The video below is an oldie but a goodie. But first…
Writing music is not just about money, we all know this. If it is your motivation, then you are in the wrong business. We first work on low budget productions to build our reel, hone our chops and build relationships, and in those circumstances our fee will match the production’s budget. It is part of paying your dues.
But obviously at some point we must decide what we are worth, how low we can go and still have a roof over our heads.
Because there are essentially two reasons to work on a film:
- Career Building
Ideally both can happen at once, and that’s the best situation of course.Â The question is though, by accepting a very low fee, or giving away some of your services for free, are you devaluing yourself, your music and film music in general?
It is a thorny question and the subject of much debate. I think it’s important to give a high value to what we do, but watching the video, something came to my mind…
We should be the full price CD, the highlights and the filet, NOT the discount bin, the simple trim or taco stand and expect a high fee.
In a film there are cues that are meant to carry more of the scene and others which are truly background cues, transitional in nature and potentially less interesting musically. This is something we all know, but recently I found another reason to be aware of this I had not previously considered. But first, let’s discuss a few obvious reasons this affects your process of composition.
Knowing which cues are prominent and which ones aren’t is important for understanding the musical (and dramatic) pacing of the film. The first rule of Art is Contrast after all, and you can’t go full throttle Â all the time either. For proper storytelling with music you need Â to build to the pay-off, you need the calm before he storm etc… I expect this is all pretty straight forward right?
This is useful to keep in mind when composing for a few reasons. First the most obvious ones:
- You build your themes based on the moments when they are at their most prominent in the film and then work backwards from there,Â de-constructingÂ them for placement in other scenes, before or after the big statement(s).
- Writing the music for the big pay-off moments first, gives you a goal to shoot for musically. Having a goal to shoot for makes it Â much easier to plan the pacing of musical materials, form, orchestration etc…
This is all good, but on a recent project I realized something else about this whole thing…
Directors can’t see into the future.
Directors can’t read minds.
So I might be writing some cue with the goal in mind of creating the calm ‘before the storm”, slowing building, pacing myself before the pay-off in the next cue or the cue after that.
And then I present this transitional cue to the director and for them it’s just boring. I explain that there will be a big moment and they say.
“Right. Well, I don’t really know where it’s going yet so let’s wait until you send that over then we’ll see.”
And this makes total sense because they can’t predict what you are going to write by seeing into the future or reading your mind.
Furthermore, first impressions being what they are, the director’s impression is that this music is boring. With some directors this is not a problem, they might be able to take that leap of imagination with you. But for the other 50% off directors (the more technically minded ones) you are better off not relying on their imagination.
The solution it seems to me is to wait a bit longer before you send off any music and combine multiple cues if needed in order present the whole sequence including the big moment / pay-off. This will allow the director to get a sense of the whole, including pacing and all that, and make a much stronger first impression for the music.
Or write the pay-off first and present that first, then work backwards to build to it. This will depend on the music and your work process for these cues though, but it has a lot of impact when you present your ideas. This has the benefit of being a less time-consuming approach that allows to quickly see how the director reacts to the important musical moment. Then you can work back from it with more confidence.
And now everyone wins.
The landscape of film is constantly changing, with the global recession and the state of pirating, this is true now more than ever.
I have been told more than once that mid-budget films are on the way out and it will either be very low budget or high budget. I don’t know if it’s true or not, I am no economic prognosticator. Others have told me that there needs to be a new model for making films, a more streamlined approach that brings the cost down and the quality up.
So either way this hints at a growing pool of films with low music budgets but high aspirations.
A great soundtrack can dramatically increase the production value of a film, and there is no better way to get a great score than with live musicians. The filmmakers might believe that they can only afford a score with samples and synths, but that is not the case.
Gone will be the army of orchestrators, assistants, mock-up artists and engravers. If the composer is trained (and has solid time-management skills) he can do his own orchestrations and score preparation as I have done many times. Some many even mix their music but I prefer hiring someone for that myself.
This is what I did for “Comforting Skin”, a film where the filmmakers thought they would only get a synth score, but I put together a group of 7 musicians, found a studio and engineer, did all the orchestrations and score preparation myself and ended up with a score that does not need to hide.
Budgets get higher with a full orchestra, but it does not need to be full orchestra all the time, just like you don’t need to see the full set all the time to know you are there, and this way costs go down.
But don’t forget, you can only pick two: cheap, fast or good.
Today I am going to rock the boat…
There was a paper written in 2000 entitled “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”
The report states that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:
- tend to overestimate their own level of skill;
- fail to recognize genuine skill in others;
- fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy;
- recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they can be trained to substantially improve.
