I’VE COME TO THINK of my composition process on a film as being similar to an actor’s in some ways. Let me explain by talking a bit about my process for “The Performance”, the film I am scoring starring Nicholas Campbell and Nick Mancuso.
I first analysed the story by using the script (normally I’d use the rough cut, but didn’t have it at the time.)
I had a preliminary talk with the director about his goals, his ideas, his thoughts, his view of the story and the characters. Jotting down key words in my notebook (pictured here) and asking questions along the way.
My first goal was to decide where there would be music and where there wouldn’t. Because this bit of information is obviously the first step in identifying what role music could take.
Read the whole blog post over on my personal site at www.alainmayrand.com
Here’s the second video of the planned series looking at the most famous film score ever!
Enjoy! And if you find this useful don’t forget to subscribe, press like, comment and share!
In anticipation of the upcoming Star Wars film, and more importantly, new Star Wars SCORE!! I have started to record some short videos for YouTube to celebrate the seminal 1977 score by John Williams.
These short very informal videos will focus on orchestration devices that can be immediately usable.
Here is the first one. Make sure you like the video, comment, share and subscribe either to this website or on YouTube (or both) as these video will come out twice a week. If there any specific passages you’d like me to look at let me know in the comment section here or on YouTube.
Go check out a cool post on the use of harmonics to create unison doubling the harp in John Williams’ amazing “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”.
Head over to ScoreClub.net to check it out! And while you are at it, share it, comment and subscribe!
An important aspect of a musical score (perhaps the most important you could argue) is to tell a part of the story that either is not present on the screen, or is unclear and benefits from being highlighted musically.
This can be achieved a number of ways.
One of those is to associate an action or impending action to a musical theme or motive. The action itself doesn’t need to be physical – it could be a thought, a decision, a feeling. This is the leitmotif associated to an idea or situation rather than a character.
A great example of this is the Spielberg film “Catch me if You Can”, scored by the legendary John Williams.
In this film whenever the main character, played by Leonardo Di Caprio, begins to concoct a new scheme in his mind. The music acts as a signal that this is happening: that a decision is being made.
This is a great use of music as a storytelling tool!
The music adds structure and meaning and tone. For example, just looking at a suit in the window is pretty flat on its own, and here music has the ability to impact meaning to it. You see the suit in the window and the music is telling the audience what is the character’s mind! The same shot could have different music and mean something completely different.
Another aspect is structure: this musical signal, by returning at key points, structures the film. It plays with the audience’s expectations because we soon learn to recognize the musical motive/pattern.
Go to 2:51 of the video below to hear John Williams discuss this musical signal and hear what it sounds like.
This is fantastic score to study in the concert version as well, and I highly encourage you to do so!
PS: My teaching website www.ScoreClub.net is having a spring sale of 25% off on the ‘Composer Training: Module I” which is getting rave reviews! You can sign up to the newsletter and get a FREE look at the full 35 minute-long video #8 from the course! Go check it out now! Sale ends June 21st!
What are the functions of a film score?
In my opinion, it is the first thing you should identify in the scoring process.
I am starting work on a new feature film called “The Performance“, and my initial steps are to spot the film, see when and where there will be music, to unearth the form of the score and to define its function.
Why not just start writing, see what comes up? Would that not be faster?
My answer to that is simple: you need a target in order to aim.
And furthermore: how do you know if you hit the target without having one in the first place? You’ll know when I hear it? No! Just throwing notes around to see what works is haphazard and random, and how can you achieve anything of quality if everything is by chance and not by design?
Well, maybe it’s just me…but this works very well for me.
So, what is the function of a film score? There can be multiple functions of course. Here are a few.
CHARACTER INFORMATION & DEVELOPMENT: developing a part of the character and his/her development that either supports the acting or shows things that are not present.
SUBTEXT: showing a part of the story that is not on the surface.
FORESHADOWING: (see this Getting the Score post from a while ago, it’s a good one.)
MUSICAL SIGNALS/SIGN-POSTS: story points that benefit from musical emphasis, and perhaps motivic one too that return and have an arc. (I’ll post on that soon.)
