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George Shaw has on his account music to over thirty independent films. In 2006 he was granted four awards on the Park City Film Festival, which claims to be first film festival in the world singularly recognizing the contributions of composers and their music to film. This young American composer is also one of the most promising orchestrators in Hollywood. Among his successes are cooperation with John Ottman on the score to "Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang", and recently with Christopher Young working on "Ghost Rider". The year 2006 was a very arduous one for George, evident from the two discs published by him - "The Loch Ness Monster & Other Short Films" and "Purity - Innocence Found".


Łukasz Waligórski: You're a composer, orchestrator and arranger. What does an orchestrator do? Is there much work for orchestrators in Hollywood, now that most composer use just samples in final scores?

George Shaw: I grew up as a musician playing in orchestras and bands, and many of my closest friends are musician, and I can't stand hearing a sampled score that emulates an orchestra... it just sounds fake and lacks depth, color, and emotion. So when I graduated from college and had to make money to pay my bills, I felt that orchestration would be best suited for me. At least as an orchestrator, you get to end up recording live musicians. 

Though unless you're established at the top of the business working on big hollywood films, there isn't a lot of steady orchestration... only the top composers are getting the budgets to record orchestras, and everyone else is creating synth scores in their studios. That makes it very difficult for someone young like me to break in and get steady work. On the other hand, I've ended up doing much more composing as there are many more opportunities to compose. With the changes in the industry and technology, low budget films have become much easier to make, so I've been busy working on small films, earning composing credits and experience, and hopefully the connections I make on those smaller films will lead to scoring bigger projects. 

What an orchestrator does depends on the composer. I've seen the detailed sketches that John Williams does, and the orchestrator is just a glorified copyist, taking the sketch and filling it out on a full score page. Other composers, some of whom lack traditional classical training and rely on computers to put down their musical ideas, and many others who just don't have the time to orchestrate, will send their sequences with all the midi data to an orchestrator who will then notate the music in a notation program, sometimes adding/removing, voicing or filling in textures, harmony, counterpoint, and accompaniment.

I know you have worked lately as an orchestrator on Ghost Rider with Christopher Young. How was it to work with this composer? Was that a good collaboration? Do you think that he will hire you for Spiderman 3?

I have some friends who work as assistants for Christopher Young, and when things got really crazy and they had to finish several cues the night before one of the scoring sessions, I got called in to help out. I went into Chris's studio during the evening, and worked about 12 hours, by the time I left the sun had already come up. It was all straightforward translating the midi data into notation, plus adding dynamics and articulations. Fortunately we made the deadline, and I certainly hope to work on Spiderman 3.

How do you, as young American composer, feel about young European composers, who come to your country, because they want to make a career? Is there some kind of rivalry between you?

I think there is some rivalry between all composers, but fortunately I've made a lot of friends amongst other composers, and we sometimes help each other out when we can. I don't really know very many composers from Europe, and the ones that I do, came here and studied film scoring at USC, or the ASCAP Film Scoring Workshop, so I guess they basically have the same training that I did, and are in the same boat, trying to break into a really tough business.

Is it hard for young composer in USA to make a career in Hollywood?

It's hard for anyone to make a career in Hollywood, it takes a lot of talent, dedication, passion, and luck. I hope I have what it takes to make a career in Hollywood.

Here in Poland we all admire Hans Zimmer. We find him as a great composer and also one of the most influential people in Hollywood. Is that true? Is he really so powerful from your viewpoint? Is it true that collaboration with him in Remote Control (AKA Media Ventures) the only way to make a career?

I hear that's really tough to work for Hans, a lot of people I know who've tried it have ended up quitting because they work you so hard. You don't get time off, and if you're willing to sacrifice your social life and stick with it, you just might get a lucky break, like some of the very talented composers that have come out of Media Ventures. But that certainly is not the only way to have a career. The most important thing is making connections with directors, which is why I'm focusing on meeting as many up and coming filmmakers as I can, and is probably the best way to build a career.

Are there any differences in writing music for short films, and feature-length films?

In a short film, you don't get to develop (or repeat) your thematic material as much as in a feature. So usually in a short film, almost everything you write is new material. In a feature, when you've established the tone and the themes, it becomes much easier and quicker to compose the rest of the score.

When I heard Main Title for Under Pressure; for the first time, I was little surprised. It sounds like theme from Basic Instinct, by Jerry Goldsmith. What do you think about this?

I'm glad you hear the inspiration. While I was writing the theme for Under Pressure, I had the score for the Basic Instinct Main Titles open on my desk. I've learned so much from studying scores from great masters like John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith. So I started with a similar texture and the same two chords Jerry used in Basic Instinct, changed the time from 4/4 to 3/4, and wrote my own melody. So my main theme is very much inspired by Jerry Goldsmith.

You scored Purity - an independent feature film, which won a Gold Medal for Best Impact of Music in a Feature Film at the 2006 Park City Film Music Festival. What was your collaboration with the director like? Did you have any creative freedom, or did you have to do everything she wanted?

Working with NaRhee was awesome! We were pretty much on the same page, and I think she just relieved at how little she had to worry about the music compared to the production nightmares she had.

