Rich Ragsdale, Composer - Director, on Composing for King of Queens, According to Jim, Video Games, & Directing Music videos, Independent films, working with Lemmy, & latest Film - GHOST HOUSE.
December 17, 2015
I hail from Nashville TN, where I grew up playing music. I went to Berklee College of Music to study film scoring and composition. After graduating I came out to LA to begin my career as a composer.
I began by scoring student films and low budget independent movies.
Eventually, I landed a gig working with the composer Jonathan Wolff,who is probably best known as the Seinfeld guy.
I started as a guitarist/arranger/music editor on his shows, which eventually led to me ghost writing for him, and then getting my own shows.
First Job in the Entertainment Industry
My first paid gig was scoring a local cable TV commercial in Nashville for a garage. I had just gotten my first synth and my uncle who owned the place asked me to write the music for his spot.
I think it paid maybe one hundred bucks. It was awesome.
I am inspired by almost everything. I try to stay open to everything I see and hear. I live in Venice Beach near the boardwalk, which is basically an open air lunatic asylum.
That inspires me a lot - keeps me weird!
Why Music Composition & Scoring?
When music and picture sync up perfectly and you find the right musical gesture to support the subtext of the scene, it is truly an amazing alchemy.
These two things meld to create something greater than the sum of their parts.
I love writing music, though I have been focusing primarily on filmmaking these last few years. I just started scoring a feature I directed easier this year, and it feels really good to be flexing that muscle again.
Improvements in Technology
It is certainly more competitive for composers these days.
There are so many people doing it, and the cost of gear and quality of sample libraries make the barriers for entry quite low.
Also, the talent pool out there seems very deep right now. There are a lot of really talented people working.
Every project is different, but generally speaking, the first order of business is to decide on a direction for the music, both sonically and stylistically.
Once that reveals itself, you build on it, developing themes or melodies (or going the opposite way if that is what the project wants), scoring to picture.
But there is no formula, it seems to be different every time I do it.
Scoring for Sitcoms
A buddy of mine introduced me to Jonathan Wolff, who was scoring a ton of sitcoms at the time. I managed to convince him to hire me, and one thing just led to another.
Compared to games and movies, sitcoms are a different beast.
Not a lot of writing to picture. When a new show came in, you would work with the music editor and the show’s creators to decide upon a signature sound.
Once I had that, I would build libraries of transitional material to get us from scene to scene, often writing source music if they ended up in bars or sitting in front of a TV.
They occasionally had special moments where you would write dramatic underscore, but it wasn’t that often. The turn around time was often short, so it was a grind.
I fell into filmmaking by accident really. I have no formal training.
One perk of working on network sitcoms was that you pretty much had the summers off.
In my down time, I began studying photography, which eventually led me to be interested in filmmaking.
An experimental film I made went on to win a few awards and screen in several festivals.
After that I was asked to direct a very low budget horror feature called THE CURSE OF EL CHARRO, which ended up being bought by Showtime and Paramount for domestic distribution.
From there I went on to direct a number of things, including dozens of music videos and a reality TV pilot that ended up being picked up by AMC.
I definitely learned my craft on the fly, basically going to film school in public.
And it hasn’t stopped - I learn something new from every project I take on.
As a composer, your best bet is to move to LA, and play your music for everyone every chance you get, because you never know who is going to be doing something interesting.
One of my early gigs was scoring a low budget indie film. They had a screening and I invited a bunch of friends.
One fellah who attended the screening was a video game tester at the time. I guess he was struck by the score, because months later, when his company was looking for a composer he recommended me.
So, I went from a scoring little movie nobody has ever really heard of to composing for a big video game company.
Short-term & Long-term Career Building Steps
I really am terrible at career planning. I am a bit like Forrest Gump, I just sort of stumble into most of my gigs!
That being said, once I get them I try to work hard and hope that the care and effort shows when people see my stuff, which in turn will lead to more work. But in terms of self-promotion and all that stuff, I really suck at that.
Composing for Video Games
I have scored a number of video game titles, most notably the Aliens VS Predator games and the Fight Club game.
I haven’t done it in a while, but it is great work. It is really fun to do and I was involved with great teams.
I am a terrible networker/self promoter. I hate that side of the industry. I haven’t really overcome this yet.
I suck as the whole social media thing. I just signed up for Instagram a few weeks ago, and mostly use it to post a bunch of my weirdo drawings.
Top Moments in the Entertainment Industry
One of the best things about this business is meeting and working with people you have long admired, like composing music for Stuart Gordon, whose films I loved as a younger person, putting Lemmy in my first film, mixing a film of mine at David Lynch’s studio, screening my short in same program as the Brothers Quay and Guy Maddin, etc.
Also, getting paid to be creative and work with a bunch of talented people is really amazing.
Of course shooting a feature in Thailand was unreal. We shot entirely on location in some of the seedier places in Bangkok. Also, we shot in an ancient temple up north near the Burmese border. It was a real adventure - incredibly hard, but so much fun.
It was low budget filmmaking, but we had everything we needed, an elephant, ladyboys, ghosts, and a camera.
On the music video side, directing the video for Sean Lennon’s GOASTT was amazing. We shot on 35mm at a full on hippie commune and an old Masonic hall in the Hollywood Forever cemetery.
Things got really weird, everyone was dressed like a cult member, people were running around naked, there was a llama, and then the UFOs showed up….
What is something about your career that people might not know?
The hours are long, the work is hard, but it is a lot of fun.
We shot a film in Thailand earlier this year. It is a supernatural horror film called GHOST HOUSE.
We are in the final stages of post right now. I think it turned out well, and is very commercially viable.
My hope is that this leads to a bigger project, with a larger budget and a longer production schedule, and then after that, an even bigger one, and so on.
What is one thing you wished you knew when you started in the Entertainment Industry?
I wish I knew what the hell I was doing!
My producing partner (and brother) tries to keep me on schedule/budget. He is better than any app.
I attended to Berklee as a double major in film scoring and production. When I got out to Los Angeles I went through the one-year film scoring program at USC.
That’s pretty much it. Everything else I learned on the job.
When I was a kid and I first started playing guitar, a number of other musicians in my high school gave me a hard time for playing the kind of music I was into as it wasn’t the “cool thing” at the time.
I was really depressed by this until the best bass player in school said to me “Screw ‘em. Stick to your guns and play what you want to play."
This business is the same way. There is a lot of rejection and negativity out there and you have to fight to maintain your individuality and voice.
I just finished several music videos, including one for Andrew McMahon.
Our new feature GHOST HOUSE should be finished by early next year.
After that, we have several things in the hopper that aren’t ready to be revealed!
Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?