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Screen Scoring Freshman Works with Michael Abels on HBO Docuseries "Allen v. Farrow"

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Cameron Moody, a freshman Screen Scoring major at NYU Steinhardt, is among our students whose music has reached a global audience. Following an NYU masterclass, composer Michael Abels (Get Out, Us) engaged Cameron as his music assistant for the docuseries Allen v. Farrow, currently streaming on HBO.

man with colorful wall

Michael Abels is a renowned film, TV, and concert composer, and the recipient of the World Soundtrack Award at the 2019 Ghent Film Festival. Known primarily for his work on Jordan Peele’s horror films Get Out and Us, Abels began as a concert composer, making waves with his orchestral work Global Warming in 1990. Since then, his innovations and distinctive voice – as well as his tireless efforts as co-founder of the Composers Diversity Collective – have made him a sought-after composer and speaker.

In the Fall semester of 2020, as a featured composer in the NYU Screen Scoring Program’s Friday@1 Series, Abels critiqued students' works and offered his perspective on his own music for film and the concert hall. Speaking from his Hollywood home via Zoom, and after offering creative insights into his music for the 2019 horror hit, Us, he delivered detailed critiques of scenes scored by our students. Among those critiqued was freshman Screen Scoring major Cameron Moody. 

Cameron chose to rescore a scene from Get Out in which the protagonist, Chris, uncovers a devastating truth about his girlfriend’s family. Abels praised Moody’s attention to timing, as well as his musical support of the scene: “That was really well done! What you get out of watching that is a terrific sense of pacing. I always talk about an emotional contour of a scene and you have completely captured the emotional contour of that scene.”

Abels continued to praise Cameron’s handling of the story stating, “Everything from the way your music enters to where it pulls back and to where it grows you are telling us, ‘Okay, and now we’ve reached the thing that confirms our worst suspicions.’ And the music tells that story just ideally. It shows us that ‘yes, it’s as bad as we thought and it just keeps getting worse!’ And you’ve done all that with your cue.”

Shortly after his presentation, Cameron contacted Abels to thank him for his feedback. In turn, Abels asked Cameron to assist him on his current score for the HBO docuseries Allen v. Farrow (a show whose score was orchestrated by NYU Screen Scoring alum Tomàs Peire Serrate (MM ‘13)).

outdoor winter scene with text: HBO original Allen v Farrow

NYU Screen Scoring’s Hunter Hanson interviewed Cameron about his experience of working on his first major television series with Michael Abels.

NYU Screen Scoring: Tell us a little bit about yourself! What got you into Screen Scoring in the first place?

Moody: Well I’ve been around music since I was pretty much born. It was always a big part of my family’s life; a lot of my family members played instruments and were in bands all throughout their adolescence into adulthood, so I guess you could say I was born into a pretty musical family. But my earliest memories of music actually come from an old movie called Drumline. It's about a marching band at a Historically Black University. It's a fictitious school, but the concept is legitimate and I remember watching it on VHS and taking the case, because it was a shell case, and taking pencils or drumsticks or something and beating on those, just mimicking what I saw and heard on the screen. I guess you could say the seeds were planted pretty early from that point.
But my first memory of screen scoring, as I'm sure it is for a lot of other people, would be John Williams and his score for Star Wars. I actually saw the prequels first (I didn't go in the “correct order”), but I remember the film that had the greatest impression on me when I was young was The Phantom Menace. I just remember the "Duel of the Fates" sequence at the end of the film. I could hum it forwards and backwards at four or five years old, and then of course when I saw the other films and the originals the thing that was consistent to me in the viewing experience was the music. And when I learned that it was John Williams who composed the score then I went and looked up the rest of his work and that just kind of opened the floodgates for me. So from maybe six or seven I knew that I didn’t want to do anything else with my life, and that ultimately led me to pick up an instrument. I started playing the trumpet in the sixth grade (also because of how John [Williams] wrote for and writes for trumpets). I thought “wow that's such a beautiful sound, I would love to be able to play that,” and I played in the concert bands and in jazz bands in high school. I didn't actually write my first film cue until I was 15. I got a MIDI keyboard for my 15th birthday and that was the catalyst. I got the East-West Composer Cloud because it was $20 and I loaded up a bunch of sounds and for the first maybe six months just parroted. I tried to recreate the sound of some of my favorite scores and kind of learn how that came together. Then that ultimately led me to some literature; I think one of the first books that I picked up was Principles of Orchestration and then Adler, but really my education came in the physical scores. I was able to, through some intense sleuthing, find some film score manuscripts and they became like Bibles. So I reread, listened, listened, and then over time I started to form a musical vocabulary. And that served me well into the years that came after. 

