We speak to music supervisor Vanessa Jorge Perry who helps us to demystify the process of placing music in trailers.
Over the past 14 years, Vanessa has been a music supervisor for both television and movie trailers, working at Entertainment Tonight, The Ant Farm, and Aspect Ratio. She’s worked on placements for projects such as Sideways, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Trek, Transformers, Eat Pray Love, Iron Man 1 & 2, Leap Year, It’s Complicated, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.
Hi Vanessa, can you tell us a bit about how you got into music supervision?
I started in journalism – I wanted to become an entertainment journalist and so I started working at Entertainment Tonight producing and directing and what happened was that I needed more money. The music supervisor was quitting and so I was just like, “Oh, maybe I should try that job and get a little bit more.” So I started working as a music supervisor for Entertainment Tonight and really enjoyed it. It was really hard and I was really young and I didn’t know anything. I was working with composers and production libraries and licensing songs and it was really cool.
I didn’t really know a lot about trailers at that point. I knew that we aired them on Entertainment Tonight, but when a headhunter got me an interview with Apsect Ratio I was like, “Trailer houses? I thought the trailers were made in the movie studios.” I didn’t know that there were actual companies that did just the movie trailers. So I’ve been in this awesome industry since then and it’s been a pretty cool transition into the trailer world.
There’s obviously a huge marketing element to trailers, does the marketing department have the final say on a project?
Each project is completely different; each movie, each director is totally different. It’s very interesting because we have a lot of people and rings that we have to jump through to get to our finished product. And sometimes, for example, working with someone like Quentin Tarantino who picks his own music for stuff, we wouldn’t really be making the decision.
But in most cases the marketing department at the film studio will let us have full control of the creative process. So we start from picking our own music, editing our own cuts and then presenting to them. Sometimes they’ll hire two to three different trailer houses on one project so we’re all competing against each other.
During that process the marketing department will sometimes say, “No, we don’t like that music.” or “Change this.” They have their study groups where they take our trailers to the theatres and actually ask people if they like the music, if a joke hit or if they got scared enough if it was a horror film. But it can go anywhere – I’ve had projects where it’s finished and marketing loves it but the director doesn’t like it, sometimes they all love it.
Do you ever work with the movie’s music supervisor?
You’d think that we would – It’s very strange because we get our hands on a movie way before the music supervisor for the movie gets their hands on it. We’ll get a script before it’s even shot, like, “Ok, this is the movie, go!” Sometimes we get a movie in the middle of shooting and we get to see what the music supervisor is temping in it. So it’s very interesting because we should be working together but we don’t.
And that’s also another big misconception – a lot of people ask me, “Don’t they just use the music from the movie for the trailers?” Maybe 5% of the time they might. There might be something really cool that the director liked in the movie that he/she is like, “We want that for the trailer,” or for marketing or whatnot.
We’re pretty much all about marketing and promo and trying to sell the best movie possible. I’m sure you’ve heard many times that the trailer looked way better than the movie or that the trailer gave away a lot of the movie, but it’s definitely a science and I think that once you get it down and it’s a great trailer then you’ve sold the movie. So I think it’s kind of better that we don’t talk to the music supervisor in the movie because it’s definitely a different sell.
Do you normally source existing music that’s readily available or do you work with composers to score a trailer?
Unfortunately the process is way quicker in trailers. Sometimes we get time to work on something where we can actually score a piece. The problem is, like I said, we’re in competition with other trailer houses so we don’t know for sure if ours is going to be used. So when we commission something we don’t like to take that chance very often and commit money out of pocket.
It could be where we’re really trying to win a trailer, for example we worked on The Hobbit at Aspect Ratio and we had a few pieces commissioned especially for that. We got a few spots that went through but we didn’t really get the main trailer. So those things kind of fall by the wayside but at the same time the composers who have time to do that can keep those tracks for themselves and their library if they don’t get licensed.
We like to get stuff that’s already out there, libraries that have new catalogue or if it’s a song search we’ll definitely work with labels. We’ve been doing a lot of covers where we’ve commissioned some work. I would say comissioned work is maybe 10-15%.
What’s your process with libraries? Do you stick to specific resources or are you always looking for new music?
A lot of the orchestral libraries have been with us for many, many years, so we know how they work, they know how we work, they know what we are looking for, I know the composers – I trust them. But we are always looking for new, cool stuff. We do take chances. I have had many situations, obviously not where I’m under the gun, but when I take my time to listen to stuff and find new people.
