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!
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.
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.
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.
[/frame]I have heard this many times “you are so lucky to have your music played by live musicians. That is my dream.”
During the recording of the score for “Primary”, my friend Brian Campbell ( recording engineer) said he understood why composers use samples rather than live players: perfect intonation, no microphone bleed, no noises from chairs, clothes, breathing, papers or noisy instruments etc…I will tell you now, luck has nothing to do with it.
Using live musicians is a lot more work. And costs money. And takes more time.
Low budget productions don’t even consider live players these days. When I offered it for “Primary” the answer was “really? We would love to but there is no money.” I explained the costs and options and it became a possibility. The director was on board and we made it happen we what we had. Same exact scenario on “Comforting Skin.”
But it wasn’t luck.
- I found viable options to make it happen in terms of players, engineer and studio space. I have built some great contacts here over the years, so it’s possible.
- I sold the idea to the producer and he found a bit of extra money that I could budget with. The point is that most film makers want live music, it adds to the film; live is production value that goes on the screen.
- It was low budget so I did all writing, orchestrating, part and score prep. So that was a ton of work that meant I had to work twice as much.
- Using live musicians on a low budget means a lot of careful planning because of fewer options. More things to keep track and more can go wrong.
- The reality is that using live musicians I sacrificed time and money. I could have kept more of the money and had less work.
The other argument against live musician is a tight post production schedule, which happens a lot. I had to deliver an entire feature film score in a month, which is not the shortest schedule ever, but pretty short when doing it on your own. It broke down like this.
- Week 1: sketches and concepts for the score. Discuss with ¬†director and find direction. Choose instrumentation and start making phone calls.
- Week 2-3: Write the score. Send mockups and get approved.
- Week 4: Orchestrate. Score and part prep. Send MIDI/tempo map and time stamped pre-records to mixer to prep ProTools. (Note: I also had some orchestration work on a major feature during this time, so it was very busy and I had to pace myself ¬†well to make it all fit.)
- Record score.
- Week 5: edit and mix. Deliver.
The bottom line is: You want live musicians? I know I do. So do it.
For me, having been writing for real musicians for so long, I can’t stand being limited by samples. I don’t want to¬†write down¬†to samples. ¬†There are many moments while recording “Primary” that it was clear why live was vastly superior to samples.
While I was in the studio, listening to my expressive cello lines and tender clarinet tunes coming¬†to life through great players, all the hard work was worth it. I did feel lucky then.
PS: A side benefit of stubbornly using live musicians on my own scores is that it led directly to my gig orchestrating on “Elysium” and “Ender’s Game”.
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 ¬†all the time either. For proper storytelling with music you need ¬†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,¬†de-constructing¬†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 ¬†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.
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]I read on an online forum that a composition “teacher” (if we can say that about this person…) told a pupil that four-part writing is useless and to forget all about it. It has nothing to do with composition.
All I have to say to this is… what stupidity! Four-part writing is the essence of composition.
Let’s say we use four-part writing exactly as-is, you know – Bach Chorale style. Just like that it is perfect for many, many film moods: inspirational, religioso, grandiose, heroic, epic, fanfares, westerns, battle music and the list goes on.
Four-part writing can instantly become two, three or five-part writing with zero extra effort. You have counter-melodies and accompaniment patterns possible while maintaining control over the total sonority.
You can use four part writing as-is for accompanying a melody (four-parts under a tune) or you can also break up your four-part writing to have arpeggiated patterns, waltz patterns, ostinato patterns and all kinds of accompaniments. All great composers have done exactly that! (I am still in shock that somebody calls themselves a composition teacher and doesn’t know this.)
But four-part writing is much more than that for me. At it’s core it is about the simultaneous control of both the vertical and horizontal planes. I know that this sounds very fancy, but I don’t even want to limit that concept by using the word “harmony”, because this brings to mind traditional chords. In my concert music I like to think in terms of sonority and not traditional harmony. In other words, I’ll use tritones, sevenths and fourths as freely as thirds and sixths, and I control these the same way as you would with that Bach chorale style. Four-part concepts are also an integral part of jazz harmony teachings! The chords are slightly different, concept is the same.
There was other craziness espoused by this “teacher” but I’ll stop there. My point is that four-part writing is important and used all the time by good composers. It’s much, much more than a Bach chorale! It’s not an option if you want to be a good composer.
Can you think of easy to spot examples of four-part writing in films? Here are some to get you started:
- “Hymn for the Fallen” by John Williams
- “Lando’s Palace” from Empire Strikes Back
- “Asteroid Field” from Empire Strikes Back at about 2:19
- “All Systems Go” James Horner Apollo 13
- “Aases’ Death” by Grieg. (Not film music, but very cinematic.)