As a journalist and a music composer, it's rare when the two professions intersect for me. That was until I had an incredible conversation with a very talented and award-winning composer for film and television. His name is Michael Kramer and his body of work is as impressive as his musical pieces. Kramer began his journey when he was accepted to Columbia College in Chicago, with a major in music that fueled his thirst for learning and honing his craft. Soon thereafter, Kramer attended USC and graduated from their prestigious film scoring program and he was on his way.
Kramer currently scores the LEGO Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitsu series on Cartoon Network and has a myriad of credits to his name in films like Furious 7 and in video games like Assassin's Creed: Black Flag and Unity. He utilizes every instrument that he can get his hands on to capture the essence of the projects he works on and the outcome is a breathtaking journey that fits perfectly into every scene, accentuating the storylines.
Lately, Michael Kramer is working on the LEGO Star Wars: The Freemaker Adventures series, which is heading into its second season. Read on and learn more about Kramer's creative origins, inspirations, his neverending instrument collection, and what is on the horizon for the talented music composer from Chicago.
PopWrapped: First, I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with us today, Michael.
Michael Kramer: Thanks for having me!
PW: So, let's learn a little more about you, Michael. When did you decide that you wanted to become a composer?
MK: Yes, so, I kind of came late to composing. I was always very much into music growing up. I started piano when I was four, then I started playing guitar in high school. I always liked writing songs on guitar and for piano. It wasn't until college when I began to really get serious about composing. I was in multiple bands growing up and I thought that was that I would be doing. I thought that I was going to be on the stage, but I quickly learned that I was a musical introvert. [laughs] I got my energy from creating by myself, or with just a small group of people. Performing in front of others I quickly learned was exhausting and it took a toll on me. I'm really glad that I had that experience, though, because I'm sure I would've had that "what if..." in the back of my mind.
PW: Oh, for sure! Having different experiences in different styles of music and in the industry certainly help with developing as an artist. I couldn't agree more. You mentioned that you started getting really serious in college. You went to USC, right?
MK: Yes! For undergrad I actually went to Columbia College in Chicago and majored in music. It's funny, before I majored in music, my major was interactive multimedia. I learned about web design, graphics, motion graphics, and audio. It was my "Parental Plan B" [laughs]. My parents were like, "You've got to get a real job. You can actually make money doing this? Really?!" [laughs] No, they've always been really supportive of me and always looked out for my best interest. I changed my major, pretty quickly, back to music. They had a great music program there [in Chicago] and one of the best things about Columbia College was this program called Semester in LA. It was a summer program with multiple disciplines to choose from and they had one for composing music for film and TV. It was the first time that I had complete focus on writing music for visual medium. I was so hooked! I loved every single second of it. I eventually made my way to the grad program at USC. There were amazing teachers there and it was a great program. I look at my work before and after I attended USC and I am a much different composer after having graduated from USC.
PW: Yes! I heard some of the selections from the "Best Of" collection from LEGO Star Wars: The Freemaker Adventures! The music is amazing on it's own, without being synced to visual media in the context of the episodes and storylines. It really stands on its own. I really enjoy it.
MK: Thank you so much! I really appreciate that. That's a big compliment! One of the things that I strive to do is to make the music fit picture, but also able to stand on its own. I think that when you can find the happy medium between those two things, and thread the needle, you're going to have a great result. You know, you can write for picture and hit this and hit that, and it will work. However, if it doesn't have a flow to it, it can be hard to grab you within the context of the scene, as well.
PW: I totally understand the part about creating a flow that makes sense. Within my own experiences of scoring, that can be one of the most challenging things when the visual sequencing is already locked in place. Improvisation helps, but when you create a seamless flow, special things happen at that point.
MK: Oh, yes. Exactly!
PW: Let's talk about the actual process of your compositions. How do you approach your pieces. Instrumentation? Do you use the scenes you are composing for exclusively to derive a musical accompaniment, or do you also use your own expression derived from your own life experience to add to the finished works?