The film was originally temped with music from Princess Mononoke, one of NaRhee's favorite scores. The Princess Mononoke score was much too big and epic for Purity, but I could tell that it was the lush melodies that she was looking for. So I wrote a romantic orchestral score (with some acoustic rock elements for certain scenes) that featured piano, cello, and woodwind solos backed by lush string orchestrations.

Most of what I wrote was approved on the first attempt, we had very few disagreements, she really did give me quite a bit of freedom. I'm usually most proud of scores like this where the director loved what I did and didn't have me make many changes, since it reflects my initial approach and my most musical interpretation of the scene. Often times, when filmmakers want me to change things, it's because they want less. Less emotion, less drama, less musicality. They're afraid of letting the audience really feel for the character or the situation. I always thought movies were supposed to be larger than life, they're about telling stories that are rich in emotion, drama, action, romance, etc... That's why I enjoyed working on this film so much!

Why are most of the tracks on the CD so short? 

That's just how long the scenes are, and in the movie some of the cues overlap, so that they seque into one another. I just didn't bother to edit them together on the CD. Yea...I was lazy.

Also, there are a number of fantastic songs from very talented indie bands and singer/songwriters on the soundtrack, many of whom I'm now a fan of after hearing their music in the film! For anyone interested in hearing their work, check out Purity on myspace (http://www.myspace.com/puritymovie)

Who are the singers on all the versions of the song "Journey Through The Sky"?

The opening track, which is the opening of the film, the song is sung by Shaheen Sheik, a singer/songwriter who had a song in the soundtrack of Purity. For the end credit version of the song, Timothy Ford Murphy, a singer with a theater background who was a friend of the director recorded the song. 

I really liked your action score in Fight. Where did you find inspiration for it, because I know this kind of drum and string fusion from Bourne Supremacy by John Powell? 

The scene features two of the male leads brawling/wrestling with each other. I had originally scored it with a more contemporary/edgy feel, a grooving electric bass and drumset, but the director hated it. I thought it was the perfect way to score the scene, so I decided I would write something completely wrong and dramatically over the top to show the director that my original idea was better. So I loaded up a string patch and a drum loop and improvised the cue, and had it done within 5 minutes. Turned out she loved it. So I thought, ok, this is too epic for a fist fight, but this scene is approved and I'm not going to argue just so I can spend more time sweating over more work, when I have plenty of other scenes I needed to focus my energy on.

I know you met John Williams few times. Can you tell anything more about it? Were those important moments in your career?

I first met John Williams in college when he came and conducted the USC Symphony, I managed to shake his hand, tell him how I got into film composing because of him, and get a picture taken with him. He was very kind and gracious, and it was a dream come true to meet him. 

I was also volunteering at the SCL (Society of Composers and Lyricists) Oscar Party the year John was nominated for both Memoirs of a Geisha and Munich. I was handing out Oscar posters to guests as they were leaving, and John Williams walked by and didn't see me. So for some reason I ran after him, unsure if I should address him as John, or Mr. Williams. I caught up with him and tapped him on the shoulder and offered him a poster. He graciously accepted and thanked me, and then turned and left, what a gentleman. 

John Williams also spoke at the USC Music School graduation the year after I graduated. He handed out diplomas to all the composers graduating that day...I was disappointed I missed out on that by a year. But then again, everything I've learned from John Williams has been from studying his scores and listening to his music.

You've said that "Purity" was originally temped with music from Princess Mononoke by Joe Hisashi. What do you think about this composer. I must admit he's the one of my favourite composers. Are you familiar with his works?

I love Joe Hisashi, he writes such beautiful themes. His score for Spirited Away really amazed me!

Are you familiar with any Polish composers? 

I love Chopin, and in school studied a little bit of Lutoslawski, Gorecki, and Penderecki. I'm not that familiar with Jan Kaczmarek, but I did enjoy his scores for Unfaithful and Finding Neverland.

What are your other hobbies besides music?

I love to surf. It's the perfect way to de-stress and forget about work and deadlines. During the summer when I graduated, me and a bunch of my film scoring classmates started surfing because we were all unemployed at the time. I also love watching movies, and play video games, though video games are such a huge distraction for me when I'm composing. Maybe someday I'll score a game and it'll be a good excuse to play games.

Do you have any new projects you would like to talk about?

I'm scoring a short film for a good friend of mine who is an amazing director that I've been wanting to work with for a while. His name is Rocky Jo, and the film is called, Bunny and Clydo Presents: Tokyo Boogie. It's an action film starring Archie Kao from CSI. 

I've also lined up a sports drama feature directed by Yimeng Jin that was shot in Beijing, and an amazing short film directed by German Alonso, a friend of mine from USC, about kids playing video games at home when the game characters come out of the TV to terrorize them. 

I have also recently been selected as a fellow in Film Independent's Project: Involve, which is a practical training, mentoring, screening, and job placement program that pairs 40 emerging filmmakers per year with mentors in all areas of filmmaking. I am fortunate to have as my mentor, Christopher Lennertz, an emerging film composer (best known for game scores to 3 Medal of Honor Games, James Bond 007: From Russia With Love, and was recently nominated for an Emmy for his score to Supernatural). 

Author: Łukasz Waligórski


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