To me, this is first a case for composers to reach high levels of schooling in music.
But something occurred to me from this as well… should directors trust their composers more?
Let me explain, directors are generally not musically trained and if so only at a basic level. All of the directors I have worked with, even the most musical among them, only have a passing awareness of the role of music in films.
And this is normal! Nobody can be an expert at everything.
So, considering the generally small level of film scoring knowledge and skill among directors, a few questions come to mind:
- Are directors suffering from Dunning-Kruger syndrome when it comes to film music?
- Should directors then not express their intentions and after that trust to the expertise of their composer?
Just a thought…
I started work on a new feature film last week and started blogging about it. What I want to talk about here is how the director, Derek Franson, has managed to already have me motivated, inspired and feeling like I will be contributing to the film. I will quote below from my personal blog.
…he is approaching the score for this film as something integral to the story telling, not as mere sonic wallpaper.
He is also very smart in his approach to dealing with me as a composer, providing a careful balance between guidance and freedom in order to create a fertile creative environment
Guidance is important because without goals you cannot aim, and freedom is also needed in order to find a unique voice to the film and allow me to take ownership of the score by putting myself into it. Because if I am just imitating and not being creative, then, whatâ€™s the point?
And also, Derek will also avoid the dreaded temp track! The plan is to develop the sound and concept of the score along with the edit and effects.
So directors, take note: this is how you get your composers!
I am so psyched to work on this, I am convinced we will end up with a score of substance that will benefit the film greatly and that I will be very proud of.
Pixar is doing something right, we all know that. I mean, 9 movies in a row that are big financial hits?
So what are they doing? Lee Unkrich, director of Toy Story 3 put it best right here.
â€śItâ€™s important that nobody gets mad at you for screwing up,â€ť says Lee Unkrich, director of Toy Story 3. â€śWe know screwups are an essential part of making something good. Thatâ€™s why our goal is to screw up as fast as possible.â€ť
Creativity, or the act of coming up with something new and good, requires that you play around with ideas without the fear of making mistakes.
So how does that translate to the whole purpose of this blog: getting the score?
- Allowing for mistakes means giving more time for the score. Leaving only a couple of weeks for 2 hours of music means that the composer will always play it safe. Giving more time gives the freedom to experiment and explore and the start of the writing process.
- Give freedom to explore. Locking a composer within the confines of a temp track will not lead to new, creative avenues.
I can’t think of anything else right now and I have work to do, but I thought this was a great, great article with a very great message about creativity.
Movies are expensive and people get tense, and the more tense you are the less creative you get because you worry about it being good.
Pixar understands that, they allow their people to be creative and that means making mistakes. It is part of their process and the result? $500 million average gross per movie.
AND happy employees!
Here is a video that will explain what it takes to get the most out of your composer, and any other creative type you hire.
This is one of the most exciting videos I have seen in a while. It explains things that goes against the common approach of more money=better results.
Actually, it was found that giving more money gave poorer results.
So check it out, it’s worth it.
For the next little while I will write about what I learned working on the project I recently completed: The Legend of Silk Boy.
First item will be something I learned from the director, David Liu.
David truly left me to my own devices during this project. He had a very different approach than most directors in that he would not get involved much during the music production.
There was no temp track to deal with and David did not impose any stylistic demands on me. I mean, we saw eye to eye as to what the score should be; and orchestral fantasy score.
Still, when I sent him mockups he only twice offered a different idea, to which I promptly agreed, but the rest of the time he would say “you are the expert.”
Once in a while I would get a phone call where he would ask me what my reason for doing my musical choice. I would explain and he would then just say “very good” and move on to another topic.
I was not used to this from a director, but once I understood how David worked and that my cues were getting accepted with trust in my abilities, it felt like I was set free in a field: the elation of fresh air and freedom!
The net result was that I felt my ideas were respected, that my contribution to the project was valuable, that I wasn’t going to write music that would instantly be rejected. Because of this I was able to invest myself 110% into every single note I wrote. I felt like I was allowed to me myself and do the best that I could.
Let’s face it, composers always do the best they can (at least I do) but when you are constantly second guessing the director and the producers, and work with fear and doubt, you are careful, and being careful rarely leads to all out effort, which rarely leads to your best work.
It’s just normal.
During the four days of the orchestral recording sessions I got to spend a lot of time with David, and I asked him about his approach. This was his answer:
Part of my job as a director, as I see it, is to pick the right people for the job. It is only if I didn’t pick the right person that I have to meddle and interfere and ask for changes.
