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.
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.