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 characterâ€™s eyes.
Considering POV makes a HUGE Â 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 TimÂ 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?Â 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.Â (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 isÂ 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.
This is done in a general way through the use of melody. I find that for the most part using traditional formal structures and tunes that play over scenes (as opposed to shifting along with cuts and actions) tends to be perfectly suited for creating a sense of introduction or conclusion.
Tone is also very important. This is hard to explain and will vary for every film, but an example would be to get a storytelling feel or tone to the music. You know what I mean.
A great example of music being integral to the feeling of conclusion is the ending of Raiders 3.
I started the clip a little bit early to lead to the start of the conclusion. The obvious start of the ending is when the Raider’s theme begins. It starts once Sean Connery has said his last, insightful line and gives that little look. The music comes in with the B section of the theme which is great as it saves the primary theme when Indy takes off after Marcus and the dialogue is done. Awesome.
All through this scene the melody plays right through the dialogue. This is not underscore that hits important words and pauses, it’s a melodic conclusion to the film.
But what about the music for when they come out Petra, where the Grail was kept? The melody there is the family theme for Indy and his father. Is that giving us a feeling of conclusion to the film? It is also very melodic and plays right through.
And what about earlier as they run through falling rocks to make their way out to safety. The music plays the Grail theme. Is that part of the ending since it is melodic and not actually following the action?
I originally thought that it was when they exited Petra and Indy and Henry had a little talk about illumination that the conclusion music began. But now, I think perhaps it actually starts as they look at the knight and Indy says “come on dad”.
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!
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.
How many times do we state a theme in a film? Once? Twice? Most director really don’t pay attention to this, and that’s fine, because I do (and your film composer should, too) so they don’t have to.
Some films take more melody than others, such as fantasy films, animation and similar genres, but for the sake of example, I’ll take the first Harry Potter film.
I am choosing that film because it’s a great example of a recent score where the theme became very well known. I have taught piano and guitar for many years and that theme was often requested when the film came out, and it still is today. How many films do that? John Williams knows something about themes, not just about writing them, but where to put them in the film.
Here are the instances of “Hedgwig’s Theme” in the first act of Harry Potter.
- 0:00 Hedwig’s Theme over the Warner Brother’s logo
- 0:25 Magic theme
- 2:10 Hedwig’s Theme full
- 2:50 Hedwig’s Theme under dialogue
- 3:45 Hedwig’s Theme in celesta
- 4:02 Magfic theme over credits
- 7:25 Quidditch theme as snake escapes
- 7:50 Hedwig’s theme
- 8:36 Hedwig’s theme
- 9:20 Quidditch theme
- 9:33 Hedwig’s theme
- 10:05 Magic theme
- 10:58 Hedwig’s Theme
- 11:58 Magic theme
- 12:40 Family theme
- 15:09 Magic theme
- 15:53 Hedwig’s Theme
- 17:40 Hedwig’s theme
- 18:22 Family theme
We hear Hedwig’s theme a total of 10 times in the first 18 minutes or so. Not to mention that he also uses a few of the other themes that come back throughout the film for various cirumstances.
It’s a great theme that is for sure, but part of the reason we remember it is that he states it throughout the film at important points.
Here is Michael Kamen on themes;
When I was doing The Next Man […] there was a fellow named Carl Prager, who was the music head of United Artists Pictures, which was the distributor. He was an old hand, he had supervised film music for many years and he taught me a great lesson: He came to my house to listen to the themes that I was writing for The Next Man, and I’d say “now in this scene I want to use this theme.”
He’d say, “That’s a great theme, you could use that.”
I’d say, “And in the next scene, here’s this cue I want to use.”
I played it, and he said, “Well, where’s the theme?”
And I said, “I’ve just played the theme and now I have to do this.”
He said, “No, no, play the theme again.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, in film you play the theme, and then you play the theme again and then you play the theme and then you play a variation of the theme and then you play the theme…”
And it was very instructive; I had been writing it like a piece of symphonic music where Theme a comes and then Theme B and then the development section and you might even bring in another theme – not so in film. Monothematic, and with very few exceptions that is the rule of thumb for all films. If you have a melody you drive it home; if you have two or three make sure that they’re related to each other – or completely, starkly opposite.
PS: I would like to thank my two boys, Brandon (8) and Lucas (5) for helping me breaking down the themes in Harry Potter.
You can learn a lot about the power of music in film by looking at the smallest, most seemingly inconsequential scenes in a film.
For my first Scene Analysis I will look at a short scene in E.T.
But before I begin, I would like you to read this fabulous quote from Hugo Friedhofer, golden age composer, taken from the book “Music Scoring for TV & Motion Pictures” by M. Skiles.
“The idea of a score, the way I look at it, is to point out or to make the audience aware of the things that can neither be photographed nor said â€” the interior motivation, in other words.
If the man runs, why is he running? Not the mere manifestation of speed.”
Now, here we go. I encourage you to pop in your E.T. DVD and watch it.
The short scene we’ll be looking begins at about 15:04, after E.T. goes running off through the garbage cans, leaving them to roll down the steps as Elliot looks on in wonder.
SCENE: Eliot is looking up at the steps drenched in red light, the door still swinging from E.T.’s hasty departure. His eyes are filled with a sense of wonder after his encounter with E.T.
MUSIC: The music comes in gently, the high strings playing a soft, dreamy chord. The music carries over the cut to the shot of Eliot getting on his bike.
NOTES: Elliot’s expression shows he is not scared, but curious, with a child’s sense of wonder. He is making the decision to go find E.T. and that takes us over the cut and into the next scene. The music links over the cut as well by starting on that look and leading to him on the bike. The music has a dreamy, floating quality that works perfectly well with Elliot’s intent.
SCENE: Eliot sits on his bike for a second then starts to slowly pedal away from his house.
MUSIC: Muted brass play an adventure-like theme, subdued but still with a sense of forward motion.
NOTES: This is the start of Elliot’s adventure! But all we see is him sitting on his bike, thinking for a moment then almost hesitantly leaving. Not very dynamic, but dramatically adequate. I suspect that Spielberg knew that these visuals would play with music that showed Elliot’s “interior motivation” as Hugo put it.
SCENE: Eliot goes down the hill, disappearing from view for a moment. This symbolic imagery shows his departure into the unknown, it is also his first time away from home in the film.
MUSIC: The music here becomes big, using thick and percussive string chords.This has a very decisive and serious feel to it, almost martial in character.
NOTE: This could be seen as a strange scoring choice from John Williams perhaps, but these are visuals that could easily be perceived as “a leisurely stroll on bike” then it’s easy to see how important the music is, but also we must consider that this particular shot, with Elliot disappearing down the hill, is really about him facing possible danger, then the musical choice here explains itself.
SCENE: Elliot going down a large, sandy hill.
MUSIC: The music returns here to the initial muted brass adventure theme.
NOTE: Not much to say here that has not been said.
15: 23 etc…
SCENE: Close UP of Elliot’s hand starting the spread the Reese’s Pieces.
MUSIC: One of E.T.s main musical themes comes in and carries us for the next little while.
NOTE: The shots of Elliot on his bike served as an introduction to this sequence, and the music also followed this structure, which is an important aspect of film scoring – to highlight form and structure.
When working with a composer, musical decisions like these come from a full understanding on the composer’s part of the director’s intent. If you watch these shots of Elliot on his bike without the music you will see it might not be readily apparent what the intent is.
Sure, upon further scrutiny it might become apparent, but deadlines do not always permit further scrutiny! So make sure that all these wonderfully insightful and creatively stimulating details are clear to the composer before he begins work. You can do that during the spotting session or with a morning phone call.