Q & A: Seth Samuel, Deep Look Music Composer

Hola Macronauts,

Our talented composer and sound designer Seth Samuel has graciously taken time out of his busy schedule to answer some of your questions. We hope you enjoy learning more about Seth and his work (we certainly did!)

Who do you take inspiration from? Specifically which artists?

I’ve been obsessed with film music ever since I listened to Danny Elfman’s score for Edward Scissorhands a couple decades ago. Any time I use a celesta and/or a glockenspiel and/or some sort of choir ( check out these Deep Look episodes about embryos, plankton, sea urchins, ladybugs), I’m definitely thinking of Edward Scissorhands.

John Williams is the other biggie. There’s a reference to JAWS in loads of Deep Look episodes — :26 into dog noses, for example — and I’d been listening to the Close Encounters of the Third Kind score a lot when I composed the score for the video about snow flakes. Close Encounters is freaking wonderful. 

And yes: I know that saying “Danny Elfman and John Williams are my favorite” is like saying “Michael Jordan and Lebron James are my favorite.” Sue me.

I also adore Bernard Herrmann (his music for The Twilight Zone is so, so good. Any time you hear a mysterious arpeggio in a Deep Look, that's because I love The Twilight Zone.) Jerry Goldsmith (the echo thing he does in the Alien score makes its way into several Deep Look scores (crows and turret spiders, for example); and Ennio Morricone, though I can't think of any specific examples of my work that sounds like his, except, I guess, the tumbleweeds episode. And only kind of, and occasionally.

I used to be kind of annoyed at the Hans Zimmer low brass “Bwaahhh!!!” thing (and I still can’t help but roll my eyes whenever I hear it in a movie trailer. It’s in every movie trailer). But man! I do have to admit it’s a wonderfully evocative sound, and I used it a lot in the salmon episode. I think about Zimmer’s Inception score a lot, actually. Specifically this chord progression. The third chord in that progression somehow always sounds… epiphanous or something, even after you’ve heard it 50 times. 4-chord progressions make their way into Deep Look scores a lot, and I often wonder: would Hans Zimmer like it?

I have a music crush on John Barry’s James Bond progression. You know the one.  It has made its way into lots of Deep Looks. (Hairworms most recently, and it’s the chord progression for the main theme of an upcoming episode about millipedes.)

Lastly, I've been obsessed with two TV soundtracks lately: David Buckley's amazing score for The Good Wife and Rupert Gregson-Williams and Lorne Balfe's score for the second season of The Crown. Style elements of both of those scores – the driving, string writing (though often percussion-less!) – have crept into a lot of recent Deep Looks, especially woodpeckers and blue orchard bees.

How do you create the final piece of music once you figure out what rhythm/notes you want to use? Do you have live performances, or do you use a program like Garage Band that renders out music?  (Also, that music on the hairworm episode was great! Made me very uneasy.)

Thank you! I like the hairworms episode a lot. I’d been listening to the Enter the Spiderverse score a lot when I was working on that one. Especially this track, which I adore.

I use Logic Pro X to create the scores; I play every note of every instrument on an 88-key M-Audio MIDI keyboard that weighs more than I do. The hairworms episode obviously (right?) needed a theremin to be its main instrument, and I used a free virtual one that I found on a message board. (Thank you Bernard Herrmann, btw, for pioneering the use of theremin in film music.)

How long does the music composition process take? Does the music composition come before the video is created or after? Do you get to watch their video first, and then come up with the music ?

I don’t start work until the video’s status is "picture locked." That is, I begin as soon as the timings and images and voiceover of the film is totally, unalterably complete. With one of the very early episodes of Deep Look, there was a big timing change that needed to be made while I was the middle of working on the score. Editing the score accordingly nearly killed me. I think now, five years later, I could handle it much better. But ever since then, I insist on "picture lock" before I start.

It’s up to me to make the music match (timing-wise) to the finished product perfectly. To do that, I use lots of very precise tempo changes. In the latest episode I worked on, for example, there are 31 tempo changes, and each new tempo is expressed to the fourth decimal place. (The first tempo is 120.5328 bpm, for example. I’m kind of a perfectionist.)

I deliver a recording of the first draft of the score at the end of my third day of working on it.

Seth Samuel plays the piano with his two-year-old Eri. 

How do you pick and use certain timbres for a certain feeling or effect? 

Great question. Timbre is everything, and it’s not always obvious what timbre should apply to what situation. There’s a ton of trial and error involved, for sure.

Quiet moments obviously need quiet (or no) music; cute little things need cute little instruments; scary weird things need scary weird instruments; heroic characters need fanfares; intense bizarre images need gongs; spider webs need harps; bugs walking need plucked strings; goofy creatures need bassoons and tubas; fight scenes need lots of percussion. Them’s the rules. (And I'm only slightly exaggerating.)

Who plays the music? Where did you study? And what other stuff do you compose? Do you publish it anywhere?

I play the music.
I  studied at Oberlin Conservatory and NYU.
I compose lots of other stuff, though Deep Look is definitely my biggest project right now. Please check out my website for some of my other work.

I wasn't sure whether to share this or not, but what the hell: here's a project that, in retrospect, totally prepared me to be Deep Look's composer: In graduate school, I composed original music for nearly a hundred of these strange little videos.

Have you thought about releasing a sound track compiling the music used in each of your videos?

I’d love to! Whaddaya say, KQED? :-)

All photos of Seth Samuel by Alyssa Kapnik Samuel

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