Film In Motion 7 – Composer Paddy Mulcahy on the Sonic Landscape of the Big Screen

Film in Motion is a series of articles and interviews which look at the different roles needed to produce the visual medium of film. In our final interview of the series we talk to film composer Paddy Mulcahy…

Paddy Mulcahy is a composer/producer from Limerick City. Paddy fell in love with electronic music in his early teens and released a number of records under the name Nubus. Paddy now experiments with more down tempo piano music and has recently released ‘Tape Sketches’. His work in film includes  Nicolo Piccione’s ‘Filmmakers’ Minds’ Winner of the CinamadaMare competition – 2013 , James Skerritt’s ‘Eoin’ Winner of the Best Artistic Short Film, Limerick Film Festival – 2015 and ‘The Big City Portrait’ to name a few.

Composer Paddy Mulcahy -
Composer Paddy Mulcahy

How would you define the role of composer and what they do?

In the context of film, I think the role of a composer is to capture the emotion and the story of the film in terms of the aural perception of the audience. You can be visually blown away by an aspect of a film but I think it’s just as important to bear in mind that you can be taken emotionally by the music or sound as well. I think it’s extremely important for a composer to tap into the emotional sense of the listeners ears. I think there’s a certain element of studying the film, learning the characters backstories and whatever story they are going through the course of the film. If you can create some kind of musical relationship with that, a relationship you think will kind of gel the film more and connect with the audience, then I think you might be on to something good.    


What was it that drew you to composing?

To be honest what drew me to composing is the fact that there is kind of a financial bonus to it, compared to the underground dance music I had been writing. It’s writing music and it is as valid as anything else, but it seems like there isn’t this audience or market for underground electronic music in Ireland. So when I was given the first opportunity to put some of my music to a film, I thought it was an interesting concept. I was asked just for the use of one of my tracks first of all, but the second or third time I worked on a project I was asked to compose an original score for the piece. I think the new kind of work flow and having somebody give me a direction in which to take the creative content of this film was very liberating and I felt like I had some sort of control as to the final appearance of this piece. So I think it’s a very interesting journey altogether.

How did you get your start in the industry?

I got started by doing adverts and documentary’s for a friend James Skerritt. After we had done some work together my name started appearing more and more in different credits and other people were hearing about me. My first year as a film composer, I heard from a director in Italy who asked me if I would make a 10 minute score for a short film of his. It went on to win an award at this festival in Italy two years ago so I think that gave me the motivation to continue, it almost egged me on to keep on wanting to do more.

What training or experience did you find most helpful?

I have no training or experience in film composing at all really. I study music production in L.I.T and there are classes there that teach you how to understand the relationship between a visual and aural aspect of a film and how to tap into the two as best possible, and how to fully enhance the story of the film.

What is your approach to scoring a piece?

When I get asked to work on a new film, I ask for as much content that already exists of the film. So a script is absolutely essential, I mean I need to know what kind of spoken interaction there is with the characters. What I like to do is the old typical route of applying a musical theme to each character. Then depending on their scenarios and the situations that they come across in the film, I would tailor that specific theme. So if it is a male character who seems to be the good guy in the film, I might give him an upbeat feeling in the soundtrack and give him an instrument that will resonate with him and the audience.

It also depends on how much creative control the director gives you. They might give you something very strict to work with. Other times they might give you like a picture lock to cut and say there you are, have a go. I’m comfortable working in both situations. Up until film scoring became more serious for me, I had been sitting at home on my own writing music, purely for myself, but now there is the extra sense of responsibility because you are doing it for this other person. They are putting their trust in you to create this piece of music that will suit their film.

[youtube id=”WRrbF8LjsnU” align=”center” autoplay=”no” maxwidth=”750"]

What is the best part of your job?

I think it’s the opportunity to work with a variety of different musical combinations; Instruments, genres, styles, tempos, evoking a different sense of emotion on extreme ends of the scale both happy and sad and then somewhere in between where you’re unsure. I like being given the chance to see other filmmakers work as well because I think there are so many filmmakers putting out so many different styles and ideas of films. I think it’s great to be able to have the chance to see them all, and watch them all and have the opportunity to apply music to this film. I think it’s quite humbling that a director would even come to me in the first place and think my music is good enough to go on their film. I think that being given that freedom and that chance to go and put your mark on a film is something that is very nice. I get a nice fuzzy feeling from it, as it were.

What have been some of the greater challenges in your work?

The beginning and the end. It’s getting that initial idea for any character or landscape or creating a soundscape in general that would really suit the film. It can be quite a daunting challenge because there are endless opportunities in this technological era. Coming up with the idea in the first place could maybe take a couple of days. You really have to dwell and I think it’s important to take that initial time. Days on end would be spent just thinking about this character and having this imaginary picture of what they’re going through and their role in this film. I try to put myself in that characters shoes as much as possible and then from my influences and my chosen sound of instruments, I would try and create something that would suit that character and that would be a very accurate representation of their placement in the film aurally. Then at the end I think it is getting the hard and soft cues together, getting the sync right with the film, just the arrangement in general can be quite tricky at times.  

What are you currently working on?

At the moment I’m working on a documentary for a Hawaiian Art Gallery. The documentary has two running storylines, the main storyline is a study of all of the artists that are associated with the gallery and the secondary storyline is the fact that one of the most involved artists passed away. We’ve got the factual, these are our artists and this is what we are doing, and then there is the more emotional side of the documentary. I think it’s important to maintain a healthy balance between the two themes. It’s a good discipline to maintain the balance between the two and dip into the sad theme dip into the happy but maintain the flow at the same time. It’s like painting by numbers with music.            

What advice do you have for someone looking to get into film composing?

I honestly believe that the answer for this has to be find a unique sound. That’s the most important thing for anybody who wants to get into film composing, find your own sound. It is all well and good going out and downloading this sample pack of strings that sounds like Hans Zimmer or James Horner, but you’re working with their sound then. Essentially you are a copycat just doing what has been done already. I think it’s important to keep that instrumentation but to apply your own style and sound to it. Sound meaning how it’s miked, recorded, mixed all of that. You have to keep on experimenting and exploring the sonic soundscape as it were, to keep on developing these ideas and bring something new to the film world.


Check out the rest of our Film In Motion Series below:

Part 1 – interview with director Peter McNamara

Part 2 – Interview with actress Maeve McGrath

Part 3 – Interview with producer Keith Bogue

Part 4 – Interview with editor Simon McGuire

Part 5 – Interview with screenwriter Eleanor McSherry

Part 6 – Interview with director of photography Shane Serrano

Featured graphic credit: Phil Shanahan