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Meet Mark Crawford

Today we’d like to introduce you to Mark Crawford.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Mark. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
Since I think High School, I’ve wanted to be a film composer. I loved movies and making movies with my friends. I also noticed as I took piano lessons I would wonder off of my piano sheet music and start creating my own music, and I had some great teachers that would encourage me to keep creating. I decided to go to the University of Colorado to pursue film and not music because I got a little burnt out on practicing piano after tackling the Grieg piano concerto in A minor at the end of my senior year, and I didn’t want to go back into the practice rooms for most of my college career.

I learned film production, critical studies of films, including many experimental films (which is what CU film school is known for), I fell in love with documentaries because I had a wonderful documentary teacher (Jerry Aronson), and I connected with a great group of Colorado filmmakers who I still work with to this day. I continued to write music for my own films and my friend’s films, but when I graduated, I was confronted with how exactly I was going to make a living as a filmmaker. While many of my friends moved to LA or NY to go where the film production jobs were, I loved Colorado so much that I didn’t want to leave. I had lived in many places throughout my life, and I finally found a home base that really resonated with me.

So I decided to try to make it work, and luckily one film production job led to another, and this led to building a freelance film production company. I still clung to my dream of becoming a film composer, but knew I needed practice and wanted to learn film production inside and out. Writing music for the videos I created was my way of continuing my original passion.

I wore many hats during these productions, including running the camera, recording sound, editing, GFX, and even writing scripts. Luckily, fatefully, miraculously, I happen to hire a talented camera operator that just moved from California named Jeff Orlowski for the first big gig I got out of college, and we built our friendship over the years while he built his first film Chasing Ice. That pull towards film composing was strong, and so I tried my hand at scoring some early scenes. Luckily two of my cues were included in the film and I had my pinkie toe in the door to the film composing world.

A few more years went by. I traveled the world on a ship, making short documentaries about entrepreneurs trying to create businesses to positively impact the world (Unreasonable at Sea). I worked for the Adventure Travel Trade Association, which allowed me to continue to travel and work and experience the world. I had a clear path towards more projects and more exciting adventures, but that film composing side of me kept pulling.

I came on board the production of Jeff Orlowski’s next film Chasing Coral as a topside camera operator and sound recordist, and when the time came for post-production, I threw my hat in again for a film composer. I ultimately wasn’t selected, but one of my favorite composers, Dan Romer, came on board to score the film and I was thrilled that we had a great composer at the helm. Around Christmas Eve, I got a call to write some additional music in the style of some of the electronic music they had temped in the film, and I wrote four cues for the film. One more toe in the door.

After the endorphin rush of writing music for Chasing Coral, it was difficult to go back to some of the same production work I had been set on for almost a decade. So I made a really difficult decision to stop accepting any more video production work and force myself to become a film composer. I broke this lofty goal down and I sticky noted a path. Step 1: Go all in on writing the best music for a short film I could that could get some recognition at film festivals. Step 2: go to these film festivals and make connections. Step 3: Use the short film score as a calling card and score a feature film. Step 4 (the stretch goal for 2019): Score a film that could get into Sundance.

As fate had it, at the end of 2018, I received an opportunity to score a lovely short documentary called The Love Bugs, and this was the film I would pour all my love and passion into. At this point in my film scoring education, I felt like I was composing in a vacuum and flying by the seat of my pants based on my film production experience. So I talked as many musicians, studios, orchestrators, arrangers and musicians as I could and learned how to get a score recorded by real musicians in a real studio. I connected with the arranger/orchestrator/music co-producer that I now work with, Connor Abbott Brown, and he helped bridge the world of the music on my computer screen to recording it in the recordist and studio that we often work within Longmont (Mark Venezia at Wind Over the Earth).

I used this score (being released in a few days and the film will be on PBS/POV on Nov 9th btw) to connect with a friend (Tim Kaminski), producing his first feature documentary about a quirky tradition in a small Alaskan town, called Classic. We wanted the score to feature the traditional Athabaskan fiddling but with some quirkiness thrown in. I didn’t know a lot about this bluegrass-style music, but I lived in a state that did. Working with Brad Smalling at Evergroove Studio, a perfect studio for this film score perched in the mountains of Evergreen, CO, we brought together some amazing bluegrass musicians from around Colorado to create a score that felt communal and scrappy.

So in 2019, I checked off two big goals and I felt like I was making some progress. I came aboard Jeff Orlowski’s production of The Social Dilemma originally as a sound recordist for the interview subjects, but as I received what felt like a college education in the darker sides of technology and social media, I started to hypothetically think about what it would be like to score a film like this without any expectations that I actually would. I grabbed as many synthesizers that I could and researched electronic music. I studied up on great film composers and their approaches, and I came up with my own concept to this hypothetical score. I sketched some ideas out and threw them over to the editor, Davis Coombe, so he could try them out as they were exploring what the music could be.

