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7 November 2011

Insight: a day in the life of an orchestrator-arranger-copyist

Jessica Wells Image: Jessica Wells  

In spring 2011, composer, orchestrator and arranger Jessica Wells was working on scores for two films: BAIT 3D, a killer shark movie due for release in 2012, and Happy Feet 2, due for release at the end of the year. At our request, she kept a work diary for one extremely busy Wednesday.

More 'Insight' features by the AMC's represented artists: Erik Griswold and Vanessa Tomlinson, Gordon Kerry, Drew Crawford, Peter Knight.

My business as an orchestrator, arranger and copyist started off from humble beginnings when I was still studying composition at the Sydney Conservatorium in 1993. Now, in 2011, I have a team of nine people who work for me regularly on projects ranging from TV ads to Hollywood blockbusters.

In the last few years I've been lucky enough to orchestrate an opera (Pecan Summer by Deborah Cheetham), write orchestral arrangements for many albums (ABC Classics, Sony and independent artists) and travel around the country attending recording sessions with our wonderful Aussie orchestras, most recently the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.

At home I regularly work with Sydney musicians and find it a very rewarding experience to constantly hear my scores performed. I thoroughly enjoy working with the many talented composers who hire me, and my main aim is to see their work come to fruition at the highest level possible. Not only do I get their music onto paper, but I often co-produce the recording with them, helping to get the best takes (in the least time!) and working with conductors and engineers as a team to produce high quality recordings that are easily edited down the track.

As a film composer I've written a feature film score, TV commercials, a TV theme (for Q&A), and music for many short films and a few short docos. As a classical composer I've written many works in my early career and now attempt to find time to write new works for concerts every couple of years.

Being the mother of two small children means that I have to be a very good multitasker, and life is a juggle…

Wednesday 31 August - 6:12am

Yes I'm up with the birds again, and my cat is looking at me through the back door: 'what are you doing up so early?' My husband is comatose and the children are not yet stirring. Hopefully I have an hour or so before household duties take over.

First things first - check the server to see if any more cues are ready to orchestrate for the TWO films I am orchestrating for this week. On Friday I have a day of strings to record for a movie about man-eating sharks loose in a shopping mall after a tsunami has hit the Gold Coast….in 3D.

The team (four other orchestrators and two copyists) have been working hard and I have some scores of theirs to check over today, make changes (re-write certain passages), approve and send out to copyists for part extraction. I have to email the score PDFs and MP3 mixes to the conductor, and liaise with the studio who are printing the parts out there.

The other movie (about singing and dancing penguins) is also building up speed. As of Monday I will be at the recording studio for 11 days straight, while my team are madly working behind the scenes, providing the music for 12 x string and wind sessions (82 players), six sessions or so of 17 brass players, three days worth of eight percussionists (God save my ears!), and a day of 80 voices. Somewhere in there will also be piano/celeste and two harps.

I have hired Aurigami to do the printing (thank goodness for them as I used to do it all myself and have people in my kitchen till 4am crunching away at the binding machine). They have purchased 120kgs of paper, and seem to be ready to go.

So the day begins.

Checking emails…OK, there are parts on the server to print from LA. I'm liaising with JoannKane Music Services which is probably the biggest copying company in the world. When I visited them in 2005 they had a library with a whole row just for John Williams's scores (whoah!).


I've now managed to proofread several scores for BAIT 3D and send them off to have the parts extracted. Kind of getting a headache from all the dissonant music (lots of aleatoric 'effects' in the strings to deal with). But it is a movie with a lot of suspense and action and gore!

I'm sending scores and MP3 files to the conductor; the percussionist for next week is asking me if there are any odd things in the scores he doesn't have on his list (that often happens - it's like Chinese whispers!); and I've asked the studio how many score copies we need to provide for the big orchestral sessions next week. It's around 8: composer, engineer, music editor, click track rider, two other music editors, a spare one and, of course, me!

There will be a lot of bodies in the control room. I will squeeze myself and my laptop into a corner and be on hand for any edits, reprints and will be wearing my sneakers so that I can run around…


Dramas! The two film composers for BAIT 3D have sent us a MIDI file which needs major editing - we don't have time to deal with it ourselves (too many other cues to get on with - there are 25 in all) - so I have to send it back to the composers to re-edit. They happily comply. I'm lucky to be working with people who are genuinely nice - it really helps when you're under the gun.

All part of a day's work. I put a tuna bake in the oven, delivered by my kind mother-in-law… at least we have food on the table!

Back to the grind…


More proofing to do before I hit the sack tonight. I am taking the creative license to improve upon the voicings and move things around a bit in the strings until I'm happy with how it will sound at the recording.

For this smaller session we have strings in the formation So not as big as the Happy Feet 2 string group which is (yes you read right - that's 16 cellos!).

Having a medium-sized string section means that I cannot get certain textures to work as well as with a big section. For example harmonics. The more the better. If you have five violins doing harmonics, it makes a huge difference compared to 10 or 34 (if you're lucky).

Also a lot of the aleatoric stuff where the strings are playing microtonal clusters or random rhythms, etc., work a lot better when you have more players. So I'm trying to make the orchestration work with as few 'overdubs' as possible, but sometimes I have to use a second pass in order to get the desired effect. It will impact on recording time, so I'm mindful of that too. We are trying to get 40 minutes of music recorded in two sessions... and that's quite a bit.

With 70 strings we can pretty much divisi everything with confidence. There are enough players to get a lot of layers within the one 'pass'. I feel very lucky to be working with such a big string section at times. It's rather luxurious.


CRASH! I have one more day till the recording session so tomorrow will be a bit crazy - no time to write more.


It's now been a few weeks since I wrote the above, and I've survived 22 recording sessions in two weeks (25 sessions if you include BAIT 3D which happened the Friday before Happy Feet 2 began).

All was a great success and the recordings were all wonderful to attend. I learned so much by working with John Powell and Shawn Murphy (John Williams's scoring mixer) during HF2, and also by looking at the scores orchestrated by John's team overseas. We provided around 12 orchestrations for the movie and it was great to be involved in such an incredible score.

Today I'm in Brisbane and have been recording percussion and other instruments as overdubs for my orchestral arrangements for the upcoming solo album of Sarah Calderwood, As Night Falls, for ABC Classics - due for release before Christmas. It's been a labour of love, writing from the heart to capture the essence of these Celtic traditional songs, and I've been like a 'pig in mud' working with the legendary David Jones on percussion - experimenting and adding such colour to the songs.

I have some more large orchestral arranging and orchestrating projects coming up which are not finalised, but am looking forward to starting on. If another big movie comes in I might be heading for 'crazy-land' again - but for now I'm heading back to my family and a weekend away (a well-deserved one!).

AMC resources

Jessica Wells - AMC profile

Further links

Jessica Wells on Twitter - http://twitter.com/#!/jessjigsawmusic
Jessica Wells - www.jigsawmusic.com.au

Jessica Wells completed her Bachelor of Music and Master of Music degrees in composition at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, followed by a Master of Arts in Screen Composition at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS). Her compositions cross many genres in the classical, commercial and film music worlds. She runs a successful business working as an orchestrator, arranger and copyist.


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