December 4, 2013

Scoring Films - Part 1: Where To Begin?

Visit Paul's YouTube channel to hear his music in films 

Occasionally, over a glass of this or that, I get asked the question: "When you scored that last film, how did you know what music to put where? And how did you come up with that stuff in the first place?"

I wish the answer was simple. It would sure make me sound smarter at dinner parties. But as any songwriter knows, creating music always involves some strange dance of mathematical, mechanical, and mystical processes that leaves even us scratching our heads half the time.

Truth is, we know and we don't know where the music comes from. Dreams, memories, rational thought, random emotions, skill, impulse, self-flagellation, booze, and more than a little "borrowing" from our fellow artists and heroes, let's be honest. It all goes in the soup. And in the end we, too, are often surprised by how it tastes.

But it's not all muses and pixie dust. Composing, particularly for commercial entertainment purposes, is also a carefully applied science. Certain rules apply, even if those rules are subject to wild and woolly tinkering. And of course, there are expectations. From the director, occasionally from the producers, and always from the most important people of all: the audience.

A good score isn't just filler or background noise. Sure, it used to be back in the era of silent film and Max Winkler, but those days are long gone. For a long time now, movie soundtracks have performed a very specific function - namely, to give directors "superpowers" as they tell their stories. How so? By drawing the audience's attention to certain things happening on the screen and manipulating them to feel a certain way, often without them realizing it.

Sidney Lumet said it best: "Almost every picture is improved by a good musical score. To start with, music is a quick way to reach people emotionally. Over the years, movie music has developed so many cliches of its own that the audience immediately absorbs the intention of the moment: the music tells them, sometimes even in advance." (Making Movies)

I mean, just imagine the following scenes without the music: 
  • A woman jumps into the ocean for a midnight swim when suddenly a shark's fin appears.
  • The words "Star Wars" burst forth in neon yellow then fade into a starry background, followed by a slow, seemingly infinite crawl of story background details.
  • A little girl dressed in red weaves in and out of a crowd in a Warsaw ghetto as Nazi soldiers round everyone up for extermination.
  • William Wallace breathes hope and courage into his troops with a pre-battle speech that would make Bill Clinton jealous.  
That's right, composers play with audiences' emotions for a living. And, of course, the audience loves it!

Which brings us back to our original question: How do composers know what music to put where? Or more precisely, How do they know what music will create the desired emotional effect at any given point? 

I pause here to mention a little cheat I have. Some might even call it an "advantage". You see, I'm also a screenwriter, trained in the art of storytelling and more specifically, story structure. I understand approximately where a good story should start, where it should go, and how it should end - in terms of the audience's reaction, that is. Does this experience help me when it comes to scoring? Without question, just like it can help you. Therefore, while not absolutely necessary, I always recommend composers spend a little time studying the art of effective storytelling.

So, here it is - my process for scoring a film. Everyone is different, of course, but this is what works for me. Notice the recurring theme:

1. Sit down and talk with the director.
2. Do some basic research on the film and story.
3. Sit down and talk with the director.
4. Experiment with a few initial ideas and sounds.
5. Sit down and talk with the director.
6. Start building major themes, usually around key characters and events.
7. Sit down and talk with the director.
8. Watch the completed film (with the director) to nail down the big dramatic moments, the associated emotional ups and downs, and those parts of the film where silence is golden.
9. Sit down and talk with the director.
10. Draw up a "map" indicating exactly when music will start, stop or change direction based on #8 above.
11. Sit down and talk with the director.
12. Compose and record!
13. Sit down and talk with the director.
14. Change, fix, edit, revise, or modify until the director is happy.
15. Mix down the final product into the required stems/format (usually .WAV).
16. Forward files to sound editor (and the director).

By the way, when it comes to all those meetings with the director along the way, be aware that he/she may not always know (a) what he/she is talking about, (b) what he/she wants, or (c) what the film actually needs in terms of music. So take it for what it's worth. After all, you're the expert - that's why they hired you!

At the same time, this is their baby. So listen to their ideas and give them an honest try at the keyboard (or whatever default instrument you score with). Just don't be afraid to present them with something completely different that you think might work better.

Communication, balls, and teamwork are everything. Well, that plus a muse and some pixie dust!

NEXT POST: 10 Questions to ask your director when preparing to score a film

Visit Paul's YouTube channel to hear his music in films


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