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Interview: Composer Mark Crawford on the Creation of a Musical Battle Between Man and Machine in ‘The Social Dilemma’

As many film scholars will tell you, the score is the invisible hand that guides the audience’s emotional response to the film. Composer Mark Crawford, known for his work behind award-winning documentaries Chasing Coral and Chasing Ice, understands this concept to a T. His Emmy nominated score for The Social Dilemma, Netflix’s documentary sensation, tells of a battle between man and machine.

After speaking with Mark, it’s easy to see why his score was nominated. His passion for telling stories shines through his work. Whether it’s at the sound mixer or leading the symphony in the studio. His creation blends classical and synthetic music, to create a war for the soul of humanity, and hearing how he put it together is electrifying.

Enjoy this snapshot into the creative process of Mark Crawford and be sure to catch The Social Dilemma on Netflix.

Benjamin Wiebe: What drew you to this project? The challenge, the timely nature of the subject? Other?

Mark Crawford: Ever since writing additional music for director Jeff Orlowski’s first feature documentary, Chasing Ice (2012), I had wanted to continue working with him. Not only is he incredibly smart and talented and builds teams of people who are equally as passionate about pushing the creative limits, he’s also very thoughtful and thorough when it comes to approaching his films. The team is rigorous and stays true to the subject matter. So, when it came to The Social Dilemma, I knew he and the team would approach this film with the same integrity and knowing I’m part of that journey makes me want to become a better artist. This, combined with the timely subject matter absolutely comes with its set of challenges (like composing and recording 89 minutes of music for a 93-minute shape-shifting film in the span of about a month while the edit was still happening), but it’s that pressure that often produces the best work.

Benjamin Wiebe: What is your process like for composing the score? What are some of your first steps? How does it evolve from the early days to the final work?

Mark Crawford: The best way I can describe it is first approaching a score from a very analytical level and then I follow that up with writing from the heart and soul. Initially, like a doctor diagnosing a patient, I analyze the themes, the characters, story arc, and even draft out a storyboard so I have a good map of the film’s trajectory. Timeline, cue sheets, all that organizational stuff is dealt with so then I can get creative. I dabble with some instrument color palettes and theme sketches that best represent what I’m trying to add to the film’s story, that isn’t already on screen. When it’s time to put some music to picture and with all the analytical thinking internalized and out of the way, I really just stop thinking too much and navigate the film musically and emotionally by way of feeling out the edits, the images, and the score takes shape almost from a subconscious place.

Benjamin Wiebe: Since the album can be split into two distinct voices, with a classical side and a Synth side, what influences did you draw on for each?

Mark Crawford: For the classical end of the spectrum, I think I was inspired by a multitude of different influences. I was the super cool kid that grew up listening to classical music, while everyone at my elementary school was listening to boy bands. I remember distinctly researching the orchestration for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 because I remembered hearing it in the film Amadeus, but I chose to put mostly virtual instruments in place of real instruments and quantize them to give the song almost a robo-Mozart vibe. On the other side of the spectrum, I did some research into music generated by algorithms to see if I might be able to tell a computer to write something for me (still not sure what the writer splits would be on that). I think it’s safe to say we’re not quite to a point (yet) where I should be worried about my job as a composer, but it was interesting to see how, in just a matter of a few seconds, a computer calculated and constructed music.

Benjamin Wiebe: How does scoring a documentary differ from scoring a traditional film?

Mark Crawford: I had a wonderful documentary teacher at the University of Colorado who really instilled in us the delicate use of music in documentaries. I can still hear him telling me, “Too much music!” so when I approach documentary music, I really try not to let the music distract and get in the way of hearing what the documentary subjects have to say. On the narrative side, I think the same should still apply and the music should blend in seamlessly, but because we’re in a scripted world, one might be able to take a few more liberties. In the case of The Social Dilemma, I was tasked with bridging between narrative, documentary, animation, and archival elements so the music was a way to gently guide the audience through a complicated cinematic landscape.

Benjamin Wiebe: What was it like seeing this documentary take over the cultural zeitgeist last year?

