An important aspect of a musical score (perhaps the most important you could argue) is to tell a part of the story that either is not present on the screen, or is unclear and benefits from being highlighted musically.
This can be achieved a number of ways.
One of those is to associate an action or impending action to a musical theme or motive. The action itself doesn’t need to be physical – it could be a thought, a decision, a feeling. This is the leitmotif associated to an idea or situation rather than a character.
A great example of this is the Spielberg film “Catch me if You Can”, scored by the legendary John Williams.
In this film whenever the main character, played by Leonardo Di Caprio, begins to concoct a new scheme in his mind. The music acts as a signal that this is happening: that a decision is being made.
This is a great use of music as a storytelling tool!
The music adds structure and meaning and tone. For example, Â just looking at a suit in the window is pretty flat on its own, and here music has the ability to impact meaning to it. You see the suit in the window and the music is telling the audience what is the character’s mind! The same shot could have different music and mean something completely different.
Another aspect is structure: this musical signal, by returning at key points, structures the film. It plays with the audience’s expectations because we soon learn to recognize the musical motive/pattern.
Go to 2:51 of the video below to hear John Williams discuss this musical signal and hear what it sounds like.
This is fantastic score to study in the concert version as well, and I highly encourage you to do so!
PS: My teaching website www.ScoreClub.net is having a spring sale of 25% off on the ‘Composer Training: Module I” which is getting rave reviews! You can sign up to the newsletter and get a FREE look at the full 35 minute-long video #8 from the course! Go check it out now! Sale ends June 21st!
No Letting Go Work Diary Entry
As I am working on a cue this morning I am thinking about a few things as I make compositional decisions.
Writing a scene you should always keep in mind where you are in the film, in the arc of the story and the characterâ€™s development. How you play scenes early in the film will be different than when itâ€™s the filmâ€™s denouement, for example.
This particular scene I am scoring is an important moment for the main character and the story. Things are getting under-way to resolve the filmâ€™s central problem.
However, itâ€™s early in the film and, as in all stories; things will get worse before they get better. So I need to consider that in the tone of my cue.
I therefore aim to balance those two aspects:
- Things are getting under way towards eventual resolution
- Itâ€™s not the resolution yet!
So understanding how this scene fits in the pacing of the film I make certain decisions before I get a single note down.
- The music shouldnâ€™t get big, but still give a sense that something has gotten underway for solving the films central problem
- Itâ€™s a gentle, positive scene, and the music should be as well to some degree, while staying hesitant since itâ€™s early in the film.
- At the end of it the main character is still unchanged it appears, so the tone gets darker at the end, or at least more quiet and unresolved.
The writing here has more movement than other scenes I have done so far, a bit of lightness and warmth with some degree of hesitation.
So I have chosen certain modes like Lydian and Dorian, I avoid big chord changes, orchestrated with the palette of the score: strings, harp and piano with the addition of the clarinet in the chalumeau register which I havenâ€™t used up to this point.
Back to work!
I am currently scoring a dialogue-heavy film and I am earning my stripes, I’ll tell you that!
As preparation and continued inspiration I have been watching films with lots of dialogue.
I started off with “American Beauty”. I’ll do a post on that one at some point since I wrote down every single cue and timing/duration to get a sense of the ratio of non-scored scenes to scored scenes to scenes with source music (the source music is very well used in this film.)
With “American Beauty” I noticed a few things. The music material is all related (Dorian and Mixolydian) but doesn’t repeat much, so no theme really stands out to the casual listener, just this fantastic mood. Very loooong notes abound during dialogue with short piano interjections. It works amazingly well, so it was a great lesson for me that long notes can be great.
“Mermaids” is a film I really enjoy, with a perfectly cast Cher and Winona Ryder. Very sparse score, much less music than in “American Beauty”. Music is kept for transitions and the more dramatic scenes towards the end of the film. This one was a great lesson in score pacing and letting scenes work on their own. Lots of source music here that is part of the story and mood of the film. Of course this is a dramatic comedy and much less moody than “American Beauty” and the following film I watched; “Presumed Innocent.”
“Presumed Innocent” scored by John Williams. This one has a main music pattern that represents Harrison Ford’s obsession and is repeated constantly. I saw this a week ago and I still remember it. The main theme has a few sections which are used exclusively throughout the film. The film has a lot of moody, introspective shots that seemed to be designed to have music.Â Only a few scenes in the film, including the final revelation, do not use that main theme – which makes complete sense in terms of the storytelling. This one was a great study in using limited material with a strong sense of story structure… and also writing a memorable score. (And Raul Julia was an impressive presence in that film!) Also, I don’t remember there being any source music in this one.
