I am sure you have heard someone say that in film scoring, silence can be more effective than music.
While this is true, Â it only represents part of the picture to consider.
It’s all about CONTRAST.
If you have a dramatic moment and there is a lot of score before and after, then silence can be very effective because it provides contrast. That silence would not be as effective if there was silence leading up to it and following it.
Pacing of a score has a lot to do with how one manipulates contrast.
Contrast relies on juxtaposition, or elements being next to each other, in case of music cues (or lack thereof) they must follow or precede one another.
I was thinking of this because I have reached an important point in the film I am scoring, and leading up to it the music has had elements of “moto perpetuo” – you know; a constant rhythmic idea as events are put into motion.
I had planned to use this melodic and rhythmic material during this scene but it didn’t play well. I spent the afternoon and part of the evening on it yesterday and had to stop. It wasn’t working. I hate days like that.
After some time laying in bed thinking about it this morning, it occurred to me that for many story reasons I won’t discuss, contrast was necessary.Â Contrast of instrumentation, tempo and that ostinato element being dropped. I came down to work and it’s working great.
And there you, Â the word of the days Â is: contrast.
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”.
Thanks for all those who voted over the past month. The results both surprised and informed me.
I will continue with my initial goal for the site, which was to provide an in-depth look at film scoring from the angle of looking in depth at how music works in film and storytelling. This is beneficial for directors, composers and is I believe unique to GTS.
But seeing the results of this poll, I will now add the occasional posts on the subject of composition, orchestration and technical aspects of scoring for moving picture.
In the comments there were also some more specific questions and ideas. In answer to that there will soon be a special guest answering some questions about one of the topics inquired about. Stay tuned! (Always wanted to say that!)
Thanks again to all who voted and to those yet to vote – the poll is still open!
Please if you could take the time to let me know what you would like to read about in “Getting The Score” below. Multiple choices are allowed. And don’t forget to sign up to the blog!
If you have any other ideas on subjects you would like covered in GTS, just write them down in the comment section.
Today I am going to rock the boat…
There was a paper written in 2000 entitled “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”
The report states that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:
- tend to overestimate their own level of skill;
- fail to recognize genuine skill in others;
- fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy;
- recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they can be trained to substantially improve.
To me, this is first a case for composers to reach high levels of schooling in music.
But something occurred to me from this as well… should directors trust their composers more?
Let me explain, directors are generally not musically trained and if so only at a basic level. All of the directors I have worked with, even the most musical among them, only have a passing awareness of the role of music in films.
And this is normal! Nobody can be an expert at everything.
So, considering the generally small level of film scoring knowledge and skill among directors, a few questions come to mind:
- Are directors suffering from Dunning-Kruger syndrome when it comes to film music?
- Should directors then not express their intentions and after that trust to the expertise of their composer?
Just a thought…
Every composer should pass along his knowledge,Â so Alain is offering private teaching to a limited number of international students through Skype.
With the wonders of web cameras and Skype screen sharing, internet lessons are a rich multimedia experience, combining live on-screen views of Alain composing, correcting your work, analyzing and explaining scores or playing the keyboard as he explains the ins and outs of a certain concept or work.
Study about all aspects of composition, from harmony, form to advanced orchestration and writing to picture.
About Your Instructor.
Alain has a Masterâ€™s degree in composition and has over a dozen years experience as a teacher for the Royal Conservatory of Music. He is currently composer-in-residence with the Vancouver Metropolitan Orchestra and has scored many films, including the animated feature film “The Legend of Silk Boy” starring Jackie Chan.
One thing that music can do is voice the reaction of a character or even the audience.
Generally speaking, whenever we experience an event it usually takes a second or so to register and then form a reaction.
Being scared has two steps: First we are startled and process the information, then we scream and run. These do not happen simultaneously.
This is a simple example and a psychological truism that can be applied to any event.
Here is an example from Finding Nemo.
I am sure you remember this scene: Dory and Marlin, Nemo’s father have been chased by an angler fish and the screen has just gone white and Marlin thinks he’s dead he’s dead he died he’s dead.
He opens his eyes, we see the angler fish stuck behind the diving goggles, he pauses as he registers what just happened and then starts a little celebration dance along with victorious music.
The victorious music did not begin immediately on the cut, as soon as we see the angler fish, but rather waits for us and Marlin to first understand what happened.
The music then starts as a reaction, following the reaction of both the main character and the audience.
Seems obvious and straight-forward once you think of it, but many times I have seen the score jump the gun and follow the cuts rather than the emotional beats in the scene.
You may not even notice it really, but it dilutes the emotional impact of the scene.
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.
I was talking with a director and screenwriter I know, and for whatever reason the subject turned to temp tracks, and this is what he said about it:
“Dealing with a temp track is like writing a script by cutting and pasting from other scripts.”
Well, I started to laugh out loud! Perfect! That was exactly it! That was such a great way to explain what was wrong with temp tracks from a director’s point of view!
Temp tracks are imitative and limit your options. They give the illusion of being creative when you are simply imitating.
