Iâ€™VE COME TO THINKÂ of my composition process Â on a film as being similar to an actorâ€™s in some ways. Let me explain by talking a bit about my process for â€śThe Performanceâ€ť, the film I am scoring starring Nicholas Campbell and Nick Mancuso.
I first analysed the story by using the script (normally Iâ€™d use the rough cut, but didnâ€™t have it at the time.)
I had a preliminary talk with the director aboutÂ his goals, his ideas, his thoughts, his view of the story and the characters. Jotting down key words in my notebook (pictured here) and asking questions along the way.
My first goalÂ was to decide where there would be music and where there wouldnâ€™t. Because this bit of information is obviously the first step in identifying whatÂ roleÂ music could take.
Read the whole blog post over on my personal site at www.alainmayrand.com
What are the functions of a film score?
In my opinion, it is the first thing you should identify in the scoring process.
I am starting work on a new feature film called “The Performance“, and my initial steps are to spot the film, see when and where there will be music, to unearth the form of the score and Â to define its Â function.
Why not just start writing, see what comes up? Would that not be faster?
My answer to that is simple: you need a target in order to aim.
And furthermore: how do you know if you hit the target without having one in the first place? You’ll know when I hear it? No! Just throwing notes around to see what works is haphazard and random, and how can you achieve anything of quality if everything is by chance and not by design?
Well, maybe it’s just me…but this works very well for me.
So, what is the function of a film score? There can be multiple functions of course. Here are a few.
CHARACTER INFORMATION & DEVELOPMENT: developing a part of the character and his/her development that either supports the acting or shows things that are not present.
SUBTEXT: showing a part of the story that is not on the surface.
FORESHADOWING: (see this Getting the Score post from a while ago, it’s a good one.)
MUSICAL SIGNALS/SIGN-POSTS: story points that benefit from musical emphasis, and perhaps motivic one too that return and have an arc. (I’ll post on that soon.)
MOOD & TONE: this helps the audience understanding the story, what it’s about, what the mood and tone of the story is…
ENERGY & MOVEMENT: action music of course, but this can also be during a visually static scene where there is an underlying tension that is not visible and that the characters are not privy too.
And there is more for sure. If you have any ideas leave them in the comment section!
For “The Performance“, which is a character-driven and dialogue-heavy drama, I am looking at what the music could enhance story-wise and how I could build an arc with it. Perhaps this is not possible, but having a structured score that uses symmetry, repetition, development is what I am looking to do.Â (This is something I was able to achieve with “No Letting Go“, which ended up with only two themes for the whole film.)
So there you have it, my first steps for this score. Please comment below and share!
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.
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!
Any leader”s goal should be to get the best out of his team, for each of them to perform to the best of their abilities to achieve the highest quality and most profitable end result.
Composition requires a high amount of cognitive clarity, we can agree on that. So check out this quote.
“Research by the US military has shown that losing just one hour of sleep per night for a week will cause a level of cognitive degradation equivalent to a .10 blood alcohol level. Worse: most people who’ve fallen into this state typically have no idea of just how impaired they are. Itâ€™s only when you look at the dramatically lower quality of their output that it shows up. ” Link
It’s common for composers to be given such schedules that they end up with very little sleep for extended periods. So how much better quality creative material could we deliver with more generous music production schedules?
I personally want to give 100% to the project I am on for two simple reasons:
1) it’s best for the film and for my relationship with the film makers
2) it represents me better for future work and for those who listen
So scheduling sleep is part of the equation, simple as that.
I am sure others have done this before, but it was the first time for me and it made me wonder why I had never thought of it.
It came out of necessity: I had three weeks to write about 45 minutes of score, with mockups, approved, orchestrated and parts ready for recording 10 musicians on the 25th. Since it is low budget and I’m on my own, that’s a lot of work and the writing had to go very fast with a high amount of clarity and control in order to get the best results possible.
