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.¬†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”).¬†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 personally¬†¬†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…
In visual arts, music and film, we relate most¬†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.¬†This makes sense right?
So when scoring you should often ask yourself ¬†“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”:¬†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. ¬†(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!
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!
Saying that film music should not be heard is a simplistic statement that leads many down the wrong path of musical creation and mixing. (See this previous post.)
From a mixing standpoint, only when music is heard clearly can it properly add to the film.
And from a compositional and aesthetic standpoint, creating really boring music with the aim of “not standing out” actually detracts from the impact of a film. Boring is boring is boring.
What I believe we should say is that music should fit the film like a glove and become one with the story.
I am not alone in this opinion: read this article on Film Score Monthly.
The Hollywood Reporter posted their top 100 movie scores. The commentary on each score is also quite enlightening, not surprisingly written by Jeff Bond of Film Score Monthly.
This could almost be a list of the top 100 movies as well, which makes me wonder about the impact the musical score has to a film’s commercial success and longevity.
Number 1 is The Godfather, by Nino Rota.
Nino Rota’s music for “The Godfather” stands on its own yet fuses itself to Francis Ford Coppola’s classic film so that each is unimaginable without the other. Rota’s main title, his theme for Marlon Brando’s Don Vito Corleone, is so instantly recognizable that an audience could probably identify it simply from the melancholy sound of its first sustained vibrato trumpet note.
Would that score be number one if nobody noticed the score?
A worthwhile read.
In the DVD featurette about the music of Spider Man 1, Tobey McGuire says that Danny Elfman’s music is good because it is “not noticed” and that this is the best compliment you can give the composer of a film score.
I forget which great golden age composer it was who said something like “if music is not meant to be noticed, then why do we bother writing it?”
What I think Tobey meant was this; film music is great when it fits the film so perfectly that it feels completely natural.
This is a very important distinction.
When music is the perfect fit for a scene it becomes part of the whole film experience, which is there to support the story. Just like the sets, set dressing, costumes, lighting and acting.
None of these other elements “disappear” or are not “seen” by the audience. Actually if they are not seen or relegated too much to the background, then they cannot serve their purpose, which is to support the story!
The danger with Tobey’s statement is to think that a good score should not be noticed, and to take that at face value, which can negatively influence the presence of the score in the mix.
The bottom line is this; in order for film music to be effective and support the story, it should be noticed!!!
In last week’ s post, Scooby Doo showed us that melody is still an important asset to a production at any level.
One of the challenges is when to present your melodies and when not to. A common fear among directors is that melody will interfere with the dialogue.
Of course it is crucial for the dialogue to be well understood, but melody doesn’t get in the way like you would imagine when you are first listening to a composers demo or when doing the final mix, times when you focus your attention too much on the music.
Here is a recent example.
The great film “Memoirs of a Geisha” opens with a narration, a voice-over by Sayuri as an old woman. Under this voice-over her theme is played on cello with a light wind accompaniment.
The Sayuri theme is beautiful, melodic and distinct, yet it does not interfere with the words. (And music with voice-overs is a particular challenge since the audience does not have the lips and gestures to reinforce the words.)
Ask yourself, did any of you notice the music there when you were first watching the film? Did it detract from the narration? Of course not, since you were listening as audience members.
But now that I have drawn your attention to this, if you were to watch this scene you would listen to the theme more and start focusing on it with a film maker’s ear, and might say “there should be no melody here, I am listening to it instead of the narration.”
What decision would you have made if you had heard this melody as a demo from the composer or during the mixing session?
I asked my wife after she watched that opening scene if she heard the music. She said yes, sure. Did she hear the narration? Well, yeah… of course.
Melody under narration and dialogue works prefectly well. The audience’s mind can take both in simultaneously.
As filmmakers, it is important to listen to the music being put in your film from the audience’s perspective. It is wise to not focus on the music entirely either during a demo presentation or during mixing, but on the dialogue or the action, because that is always where your audience will be focused as well.
And when in doubt, put melody! A good melody makes music more memorable, approachable and likable, all of which can only make your film better.