However, let’s face it, nothing exists in a vacuum; all art grows from knowledge of other art. The key word here is “grow”, something that simply imitates loses it’s value in a big way.
With that in mind, the temp track can be a great jumping off point. Isaac Newton said it best:
“If I have seen farther it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” – Isaac Newton
Yes, temp tracks can ge be a great starting point, but most often they become a finish line.
I understand that, though, really I do. For the director, the score is the one thing that is out of his control, the one thing in production that require complete faith because it takes a while to hear the final product, expressing what you want is difficult, and it’s not like working with an actor where the feedback is instantaneous. (See previous post.)
So yes, I understand why temp tracks become finish line, but it is not the best solution for the film.
- Get your composer in early, during pre-production even. Make the music a part of the process, not an afterthought. (You don’t start writing a script 3 weeks before principal photography is scheduled to begin, do you?)
- Get the composer to write mockups while you shoot and then edit with this original music.
- Make the original music a part of the creative editing process. Write, rewrite, cut down and discuss new directions if needed.
- When the final cut is ready, then the final composition can take place with complete confidence and great speed.
This way, the composer and director can make the music a real creative element in the film’s design and not just an afterthought that is imitative and pasted on.
After the timing sheet is ready it is time to write the cue, but how does a composer make his music conform to those timings?
Here is how I do it, and it’s a pretty standard way.
First, I find the right musical idea for the scene along with what is the best tempo for the music. (“Tempo” is the speed of the music as expressed in metronome clicks per minute.)
Once I have my idea and my tempo I check my timing sheet to see what timings I need to hit in this cue and compare this with my click book page.
A click book page provides the composer with all timings in hundredths of a second for a given metronome marking. (example from my own click book I created in Excel format.)
From the timings on the click book I can see how close my current tempo matches the hits. Hard hits must be accurate between 8 hundredths of a second (00:00.08) and 125 hundredths (00:00.125).
If my current metronome marking is not close enough to my hits, then I look at tempo variations slightly above or below in the click book to find a tempo closer to the important timings.
(This all seems quite complicated, but it is a very efficient process.)
At this point the musical idea is chosen, the tempo is perfect and the click book is open for reference – all the is left is to write the cue!
There are a few other ways of timing music to image:
Cues can be written to be performed using free timing. This method has the conductor using a stop watch and visual clues provided on the film itself, but no click track. This takes a good conductor but can result in very expressive performances.
Improvising straight into the computer sequencer while watching the image, reacting to hits with or without a click track.
So there you go, this will hopefully give you an idea of how a composer times his music with your film.
PS: Timings can also be calculated without a click book. Here is the formula: ((tempo/60) x hit in seconds and hundredths ) +1.
Choosing a composer is like casting an actor in many ways.
Music is a character in your film and you first must develop a â€ścharacter descriptionâ€ť for the music; what genre will the music be, will it require a rock band or a full orchestra.
The temp track often provides clues to that character description of the musical score, but it can also create an ideal for finding a composer that is unattainable.
It is important to keep your mind open to possibilities when casting a composer just like actors. It is best not to stay locked in to your temp track, but better to ask â€śwhat can that composer bring to the story telling?â€ť
There are some important things to listen for in a composerâ€™s demo CD.
- Does the music have an innate dramatic style?
- Does it show strong compositional skill?
- Does the music grab you? (You must like the composerâ€™s music, thatâ€™s important)
- Does it have music similar to what you are seeking?
- Does the CD display a grasp of a wide range of styles?
Point number four is not essential, by the way. A composer canâ€™t have composed in all genres and styles, but his/her music might really strike you and show great skill and flexibility, making him a good choice.
The credits are also important to see and, if possible, some video clips of scenes the composer has scored.
(A word of warning here: video clips can be tricky because directors tend to look rather than listen, judging the composer by the production value, the acting, the directing, the cinematography rather than the music.)
This is time to meet the composer.
A film composer must have certain qualities, and the ability to write good music is only one of them. Here are some points to consider during your interview with the composer.
- A film composer must be able to write fast and fluently
- He/she must understand storytelling for film to better communicate with the director (does he know a 2-shot from buckshot? A whip pan from a dish pan?)
- He/she must take direction well.
- He/she must have confidence as well to offer ideas and express himself properly.
- Good work ethic.
- A personality that matches well with the director – if possible!
Now the question is should you ask your composer to write something based on the script? You know, sort of like an actorâ€™s reading?
Well, this has been done before, but keep in mind that many top composers avoid reading the script before scoring the movie, because it can be so completely different that reading the script leads them in the wrong direction. John Williams is one of those.
Personally, I scored a movie once where I read the script ahead of time and started writing some music before the film was shot. When I finally saw the film it was quite different in tone from what I had envisioned from the script, so I ended up throwing away all the music I had sketched.
So, from my point of view, asking a composer for music based on the script is risky and would not necessarily represent who is the best for the job, because a good score comes from the interaction between the composer and the director.
Callbacks are not common when choosing a composer, though, in case you were wondering.
Like casting, choosing a composer comes from carefully considering all aspects of talent, training and experience, while also relying on your instinct, faith and a little luck.