Sometimes when you are in a rush you go to who you know. I’ve given people chances under the gun and they’ve come up short because, you know, they don’t really know how things work, they don’t know how the cues are structured, maybe their sound isn’t as good a quality. So it’s hard to take those chances sometimes. I have taken chances in the past, as have many other music supervisors in the trailer world, and I think that’s how new people get into the business.
I do listen to new stuff and I always recommend people to watch as many trailers as possible because you hear a lot of how the orchestral cues work in that situation. So if there are composers reading this I would say definitely research a lot of trailers online, iTunes trailers, comingsoon.net has trailers.
Are there any specific resources for musicians looking to break into trailer music?
Interviews like this and panels are always great because you get to listen to music supervisors. Like I said I recommend looking at trailers and also looking at production libraries to see if you can send your music to them and maybe get feedback. I know it’s hard because a lot of people are super busy and we get tons of music all day long so it’s really hard to get through it all, but I think when you have good music it speaks for itself and it will get heard.
So I think that making your music the best and trying to get it out there in any way shape or form is probably the best bet. And I guess doing a lot of online researching of certain companies and people, or getting on social media and stuff like that really helps. Maybe do more shows and panels and register for things like this that might help you get your name out.
And avoid cold calling period
Yeah, cold calls aren’t a good idea. And, obviously, stalking somebody is not the best way to go about it. In fact, it would probably get you blacklisted because we all talk to each other. There are people who call and it’s very difficult to talk to people when you’re working all day long. So I always recommend people to do things like this and send your email, send a digital link of a little EP of your best tracks that you think would work for trailers.
Some people send us stuff that has nothing to do with trailers. So it’s just focusing in on your stuff that you think might work for trailers and sending us a snippet of your best work in a digital link. Like I said we get a ton of emails so maybe trying to make yours stand out is also a good way to get someone’s attention. If you think your music is the best then one day it will get heard by somebody and it will make it, I think.
Is it better to submit shorter, more dynamic pieces for trailers?
Yeah, our trailers are obviously one minute thirty second short clips and usually we don’t even use one track throughout the trailer, we use maybe an intro and a back end. Sometimes we’ll use a whole cue. We also do thirty second or sixty second TV spots, we’ll even have fifteen second TV spots and we do online pieces as well. We also do home video stuff and video game trailers. There’s so much that we use music for.
We’ve even worked on short documentary style films so it’s just hard to say. We also look for songs. For home video we look for affordable tracks that sound like other things, like a Coldplay song for example. And we also have stuff where we need Coldplay. So we’re looking for a full range of music at all times.
In terms of just orchestral stuff, again it’s different. Sometimes we look for a cool intro, a “vibey” intro, or a rock hybrid intro or even a classical intro. Or sometimes we’re looking for a big, back end orchestral cue with big bombastic drum hits or a rocking, rock hybrid Nine Inch Nails sounding cue. So it’s different every time and I think that’s why I love music supervision for trailers. Every day is different. One day I’ll be looking for Irish Folk music and the next day I’ll be looking for a Nine Inch Nails hybrid cue. It’s a full range. And I think that’s why it’s harder for us to go through so much music because we do look for different music all the time.
We’ll use these production libraries for music that is more affordable because we can’t possibly find the time to go through hundreds and thousands of tracks for something that has a two hour turnaround. When people send me stuff I try to go through that on my down time, and when I have a search in two hours I go to those people that I know I can get stuff from right away, or I go to my lists of stuff in iTunes that I know I’ve pitched for something else.
Have you noticed any trends in trailer music?
I’ve been doing this for a long time and a lot of things are very cyclical. It’s interesting because one trailer will come out and people will say, “Oh my God that was the best thing that ever came out.” Like the original 300 Nine Inch Nails cue was super huge so from then on it was like, “We need that 300 cue from Nine Inch Nails.”
Or when Jarhead came out with a Kayne West song it was like, “We need that song.” Covers are a huge thing and they have been for a while. I’ve placed a lot of covers in the past and it’s just something that has blown up and it keeps going. So covers in different styles, like for example, a counter point, slow cover of something really eerie for some cool movie, or even a cover of something fast for an animated movie.