MK: Everyone has their own individual approach. For me, my philosophy that I choose to follow is that I am a mirror and I am reflecting back the emotions I feel when I view the story and the characters, and then I reflect those emotions back to the audience. Every mirror is different. I may reflect back a different part of the emotions of the story than other composers, or other "mirrors," would. But, that's what makes it so fun and what is so unique about this job. Who you are as a composer imprints itself on the work. It has to. It has to come from a really natural place. Often times I try to think of ways to keep my mirror clean and nice and shiny! What are the things I can do to be super honest and super authentic about the emotions that I am trying to translate. That's always is what's running in my mind as I approach the work.
PW: That's a great answer! I really like the "mirror" analogy. That would be a great exercise, too. You could put ten composers in a room and show them the same scene and it's a guarantee that there will be ten different interpretations of what they are absorbing through what is being shown to them. That sounds like something that would be done in a school, I'm sure.
MK: Well, yes! Actually, in USC we had assignments like that where fourteen students would be given the same scene and we'd watch the same scene back-to-back with the finished pieces. I thought, "Wow! These are all very VERY different!" [laughs]
PW: Right! That is so cool! Everyone feels something different. That's the beauty of art. Everyone has their unique way of processing what they're sensing, what stirs them emotionally, and the emotional responses that are triggered are completely unique to the individual. I find that fascinating.
MK: Yes, and one of the things I also try to think of too, are my flaws. As a person. As a composer, a musician. Not to necessarily think of them as flaws, but thinking of them as contributing to my own unique reflection of my work. I think back to a quote by Johnny Cash, "Style is a function of your limitations, more so than a function of your skills." So, I really think that's fascinating, too. What are the things that are my limitations and how are they contributing to making my work its own unique thing.
PW: How very true. We tend to look at our positive qualities and being positive is great, but when creating art, if we only focus on one side of things, then we aren't really being completely true to ourselves. Paying attention to the things that we feel hold us back can actually be a great place to find inspiration for art. So, let's talk about the mechanics of bringing all of the elements together to create an episode or films and your role. When you are approached, what happens? Are you given storyboards, imagery, or scripts? How do you align what you perceive from the material with what the directors want and how often are both creative sides in congruence?
MK: That's a great question! Well, the first thing is story. That's the first consideration. The second is the creative team. The people that hired you to create the music. There are several people that help to bring a project into fruition. It's my job to help bring that vision to life. There is a big overlap with creativity. Sometimes, I have ideas that I think would fit a scene and the director might not think so. It's like a big Venn diagram and trying to reside in that space in the middle. Earlier on in my career, that kind of ego-bruising was kind of hard, but as I gained more experience, it got a lot easier to deal with. When I first started, it felt like the director's vision was more of a burden on my mind. Like, I thought I have to come up with something that he'll like and please the director. These days I see it as a blessing. A gift. Here's this person who has a wealth of knowledge and ideas and someone I can bounce my own ideas off of. Essentially, I'm trying to take myself more out of the equation and being more of a conduit. Along the way, you still have to listen to your gut and use your musical instincts, but I do my best to stay out of my own way.
PW: And that's the challenge, isn't it? Making sure that you adhere to the director's vision while remaining true to yourself and your music. There is a lot to consider and a lot of chemistry to get everything in the mix perfectly.
MK: [laughs] Absolutely!
PW: As far as the actual composing itself, what kind of programs do you use? Do you have a favorite DAW (digital audio workstation), or plugins? Do you ever hear an instrument and are just completely inspired to write a piece around that?
MK: Oh, yeah! Absolutely. I use a bit of everything. My main DAW is Logic. I've got a big bad main computer, which is hooked up to another computer that contains a server where all of my sample orchestra sounds are located. That's the main configuration for a show like Freemakers. Although, we did use live orchestras for that show for some of the bigger cues. That was really fun! And yes! Samples are very inspiring. They can be really helpful for getting different ideas. They can help take you places that you may not have necessarily been naturally inclined to go. These days I am doing a lot of samples with my own instruments and material. I collect a lot of instruments and it is one of the things I love to do. I think that is really helpful, too, in finding inspiration. Sampling my own sounds as opposed to sampling other people's sounds. While it can be really inspiring to use other people's sampled instruments, it can be a double-edged sword. Then, you're just using the same sounds as a lot of people.
