[/frame]I have heard this many times “you are so lucky to have your music played by live musicians. That is my dream.”
During the recording of the score for “Primary”, my friend Brian Campbell ( recording engineer) said he understood why composers use samples rather than live players: perfect intonation, no microphone bleed, no noises from chairs, clothes, breathing, papers or noisy instruments etc…I will tell you now, luck has nothing to do with it.
Using live musicians is a lot more work. And costs money. And takes more time.
Low budget productions don’t even consider live players these days. When I offered it for “Primary” the answer was “really? We would love to but there is no money.” I explained the costs and options and it became a possibility. The director was on board and we made it happen we what we had. Same exact scenario on “Comforting Skin.”
But it wasn’t luck.
- I found viable options to make it happen in terms of players, engineer and studio space. I have built some great contacts here over the years, so it’s possible.
- I sold the idea to the producer and he found a bit of extra money that I could budget with. The point is that most film makers want live music, it adds to the film; live is production value that goes on the screen.
- It was low budget so I did all writing, orchestrating, part and score prep. So that was a ton of work that meant I had to work twice as much.
- Using live musicians on a low budget means a lot of careful planning because of fewer options. More things to keep track and more can go wrong.
- The reality is that using live musicians I sacrificed time and money. I could have kept more of the money and had less work.
The other argument against live musician is a tight post production schedule, which happens a lot. I had to deliver an entire feature film score in a month, which is not the shortest schedule ever, but pretty short when doing it on your own. It broke down like this.
- Week 1: sketches and concepts for the score. Discuss with director and find direction. Choose instrumentation and start making phone calls.
- Week 2-3: Write the score. Send mockups and get approved.
- Week 4: Orchestrate. Score and part prep. Send MIDI/tempo map and time stamped pre-records to mixer to prep ProTools. (Note: I also had some orchestration work on a major feature during this time, so it was very busy and I had to pace myself well to make it all fit.)
- Record score.
- Week 5: edit and mix. Deliver.
The bottom line is: You want live musicians? I know I do. So do it.
For me, having been writing for real musicians for so long, I can’t stand being limited by samples. I don’t want to write down to samples. There are many moments while recording “Primary” that it was clear why live was vastly superior to samples.
While I was in the studio, listening to my expressive cello lines and tender clarinet tunes coming to life through great players, all the hard work was worth it. I did feel lucky then.
PS: A side benefit of stubbornly using live musicians on my own scores is that it led directly to my gig orchestrating on “Elysium” and “Ender’s Game”.
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) 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 | THEMATIC
1M3 | A (suspense var.)
1M5 | A
1M7 | B – Andrea motive only, not whole tune
1M9 | C (epic tune mf)
1M11 | B – w/pno. ostinato
(these are just two columns of the spreadsheet cue list. I also colour coded the themes on the spreadsheet. Other columns included in, out, timecode position, notes, check-boxes 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.
I am sure you have heard someone say that in film scoring, silence can be more effective than music.
While this is true, 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. Contrast of instrumentation, tempo and that ostinato element being dropped. I came down to work and it’s working great.
And there you, the word of the days is: contrast.
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…
“I’ve only just recently started reading your blog and website, and have been hooked since. It is such a valuable resource to a young aspiring composer/orchestrator like myself.
I am very interested by your studio setup, as it is very much built around pen and paper, and just had a question or two that I was hoping you could answer. What are those great big boards over both pianos, where you put your sheets? Are they home made, or can one buy something similar? Also, do you use the keyboard hooked up to the computer to the same extent as the real piano?
I’m just wondering because I have a piano, but want to invest in a keyboard to input into Sibelius quicker, and help with composing. Do you think a small 2 – 4 octave keyboard would suffice for this?
I would be extremely grateful if you had a spare moment to lend me some advice.
Hi Niall, thanks for writing and for accepting that I answer on the blog instead of privately.
The boards I built myself and they are both very simple. I am not a handy man in any way, which I’ll blame on being brought up by a single mother.
