What is the relationship between music and all other sounds on a film’s soundtrack? Should the composer and director consider one when working on the other?
It seems that the answer should be an obvious “yes”, but I was watching one of last summer’s blockbusters and at one point there was a foot chase accompanied by hand percussion.
Aren’t the sounds of running feet and hand percussion almost the same? Yes! And I found it made for a messy and confusing soundtrack.
Location sounds, folley, sound effects are all sounds that can clash with the music if they are not taken into consideration during composition.
The trick is to make the music either complementary or supportive of the other sounds.
For example, the hand percussion in the above example could have been avoided since it clashed with the sound of running footsteps on the street. And in any case, the sound of running footsteps provided a rhythmic drive and an immediate emotional reaction that was very much like the hand percussion, making their inclusion redundant.
Sustaining instruments (strings, winds) would have been a better choice, being more complementary to the footsteps, and would still have been be able to provide the necessary drive and tension the scene required.
To consider sound effects is the job of the composer during his daily work, that is for sure, but it is easy to forget when the work piles up and one gets carried away with the musical idea.
So it would be wise for the director to consider important sound effects during the spotting session, or during morning calls or at the very least when reviewing cue mock-ups.
Music in a film doesn’t exist on its own, it is part of the total sound package. And that is the bottom line; music and the soundtrack are partners to create a complete emotional experience.
There are three tools a filmmaker can use to engage his audience: Suspense, Mystery, and Dramatic Irony.
Suspense is where the audience knows as much information as the protagonist; mystery is where the audience knows less than the protagonist; and dramatic irony is where the audience knows more than the protagonist.
Foreshadowing in story and in the musical score is a part of dramatic irony, where the filmmaker privileges the audience.
Foreshadowing can be done with visual clues and hints in the story. It can also be done by simply telling the audience what is going to happen, like in “American Beauty”, where we know the main character is going to die but don’t know how and why. This deeply affects how we view the entire film.
Foreshadowing thus affects our perception, simple scenes are completely transformed. Because we know the Titanic is going to sink, James Cameron was able to have simple scenes of people walking on the deck of the doomed ship which would have normally been extremely boring, but because they are on the Titanic, it becomes a poignant scene.
Dramatic Irony was the favourite tool of the great Thriller/Suspense director Alfred Hitchcock. He knew that if you SAW a character place a bomb in the roomÂ it would be much more effective than not having the audience see it being placed because they would be on the edge of their seats waiting for it to go off.
Music works like all of those examples above: it can give you hints about what is going to happen but it can’t tell you exactly, making it the wonderful foreshadowing tool!
The musical score can only give the audience a sense that something will happen (good or bad) but cannot communicate what that will be, and this is a wonderful way to engage the audience.
The typical example of musical foreshadowing is the scary music before someone gets attacked. This is a simple device, but it works.
Why does it work? A scene with someone walking is boring and trite, making the scene appear like filler, but add a dash of eerie music and suddenly the audience gets involved, sit on the edge of their seats and primed for the upcoming surprise.
Jaws is the perfect example of this, of course. In Jaws, the clever two-note motif lets us know the shark is coming, even when we don’t see it, heightening the sense of dread. Spielberg and Williams never fool the audience however, they only present this music when the shark is actually coming. It never becomes a red herring.
But foreshadowing is not just for building suspense in scary movies, it can presage anything the film is about.
The big, sweeping main titles of “Laurence of Arabia” tell you that this will be an epic story. Similarly, the magical main titles of “A Night at the Museum” foreshadowed the magic to come, which carried us through the decidedly non-magical first act setting up the father’s motivations: his personal and financial problems.
Music can highlight foreshadowing elements on screen, both visual or story-based, making them more obvious and feel more important.
We could go on and on, so I’ll just close by saying that foreshadowing is an important storytelling device, and music is a natural for it. It can be brash and obvious and extremely subtle, it can be suspenseful or heroic, or anything the story is about. Using it wisely is part of creating a more cohesive, propulsive and engaging experience for your audience.