I'm not sure if you're aware, but that same year I applied to the Screen Scoring Workshop during the summer at NYU and was fortunate enough to be accepted. So that was not only just a confirmation for me that this is something that I could actually do, but it was a great education, because I got to go from being outside-looking-in to being in the belly of the beast so to speak and getting the first-hand experience of what it was that I was potentially signing up for. So that was a great learning experience and also getting the chance to collaborate with musicians and meet some composers in the field and get their insights and all that stuff was so important. Of course I stuck out like a sore thumb because I was the youngest person there. I actually had a room by myself, I couldn't leave the dorm after 11PM, I had to turn in my ID every night, but it was a lot of fun and I learned a lot. I still have a little green notebook that is filled with basically every word that was told to me about how to spot a cue and how to talk to musicians, so that experience was really the thing that solidified in my mind that I can do this and that this is exactly what I want to be doing. So then after that I managed to secure some more experience through internships and what-have-you and that ultimately led to real work which has been fantastic, but it's kind of been a lifelong process for me... all 18 years right! I think I'm getting to the point where things are starting to open up and I'm really grateful for that, but I think it's still a work in progress for me. So I'm taking the good with the bad and constantly learning and trying to get better!

NYU Screen Scoring: So you felt the summer workshops were the moment when you realized that this was something that was very real and very tangible. Has that continued as you've been in the Screen Scoring program at NYU? 

Moody: Absolutely! I think being around so many people with a common goal has been fantastic, because you not only have friends and collaborators, but you also have people who realize what your goals are and are actively trying to get you to that place. I think in high school, because film scoring is something that's so uncommon in academic settings outside of university, it was a bit alienating in the sense that it’s not something that people thought about. The music classes weren't talking about film music, they were talking about classical music or even contemporary wind ensembles and string orchestras and stuff like that, so it wasn't a thing that was really talked about or explored in classes. Getting to college has been great (and that's one of the reasons why NYU was at the top of my list), because this is what they do. It's not “Oh we offer a class or two about that, but we're really focused elsewhere,” this is the focus. And so being able to soak up all that knowledge day in and day out has been amazing!

NYU Screen Scoring: How familiar were you with Michael Abels’s work before his Friday@1 presentation?

MoodyFairly familiar. I wasn't too familiar with his concert work, but I do remember seeing Get Out when it premiered and really being blown away by the score. Of course when I learned that it was Michael I followed his work very closely up to his other Jordan Peele film and some of his other work for HBO films and documentaries. Prior to the Friday@1, I had actually reached out because we connected on Facebook in 2019 while I was in LA at Remote [Control Studios]. I reached out and asked if we could arrange a meeting so I could basically pick his brain, because I thought his musical approach was so unique and I wanted to learn more about that. We didn’t end up meeting; his schedule was probably too busy. After a year went by I kind of forgot about it, but then when I learned that he was coming to NYU to speak I was over the moon about the opportunity. I was crossing my fingers that he would provide a clip to score, because I knew how the structure of the seminars works and it would also give me an opportunity to present my work in a way that wasn't solicitous or “hey please check this out if you have a moment.” It was arranged that way so I thought it was the perfect opportunity. But all that to say that yes, I was fairly familiar with Michael before the talk. 

NYU Screen Scoring: I remember he was very positive about your cue; he gave quite a lot of feedback and had some specific notes about timing. How valuable was that feedback for you? 