MOOD & TONE: this helps the audience understanding the story, what it’s about, what the mood and tone of the story is…
ENERGY & MOVEMENT: action music of course, but this can also be during a visually static scene where there is an underlying tension that is not visible and that the characters are not privy too.
And there is more for sure. If you have any ideas leave them in the comment section!
For “The Performance“, which is a character-driven and dialogue-heavy drama, I am looking at what the music could enhance story-wise and how I could build an arc with it. Perhaps this is not possible, but having a structured score that uses symmetry, repetition, development is what I am looking to do. (This is something I was able to achieve with “No Letting Go“, which ended up with only two themes for the whole film.)
So there you have it, my first steps for this score. Please comment below and share!
The pacing and balance of a film score is a very important facet of the art of film-scoring. No cue we write exists in a vacuum. It is always affected by what came before and what comes after, whether that is silence or source music or another cue.
Every genre and every film will have its own approach, but some of the questions I often have are:
- How much music?
- How often to repeat a theme?
- How much new material can we have?
- What is the impact of the source music on the score?
- What is the impact of silence?
- How long can the cues be?
I do, I have these questions (and a ton more) all the time, and I find it important for myself to learn from the greats. To look to those who have done great films and scores and “stand on the shoulders of giants.”
I don’t know everything, clearly, and doing this it stops me from re-inventing the wheel and allows me to get my work done better, faster, more creatively and with confidence because I understand my reaction to the score I am using as a springboard to my own.
When I scored the film “Primary” I turned to “American Beauty” as a model to answer some of the questions about structure, pacing and balance I had for this particular film. I had stated those questions to myself after watching the first cut of “Primary” the first time, and I felt “American Beauty” would be a great model.
You see, here’s a little truth about composition.
When we are composing we don’t have the best outlook on certain things like the repetition and development of our material. We might think we are repeating too often because we heard it already 5,000 times that day. That’s because we are working on it and we’re already sick of it!
This is why I think having a model is so useful,because this way you understand your reaction to that score as a listener, not as a composer.
So as I was saying, I had questions about scoring “Primary“:
- How short can scenes be? Are really short cue a problem?
- How repetitive can the music be / minimalist before I started to get bothered by it.
- “On the Track” – the film scoring bible – recommends to not leave small gaps between cues, it’s better to sustain the music. Is this true? Can I have a small moment of silence between two cues?
- How much music should this kind of drama have?
- How long can we go without music without reducing the cinematic quality of the film?
So I watched the whole film, taking down rough timings for each cue, each piece of source music and every bit of silence to get an overview of the pacing and the balance between the three in the film. I wrote it all out in Excel and colour coded it. Yes I did! I am kind of crazy that way, but I wanted to have a good view of it. Solid and tangible and quantifiable right before my eyes. Not just this vague impression of it.
(The notes are my original notes meant for myself only, and I didn’t correct them.)
And here’s the result!
Click to view larger size, or right-click to download.
Some of my conclusions:
- Early in the film: mostly short cues building to longer, climactic cues and moments during the film’s dénouement.
- Very short cues, as short as 23 seconds, are fine and feel complete natural – as long as they follow the narrative.
- Short breaks between cues, like the 16 second break between the final cues. (Depending on the narrative, as always.)
- There is an almost even balance between scored (50 min) and unscored scenes (43 min).
- During the early part of the film there is this almost even flow of score and silence.
I would love to hear what conclusions you get from this little exercise as shown in my spreadsheet. Go watch the film with it in hand and what you find instructive about this breakdown of the score as it pertains to pacing and balance in a score.
And don’t forget to share!
PS: By the way, using a model doesn’t mean you copy it! Far from it. It’s about having a reference and building an understanding of the concepts behind it. Here is some music from “Primary“… I don’t think it came out like “American Beauty” at all.
Alain is a film composer, orchestrator and conductor. He is also the author of ScoreClub.net, where he just released the first module of his composer training course currently on sale. You can find more information on his career and music on his website.