Perhaps musical foreshadowing should be part of screenwriting?
(Many thanks to director/writer Kevin Bottomley for proof-reading this article, the first two paragraphs and that bit about Hitchcock. Thanks Kevin!)
So what does a composer do after the spotting session?
Well, spotting notes are written up by the music editor (or composer on smaller projects) and then a copy is given to the composer and the director.
Here’s an example of spotting notes from a film I scored called “The Citizen.”
The important elements of spotting notes are; start and end timings, the duration of each cue to calculate the amount of score to be written, and a short resume of what was discussed during the spotting session.
From the spotting notes detailed timing sheets are written up by the music editor (or composer), which will then be used by the composer as a reference for all his timings.
The timing sheets provide a detailed description of the scene to be scored including all elements which might require a musical response (cuts, actions, dialogue etc.) along with the related timings in the hundredths of a second.
Here is an example of a breakdown sheet from a film I scored called “Say Yes.”
Now, I don’t know how many composers still use timing sheets, especially since many of them don’t even write a single note on paper, usually just playing right along to the image.
But personally, I find a lot of benefit to actually writing out my own timing sheets whenever I can. (And I also still write the vast majority of every score on paper first.)
In order to write a timing sheet for a given cue, I have to pay attention to everything that is significant;Â looks, dialogue, subtext, plot points, cuts, pans, actions, whatever, and then I slow it down in order to get the exact timings!
Nothing can get you into the heart of a scene more than writing some spotting notes!
Another reason why I like spotting notes, as you can see from the scan above, is that I like to jot down notes on the timing sheet itself – notes, ideas and thoughts, and I also use horizontal lines to find the form of the scene which will give direction to the musical flow.
How much melody can there be under dialogue?
It is common for directors to fear that melody will get in the way of the dialogue. This is an understandable concern, of course, since the coherence of the story relies in large part on the dialogue being assimilated by the audience.
Anything that gets in the way of the story should be cut or simplified, right?
However, an instrumental melody can be easily assimilated by the audience simulateously with dialogue. (Notice I said an instrumental melody here, more on this later.)
A good example is the helicopter ride in Jurassic Park, the scene where the main characters are chatting away in the helicopter on their way to the island.
Here is the music from that scene; “Journey to the Island” by John Williams.[audio:http://www.gettingthescore.com/audio/Journey-to-the-Island-clip.mp3]
As you can tell, this is music filled with clear melodic lines, rhythm and colour. Did you remember the music from this scene? Did you even remember there was music in this scene? Perhaps not and that is exactly the point!
Audience members are completely able to assimilate melody and dialogue all at once because they do not step on each other’s toes!
Songs, on the other hand, do step into the dialogue’s territory because our minds are naturally drawn to the voice and will attempt to understand the lyrics and dialogue all at once… not always successfully. Oh, it’s still possible to have songs under dialogue, but approach with caution!
Off-screen dialogue requires more care while underscoring. Dialogue without the reinforcement of facial expressions and lip movement requires a bit more effort to be clearly understood, and thus the music must make a special effort to stay out of the dynamic range of the speaker’s voice and avoid sweeping melodic statements.
But then again, perhaps a big sweeping statement is exactly what is needed!
PS: Could this Jurassic Park scene have worked well without music? I don’t believe so. The music was important to this scene at this point in the movie especially because it was all dialogue.
You see, this scene occurs during the journey to the island, but the sitting down dialogue could have easily negated the feeling of excitement and anticipation which was required at this point in the film, otherwise the momentum would have been lost. Gotta love a good use of film music!
When should a composer be brought in? As soon as possible!
Usually a composer is hired when the film is nearing the first rough cut. This is the common scenario and personally, I don’t mind it. It can be fast, brutal and fun.