Moody: Oh, it was amazing! It was everything that I wanted out of the session, because I'm so used to, maybe by product of social media, feedback looking like “Oh it was good, but I would use a different library,” or “I like it, but it's too this or too that,” or “it sounds like this or that.” That's very surface level and it’s not very helpful, but his feedback was so granular and so detailed that I thought, especially coming from the person who knew what was supposed to happen during the scene, because it was his to score originally, hearing that my approach was something that could have worked and did work within the context was a big boost to my confidence. I was always one who values honesty over appeasement, so I thought if this doesn't work I want to know why and I want to know what I can do to make it work, because it’s ultimately better to hear it from someone who has your best interest at heart than someone who’s paying you to do a job that you're not doing. So I thought that the feedback was a great exercise in really understanding the inner workings of a given scene and there was a great opportunity to find out what worked and what didn't and then maybe make some revisions; I thought it was fantastic.

NYU Screen Scoring: After the Friday@1, what was the pathway to working on the HBO project? 

Moody: After the session, I sent him a message on Facebook thanking him for lending his time and being so generous with his feedback with no expectation of even hearing back. I just wanted him to know that I appreciated him coming, because he certainly didn't have to. And he wrote me back a few hours later saying, "You're welcome, I'm glad I finally got to meet you and hear your work," and then he gave me his email address. I was shocked that that message led to a solid contact. He said "send me a link," and I took that literally; I didn't know whether he meant link as in a link to more of my music or a link as in just touching base, but I took the risk and sent him a link to a reel with some film cues on it. After that he said, "Great, I'm interested in having you write some cues for me." And I said, "Wow!"

Of course I had to kind of compose myself and not seem too eager, but it all worked out, because at that point the Fall semester was coming to a close, so I really had about a month-and-a-half of free time to do whatever he wanted me to do. After I told him that, then we ironed out a few of the small details.

NYU Screen Scoring: What was the work like? (As much as you can tell us!) 

Moody: Well, I was basically thrown in while the project was in full swing. I didn't come in at the beginning when they were still sussing out the details, I came in when music had already been recorded for some of the episodes so I had to catch up and keep up really quickly. My official title was Music Assistant / Assistant Composer, so at the beginning of the week, we would get the cue sheet and we would go through it and there was a lot of music that had to be written. What we did was kind of divvy up who's doing what and then, after I signed all of my NDAs and was sent all the cuts of the film, we would go through cue by cue and then talk about what the music should be doing and how it should feel. Of course all of those notes were relayed by the music editor and the directors even on the cue sheet, so it was very detailed; there wasn’t a lot of guesswork involved. But after that, the work began. Then it was daily check-ins and making sure that these cues were coming along and they were on the right track. And then after rounds of revisions it would get sent to the editorial team and then they would come back with notes and we’d do it all again. It was a lot of back-and-forth, but we had to stay in communication constantly so that things didn't get lost or misplaced, because that's a big mistake to make. Michael was very good about making sure that I understood the gravity of constant communication and being firing on all cylinders at all times. 

I had to grow up pretty quickly, not just because of the work requirements, but also the subject matter. This series deals with sexual assault and that’s not an easy thing to watch 100 times over, so it was kind of a growth period on all fronts. But it was a lot of fun! Talk about first hand experience! You get the experience that you wanted and that you dreamed of. And there was some pressure, mostly internal pressure, but I knew that I was there for a reason and that gave me confidence to be able to do the work and ultimately Michael instilled a lot of confidence in me, so I was really, really eager to make sure that I delivered and didn't make him look bad. It was really a lot of fun and a great experience.

NYU Screen Scoring: What was the process like working remotely? It’s interesting that for this major project, which is your first work with a company like HBO, you don’t have much of a reference point to what it would be like outside of a pandemic. You say you were in constant communication with Michael; was that emails or were those Zoom meetings? How did the remote aspect of things work out? 

Moody: It's definitely interesting that you can collaborate and form a relationship with someone that you've never actually met. When we were still sussing out the logistics, we started out emailing each other. Then he gave me his phone number because he's a big texter and a big caller and it's easier because you can drop the formalities, but also you can get in contact with someone quicker without all the "emails in my junk folder" or "I didn't see it." It's always that you can make yourself available, so we mostly communicated through phone calls, because some of the directions that he would give wouldn't make sense practically to text. So it was a lot of phone calls and that's really how it was with the entire team. When I would talk to the orchestrators or mixers or anyone else on the music team, there were a lot of phone calls. So that was better, because it's quicker first of all, but you can also kind of formulate ideas and add clarity to what you're trying to say instead of sending a bunch of text messages. 