As some of you know I have this new venture called ScoreClub.net, a music composition instruction website. The first course there is “Composition Training: Module I” which incorporates my thoughts and ideas on teaching composition at a high level. This is something that developed over years of private instruction.
You can get access to the full video #8 from this course (35 minutes long!) by signing up to the newsletter at www.ScoreClub.net. The video above is an excerpt from that video, which brings together what was learned in the first 7.
Module I is also on sale at %25 off, just use the code SCSPRING.
There is a lot planned at ScoreClub, most of which will be smaller and less expensive. I am working on an arranging and orchestration course, a lesson about modes and film composition is coming up soon as well (a student favourite). So please sign up to know when new content comes out.
I hope you will join me there, and look for a lot more coming from Getting the Score as well.
While in London during the recording sessions for “Elysium” we had dinner with A-list editor Lee Smith who explained to us how Hans Zimmer, when working with Christopher Nolan, will create a 20 minute musical suite of themes based on the script and his conversations with the director.
The resulting suite is then used by the editors during the editing of the film and becomes a guide to the composer.
I thought this was very interesting and seemed like a fantastic way to avoid the dreaded temp tracks and resulting “temp love”. It seemed also a great way to build your relationship with the director and the picture over time rather than rushing at the end, and to have the music grown into an organic, integral part of the film.
So for “No Letting Go”, Jonathan (Bucari, the writer/director) and I decided that we would give this approach a try. Instead of a suite I began writing ideas of various lengths and sending them along for his feedback while he was shooting the picture and while he was editing. This way we were building a collection of favourite themes that he started integrating into the first assembly of the film.
Jonathan loved many of the themes, as I did. But once I saw them in the film, with the film: the pacing of the shots, movement of the camera, colours, sound of the voices and the acting etc… I felt that something was missing.
I felt that whole layers of meaning were absent from the pieces, and the themes were quite scene-specific, that they could not be used in multiple scenes in order to give a sense of architecture to the score. Jonathan was happy, but I felt I could do better.
Now, at this point I should say this: both Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams have stated that they will not read a script and prefer seeing the film with fresh eyes and reacting to it like an audience would as the very first step in their creative process. That is exactly what I had done up until now.
And so I ended up putting all those themes aside and starting with a clean slate. I watched the film without music and approached it as if for the first time, looking to build thematic connections and creating themes that could be a bridge between different scenes that could have multiple layers of meaning that had a specific story-telling goal to play in the film and all that good stuff.
So in the end, for me and for this particular film, seeing the film was crucial for me to really get the music right. Every single note I wrote before that went unused.
Does that mean that the John Williams approach is better than writing a suite sight-unseen the Zimmer way? Perhaps it’s specific to a genre of film (“No Letting Go” is a dramatic film) and perhaps it depends on the composer and what they are trying to achieve and how they like to work. And perhaps it depends on the musical genre being used – and that the minimalist, ostinato-driven music is best for this? What do you think?
One thing is for sure is that I was able to avoid ALL the temp track and that Jonathan fully approved my wanting to find an even better music story-telling approach for the score, so all turned out great! Listen to some of the score below. (Coming out on CD soon.)
POV stands for “point of view”, and is used to indicate that the audience is seeing something from a specific angle or through a particular character’s eyes.
Considering POV makes a HUGE difference in the decision making process when scoring any given scene. As I mature as a film composer I think about POV more and more and it really informs my choices.
Here is an example from the film I just completed called “No letting Go”.
There is a scene where the young boy named Tim is being taken away to get help as his mother and father look on. Without divulging too much about the film, let’s just say it is a very sad and emotional scene.
There are three characters in this scene: Tim, his father and his mother.
It is not a loud scene, although there is some screaming at the start, and at one point the sound drops out entirely and it is only music and visuals.
On the surface, the most obvious choice would have been to score the sadness of the scene, and perhaps to score it gently in order to avoid making it trite or overly dramatic. I considered that briefly but I don’t think I even wrote a note of music music in that direction. It didn’t work. And the reason? You guessed it… POV.
