Beauty is in the Details

Alain Mayrand Aesthetics, Case Studies, Music and Story, Scene Analysis, Score Works 6 Comments

Being a film composer is not just about the epic film scores. In reality, it’s mostly not. Your craftsmanship at musical story-telling is in large part made up of what you do during those small moments.

So today we’ll take a brief look at how John Williams, known for his epic film scores, handles a small transitional cue.

But before we do, here’s a few questions to ponder.

How short can a cue be? If they are very short, do they create an episodic TV feel? Cues can be very short as long as the editing warrants it, but short cues should not happen too often because they will quickly become apparent to the audience and grow tiresome.

Should there be thematic material? Overall, I would say that the score, just like a good composition, should be consistent in tone and content. Other factors are important to consider.

  • The Length of the cue: If the cue is too short for thematic content, then don’t put a theme in.
  • The type of film: A short thematic leitmotif would be appropriate in a fantasty film, but perhaps not in a serious drama.
  • Where you are in the arc of the story: Once the characters are more fully developed it might be more relevant to put in a melodic association even in a short cue. But then again, perhaps you wish to build a sense of mood and character early on.

Short cues are often transitional, so this means they will occur during important structural cuts, taking us from one scene to another.

Entrance and exits are also important. I remember reading “On the Track” where it stated that cue entries should be invisible, so it’s best to come in with a light crescendo in the strings or something like that. That’s not exactly the quote, I didn’t bother looking it up, but I have personally found that this is not true.

A good entrance will be “invisible” if it’s properly motivated by the story. It’s not a volume issue, it’s a story issue! Well, that’s another post entirely, so I can revisit the subject of cue entrances later.

For now, watch the cue below with everything discussed in mind. Watch it a few times.




6 Responses to Beauty is in the Details

  1. Scott Stambler

    i don’t think that cue was really needed. It also, in my opinion, came in just a millisecond too early. Especially with piano. If you’re going to play these short transitions I’m for the invisible entrance. Usually strings, and nothing other than whole notes. additionally you have about 3 seconds on the ‘a’ side of the cue, until there’s the cut to the exterior. (that 3 seconds is a total guess)

    now – not knowing the film STEPMOM I can’t really judge whether this was the place for theme. Though John Williams really does it well. Have a look at THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST. He used theme brilliantly, and the score was beautiful and fairly light in comparison to his usual work prior to that Kasdan film.

    recapping: i don’t think this was particularly successful. it was too close to the last line of dialogue. (i will place a cue after 20 to 30 times running it. I know i would have moved that cue another 12-16 frames later. i think you could have played the transition more organically with sound effects.

    • Alain Mayrand

      Thanks fro the comment Scott! For everyone reading, Scott is a fantastic music editor from LA and a fantastic guy!

      About the entrance being too early, I am with you on that. I find it’s always good to sort of match the audience/actors reaction to events and dialogue, in this case the comment Ed Harris makes. The music comes before Susan Sarandon’s reaction. And better to have music a bit late than too early as a general rule.

      Invisible entrances? Whole notes at a tempo of 325 then… :)

      I do love The Accidental Tourist and have thought about writing on that film here. I’ll do that. The film Stepmom is overlooked (for good reason) so I wanted to look into what his work is like on “minor” films.

      I also thought the exit point of this cue was too long. Actually, there are other transition cues in this film, one in particular I heard today prepping this, where the music was sort of awkwardly put in: starts off like the volume got turned on and cuts off abruptly… that made me think it was done as music editing rather than scoring.

    • Ryan Leach

      Hmm I don’t know.. move it even a hair later and “Thank you Luke” wouldn’t fall exactly on the rest like it does. I haven’t seen the film but even in this context I can tell that his comment is a backhanded compliment, I don’t need to wait for her to scrunch her face to know that.

      I have to confess I like mostly just enjoy playing Devil’s Advocate :-) but if I think about it more this moment could be pretty important. Maybe Luke has never been on her side before, and even though he’s not exactly nice about it, this is a big moment in their relationship.

  2. Marc Lawson

    I saw two things in that clip… (1) The music accented her response to his comments about the stepmom, and (2) the music acted as a transition between the scenes.

    I don’t remember the movie, but what I sense from watching this short clip is that Sarandon’s character was having a change of heart about the stepmom.

    Either way, a little music went a long way in that cue. Lots of wisdom here…

  3. Marc Lawson

    Just read the other comments… Wow, you guys are heavyweights! 12-16 frames later – that is specific! Maybe I’ll see that kind of detail after a few more years… for now, I am just a Williams fanboy from the 80′s, so I love it all. Hahaha :-)

    Good point about short cues sounding too TV-like… I never would have thought of that. What comes to mind is Family Guy and all those little 5-10 second cues between scenes. That style of writing is certainly very TV-like and episodic… great point.

    Anyway, enjoyed the clip and these comments… For now, I’ll go back to studying violins :-)


  4. Wes Antczak

    This is not a movie that I’m very familiar with so I have no context on which to base my thoughts. I’ll have to see if I can rent it sometime.

    Just from that little clip though, the music DID seem to come in maybe a bit too early. In terms of the dialogue and acting, I DID get the sense though that there was supposed to be something relatively important happening here… e.g. Sarandon’s character’s change of heart as Marc mentioned and the music as placed didn’t so much underscore what my reactions were but sort of shoved me through. As I said, it makes me curious to watch the movie or at least to watch more.

    Alain, I think you’re probably right in that it might have been more the editing rather than the scoring. I would have thought that John Williams would not have gotten those details ‘wrong’.

    I would love to hear your thoughts on the Accidental Tourist as that is a film that I’ve seen several times and that I actually have in my collection. That’s a movie that I wouldn’t mind watching again.


Add a Comment