For the board on the piano I simply bought a board and got it cut the dimensions I wanted, and then added a rounded wooden piece to hold the paper which was hammered in using finishing nails. Simple. And the board just rests on the piano and the wall and it works great.
What you don’t see in this picture is that where the cello is I have now added a drafting table.
The board on the workstation desk is the same idea, but it is not meant to write on, just to read, so it is propped up on a metal mesh book holder. I put a little Ikea halogen lamp underneath the lower shelf to light up with a warm light. Over the piano I am using a natural light fluorescent and I like that a lot.
The other question is if I use the MIDI controller keyboard as much as the main piano? The answer is yes, but I find I have a different mindset when I sit at one or the other. The MIDI controller is hooked up to a sequencer of course, so I will make use of samples more, whereas at the piano I will use my inner ear more and that often leads to better music. And when working on the drafting table of course it’s even more internal. I do freely jump from one to the other during the course of composition to make use of the different mindsets and the advantages to all three writing ‘stations’.
Get an 88 key keyboard. No doubt. I lived for years using a smaller keyboard for sequencing and I think now what an idiot I was to not have invested into an 88 key controller earlier. I first had the M-Audio 88es and enjoyed it very much (until it died) and it is not expensive, so no reason to suffer needlessly.
Hope that helps.
If anyone else has any questions don’t hesitate to ask.
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 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 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”.
Two fancy words you may or may not know.
Diegetic: source music and sound that is being generated by actions on screen, like actors singing or a band playing in the background.
To write good film scores means to be integral to the story telling. So in order to be a great film composer it’s a good idea to study what you can about story, specifically screen writing. Because a novel and a screenplay are two different beasts.
Here are some tips from master storyteller Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard, Some Like it Hot, The Seven Year Itch) has this to say about screen writing.
- The audience is fickle.
- Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go.
- Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
- Know where you’re going.
- The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
- If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
- A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
- In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.
- The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
- The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then—that’s it. Don’t hang around.
What does this mean to us in film score terms?
I have my own ideas but I would be curious to see what others think first. Leave a comment.
(List from this website: http://www.writingclasses.com/InformationPages/index.php/PageID/270)
The video below is an oldie but a goodie. But first…
Writing music is not just about money, we all know this. If it is your motivation, then you are in the wrong business. We first work on low budget productions to build our reel, hone our chops and build relationships, and in those circumstances our fee will match the production’s budget. It is part of paying your dues.
But obviously at some point we must decide what we are worth, how low we can go and still have a roof over our heads.
Because there are essentially two reasons to work on a film:
- Career Building
Ideally both can happen at once, and that’s the best situation of course. The question is though, by accepting a very low fee, or giving away some of your services for free, are you devaluing yourself, your music and film music in general?
It is a thorny question and the subject of much debate. I think it’s important to give a high value to what we do, but watching the video, something came to my mind…
We should be the full price CD, the highlights and the filet, NOT the discount bin, the simple trim or taco stand and expect a high fee.
Some more great orchestral pieces worth our attention
- Finlandia – Jean Sibelius
- Pohjola’s Daughter – Jean Sibelius
- Rite of Spring – Igor Stravinsky
- Petrouchka – Igor Stravinsky
- The Firebird – Igor Stravinsky
- Ma Mère L’Oye – Maurice Ravel
- Fantasia on Theme by Thomas Tallis – Ralph Vaughan Williams
- Symphony #5 – Ralph Vaughan Williams
- Symphony #2 – Sergei Prokofieff
I put Stravinsky’s famous pieces because they may be famous for composers but perhaps not so much for film makers.
[frame align=”left”][/frame]Recently I introduced a director friend of mine to Howard Hanson and he loved it! He is a true film music lover and he immediately saw how much Hanson influenced certain composers.
Film music these days has a very different sound than in the past. That’s a good thing of course, and I am certainly not judging. Music must progress evolve and change. (I think it is perhaps a bit too homogenized at the moment…)
I am still very much drawn to the musicianship and craftsmanship of the golden age composers like Korngold, Salter, Frankel, Herrmann, Bernstein, Goldsmith and of course Williams.
