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 d√©nouement.
- 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.
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‚Äôs 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.
In visual arts, music and film, we relate most¬†everything to our own own human experience. Things make sense to us when it relates to what we know, and that’s our own minds and bodies.¬†This makes sense right?
So when scoring you should often ask yourself ¬†“how would the audience react?”
Because as much as film scoring can add layers of subtext to the storytelling, as much as film makers are fond of saying “I don’t want the score to tell the audience what to feel!”, the fact is that a score will frequently heighten what is already on screen.
That’s why great composers like Jerry Goldsmith would first view the film as an audience member, to see how they reacted emotionally first.
Following what is on screen well is not easy or simple, and it is not cheap, not if it is well done. And like all other arts, beauty is in the details.
So here’s a detail for us to look at: how to hit a certain jarring piece of action.
The scene is from “The Adventures of Tintin”:¬†Sakharine draws his sword abruptly and points it at Tintin’s face. The context for the scene is this: a threatening exposition scene with no physical action. ¬†(Always consider the context!)
So… how do you hit this particular action in the particular context?
- Don’t hit it at all?
- Do some Mickey mousing by having a small flourish that ends as the tip of the blade stops?
- A small hit as the blades comes to a stop, no flourish?
How did John Williams approach this scoring detail? Here’s the clip.
The musical hit is as a reaction.
Consider this: If you get a blade drawn in front of your face at that speed, first you would have a reflex action and then a realization of the threat! This is what the music does here. Watch it again.
The music follows the natural way we react and, in this case, is not a “sound effect” as true Mickey Mousing would be, but rather follows the reaction the protagonist and the audience would have. The result is music that seems completely natural and organic to the picture.
Following the movement of the blade with the music (Mickey Mousing) would have had what effect on the scene? Would it have been a poorer or better choice and why? Leave your comments below!
[frame align=”left”][/frame]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.
Previously my boys and I counted how many times the themes appeared in the first act of the first Harry Potter film.
Yesterday, we did the same thing for Jurassic Park, but this time, we did it on a micro-scale: we counted how many times the main theme comes in during the helicopter’s flight over the island.
In the few minutes it takes for them to fly over the island, buckle their seat belts and descend, we hear the theme a total of…
…wait for it…
It starts off with the theme in full. Then comes the B section and then we get the theme again, five times separated by little interjections to follow the action and lead to the returns of the theme.
Five times in a few minutes.
This is how the professionals do it, folks. This is how the master of themes, John Williams does it. Pay attention.
The “Where the Hell is Matt 2008?” video is a great example of the impact of music on images and changes how we look at it.
In case you haven’t seen this, This video shows him dancing all over the world.
TURN OFF THE SOUND BEFORE YOU PRESS PLAY. Watch it for a bit.
Keep the sound off and imagine a gigue or whatever music you would imagine for a dancing elf. Or imagine a rock and roll song or any other kind of light, humorous and fun music.
Seen like that, it’s a funny video with a guy dancing badly while still having a definite “wow” factor because he is all over the globe. Nothing to get teary eyed about.
But now go ahead, turn on the music, and watch the video. The music brings out the subtext, that this video is not just about having fun, it brings people together from all over the world.
With the right music, it now becomes an inspirational video that can take your breath away. It makes us laugh, it makes us cry, it gives us hope of bringing our world together.
The power of music.
Structure is a crucial element of beauty, and film is no different. As I wrote in the previous post, a music cue can do more than just highlight action or represent the subtext; it can also play a large role in clarifying or even creating structure.
To that end, here are some questions to ask during the spotting session (or whenever you think of it!)
- What is the inciting event that motivates the action that follows.
- Where does the action proper start? (Note: The music could start on the inciting event, creating a sense of musical introduction, and the main melodic material arrive when the action truly starts. This creates a cohesive sense of structure.)
- Where does the scene end?
- What event signals the end of the scene or sequence?
- Are there multiple scenes that form a whole.
- Should the music play through the cuts and scenes?
- What cuts are structural.
Example: Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade: the boat race in Venice.
After facing rats and burning waters in the catacombs under the library, Doctor Jones and Elsa come out from a man-hole, surprising tourists. Indiana says “Ah, Venice.”
When the two come out, the music from the previous sequence ended, leaving room for this comedic moment. This musical break also serves as a structural point, separating the previous, more serious sequence from the following lighter action sequence; the boat chase in Venice.
Kazim and the Brothers come running out of the church and the music begins. This is the start of this scene, the inciting event that forces Indy and Elsa to start running.
The music is played as an introduction as they all race towards the boats. The melody itself only starts once everyone is in their boats, on the cut to Indy, Elsa and one of the Brothers hanging on to the back of the boat. This is the start of the action!
To find out how the ending music is structured, go watch Indian Jones and the Last Crusade and find out for yourself!
One of the important uses of music in film is to provide tension and momentum.¬† This is especially useful when the tension is in the subtext and not in the visuals or dialogue.
Jurrasic Park are a great example of this.
At 55:27 the character of Dennis Nedry begins the shutting down of the computer systems to allow him to steal the dinosaur embryos. This sequence is dramatically important, but the visuals are somewhat static and intercut with the characters of Alan Grant and Ian Malcolm humorously getting aquainted in the Jeep, oblivious to the danger ahead.
It’s all pretty quiet stuff which requires music to drive it along and give the right tone. The music is percussive, rhythmic and filled with tension, giving this sequence the necessary propulsion and the right sense of dread.
The Jeeps stop, the fences fail, Nedry escapes. It all is important to the plot but the dialogue and visuals are mostly static or slow with benign dialogue, so the music is important here and carries through it all. (This is not a failure on Spielberg’s part, but rather shows understanding of how to use music as part of the story telling.)
And then we cut to the goat at 1:00:21 and the music stops, leaving silence. We know the goat, it lets us know where we are and it also as a foreshadowing tool that lets us know something bad is going to happen. Music is not needed.
There is no music at all during the entire T-Rex attack.
Spielberg and Williams were smart to not put any music here. They knew that the audience was seeing something they had never seen before, a truly believable onscreen T-Rex. The shock of it was made even more intense by the relatively “empty” soundtrack, which must have bee especially powerful in a theater.
And there is context to consider as well. The shot of the goat which starts the T-Tex sequence was preceded by a long stretch of music. Silence makes a bigger impact when it is preceded by lots of sound.
After the T-Rex attack is done, we cut back to the control room with a slow zoom-in to dialogue about lines of code. Not the most exciting stuff. The tension here is in their obliviousness to what is happening outside, the subtext, so the music returns here to keep the tension and momentum going.
As a side note, when adding rhythmic music to a scene, it is always amazing to me how the music changes the tempo of a scene, making it seem to go by much faster.
Bottom line: Music is great at keeping tension and momentum going, especially when there is a subtext of tension that is not necessarily present on screen. Music is not always necessary when there is strong and dramatic on-screen action.