The right notes with Rob Manning

ROB MANNINGRob Manning is a film and television composer, who has scored for programmes ranging from the award-winning comedy series Fonejacker to The Wonderful World of Tony Blair for Channel 4’s Dispatches.

Here he tells us about his career in the world of music, the difficulties of directing a 54-piece orchestra while a programme is still in the edit, and proves that you can create an atmospheric score with a ukulele. 


How did you become a composer?
I snuck in through the side door. I was working as a television sound recordist and studying music at Brunel University. On a shoot one day the director heard some of my music and asked if I’d like to score a series of documentary-style commercials he was doing. I never planned to get into composing – I always thought I’d make a living in a band. But gradually one job led to the next and after a while I was able to retire the boom.

What are the main challenges of your role? 
The challenges vary depending on the type of jobs you're writing for (films, television, commercials, theatre etc.) but one common challenge is the process of interpreting the client’s brief.  Music is so subjective and some people find it difficult to describe what they're after, so there can be a lot of guesswork and trial and error involved.

What’s the most challenging programme you’ve ever worked on?
I recently finished a five-part drama/documentary for Discovery [How we Invented the World, which looks at four pivotal inventions]. It’s a great series but scoring it was pretty hectic. There were clients in the US and the UK so the music was being pulled in all sorts of different directions.

We tried out lots of different musical approaches before we settled on the chosen sound. At one point we had five episodes in the edit at the same time and I was writing for a 54-piece orchestra so the work rate was high. All in all it was quite a juggling act, but we got there and the series has been well received.
Overall I'd say the most challenging jobs are often the ones where clients are less sure of what they want or where there's the potential for the clients to disagree about the music brief.

What’s the most enjoyable job you’ve worked on?
I really enjoyed working on a Channel 4 short documentary called Girls on the Pull. It was a story about women who suffer from trichotillomania that was very sensitively directed, filmed and edited by Ruth Kelly at Minnow Films. I was given a lot of space to come up with the sound and ended up writing a textural, atmospheric score using live cello, violin and the ukulele. It was one of those jobs that came together well and I was proud to be part of the team.
I also really enjoyed working with Penny Woolcock on her documentary On the Streets, a sensitive exploration of homeless life in London. The film needed very little score so instead we used subtle sound design elements to avoid influencing the viewer in an overbearing way.

How is your job changing?
The biggest change I’ve seen over the last few years is a significant fall in budgets alongside increasingly aggressive contracts. I recently heard that a large production company was approaching composers for a prime time show and were offering no fee, were taking 50% of the royalties and wanted the publishing rights to be assigned to them. I think that freelancers working with intellectual property in media will see a lot of change over the coming years.
On the more positive side, I’ve also seen huge improvements in virtual software, which helps composers to give the client a much better understanding of what a final recording will sound like.

What key skills do you need to become a composer?
A thick skin helps. It sounds obvious, but you also need to be good at working on your own. Music is one part of a production that is done out of house. This means there is a lot of pressure on the composer to get it right without the daily involvement of a team of people and the input you get by being on location, in the edit or in the office.

Music also tends to be one of the last elements to be addressed in a production so it's quite common that if things aren't going well elsewhere it will fall down hard on the music. Don’t take things personally and try to look at things constructively, even if you don't agree. Diplomacy is key.

What advice would you give to someone looking to become a composer?
I get asked this question a lot and my answer is always to do as much composing as you possibly can: work on short films, student projects, animations - whatever you can get involved in. Every job will be building on your experience, your portfolio and more importantly introducing you to employers and other creative people in your industry.

In general, the named directors of today already have their composers, so you're better off targeting the big names of tomorrow.

If you could meet a version of yourself right at the start of your career, what’s the one piece of advice you would give yourself?

To truly immerse yourself in music from as soon as you're able. Music is such a vast subject, there is so much to learn - it's a lifetime's study. I wish I had practiced more, read more and studied more when I had less responsibility and more free time.


To find out more about Rob and his work, please visit his profile on The Knowledge.