One piece of advice that Jeff Orlowski gave me a while ago was, “try to be so good at what you do that people can’t help but notice you”. Without knowing who wrote the temp music that Davis started to work into the edits, Jeff kept asking whose music it was because it was really working. I showed him my latest composing work, and he recognized that I had proven I had what it took to score his film. I didn’t have a lot of work under my belt, but I can’t say how appreciative I am for him recognizing my talent and believing in me.

Twenty-four days of rapid music writing, a few recording sessions with amazing local Colorado musicians, and one Sundance 2020 later, The Social Dilemma has become one of the most popular documentaries on Netflix around the world. I have a lot of lovely people to thank for my journey, and I hope I can offer more of my talent to positively impact the world. Phew. That’s my story!

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
The biggest obstacles I’ve encountered in my life haven’t been external but rather internal. It’s important that I got my ego knocked around a few times in my earlier days when I felt like I could just jump into film composing and make it big right out of college. I learned that these big life goals take a long time (years even), and you have to have patience and trust that some leaps of faiths make leave you falling flat on your face, but it’s part of the journey.

I didn’t want to leave Colorado and move to LA or New York, the creative environments where many film composers get their feet wet. I am an introvert and large cities, large crowds and socializing at film festivals is really difficult for me. I had in my head for a long time that I would never be a composer because in order to be recognized, you need to move to LA or New York and you need to be an extrovert. In order to be a film composer, I felt like I needed to be a completely different person than who I was.

What I eventually learned was it is possible to be a film composer in Colorado and without sacrificing your values and becoming a different person, but it may take some time, you have to develop a thick skin, and you have to be comfortable with (paraphrasing a line from Dumbledore from Harry Potter) choosing what the right over what is easy is.

At some point in your career, you’re new to the film scoring world, and you’re constantly asking yourself if you “fit in,” or you start to think about how others might analyze and judge your music afterwards. When these questions start to swirl, I found that watching interviews of other artists or behind the scenes recording sessions, not only about how they approach their craft, but how they wake up in the morning and how they go to work and how they too have writer’s block and self-doubt, really helped assure me that I wasn’t alone as an artist in the world.

While making The Social Dilemma, I’d listen to interviews and behind the scenes of Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, Werner Hertzog, Mark Mothersbaugh, Carter Burwell. Anyway to go from the headspace of “these people have talent that is unattainable” to “hey, I have the same keyboard as them,” or “hey, I have the same refrigerator as him” or “hey, I think the same way as him” actually makes a big difference in realizing we’re all people obsessed with exploring new ways to create art. One more thing about overcoming struggles. I was also fortunate to find a life partner, Larissa Rhodes, to help me on this journey. I could not have done what I’ve done without her. While all of these fun accomplishments are absolutely wonderful, they feel like bonuses compared to finding someone like her that can be your lifelong cheerleader.

We’d love to hear more about your work.
When you hire my composing skills, I’d like to think you’re hiring a collaborator and an artist, which I feel is different from hiring a contractor. And you’re not hiring just a composer; you’re hiring another storyteller on your team. When I approach how to write music for a film, I’m thinking about how to build the music into the DNA of the story. The most exciting part of writing a film score is the conversations about the characters, the setting, and the themes that take place before a single note has been written.

I like to think about what it is we are scoring. Yes, on the surface, we are scoring to the edits, the imagery, and the sound design of the film. But I love to write music for the stuff offscreen because it adds more dimension to the story and it leads to new creative discoveries. For example, with The Social Dilemma, it was all about the “dilemma” aspect of two opposing arguments having a dialogue, and I wanted the music to reflect this concept in the “music dilemma” between the acoustic human-played instruments vs. the machine. Over the course of the film score, the machine instruments and sounds begin to take over, and there’s a subtle underlying narrative that takes place within the music.

I am also proud of the collaborators I’ve met and the relationships I’ve built along the way. I love our small but mighty filmmaking community in Colorado because we defy the norm of “how things are typically done.” I hope I can have a small hand in bringing some attention to the film music side of Colorado because its environment is an infinite source of inspiration full of creative people who are willing to pull out the stops when opportunity knocks.

Do you look back particularly fondly on any memories from childhood?
When I was in elementary school, my sister, who is eight years older than me, used to make mixed tapes full of film scores and other songs that I know realize did have a big influence on me wanting to learn more about composing for films. Everything from Danny Elfman’s Batman score to John Williams to They Must Be Giants. Later, I was the “cool kid” in middle school who requested CDs of ragtime music and John Philip Sousa marches along with the newest film score soundtracks. My cooler friends listened to *NSYNC. My sister was also the first one to show me how to use our family’s VHS camera when we’d film ourselves lip-syncing to early 90’s hip hop music. This eventually led to filming weird little stories about crawfish attacking cities while holding a boom box up to the VHS camera’s microphone blasting the Mission Impossible soundtrack.

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Image Credit:
For the ones at Wind Over the Earth studio, Photographer Matthew Staver Photography (http://www.matthewstaver.com). For the two pictures at Evergroove (me with headphones and me with solo violinist, credit to Larissa Rhodes).

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