writing music for film is to help tell a story and emphasise what the viewer is seeing on the screen. You need to know when to include music, dial it back, or feature no music at all – sometimes, silence can have just as much impact.
You also need to find the overall tone of a film. A simple change in the tone of the music you compose can drastically alter the concept of a scene or film. Talk with the directors or producers early on to get a vision for the project and go from there. A film is a collaborative effort brought to life by many people with many ideas. The goal is to tell a compelling story – whether an action film, horror film or something more lighthearted. Your job is to help tell the story through music.
Your work has been used by some big names, such as Universal Studios. How did you start composing for such renowned companies?
Sometimes I’ll get notified that a client has used my work for something or licensed it for a project, but I don’t always know what it’s been used for. However, Universal and the US Army have both licensed my tracks for their promotional material. Rocky Mountain PBS also used a song of mine to advertise their park and activities, and ESPN Games used a piece of mine for a game trailer.
I’ve also done quite a few short films in the past few years – mostly horror films – and I feature all my film scoring work on my YouTube channel and SoundCloud.
What goes into making a good movie soundtrack? What’s the process?
Writing a new score is always terrifying. The process differs depending on what I’m doing – for example, whether I’m writing for a specific film or trailer music for Envato. The best thing about music is there’s no right or wrong way to do it. But it always starts with a blank page and a simple idea.
First, I open my startup template. This saves me time routing and organizing, so I can focus more on coming up with ideas. I’ll then load up some simple piano, play around with ideas, and try to imagine the overall sound.
If I’m scoring a film, I’ll watch the movie a few times, take note of what the directors and producers are looking for, and start to form a general idea. Once I develop a theme, I’ll flesh it out with basic orchestration, such as strings or brass. I then send this to the directors for approval and begin scoring. Throughout this process, I’ll send demos to the director for feedback, edits, or changes.
Above all, I try to make things as simple as possible. Some of the best music scores and themes are relatively simple. Once you start overcomplicating things or introducing too many themes or instruments, the music breaks down into noise. Keep it simple and layer on top of your initial idea.
What are the challenges of composing music full-time?
Doing anything full-time is never easy. Full-time is precisely what it sounds like – a lot of work! That being said, I also have an income outside of music. I manage an EDM record label called Emergent Skies (part of the Emergent Music branding) and host an EDM radio show every two weeks on DI.FM.
My busy schedule doesn’t leave me much free time, which can be a challenge – especially if you’re working around other jobs or projects, like making promo videos for a record label.
Another challenge is deadlines. I’ve had people ask me to complete a project in around 20 days – which is usually enough time (depending on the project). On the flip side, I’ve had requests for things to be done in a few days, which can be highly stressful.
Finally, income can be tough. I try not to dwell on it too much, but freelance work doesn’t come with a guaranteed paycheck. Sometimes I’ll go a few months without a film project, and client work decreases drastically during the holiday season, so that’s always something to keep in mind.
Even though doing music full-time can be a lot of work, it has benefits. There’s always something creative to be done, so I’m usually writing music or making videos instead of watching TV or movies all night.
What are your tips for creating a killer movie trailer?
My biggest tip is creating a story and setting a beginning, middle, and end. Think of it as three acts. Act one is the soft intro to lead you into the trailer. Act two establishes the central themes and builds on the concept. Act three is the climax.
The key to composing an epic trailer is to start out soft and subtle. Slowly build to a short break, then come in with your main groove, which will ultimately lead to the score’s big finale. However, you need to start soft to create a compelling trailer climax, otherwise you won’t have anywhere to go.
Editing a trailer is a whole other ballgame. In summary:
- Find clips (like the assets I used from Envato Elements) to tell your story.
- Save your big “set piece” clips for the end, as you do with the music.
- Use more subtle establishing shots for your intro and middle, then pull out all the stops in the finale.
The whole point of a trailer is to capture your viewer. Sometimes this is done using emotional music or a big set piece that provides the “WOW” factor, but ultimately, a trailer should build hype and draw the viewers’ attention toward something. The best way to do that is with epic music and amazing visuals.
What are your go-to programs, tools, or techniques?
In terms of sounds and libraries, I use most of the top players in the orchestral sampling space – like EastWest, Spitfire Audio, Heavyocity, 8Dio, SoundIron, Audio Imperia, and Orchestral Tools. Each platform provides a ton of music and sound libraries to explore.
As for technique, I recommend watching tutorials or walk-through videos from other composers. Tom Holkenborg (Junkie XL) has a fantastic series called Studio Time, where he runs through some of his big scores. It’s a great way to learn new techniques and use them in your own compositions. There’s always something to learn.
Why is Envato Elements a valuable tool for freelancers and creators?
Envato Elements is an invaluable asset for creators or anyone in the creative field. The platform allows you to easily find items and assets to assist your creative goals. For someone like myself making a movie trailer or promo video for one of my releases, I can find amazing quality video clips, customized fonts for logos, and unique Photoshop add-ons for cover art. Sometimes I’ll use After Effects trailer titles treatments if I don’t have time to make my own.
It also adds a more professional look to my work. My promo videos and video trailers all have a gigantic scope thanks to the beautiful drone shots available on Elements, which I would never be able to capture on my own. I use it to make my branding, logos, and fonts look professional too. Fans and clients, new and old, can see the quality of the material I put out, which helps to attract new clients and projects.
Without the stock footage and other assets from Envato that I’ve used in my trailers, my music would not have as much impact on the videos I showcase.
What are your top tips for other freelance musicians, film composers, or creatives wanting to make a career from their work?
Firstly, don’t give up and keep creating. The hardest part about freelancing is not seeing results as quickly as you’d like. Some of us have gone to school and learned things for years, and others are venturing out for the first time without much experience. Regardless of your journey, keep going even if you see few plays or views. It takes time, hard work, and passion.
Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know something. I’ve been writing music for decades, and I still use tutorials. I’ve signed up for classes and watched other composers and music producers do their craft. There is no down side to learning new things.
Stay focused on what you want to create rather than what others are doing. If you spend too much time worrying about what’s popular, you’ll always be playing catch-up instead of doing what you enjoy.
Creativity isn’t always easy, but loving what you do is essential. If you’re not enjoying your creative work, you can’t give it your all. Not everyone needs to make a big orchestral trailer track; you may enjoy writing quirky jingles or dance music. If that’s the case, do it! Art shouldn’t be forced; it should be a passion.