So working remotely, like you said, I don't have any frame of reference for what it would have been like had we been two years ago, but I think, for what it's worth, everything was fairly smooth barring any power outages or loss of internet which are inevitable in California, and there weren’t too many hitches in the communication.

NYU Screen Scoring: How has the experience of being remote with NYU classes been? Has it been similarly smooth to what you had with the Allen v. Farrow project? 

Moody: Similarly, yes. There’ve been a few discrepancies. One of the biggest of which being the time difference, because New York is on the East Coast. I had to account for that when scheduling my classes to make sure that I wasn't getting up at 5 a.m. to attend a writing class. The thing that’s a bit different is the schedule, because when I was working on Allen it was all day. Essentially, there weren't any "I'm going from 10 to 12, and then take a break for two hours, and then go from 2 to 3:30," it was I go from when I start the cue to when I finish it and then to when Michael calls me with revisions and that's how the process went every day. It’s different because it's not even necessarily an at-your-own-pace kind of thing, it's just at the pace that’s required to get it done. So that could look like two cues in a day, it could look like three cues in two days, it could look like one and then you sit on it for a week. So you don't really know, but I think being on the same coast as the people who you're working with or for, it makes it a lot easier than having to account for three hours and maybe you missed something or you misremember the time. So I'm definitely, in terms of school, looking forward to being in New York so that I don't have any of those issues.

NYU Screen Scoring: Do you feel like there were any specific takeaways that you had from the HBO experience and working with Michael that you are now going to take forward into the rest of your career? 

Moody: That’s a good question... I think there are just certain things that I observed of how he works that are so important, because there were certain times when I was more of a fly on the wall than being directly in the action. For example, the recording session (it was remote) we recorded in Budapest, but seeing how Michael commanded the session without being overbearing and seeing how you interact with the conductor and the musicians, and his clear vision for what the music should be was something that I was so impressed by. As these opportunities come up for working with musicians, be it a string quartet, or soloist, or full orchestra, those types of things are the things that I want to really take from that. There are certain workflow tips and little tricks and codes to live by that I thought were extremely valuable and things that I hadn't really thought of before working with him. There were certain conventions that I now adopt that are standards that I was just completely disregarding like starting at bar three or the importance of the click tracks and synchronization and from a workflow standpoint, that’s greatly improved how I work. But I think that the intangibles are the things that have nothing to do with the notes on the page; those are the things that I appreciate most: the collaborative skills, the communication, all those things.

NYU Screen Scoring: Is there anything else you want to share about your experience with the HBO project or NYU in general? 

Moody: I think I now recognize the real value of the Fridays@1. You say it's to make connections and to a certain extent when I hear that over and over again I was thinking, "Okay, of course they're saying that, because that's what they're supposed to say. They're supposed to talk it up like it's a big opportunity to actually have it extend outside of the session," but now I think I understand the real opportunity that is the Fridays@1, even if you're not getting your music critiqued. I think the opportunities to just sit in front of these masters and then to hear them talk about what it's like and to understand the road is so valuable. I think one of my favorite sessions that I attended was for Howard Shore and he's not a big talker, but when he talks you listen, because it's so important. I think moving forward I'll approach these types of things not from the perspective of trying to get a job, but just thinking about the real value in the opportunity, because you guys don't have to arrange these things. You could say, "well, to each their own," and, "you’ll figure it out when you figure it out," but I think the opportunity is a goldmine for information, for knowledge, and hopefully for making a connection that will outlast the two hours that they’re present. So I really want to thank you guys, because I can't guarantee that this opportunity would have come my way had it not been for the arranged session that happened. I think as much as I’d like to believe that it would have happened, I can't say for certain, so I really want to thank you guys for setting all that up. It's been fantastic. It’s been amazing. I'm looking forward to what these next three years have to offer.