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From Criminal Minds To Space Station 76: Marc and Steffan Fantini

Brothers Steffan and Marc Fantini are at home in their recording studio.

BY: Marjorie Galas, Editor

Imagine jamming with rock legends such as The Eagles and Ringo Starr, recording albums together and playing live sets. Brothers Marc and Steffan Fantini lived this life, but knew there was something lacking. They had a desire to pair their music to a visual medium, and turned their sights to film and television scoring where they could develop musical muscles they weren’t exercising.

“An album is like ear candy, but you’re not looking at anything,” said Steffan. “With a score, it becomes a character. We discuss the music as if it were an actor in the scene.”

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“We had a desire to move into other styles,” added Marc. “When you are working on a score, one day you may be working with 1930’s jazz, the next is rock or soul. It’s like a candy store: there are so many things you can enjoy.”

Music had been coursing through the Fantini brother’s blood from an early age. Their mother taught them piano and guitar as children, and their father, a dance instructor at the Arthur Murray Dance Academy, exposed them to the importance of music in the performing arts. While neither brother studied music in college, they each spent time learning how to play a variety of instruments. Inspired by great and long standing production partnerships such as the one between director Steven Spielberg and composer John Williams, the two developed a short hand dialogue that that has aided in their team development process.

The strength of partnerships quickly extended beyond the two brothers. In the late 90s, the Fantinis met actors turned producers Kevin Downes and David A. R. Wright. Quickly developing a strong creative rapport, they scored the producers’ 19990 feature “The Moment After” and have collaborated on their projects through the years. The Fantinis also partnered with Scott Gordon, an engineer and record producer they met while recording a Ringo Starr album. Gordon was interested in extending his talents to scoring as well, and the trio began working on two up and coming shows in the early 2000s: “Criminal Minds” and “Army Wives.” Airing in 2005, the score for “Criminal Minds” was immediately recognized by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) earning Fantinis and Gordon their first ASCAP win for Top TV Series in 2006. ASCAP has since consecutively presented “Criminal Minds” with a Top TV Series award through 2013. “Army Wives” has also received a Top TV award for seven consecutive years from 2007-2013. They feel a recipe to their success has been effortless collaboration.

“With Scott, we have three brains working as one machine,” said Marc. “We have limited time so the three of us together can turn out the work faster, and work at the highest level possible.”

“We spend two days by ourselves then come together and compare notes,” said Steffan. “It’s not competition but reverence,” added Marc. “Working together pushes us harder to impress, we never want to be ordinary.”

With every project the Fantinis take on, their main focus is creating a score that will help bring the characters to life and support the themes. They’ll look at scenes in a “freestyle” manner, as if watching a silent movie, during the first pass. While they enjoy working with an orchestra, budget constraints often require them to play the majority of the music themselves using programs such as Cubase or Pro Tools. When a particular instrument, such as a cello or trumpet, is featured, they’ll hire a professional performer. Below is a retrospective of some of their work, from “Criminal Minds” to the upcoming “Space Station 76”:

Criminal Minds
Initially, the score played heavily off the science, action and cues in the script. As the score evolved, more focus was given to the themes of the episodes, including fear and terror as well as announcing important cues in the action that may otherwise be overlooked. By season four heavy, emotional piano playing and dark sounds were accompanied by a variety of instrumentation that added distortions and lower pitches to the score.

“As we progressed we wanted to make every show a little movie. ‘Criminal Minds’ is its own little universe,” said Steffan. “We had meetings to discuss the sounds of the show and the parameters of what works, focusing on interesting melodic themes or new instruments. Occasionally we’ll receive feedback that we’ve pushed the tone too much, but generally they do want us to push as far as we can.”

While the team has worked to create specific tones and cues to evoke the spirit of “Criminal Minds”, they also incorporate a variety of musical styles depending on action in each episode. Recent episodes have included themes that evoked the music of “Psycho” and the musical riffs created by the hand-made instruments of mountain men.

Army Wives
Along with Scott Gordon, the Fantini brothers worked to create a score that balanced military elements, life on a base, and the emotions that accompany the coping process a family encounters when dealing with the demands that accompany a military lifestyle. While brass is employed due to its natural association with the military, there is a great emphasis on piano and acoustic guitar woven through the score.

“At the end of the day, ‘Army Wives’ is a very personal score,” said Steffan. “It’s sparser; it speaks to the intimacy between the relationships.”

Marc stresses they enforce an organic process to capturing the emotions in the quiet moments, while playing up the charged moments such as when characters are deployed to foreign soil.

Mom’s Night Out
Working with another set of brothers, directors Andrew and Jon Erwin, the Fantinis crafted a score that has particular sounds the Erwin’s were interested in capturing for this comedic indie feature.

“I’m a father, and after reading the script I immediately wanted to do it,” said Marc. “The Erwin brothers had particular ideas; they would send songs and examples that provided a feel for the characters and an ambiance for the movie.”

They boiled down the samples and found the best course of action for the score was to use it as a straight man playing to the comedy in the film.

“Some composers feel comedy is the hardest to do,” said Steffan. “One extra note can change the timing of the scene. We put down two or more options, sometimes using different musical styles like a tango or orchestra or street feel. It’s trial and error, not playing to the humor but more to the timing.”

Space Station 76
On this film blending science fiction, drama, and 70s suburbia, the Fantinis felt they had taken on their most fun and challenging project to date. While songs by groups including ELO were referenced in early meetings, there was no specific musical vision presented by the producers.

“We got to create a world with a lot of elements, and a lot of story to be told, it wasn’t just mood,” said Marc. “There were tremendous story lines involving things like coming of age and sexuality, and we had to use 70s sounds and make the subject come to life. It was great fun!”

The duo started by using authentic equipment from the 70s including instruments, mics and recording element. They created a temporary score using these raw sounds that they built upon until the perfect sounds were captured. While the film has not yet been theatrically released, it had a successful debut in March as SXSW.

“It was a darling of the SXSW Film Festival, and was picked up by Sony,” said Steffan. “It was a blast to work on from the beginning. I’m really proud of it.”