Peter “Oso” Snell - Translator, Confidante, Mind-reader: All In A Day’s Work

Peter Oso Snell

Recall the music of some of the most memorable Hollywood blockbusters of the past decade, and you’re probably humming a soundtrack that Peter Snell helped bring to life. From the Pirates of the Caribbean epics to Inception, Sherlock Holmes, Megamind and Kung Fu Panda, Snell has left his imprint on the scores and the musical architecture of many movies. He talks to us about his Hollywood apprenticeship, the intricate art of temping a soundtrack, and the gear he finds invaluable in today’s fast-paced industry.

Local computer whizz to Hollywood hot property

We catch up with him in the midst of post-production for Pirates of the Caribbean 5; he chats engagingly about the path that’s got him where he is today. He never had a set plan to become one of Hollywood’s top musical minds. “You don’t really plan to be a music editor!” he exclaims. “It’s not like you wake up one day and think ‘ahhh, that’s what I want to do - I want to cut music and count to four like nobody’s business!’ I was a classical guitarist in college, and that was fun, but I also had a serious computer itch, and I had become known in the community for tweaking computers. This was all about the time that GigaStudio was coming about. I had figured out how to overclock certain motherboards and tweak the PCI bus so we could get more voices out of a sampling system than the average machine.” This reputation reached Hans Zimmer, who tracked Snell down for help: “I ended up being his dealer - so to speak - for PC computers that could do things that the other ones couldn’t. Specifically, Hans wanted to use Creamware cards in tweaked out PCs that would then run Giga and that’s kind of how it started for me.” Once working as technical score assistant to Zimmer, Snell wasn’t shy in seizing opportunities. “I ended up prepping cues and driving the Pro Tools rig in a lot of the meetings. There was a meeting with the film-makers and things were a little bit harried and contentious, and the cue was not going well, so I suggested that we try an alteration. I went ahead and made the adjustment to the cue - and that was when I kind of realized I might have a knack for this.”

Zimmer was a valued mentor to the up-and-coming Snell: “Hans is very generous with making sure his support crew get credits on films. He knows that as we try to move forward in the film-making community, IMDb is our resumé. And the more credits you have up there --especially on the high profile projects--the more seriously you’re taken.”

Following his creative heart

After such a supportive apprenticeship, Snell eventually spread his wings and found himself Technical Audio Engineer in his own right at Remote Control Productions in 2006, before becoming a Music Editor in 2009. The move from the technical to the more creative side of music production was a deliberate one: “Technically there’s not much fulfillment when you’re essentially building machines and making sure they run, then being responsible for keeping them running day in day out. Music editing gave me an opportunity to actually bring my sensibility to film making. So I was able to be creative again.”

Speaking a musical language

On top of the creativity, Snell clearly relishes being right across a film and understanding it on a fundamental level: “The temping process is basically taking other people’s music and laying it onto the picture. In doing so you get to discover the architecture of the film from a musical perspective. It’s kind of like I get the first crack at the film, I get to go in and put my spin on it and work with the film-makers, to tell the story in a way that helps to realise their vision, then go work with the composer to take the score to the next level.” That’s when the real fun starts, he enthuses: “You take all the lessons you learned temping the film and you get to pass that lore on to your composer. You advise on things that the temp did well, and things we never got the temp to do but would have liked it to do.”

Snell often feels, during the writing process, like a translator between the film-makers and the composer. “When I do my job right I’m a liaison, confidante and kind of a go-between. A lot of times it’s very intimidating for the composer to come on to a fully-temped film, and they’re thinking ‘I have to replace all of that [temp] - excuse me how much music?! Two hours’ worth of music and I have 6 weeks?!’ That is definitely a big play in what I do, keeping efficient communication between the two.”

He’s also become an expert at interpreting directors’ speak for how a score should sound. “You gotta wear a lot of hats when you do this, especially as you get to really understand the architecture and the director’s language. There’s a lot of imagination in the industry on the pre-production side, but not so much on the post side; the days of John Williams sitting down on a piano playing a piece and saying ‘this is your theme, now imagine it on an orchestra’ – that era’s gone.”