Recently in the past year there’s been a lot of hip-hop and a lot of cool Kayne, Jay-Z type stuff but that’s also hard to replicate because that just comes with the name, you know. In terms of orchestral stuff it’s all over the board. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but it’s orchestral and clean and big and choral and that’s always been around since day one. That kind of fades out sometimes and comes back but that always remains very prominent in a lot of trailers.
And then the rock hybrid stuff, the cool hybrid type stuff is always in. It just varies, it’s all over the board. Usually when something cool comes out everyone tries to copy it. That’s why I always tell people to watch trailers because you can tell what people will want by seeing what’s out there right now.
Do you find that a lot of the cues used are very genre specific for different trailers? For example heavy sound design in sci-fi and horror?
Yeah, sound design has always been huge. In Transformers we used a lot of sound design and it got to be really popular. And obviously with Inception horns got to be very popular. So in terms of horror and action, and maybe an Inception type movie, I think it’s all or nothing; they want it to be very quiet and atmospheric or they want it to be really loud and bombastic with some really interesting sound design. And that’s kind of been our plight recently – to find unique sounds for specific spots and trailers.
We’re always looking for unique sound design. There is really not a lot of crossover for rom-coms unless it’s a joke spoof. I’ve done Inception joke spoof type stuff for comedies and animation movies. Sound design is definitely here to stay, a lot more people have gotten into it and it’s booming. I think that if you do it really well and you have the right equipment to do it, then go for it because it’s pretty awesome.
You’ve worked on many very different films, (Eat Pray Love, Star Trek, Transformers, Harry Potter, Kung Fu Panda) what’s your favourite genre to work in?
It’s hard – the animated movies are fun but very difficult because you can go almost a year trying to find the perfect song. But sometimes you work with an animated movie and you get the song right off the first bat and that’s obviously the golden ticket, that’s what I love to do – come up with something on the first pitch. That rarely, rarely happens but it would be awesome!
There are a lot of indie movies you can work on where you can create your own sound and get a cool up-and-coming artist in there. In terms of Eat Pray Love Florence and the Machine was new and my co-worker and I pitched her song and the trailer blew her up. That was fun because we kind of had our hand in getting her out there and we got to meet her and hang out with her. She was very thankful for that. I don’t like to do horror stuff because I’m so scared of horror movies and I hate watching them, so the fact that I have to watch them at work in my office all dark and creepy by myself, I don’t like! Different movies and different genres are always fun to do because it’s challenging, but I think that maybe indie movies are my favorite.
You won The Guild of Music Supervisors award for the Inherent Vice trailer where you placed Sly & The Family Stone’s “I Want To Take You Higher.” Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
It was a really cool, weird, interesting, super hip movie. The editor that worked on it with me at Aspect Ratio is very creative and has a great ear and he usually picks a lot of the music he loves. We were looking for 70s funk type stuff and I had this “I Want To Take You Higher” cue from my Ant Farm days that I loved and have always wanted to place. When I found it again I was like, “Oh this is going to be good.” I gave it to the editor and he made it work. I think that is the key in that situation – you can have a lot of really great songs but I think it takes a really good editor to be able to see it and actually apply it to the trailer.
He did edit and manipulate the song a bit and we did need to add a few drum hits and a few stop downs in some specific areas. I think a lot of editors sometimes fear songs because they don’t see how they can break them down or manipulate them for a trailer. So it really helps to have an amazing editor who can do that kind of stuff. And he did, he turned it into an award winning trailer. I was really thankful to get that award but to me it takes a village to make a good trailer. I don’t like to take the accolade for something like that, although I did bring the song to the table it was something that he kind of created and made a pretty amazing trailer out of.
Do you often find yourself having to get re-work a composition for a trailer?
Sometimes. We do try to get instrumentals of songs and for orchestral or library compositions we’ll get stems for certain things. If we’re lucky we’ll sometimes get stems for a big track as well. In the “I Want To Take You Higher” case we didn’t get any stems but we did get the approval. We needed the approval to actually change a few hits and stuff. It’s different for each cue and each project.
Do you have a personal favourite trailer sync?
One of my favorites is actually one of my firsts which is the Sideways trailer and I placed the Blind Melon cue “No Rain”. It’s just such a great trailer and I just remember it being a hard because people told me that me Blind Melon didn’t license and I just went with my gut on it and pitched it outright. In terms of orchestral stuff, there are so many. I also did the Impossible trailer with a YouTube cover which is really cool. That was another one of my favorites.