Thinking it through I realized the scene was from the mother’s POV. Every shot and angle the director chose supported this. And thinking about the events from her perspective I realized she would not be feeling a quiet sadness, but rather a guttural pain, an overwhelming sadness, a silent scream…or perhaps not so silent as the scene does indeed end with her crying and screaming off-screen.
So, having made the decision to represent the mother’s POV in the music, the composition/decision process just flowed, and I used the strings fairly high at times, building up to aggressive triple and quadruple stops leading into loud, sustained double stops for a full, rich sound that represented that crying out of the mother. This is not meant to sound like an actual scream of course, but more musically stylized. (Listen at 1’06”)
So in the end, something that might have seemed over the top in another context was exactly right for this scene because of the POV, and it became a very powerful statement.
Here is part of the resulting cue.
Alain is a film composer, orchestrator and amateur cook. He is also the author of ScoreClub.net, where he just released the first module of his composer training course. He is available for one-on-one composition/orchestration lessons over Skype. You can find more information on his site here.
No Letting Go Work Diary Entry
As I am working on a cue this morning I am thinking about a few things as I make compositional decisions.
Writing a scene you should always keep in mind where you are in the film, in the arc of the story and the character’s development. How you play scenes early in the film will be different than when it’s the film’s denouement, for example.
This particular scene I am scoring is an important moment for the main character and the story. Things are getting under-way to resolve the film’s central problem.
However, it’s early in the film and, as in all stories; things will get worse before they get better. So I need to consider that in the tone of my cue.
I therefore aim to balance those two aspects:
- Things are getting under way towards eventual resolution
- It’s not the resolution yet!
So understanding how this scene fits in the pacing of the film I make certain decisions before I get a single note down.
- The music shouldn’t get big, but still give a sense that something has gotten underway for solving the films central problem
- It’s a gentle, positive scene, and the music should be as well to some degree, while staying hesitant since it’s early in the film.
- At the end of it the main character is still unchanged it appears, so the tone gets darker at the end, or at least more quiet and unresolved.
The writing here has more movement than other scenes I have done so far, a bit of lightness and warmth with some degree of hesitation.
So I have chosen certain modes like Lydian and Dorian, I avoid big chord changes, orchestrated with the palette of the score: strings, harp and piano with the addition of the clarinet in the chalumeau register which I haven’t used up to this point.
Back to work!
Any leader”s goal should be to get the best out of his team, for each of them to perform to the best of their abilities to achieve the highest quality and most profitable end result.
Composition requires a high amount of cognitive clarity, we can agree on that. So check out this quote.
“Research by the US military has shown that losing just one hour of sleep per night for a week will cause a level of cognitive degradation equivalent to a .10 blood alcohol level. Worse: most people who’ve fallen into this state typically have no idea of just how impaired they are. It’s only when you look at the dramatically lower quality of their output that it shows up. ” Link
It’s common for composers to be given such schedules that they end up with very little sleep for extended periods. So how much better quality creative material could we deliver with more generous music production schedules?
I personally want to give 100% to the project I am on for two simple reasons:
1) it’s best for the film and for my relationship with the film makers
2) it represents me better for future work and for those who listen
So scheduling sleep is part of the equation, simple as that.
As most of you know, I was orchestrator and conductor on “Elysium” which came out a few weeks ago. I had a great time conducting at Abbey Road and I’ll be sharing with you a few notes I made from my time on the podium.
ELYSIUM NOTE #1
The indication “Tr.1/2” could be interpreted as either half-step/semitone trill or only half the section doing a trill and the other half ord.
It is clearer and more universal to write accidentals with the trill sign like so.
Or if many notes are performed using trills in succession, to use “S.T. Trill” (semitone in UK and half step in North America), or “trill s.t.” instead of 1/2.
Using “1/2” which we read as “half” is really just for North America since we say “half step” and note “semitone”.
So if you are headed to Abbey Road, remember: semitone.
I will be in Los Angeles on the 23rd to take part in a panel on the making of the Elysium score. It’s called “Bringing the Elysium score to life: tips from the team.”
Tickets are on sale so if you are around and available, drop by!