As you probably know, the capstone to the Music Composition for the Screen MFA program is the internship in LA. Students get to apply and intern with leading industry composers. Dan Kramer, grad of 2013, was very lucky to have spent that time in Mark Isham’s studio. If you’ve ever seen Warrior, Once Upon a Time, or Crash, you know his work. I interviewed Dan to find out a little more about how the internship went and what advice he might have for prospective Hollywood composers and he was kind enough to answer.
Who did you intern with?
I had the privilege to intern with Mark Isham at his studio in northwest Los Angeles. Some of Mark’s current projects include the TV show “Once Upon a Time,” as well as the movies 42 and Homefront. You might also be familiar with some of his best known work, such as the films Crash, Warrior, Point Break, and The Cooler.
What were your specific responsibilities?
When I arrived at Mark’s, he was in the middle of a studio renovation and addition project. I ended up spending a majority of time reorganizing and cleaning gear that spanned about six decades worth of technology, as well as creating some helpful spreadsheets to locate certain items in the future. Once that project died down, I had the opportunity to help his assistant Allison Geatches (a fellow alumni from our program!) with some score preparation on a special suite of 42 that was going to be performed by a live orchestra.
What are two top things you learned while there?
I definitely had the opportunity to get immersed in gear as well as have a crash course in the development of technology in our field while going through all of Mark’s contraptions, old and new. There were also times that I got to watch some of Mark’s team utilize various equipment and plugins in ways that I hadn’t seen before, let alone introduce me to new things I hadn’t heard of myself. I feel like this was worthwhile especially since my own background in gear isn’t incredibly strong; the exposure made me feel a much deeper connection to many of the concepts we talked about in classes throughout my time at Columbia!
The other biggest thing I would say I learned while here is less tangible, but is possibly more important. Once you arrive, it is very important to check your ego at the door, and be genuine in your desire to help out in any way you can. It can be very tempting to dismiss an activity you might consider mundane or beneath you, but it is very likely that those around you will not forget that. It can also be tough because you very well may end up in a situation where you are surrounded by, shall we say, “strong” personalities. Of course stick up for yourself, but remember that in most cases being an intern is a marathon, not a sprint – bide your time, build a good relationship, and identify the best opportunities for risks or trying to “stand out.”
How much interaction did you get with the composer?
Unfortunately I didn’t get to spend as much time as I would have liked with Mark – something you learn quickly is that even with small studios, the main composer is completely swamped with things he or she has to do just to keep the studio together! Time spent with assistants proves to be worthwhile, however, as they can definitely answer any questions you may have, and if you observe them carefully you will be able to glean quite a bit of information about the composer you intern with, as they will reflect many things about him or her.
All that being said, I felt I was very fortunate to have a few extended sessions with Mark throughout the internship. I had the opportunity to sit down with him and show him a mockup of a piece I was preparing to record at Capitol Records for my Thesis project, and he gave me a lot of great feedback on it! In fact, he asked to listen to a few other pieces and gave me his opinion on those as well.
Sometimes the circumstances of how you get to spend time with your composer are what you would least expect! For instance, one of the longest periods of time I got to spend with Mark involved me giving him a ride to a local mechanic to pick up his own vehicle. I felt this was a great opportunity to get to know Mark on a more personal level, as well as let the conversation feel more natural. It’s a great way to hear stories that might not otherwise come up in a more “business” setting, and you may be able to share some of your own stories as well!
What do you wish you would have known before you went to LA?
It may sound silly, but I wish I had a better appreciation for how BIG Los Angeles really is. Chicago was pretty great as it’s all quite compact—even though I had a car, I hardly ever had to drive it for the two years it was there. A vehicle instantly goes from being a luxury to a necessity! While this was no surprise, it wasn’t until I got here that the impact truly takes effect. Additionally, you’re suddenly in such a large area with so many people that there is an impossibly high number of things going on every weekend. While this may sound amazing, it takes a bit to settle in and not feel overwhelmed. In fact, it can be very easy to feel isolated and paralyzed by the number of choices you have, as well as trying to grapple with travel times no matter what the time of day is (hint: you’ll probably need longer than whatever you think).
What have you been up to since finishing the internship and graduating?
After almost landing a job peripherally connected to the industry, I ended up taking a management gig at a retail store. The nice thing about the job is the stability—I’m working almost full time and can count on pretty consistent pay while I get settled here in Los Angeles. Because I have been fortunate to land a single job that supports me, it allows me to spend the rest of my time acclimating to LA as well as searching out the projects that I want to devote my time to. Currently that involves a handful of small game projects. Pretty soon these will wrap up and I will be searching out some new ones!
Again, big thanks to Dan for taking the time to interview. Best of luck to you in LA!
If you’d like to contact Dan, you can do that by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org