However, let’s face it, musical creation takes time, just like writing a script takes time. Can you really expect to write something great in just a few weeks?
Well, it does happen, but let’s consider this:
A composer can aim to write between one and a half to two minutes of score a day. (It’s not just music, you know, there’s the scene to consider, the story, the timings etc…) There can be more music written per day if necessary, but let’s just use that figure which most film composers tend to agree on.
(Note: if you have a big music budget then the composer can have a team around him of orchestrators, music editors and copyists which allows for a higher output of music. If you don’t have a big music budget, then the score takes more time.)
That means that working seven days a week the total amount of music will clock in between 11 and 17 minutes per wekk. If your film needs 50 minutes of music then the composer needs 3 to 5 weeks to write it.
And it would be a great idea to give a week or two before that for the composer to come up with the themes and other musical ideas based on talks with the director and the current rough cut. (This is where there is flexibility. More on that later)
What about allowing some time for rewrites? Not a bad idea. How does one week sound?
And let’s not forget the music preparation, another week? And the recording session which requires some preparation on the part of the composer and his team, add a few days. Finally, the recording session if using live musicians. At 2 to 3 minutes recorded per hour, plan on three days minimum. Longer if the music is complex.
So now the total time to write the score comes down to roughly 7 to 10 weeks.
You could always bring in the composer even earlier than that. Let’s say, before you even start principal photography?
This would allow the composer to come on set, see some dailies perhaps, start playing around with ideas and establishing a dialogue with the director. This gives the score a gestation period that can only be beneficial and result in a higher quality product at the end.
For the director, it means that musical ideas become an integral part of the filmmaking process, rather than something tagged on at the end.
Trust can also be established early between the composer and director, all the concepts are clear before the actual scoring is set to begin, making what is usually a stressful time become a creative time.
The spotting session is when a director and composer get together to watch the film and decide where the music is going to be and what it’s going to do. This occurs before the composer starts writing the music.
People present should be the director, the composer, the music editor and perhaps the producer.
Many composers like to see the movie before a spotting session, I know I do. That way the composer is better prepared to bring well thought out ideas and insights which leads to a more productive and meaningful exchange between the director and composer.
A composer who knows his stuff, understands film music and has a strong grasp of storytelling is worth his weight in gold here. I mean, let’s face it, a director needs someone he can count on and the spotting session is where the foundation for the score gets laid.
Exact SMPTE time codes for the entry and exit points of each cue need to be written down. This provides the total number of cues and duration of the score to be written, an important element of time management for any project.
So, where should a music cue start?
- At the start of a new act
- At the start of a scene
- On an emotional beat
- Anywhere you can imagine…
The possibilities for the entrance of a music cue are as endless as there are stories to be told! And furthermore, it is an aesthetic decision (meaning it is open to personal interpretation) so it is impossible to set it down in a list. Spotting will be the subject of many future blog entries.
Spotting a movie is an art that requires the following:
- Knowledge of story telling in film
- A solid understanding of the story being told
- Awareness (on the composer’s part) of directorial an editorial decisions
- Understanding off what music can bring to a scene
(And by the way, good spotting is not just where the music is present, of course, but where it is absent.)
Finding the entrance and exit of a cue is the easy part, the hard part is deciding what the music will do during that time period!
I can’t give you a list of all that music can bring to a scene here, but I can say this.
- Consider the arc of the film, not just the scene as an isolated event.
- Avoid discussing musical specifics
- Discuss what the music should do as if the composer was an actor
The length of a spotting session varies, but I personally like to take as much time needed to really pick the brain of the director so I can fully understand the story, the film and the director’s intent.
At the end of the session I always want to be 100% clear on what the director’s goals are for the film. I also want to have a vision of what I can bring musically to the film and to have expressed that as clearly as possible so that the director and I are on the same page.
Having a clear vision for the score, a mutual understanding and trust, and knowing how much work there needs to be done, those are the goals of the spotting session.