Pacing and Balance in Thomas Newman’s score for American Beauty
The pacing and balance of a film score is a very important facet of the art of film-scoring. No cue we write exists in a vacuum. It is always affected by what came before and what comes after, whether that is silence or source music or another cue.
Every genre and every film will have its own approach, but some of the questions I often have are:
- How much music?
- How often to repeat a theme?
- How much new material can we have?
- What is the impact of the source music on the score?
- What is the impact of silence?
- How long can the cues be?
I do, I have these questions (and a ton more) all the time, and I find it important for myself to learn from the greats. To look to those who have done great films and scores and “stand on the shoulders of giants.”
I don’t know everything, clearly, and doing this it stops me from re-inventing the wheel and allows me to get my work done better, faster, more creatively and with confidence because I understand my reaction to the score I am using as a springboard to my own.
When I scored the film “Primary” I turned to “American Beauty” as a model to answer some of the questions about structure, pacing and balance I had for this particular film. I had stated those questions to myself after watching the first cut ofÂ “Primary” Â the first time, and I felt “American Beauty” would be a great model.
You see, here’s a little truth about composition.
When we are composing we don’t have the best outlook on certain things like the repetition and development of our material. We might think we are repeating too often because we heard it already 5,000 times that day. That’s because we are working on it and we’re already sick of it!
This is why I think having a model is so useful,because this way you understand your reaction to that score as a listener, not as a composer.
So as I was saying, I had questions about scoring “Primary“:
- How short can scenes be? Are really short cue a problem?
- How repetitive can the music be / minimalist before I started to get bothered by it.
- “On the Track” – the film scoring bible – recommends to not leave small gaps between cues, it’s better to sustain the music. Is this true? Can I have a small moment of silence between two cues?
- How much music should this kind of drama have?
- How long can we go without music without reducing the cinematic quality of the film?
So I watched the whole film, taking down rough timings for each cue, each piece of source music and every bit of silence to get an overview of the pacing and the balance between the three in the film. I wrote it all out in Excel and colour coded it. Yes I did! I am kind of crazy that way, but I wanted to have a good view of it. Solid and tangible and quantifiable right before my eyes. Not just this vague impression of it.
(The notes are my original notes meant for myself only, and I didn’t correct them.)
And here’s the result!
Click to view larger size, or right-click to download.
Some of my conclusions:
- Early in the film: mostly short cues building to longer, climactic cues and moments during the film’s dĂ©nouement.
- Very short cues, as short as 23 seconds, are fine and feel complete natural – as long as they follow the narrative.
- Short breaks between cues, like the 16 second break between the final cues. (Depending on the narrative, as always.)
- There is an almost even balance between scored (50 min) and unscored Â scenes (43 min).
- During the early part of the film there is this almost even flow of score and silence.
I would love to hear what conclusions you get from this little exercise as shown in my spreadsheet. Go watch the film with it in hand and what you find instructive about this breakdown of the score as it pertains to pacing and balance in a score.
And don’t forget to share!
PS:Â By the way, using a model doesn’t mean you copy it! Far from it. It’s about having a reference and building an understanding of the concepts behind it. Here is some music from “Primary“… I don’t think it came out like “American Beauty” at all.
Alain is a film composer, orchestrator and conductor. He isÂ also the author ofÂ ScoreClub.net, where he just released the first module of hisÂ composer training courseÂ currently on sale.Â You can find more information on his career and music onÂ his website.