So I am very careful in the people I choose, and then I give them the environment and space to do their best work.
And my best work I did.
Guess what, M Night Shyamalan doesn’t use temp scores! He gets the composer involved before they shoot.
That’s what I like to see!
A new article in Variety online hits the nail on the head about the modern state of film scoring. One of the best, most succinct pieces I have read on the subject.
The I ask you, what kind of director are you? One that realizes the power that music and melody can have on the emotional response to your film, or one that thinks no one cares anyway.
Would Psycho have been Psycho, Jaws been Jaws, Indiana Jones been so exciting and The Magnificent Seven been as magnificent without the music?
No. I am sure of it. No.
Oh, they would still have been good films, but music is that magic ingredient that makes everything come alive. Steven Spielberg was right, music is the soul of a movie, and to capture that soul you need a special kind of composer, not someone who, as Richard Bellis says in the Variety Article “selects music.”
You need a composer.
Quentin Tarrantino on his use of music in film.
I donâ€™t normally use original score. I donâ€™t trust any composer to do itâ€¦ The music is so important. The idea of paying a guy and showing him your movie at the end and then he comes over it; I would never give anybody that kind of responsibilityâ€¦I have one of the best soundtrack collectionsâ€¦ Thatâ€™s how I write it, thatâ€™s how I design it; I go into my soundtrack collection and I start visualizing the sequencesâ€¦I cut out the composers. I work with the best composers, Ennio Morricone, Lalo Schifrin, John Berry[sic]â€¦but I donâ€™t deal with them.
Well, now, I am a composer, so my opinion is biased but here is what I find funny about his attitude:
This film music he proudly collects and apparently uses was written by film composers after the film, exactly the way he avoids working.
I’ll be honest, I find his statement somewhat self-contradictory. I mean, based on his apparent love of film music that came from a certain way of working, I would expect him to adopt this method of adding music to a film, rather than avoid it.
Could it be ego making that decision?
Personally, I see film music as part of the story-telling, part of the movie’s identity. Patching up a score from other sources just seems like making a Frankenstein monster if you ask me.
Songs are a different matter entirely.
Marc Shaiman used to write film scores, and he was great at it. Fantastic! He is an intensely talented musician who is now working on Broadway.
He is the kind of musician films would benefit from, and have. So why did he choose to leave? Why does he feel fortunate to be on Broadway?
Here’s why: Whatch this video and follow the lyrics.
“They Just Want the Beat”
Music and lyric by Marc Shaiman
(sung to the tune of “You Can’t Stop the Beat” from Hairspray)
You can’t write a melody, ’cause today they just want groove.
If today a guy wrote “Laura,” all the suits would disapprove.
And if Max Steiner wrote them “Tara’s Theme,”
All the good notes they’d remove!
‘Cause the temp scores just go round and round,
All they want is a synth and a ghosty sound.
If you write “Lara’s Theme” then you won’t stay ’round today,
‘Cause they just want the beat!
Everytime I hear drums and drone,
It seems Hans Zimmer’s given birth to yet another clone.
When you get hired for a score, it seems you’re not alone today.
‘Cause they just want the…
Motion of the ocean but without a theme.
And yet it seems to get a score like that, you need a team!
If Hank Mancini were around,
I think he’d cry and scream “Oy vey!”
‘Cause they just want the beat!
Pretty soon they won’t care if you died,
‘Cause in the future I bet every score is CGI’d,
‘Cause every film is just a comic or an Xbox ride today.
‘Cause you can’t stop the…
Prequels and the sequels that just leave me bored.
Or should I pluck a few Gustavo licks to win an award?
Bring me a bottle and a joint; I’ll be at Betty Ford! OlĂ©!
‘Cause they just want the beat!
‘Cause they just want the beat!
‘Cause they just want the beat!
The film scores of today, will they become classics like the ones he refers to in this song? Let us foster good music in our film scores by hiring good musicians and encouraging good writing.
But I guess it also comes down to good musical education and tastes. As Dr. Shinichi Suzuki said “children do not now quality naturally, they need to be shown.” (I am paraphrasing.)
Which means that people will like crap if they don’t know any better, and to know better you have to be around it a while.
So seek out quality, folks, listen to film scores, classic music that influenced them and whatever else, but don’t be content with crap. It will affect your film.
OK, you are a filmmaker and getting ready to listen to a cue from your composer. This is not an easy thing and many filmmakers listen to demos the wrong way.
Here are some important things to remember as you listen.
1. This is a demo
As a filmmaker, how do you listen to a demo?