So at the moment you’re working with Aspect Ratio as well as doing some freelance stuff?
Yeah, I have two children and I just had a baby girl so I’m at a career point where I’ve done this for a long time and I feel like I could definitely do this from home. So far it’s been really great, I love it. Not only do I get to work with Aspect Ratio, but I’m getting to work with people that I’ve worked with throughout my whole career. A lot of people from The Ant Farm that have gone on to different trailer houses have hit me up for specific things. I’m also not just doing trailers now, I’m kind of moving into different things. I’ve been asked to do some indie movie stuff and also work on some cool video game projects. So far it’s been two months and I’m liking it. I get to see my kids and also do what I love, which is working in music and music supervision and working with great artists, composers and creative teams.
Do you have any advice for people trying to break into the music supervision world?
I know that it’s fairly cutthroat in TV. It’s always cool to work on an indie movie and whatnot and just take your chance. But I know with the trailer world it’s hard to get into because you definitely have to know specific libraries and people. It’s good to try and hit up music supervisors to see if they are hiring. I’ve hired many assistants in the past through knowing other people and having people recommend them to me, so that’s a good way to get in. If you’re a music supervisor wanting to get into the trailer side, again go to panels or parties where you think you might be able to meet a few people. It’s about meeting people and making friends and being cool.
Stanley Straughter asks, “are there any blanket online resources where people can find out what trailer houses are looking for in general?”
Unfortunately there aren’t. The reason being is that we have to sign a non-disclosure agreement on the projects that we are working on because, like I said, we get stuff before it’s even being discussed in the media. It’s crazy. We’ve had security come in from different studios to check our security. We get stuff we have to watch on a secure computer in one specific room so we have to all go in one by one to watch it. Sometimes we have secure scripts where we have to read it in a specific room. I’ve gone to the studios to read scripts because they don’t even want the scripts to go out, it’s pretty funny.
Even when I’m talk to composers or labels that I’ve been friends with for many, many years I don’t tell them what I’m working on. We keep it under wraps. If the client finds out that it was us that said something, we can get fired and taken off the project or we can get fired outright as a music supervisor. So, we tend to keep our projects under wraps and have to try to find unique ways of describing what we are looking for without giving the movie away.
So it’s a little difficult in that respect. Instead of asking us, “Hey, what are you working on?”, I think the better question to ask is, “Are there any styles of music that you need right now?” We’re looking for a lot of different stuff every single day so it’s probably best, like I said, to send people what you think is your best work and just show off that.
Daniel Nguyen asks, “do you find that the trailer music and the cues reflect the actual tone and style of the music in the movie or the game?”
That’s a tough one because, like I said, it’s different per project. For example for a movie like Gravitywhere it was all very sound design, really cool score, we pretty much just did sound design for most of the trailers. But then they also needed songs. Sometimes what’s needed to sell the movie is a big song, or sometimes it’s very atmospheric, light sound design. It’s all over the board with what people need.
Don’t forget, we not only do trailers but we do trailers, teasers, cut downs, TV spots, and promos. So for that whole project there is a ton of media that is being put out there and different marketing for different groups of people. In some instances they will say, “We need a spot for women for Gravity, so we need a really cool, emotional song”, or, “We’re going to do something for teenagers, we need something really rock hybrid with kick-ass sound design.” So for each movie there are different audiences that we need to focus on and that’s kind of what our job is, to figure out what we need to do to sell that movie to those audiences.
What are you listening to these days?
Other than all the cartoon stuff that I have to listen to for my son? Just kidding. I’m really into Jamie XX, I like the new M.I.A right now. I’m kind of a hip-hop girl, I like to listen to a lot of hip-hop and then I like to listen to a lot of score. I really like to try to find the latest and coolest scores that are out there for movies. I’m a little all over the place. I can’t think of anything else right now that I’m into but I also like to just go on Spotify and listen to what’s new on Tuesdays. That’s part of my job. It’s hard to listen to stuff outside of what I’m trying to search for at the moment because I don’t really have any downtime. I’m just all over the board listening to new stuff.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us Vanessa, it was elightnening and really awesome!
Thank you for having me!
We’d like to say a huge thanks to Vanessa for taking the time to speak with us. To listen to our full interview with Vanessa head to our SynchStories podcast.