One of the problems when writing is keeping track of the form. Even on a single piece of music (as opposed to multiple cues on a film) Â it’s easy to get so familiar with your material that you forget that your main tune has only been heard twice for example even though you have heard hundreds of times already. Soon you start diverging from it, complicating things until it becomes an randon-sounding, unmemorable mess.
On the other hand, because I was going so fast, I was cautious of over-using the melodic materials.
So in order to avoid either scenario, I kept track of my melodic ideas/sections on my working cue sheet using the typical letters of form: A, B, C, etc… which I combined with colour coding.
This was so SIMPLE and yet SO effective. It gave me this bird’s eye view of the score and an instant perspective that made sure I always knew where I was.
Here’s what it looked like…
CUE Â Â | Â THEMATIC
1M3 Â Â | A (suspense var.)
1M5 Â Â | A
1M7 Â Â | B – Andrea motive only, not whole tune
1M9 Â Â | C (epic tune mf)
1M11 Â | B – w/pno. ostinato
(these are just Â two columns of the spreadsheet cue list. I also colour coded the themes on the spreadsheet. Other columns included in, out, timecode position, notes,Â check-boxesÂ for a variety of production stages.)
And so on…
Such a simple thing, but very effective and a big help.
Being a film composer requires some technical know-how that’s for sure, and don’t wait to learn this on the job with huge deadlines. Make sure you learn ahead of time.
I have just completed composition work on a local feature and this is what I am doing now as I prepare for the recording sessions and mix.
- Preparing the MIDI and audio tracks for the recording engineer. I am doing a once over of the MIDI tracks to make sure I have the performance I want from each of them.
- Cleaning up the MIDI to import into Finale. You need to know what will translate well and most clearly into the notation software, and that means seeing the sequencer’s piano roll as notation and not caring about the actual music result.
- Have a solid system to keep track of your progress. My spreadsheet has colums for demo/approved/cleaned/mixer/score/parts/delivered and I add and removed columns as needed. I also use colour coding to keep track of everything, very easy to do and see at a glance. Much better than crosses and noughts, for examples.
- Preparing scores and parts in Finale.
Right now I am hugely pressed for time and just thought I would take two minutes to post this. If you are not fast at any of these steps and don’t have a system in place to keep track of your work, don’t wait.
Now back to work.
Here are some random thoughts as I score my current feature.
I just scored an important dialogue scene that takes place over the phone at the start of the film where the inciting event takes place. Here are some things I was conscious of while writing.
- Know the mood. In this case; questioning, unsure, dark, moody.
- Pace the film, this was the start of the film so I made sure the music was appropriate for this point of the story.
- Important story beats and structure of the scene, music is a big help for that. For this scene it was about building to the Â inciting event/ that moment of decision that gets the story under-way, and making sure the music is part of it.
- Using thematic/motivic elements that will come back later as this story element develops. This requires planning so don’t jump the gun and start writing too soon, get your material first.
- Don’t over-plan either, at some point you need to just go and start writing.
- Don’t be afraid of re-writing. Leave time for this if you can, because it can lead to great things by giving you perspective. Scripts aren’t done in first drafts.
- Plan your tempo carefully. I adjusted the tempo at the end of this cue at least half a dozen times until it was spot on.
- Good dialogue writing can blend in the background, that’s perfectly fine. When the music fits so well that it ‘disappears’ then you did great.
- Good dialogue music doesn’t need to be invisible either. You can play melody as people talk and it’s fine. It’s more than fine actually, it’s great. It depends on what is happening with the characters and the part of the story you are in. It’s all relative.
This is my workspace.
Although I use plenty of music technology, my writing roomÂ is set-up to have lots of space for good old-fashionedÂ paper.
It is as rich, bright and energetic as possible with my one small window. I used to like it darker but tastes change. I am no longer a fan of dark, gloomy studios for writing music.