PW: Yes, that can definitely be a slippery slope with all of sound libraries out there and people using the same samples. I've seen a lot of that happening with YouTube videos, with samples taken straight out of Logic and placed in videos. So, what kind of instruments do you collect?
MK: The other show I write for is Ninjago. The really fun thing about that show is that each season we've brought in different musical influences from around the world. My wife hates me because I keep buying instruments [laughs]. I have a bunch of different instruments. Asian flutes, a dulcimer, a few different shruti boxes, which are like pump organs from India, a harmonium, an autoharp, ukuleles, charangos from Peru...it's a...it's an obsession. [laughs]
PW: [laughs] Well, it's a good obsession. I can just imagine it. Your wife sees you coming in with another thing...
MK: [laughs] "What is that?!" No, there are worse addictions than collecting instruments!
PW: Yes, totally. So, I see you've won a number of awards and you are nominated for an Emmy for your work on LEGO Star Wars and you've mentioned you also work on Ninjago. You've also worked on video games like Assassin's Creed: Black Flag and Unity, as well as films like Furious 7. How were those experiences?
MK: Yes, I worked with Brian Tyler a few years ago and worked on a few video games he was scoring. Black Flag was really fun. We used a lot of mandolins and dulcimers in that music. I mean, it's pirate music! How can that not be fun?! Furious 7 was a fun film! There are a lot of long, continuous action sequences, so it was really tough to score. It had it's own unique challenges. With scenes that long, how do you keep it fresh and exciting? You have to come up with ways to do that. You can't be at level 10 the whole time. You have to find, almost sneaky, ways to bring it down to a six or seven and then ramp back up to the 10.
PW: Definitely! And music is one of those things that, as a viewer, we are sometimes only subconsciously aware of. Unless, of course, you are more inclined to be tuned into it. It's always interesting when we see how music changes the entire feel of a scene or movie. Some of the biggest soundtracks like Star Wars, or Jurassic Park, and shows like Game Of Thrones all have that spark. With the exception of musicals, most people kind of take the music for granted.
MK: And that's one of the biggest caveats of our job is that, if we are doing it correctly, you shouldn't notice it.
PW: Well, for those of us more in tuned to it, luckily we can buy the soundtracks! On to current events! You'll be in attendance at the Star Wars Celebration in Orlando! What can you tell us about what you'll be doing there?
MK: Yes! It's actually my first Star Wars Celebration experience. I'll be on a panel with Bill Motz and Bob Roth, the executive producers. They'll be showing art and a preview of season two of LEGO Star Wars: The Freemaker Adventures. I will be speaking about the music and previewing music from season two while we are there. The seventh season of Ninjago will also be coming out later this year, called the Hands of Time.
PW: Very cool! We are looking forward to all of those things! One last question. For all of the upcoming composers and those who are just starting out and are serious about pursuing a career as a composer for media, what advice do you have for them?
MK: There's so much. The first thing I'll say is listen to everything. Get out there and challenge yourself to listen to things you've never listened to before and really try to stretch your ear, so to speak. There is really no substitute for doing. Find creators making a short film, or a commercial. Go online to wherever you can find and get your hands on things to score. That can be the best way to get started. Score as many projects as you can. And maybe your first dozen, or so, projects won't be the best work you've ever done. I know it was that way for myself, but it's good to get that out of the way [laughs]. Learn your craft by doing. Also, I'd like to add that having formal training helps. It's a shortcut, but it is not the only road. I was homeschooled before I went to high school, so I'm a firm believer in the power of self-reliance and teaching yourself. You don't need anyone else to teach you, you can learn on your own. Sometimes it might be a little bit slower, and a different path, but you can still get there doing your own thing.
PW: That is great advice. There are a lot of talented people out there and everyone's path is different and everyone's definition of success is determined by the individual. Well, thank you for the great conversation. We wish you the best of luck on your continued success and look forward to hearing more music!
MK: It was really great talking to you and getting to know one another! Thank you!
If you are in Orlando this weekend, PopWrapped strongly urges you to check out the panel at the Star Wars Celebration this weekend. Michael Kramer and his colleagues will be sharing what is coming for LEGO Star Wars: The Freemaker Adventures on Sunday, April 16, from 11am-12pm EST.