You really get the sense it would be hard to find anyone with Snell’s experience and innate feel for navigating the intricacies of movie scoring. “One of the things I try and do is this: on some projects we’ll know who the composer will be before I come on. In that case, the first thing I will do is call the composer and ask, is there anything you don’t want me to use – is there anything you absolutely don’t want showing up in the temp? I did this with Mark Isham on The Accountant and he said ‘yes, don’t use anything I’ve ever done!’ I thought that was genius because I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched Hans have to replace his own score in a temp, whether it be Thin Red Line, Gladiator or The Dark Knight; those are three very used scores that you can hear echoing throughout films that were temped with them. It’s easier to approach someone else’s idea with a new perspective than it is to approach an idea you’ve already visited.”

Peter Oso Snell Pro Tools

For his own inspiration Snell takes a slightly different approach: “A lot of times I tend to pick scores that I consider more tool kits than scores. Sometimes I will end up using a score from one composer and then layering a line which is more or less in the clear from a melody line from another score over that. Then sometimes when I can’t find the right bit but I know what I want to hear I’ll even fire up an instrument and go out and just play the part I’m hearing as needed.”

The liberation of plug-ins

So, a music editor with a decidedly techie background, who clearly keeps plug-ins at his fingertips at every stage of his work - what does he regard as the most important pieces of gear he’s worked with over the years? Immediately, he highlights the PhoenixVerb and the R2, particularly the surround versions. Quite apart from their being so “smooth and silky” – Snell values them for their incredibly efficient CPU usage. “They’re so light I can go ahead and actually have one on a dedicated channel, without worrying about bringing the machine down. My sessions right now on Pirates 5 are ridiculous - because Pirates is a long-running franchise and we’re intermingling new scores with the four previous Pirates scores, there are loads of different audio formats in the session. At the moment I’ve got stereo, quad and 5.1. With the Exponential plugs being light on CPU power and flexible with audio formats it’s just so easy to find that great sound that you need to bring two ideas together in a harmonically pleasing way.”

And in comparison to the verbs Snell was using previously – particularly Lexicons and Altiverb – he is still marveling at the ease and simplicity of a plug-in: “For this to just run in the box, pull it out, then I’ve got the same familiar pre-sets in stereo and surround, it sounds absolutely amazing.”

A good old-fashioned apprenticeship

As for the advice this movie scoring maestro would give to any aspiring music editors, his primary recommendation (which he might hide from any school principals he comes across!) is not to bother going to college… 

“I think if you want to get into an industry such as film-making or producing music or being an artist, it’s all about what you want to do, who you want to do it with, and where you want to do it. Follow your heart, always follow your heart. If you want to work under a specific composer, producer or artist, hunt them down and make them coffee and when the opportunity presents itself, make yourself useful. Put your head down for five years, focus on learning the craft, when you come out the other side you will be an expert at whatever it is your heart has led you to do, and you’ll have your own niche. That to me is worth way more than coming out of college six figures in debt with a degree, and still not knowing what the hell you’re going to do.”

It’s the way Snell did it, via a good old-fashioned apprenticeship, and there’s no denying it works. “There’s no other way to get in and to become trusted in this industry”, he says, “and that’s what it’s about. I may have been Hans’ tech, and assistant to master music editors like Bob Badami and Kenneth Karman, and been able to do everything, and yes all the studios knew me. But they did not trust me with a film until I had been an apprentice to the key players in Hollywood and they stuck their necks out recommending me as the right guy for the job. They said 'this guy is primed, he’s ready, you should use him'. And that endorsement is what opened the door for me to start getting gigs of my own.”

Reputation, as in so much of life, is everything. You get the feeling Snell’s will be on the up for a long time to come. 

More on the work of Peter Oso Snell here