Now I think the next iteration of my writing space will have lots of windows if possible, as long as there is nothing outside to take my mind away from my writing. Trees, I’d like if it was only trees on the other side of my windows…
I usually sketch on the big board in the back to various degrees of completion then bring it over to the smaller board where I do mockups and fix-ups and whatnots.
What I’d like to add next is a writing board on the desk that I can write more easily on. That would make writing the inevitable changes as I do my mockups more convenient. Right now I use the side of the desk. That works fine, but not as elegant.
This is not as barebones as John Williams’ workspaceÂ but certainly less techno-heavy than Hans Zimmer’s studio.
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!
I am currently scoring a feature film called “Comforting Skin”. Right now I am in the planning stages, setting goals for the score and there is an approach I plan on taking I’d like to discuss here.
This is a dramatic piece with horror, suspense and some supernatural elements. Because of the genre, this is not going to be a big thematic score.
However, there will be motives and themes, and after reviewing the story and film and discussing it in detail with the director, part of my current plan is to have a theme or motive for “dread”.
Dread, this feeling of impending doom, is a main thematic element in the film, it is the drive of the story. (I am being simplistic in order to not give anything in the story away, but you get the idea.)
As the story advances, my plan is to have this motive, or theme, develop in length and strength. I will only hint at it at the start and it will gradually overtake everything.
It will be present when appropriate as other melodies or textures are played and will not be associated to any specific character.
The bottom line is this; a motive or theme doesn’t have to be associated to a character, place or event, but can be something that drives the tone, mood or a concept in the film.
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!
One thing that became clear while working on Silkboy was that melody and the function of a scene are intertwined.
Some scenes are more important than others in a movie: some scenes are big, important, flashy scenes, while others are transitory, functional scenes that take you from point A to point B so that the story makes sense.
Both of course are important and part of storytelling, and very often the skill of actors and directors shine the brightest in making those functional scenes become interesting and alive and not simply functional.
Since Silkboy was animated, that meant wall to wall music, and I had to navigate theseÂ transitionalÂ scenes musically. For advice I turned to the master of themes, John Williams, especially the Harry Potter and Indiana Jones films, both of which had a similar musical approach to the score I was writing.
The bottom line is this:
Giving a big thematic moment to a transitional scene goes against the grain. It is better to write transitional music instead, e.g.: a bridge in a song, or an episode in a fugue or invention.
The transition scene can use secondary musical material, development of main material or simply a sequence (a musical one) or something that leads to the next scene. It is a case where musical structure again supports film structure!
Hey there, I got offered to write a guest post at the popular film composer website Score Cast.
I wrote a post about finding form during spotting.
How often can you change moods and how quickly?
That was the question that I posed myself as I worked on this film, and so I looked at the master John Williams for advice, especially his cartoony Indiana Jones scores, including my favourite of the four Indy scores: The Temple of Doom.
The answer is: pretty damn quick.
There are some scenes, like that one in the airplane when the pilots and leave them to crash, or when they are leaving the Indian village to start their journey to Pankot Palace, where the music there is fragmented, changing from theme to theme very quickly, only presenting a bit of one theme then a bit of the other.
I have also realized that this type of fragmented, stop-and-go music happens in scenes that are preparation for action.
And so yesterday I scored a scene that presented many things quickly; running, despair, sadness, reunion, meeting and comedy, all in the span of like 40 seconds or so.
It was a transitory scene that is leading to the longer sections of the ending.
At first I admit I tried to play through the scene and it didn’t work. But when I watched the completed cue with the image, I knew it didn’t work, but I also knew why and how to fix it.
So I followed every part of the scene; started quick and breathless and a bit funny, sad and h0llow winds, then romantic strings have a quick swell (presenting two themes in counterpoint) and then a quick descent into humour before stopping right before the punch line.
This might sound schizophrenic, but here’s the paradox;
- the first cue which was more melodic and musically coherent totally stuck out
- But this more active, “roller coaster” cue with all its ups and downs actually blends seamlessly with the scene since it follows it so well, disappearing in the story even if mixed in loud.
How cool is that!