Yesterday I watched “Primal Fear”. This score by James Newton Howard was all over the place. The first cue of the film (which is not the first piece of music heard) I thought would be the theme but I didn’t hear it again through the film. And I must admit I did not understand some of the musical choices for the underscore, but the choices for the source music made complete sense and worked great (Mozart’s “Requiem”).Â The lesson here was this: we can over-think our scores and in the end perhaps it’s more about mood than a great over-riding concept and musical arc. Because this film was well received and put Edward Norton on the map! And personallyÂ Â I enjoyed the film and the music’s lack of homogeneity and central musical theme didn’t not bother me when I watched it way back when. Of course, watching the film now it feels quite dated in story-telling, acting, visual style and music, but that’s another story…
Â To write good film scores means to be integral to the story telling. So in order to be a great film composer it’s a good idea to study what you can about story, specifically screen writing. Because a novel and a screenplay are two different beasts.
Here are some tips from master storyteller Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard, Some Like it Hot, The Seven Year Itch) has this to say about screen writing.
- The audience is fickle.
- Grab â€˜em by the throat and never let â€˜em go.
- Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
- Know where youâ€™re going.
- The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
- If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
- A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. Theyâ€™ll love you forever.
- In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what theyâ€™re seeing.
- The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
- The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and thenâ€”thatâ€™s it. Donâ€™t hang around.
What does this mean to us in film score terms?
I have my own ideas but I would be curious to see what others think first. Leave a comment.
(List from this website: http://www.writingclasses.com/InformationPages/index.php/PageID/270)
In visual arts, music and film, we relate mostÂ 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.Â This makes sense right?
So when scoring you should often ask yourself Â “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”:Â 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. Â (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.
John Williams can go big, no doubt about it. It’s always his big score moments in correspondingly big scenes that people talk about, but from my vantage point as a film composer, I am just as fascinated by his skill at going big on what may seem like smaller scenes.
From the point of view of craftsmanship, it is those less obvious moments that can be much more educational.
Here’s an example of such a score moment; the funeral scene in Superman, where they bury Clark Kent’s father.
Look at these stills taken from the film; how would you have scored it? (Or go to 34:12 in the film and watch it without music.)
Would you have scored it in a sad tone? Dramatic? Dark? What we see is this:
- They are dressed in black
- It’s a funeral!
These are the obvious surface elements of this scene, so it seems to make sense to write sad music. I bet many composers would have done just that.
But Donner and Williams were much better storytellers than that. They understood what this scene was…
This is the film’s inciting event. The death of his father is the event that makes Clark Kent become Superman.
What’s an inciting event? It’s that one thing that happens to your hero that makes him or her take action.
Just before he dies from a heart attack at 33:30 in the film, Pa Kent has a talk with Clark, saying “I do know one thing is that you are for a reason [..] .and it’s not for scoring touchdowns.” It is these words which will give Clark Kent’s life purpose, and his father’s death a few seconds later that will make him take action.
So what does the music do? Does it play the sadness? No! Williams knew this was a turning point in the story and he wrote a beautiful theme that is softly heroic, uplifting and grandiose. It soars over the shot of Clark and his mother leaving the cemetery as the camera cranes up over a wide landscape, hinting at the adventure that is about to begin.
This is music for story-telling.
And another thing, this is a Superman film. It’s bigger than life. Williams knew this and the music is crucial in giving the film the right tone and scope.
So the points to remember are these:
- Always consider the story
- The overall tone of the film?
- Where you are in the structure of the story
- What is the subtext? What can the music add to the scene that you can’t already see?
Now go watch that scene!
When you see on-screen action (fighting, running etc…) the music tends to follow along in some way. It might hit some of the action or play along with some cool action music.
But when do you not follow theÂ action?
I am currently scoring the feature film “Comforting Skin”, and there is a moment where a short fight occurs that did not need musical emphasis.
Without giving away too much, I can describe the scene this way: the protagonist has just revealed something important to her friend. This is a climactic moment in the film, an important part of the story’s arc, and the music is a part of it.
Then a secondary character attacks the friend from behind and a short and violent struggle ensues. (Only about 4 seconds of screen time.)
I initially tried music that followed along the short fight, a short burst of musical violence, but it was immediately clear that it didn’t work.
So I thought about it for a minute and asked myself some questions:
Q: This climactic moment is about who? What is important? What is this scene about? (All variations of the same question.)
A: The scene is about that climactic revelation between the two main characters who have the central relationship in the film. This moment is an important one in the arc of their relationship. It is not about that secondary character fighting.
Q: How does this fight relate to this moment?
A: It ties up that secondary character’s role in the story as she gets almost knocked unconscious, but does not affect the core of that scene.
With that in mind I wrote a cue which responded to the climactic reveal; light, ethereal, surreal music. And I played right through the short fight, completely ignoring it, and it worked wonderfully- because it made dramatic sense!
If music hit the action it would emphasize what was not important to that scene and would take away from the important story element.
So, what is the answer to: When should you not hit the action?
The answer is: When it is not driving the story.