Listen to the melody and the mood, not the quality of the recording. Clarity and expression will come later, as will live instruments to sweeten, or even better, a live recording date. Trust that the polish will come.
Demos are like layouts in animation (stick figures walking through a gray world) when compared to using live instruments.
You can discuss instrument choices, density of textures and anything that is pertinent to the story-telling and the mood of the scene. You will not be able to get in your composer’s head and imagine what the final cue will sound like, so you have to take that leap.
Once a cue is approved, it is fine to ask how close to final the cue is and what work is left to do on it.
2. Take the cue in context
Consider the music that comes before and after. Just like scenes and other story elements, music is experienced in the context of what precedes it and what comes after.
For example; the start of a film can have lighter, slower music which on its own might appear too slow. But the musical plan is pick up the pace and intensity gradually from cue to cue, creating a great buildup that would have been impossible had it started too fast too soon.
Consider the cue’s place in the story. This is related to the first point, but while that was from a musical point of view, we must always consider the story and the effect the cue will have on the story-telling.
The story should have an arc, so should the music. For example; the first action scene should sound different than the last. If the music is the same for all action sequences, it homogenizes the story and creates no sense of forward momentum.
So consider a cue in the context of what will happen later or earlier in the story.
Consider other audio elements. Are there sound effects to be added later that are not present in this rough cut? Perhaps the music feels too thin and piercing, or even drops out to make room for the explosion all together. That’s a good thing but may feel empty when you listen on its own.
Share your thoughts: Any other ideas and considerations for filmmakers to properly assess a demo? Leave a comment.
This is what I wrote today on my Composition Journal, where I am writing about my work scoring a feature animated film.
I am currently working on the musical themes for the film, looking for inspiration everywhere and jotting down a ton of ideas.
As I do this work I always refer to a concept for the score, which I have clarified in my mind using a few words:
And just a few minutes ago another one hit me as being very important to get the right mood: story-telling.
These words help me clarify the general concept, or metaphor, that will unify all the music in the score, regardless of the mood the music has to express in any given cue.
[Read the rest of the post here.]
Directors should certainly think of expressing more than just the details of a film to the composer. Not just the scene by scene, cue by cue breakdown to where the music goes.
Getting a sense of the overall mood, or metaphor, or unifying idea behind the film, that is of supreme importance, and if possible, that should be discussed first, before the specifics.
Understanding the whole before discussing the parts.
And as you see in my Journal post, a few, meaningful words will go a long way! It doesn’t need to be a long description, in fact, it shouldn’t be.
Enjoy the summer!
As a director, part of your job is getting the people around you to function at the peak of their creative powers.
So what do composers need to be as creative as possible? It varies for everyone, of course, but I will speak from my personal point of view here,both in terms of the pure creative process and also as it applies to film composition.
Relaxation: Everyone works best when their mind is at ease. Ideas flow when the mind is clear. What can create relaxation for the composer?
Deadlines: Perhaps a deadline may appear as source of stress, but I don’t think so. It is very hard to get self-motivated to compose a lot of music and that can create stress. Having a manageable deadline is a great motivator and actually relieves the pressure of being self-driven.
Of course, a crazy deadline does create stress.
So how much music per day should your composer be expected to write? 1 to 3 minutes. (Action cues are 1 minute, slow moment will be more per day.)
Trust: We are more creative if we feel that our ideas are trusted even if they differ from the temp, that we have an input, that we are not micro-managed. In other words, that we are seen as the expert.
Artistic license: That we are given the opportunity to create and not just imitate. Remove the temp track, please. Artists work hard to forge their own voice! And yes, that can be bent to the needs of the film. Having you own musical voice and serving the film are not mutually exclusive.
Communication: If a director can explain to us what the film/act/scene is about very clearly, we can then compose with confidence that we are both aiming for the same vision.
For pity’s sake, don’t say: “I don’t know what I want but I know when I’ll hear it.” (Yep, I’ve heard that one before.)
Feedback: Feedback is important, focus on the positive. If the music is not coming out right, look for what works and what doesn’t but be specific.
Don’t just ask for another take without guidance. Look for ways to make sure the composer fully understands what you have in mind.
Also, keep an open mind to new ideas. Listen a lot before you give feedback if you are locked into a temp track. Get someone else’s perspective on it, someone who can approach the cut from an audience’s perspective.
Friendship: A composer is only human. If he feels that his input is important and appreciated, that you trust him and his ideas, and that you like him as a person, then he will give you 110%.
I would be interested in hearing your experience, both from the director’s and composer’s perspective.