Mark Crawford: When we were making the film and processing the conversations we’d had with the various interview subjects, it felt like we were slowly waking up from The Matrix, looking around and seeing so many people who were probably oblivious to what was taking place under the hood of these platforms. I couldn’t really talk about the film to my friends because it was such a massive, complicated, existential issue that was hard to explain to someone over some french fries. We knew the film was going to be a gut punch for a lot of people (as it was for crew), but we didn’t anticipate it becoming the focus point of the cultural zeitgeist. I think part of this was due to the pandemic and the fact that many of us felt isolated and the only way it felt like we could connect was through social media. Finding out that the underlying business model on many of these platforms was driving a wave of misinformation, I think was like finding out the nutritious Soylent Green was made of people. Personally, having the information out there explaining why the world seems out of control these days was a relief for me and the start of some great, heartfelt conversations with friends over french fries.

Benjamin Wiebe: You said that this score was made to emulate the arc of the film, depicting the battle between Humanity and technology. Can you talk about that a bit?

Mark Crawford: I had one big driving philosophical question that kept bugging me since I started recording sound for the film’s interviews: Can computers replace human emotion and creativity? Hypothetically, if we fed a supercomputer a massive set of data, which included the works of every composer that ever existed, could a computer churn out music that could be as good or better than any composer? In other words, will there be room for artists when we’re living in a world full of powerful algorithms that can whip up a film score in a matter of minutes? I sure hope so, but with this question in mind, I chose to tackle this music dilemma by building a score that pitted “human music” vs. “computer music.” On one side of the spectrum, you have a sweeping orchestral sound with a minimal set of string instruments, so you can hear the musicians breathing and shifting in the room. I love tiny imperfections that make up the human experience and I love leaving these in the recordings. While the film progresses, I wanted the digital synthesizer musical elements to start to infiltrate the classic film score sound and start to disrupt it. There’s nothing scarier than having something familiar and innocent, slowly and imperceptibly, get overtaken by something nefarious and inhuman.

Benjamin Wiebe: Were there any other, alternate design philosophies for the score?

Mark Crawford: Not really, I just went into the scoring with this concept, and it really worked for the filmmakers.

Benjamin Wiebe:
You’re credited as a pianist for the score. What is the dynamic like when you step into playing with the orchestra instead of just leading them?

Mark Crawford: Having been on both sides of the scoring stage, I have a huge amount of respect for session musicians because I think it can be one of the most nerve-racking, stress-inducing jobs in the film industry. So, when I direct an ensemble or an individual musician, I do it with a good dose of empathy for the position they’re in and try to keep things light. When it comes to recording the parts myself, I love putting a bit of my emotive touch into the recordings, but at the same time, I am so relieved when my parts are recorded.

 Benjamin Wiebe: What did the process of moving from a Recording Artist to Composer look like? Who did you have to talk to, and what convinced them that you had what it took?

Mark Crawford: When I graduated from my Film Studies program at the University of Colorado, I began a 10-year long career in making branded films and short documentaries, and as a do-it-yourself entrepreneur I was wearing every production and post-production hat, all while I was scoring my films, if I wasn’t too exhausted by the end of the project. Writing music was always the part that I loved the most, but I felt like I had cluttered my time with all the stuff I didn’t like to do as much. So, I charted a course for how to start a new life as a film composer, starting with scoring a short film that I really loved and felt had a lot of potential. That short film was called “The Love Bugs” and I put all my eggs in that scoring basket, learning how to orchestrate for various orchestral instruments and reaching out to musicians and recording studios I had never known existed. There are some projects that come along where you feel like you put your heart and soul into it and this little gem was one of them. It became the calling card that I showed Jeff Orlowski, proving I had the ability to support a story through music. So, in the end, although I spent 10 years on what felt like a completely different track, it’s that insight into the production process and story that has guided how I approach music.

Benjamin Wiebe: Looking forward, is there a dream project or challenge you want to take on?

Mark Crawford: While I am just excited to be putting all my energy into my love of creating music and am open to most new challenges and opportunities that come my way, there are a few bucket list projects in my life that I’d love to pursue. I would absolutely LOVE to write a musical someday. It’s a totally different art form than I’m used to, but writing for a constantly evolving piece isn’t totally unlike writing for an amorphous documentary edit.

Benjamin Wiebe: What do you have lined up next?

Mark Crawford: I’m working on a couple of documentaries at the moment that are a complete departure from the subject matter of The Social Dilemma. This is why writing for documentaries has claimed a special place in my heart. I get the chance to live vicariously through a different set of real-world situations and people, and after every project I learn a little more about the world, and myself.

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