Am I correct in saying that we should aim to make music evolve and grow without going backwards or dumbing it down? It seems like film music should be great music as well as great film music.
The great pedagogue Shinishi Suzuki once said (and I paraphrase from memory here) “We are not born knowing quality, we must be in the presence of it regularly to recognize it.” So here I start my listening list for film directors with just a few scores off the top of my head, avoiding the most obvious ones like “The Planets” – although it still rocks!
- Pines of Rome – Ottorino Respighi
- Fountains of Rome – Ottorino Respighi
- Daphnis and Chloe – Maurice Ravel
- Love for Three Oranges – Sergei Prokofiev
- Symphony No.10, 2nd mvt – Dmitri Shostakovich
- Pictures at an Exhibition – Modest Mussorgsky (orch. Ravel)
- Symphony No.2 – Howard Hanson
- Scythian Suite – Sergei Prokofiev
In a film there are cues that are meant to carry more of the scene and others which are truly background cues, transitional in nature and potentially less interesting musically. This is something we all know, but recently I found another reason to be aware of this I had not previously considered. But first, let’s discuss a few obvious reasons this affects your process of composition.
Knowing which cues are prominent and which ones aren’t is important for understanding the musical (and dramatic) pacing of the film. The first rule of Art is Contrast after all, and you can’t go full throttle all the time either. For proper storytelling with music you need to build to the pay-off, you need the calm before he storm etc… I expect this is all pretty straight forward right?
This is useful to keep in mind when composing for a few reasons. First the most obvious ones:
- You build your themes based on the moments when they are at their most prominent in the film and then work backwards from there, de-constructing them for placement in other scenes, before or after the big statement(s).
- Writing the music for the big pay-off moments first, gives you a goal to shoot for musically. Having a goal to shoot for makes it much easier to plan the pacing of musical materials, form, orchestration etc…
This is all good, but on a recent project I realized something else about this whole thing…
Directors can’t see into the future.
Directors can’t read minds.
So I might be writing some cue with the goal in mind of creating the calm ‘before the storm”, slowing building, pacing myself before the pay-off in the next cue or the cue after that.
And then I present this transitional cue to the director and for them it’s just boring. I explain that there will be a big moment and they say.
“Right. Well, I don’t really know where it’s going yet so let’s wait until you send that over then we’ll see.”
And this makes total sense because they can’t predict what you are going to write by seeing into the future or reading your mind.
Furthermore, first impressions being what they are, the director’s impression is that this music is boring. With some directors this is not a problem, they might be able to take that leap of imagination with you. But for the other 50% off directors (the more technically minded ones) you are better off not relying on their imagination.
The solution it seems to me is to wait a bit longer before you send off any music and combine multiple cues if needed in order present the whole sequence including the big moment / pay-off. This will allow the director to get a sense of the whole, including pacing and all that, and make a much stronger first impression for the music.
Or write the pay-off first and present that first, then work backwards to build to it. This will depend on the music and your work process for these cues though, but it has a lot of impact when you present your ideas. This has the benefit of being a less time-consuming approach that allows to quickly see how the director reacts to the important musical moment. Then you can work back from it with more confidence.
And now everyone wins.
I had great intentions to keep this site more up to date with analysis of music and film scenes, but things got a bit busy. And in the meantime this site has gotten more and more visited and popular.
So I have been thinking to provide small thoughts on film scoring in a more manageable format requiring less time and preparation, but still providing valuable insights.
I will start that asap, but in the meantime, here’s a look at what kept me busy for a bit: I was orchestrator and conductor on the big budget film “Elysium” by director Neill Bloomkamp (“District 9”.) The film stars Matt Damon and Jodie Foster and is coming out in August.
I was in London at the famous Abbey Road in London conducting the orchestra there for three days. It was my first time there and as you can expect, it was a wonderful experience. Here are some pictures.