This is my workspace.
Although I use plenty of music technology, my writing room is set-up to have lots of space for good old-fashioned paper.
It is as rich, bright and energetic as possible with my one small window. I used to like it darker but tastes change. I am no longer a fan of dark, gloomy studios for writing music.
Now I think the next iteration of my writing space will have lots of windows if possible, as long as there is nothing outside to take my mind away from my writing. Trees, I’d like if it was only trees on the other side of my windows…
I usually sketch on the big board in the back to various degrees of completion then bring it over to the smaller board where I do mockups and fix-ups and whatnots.
What I’d like to add next is a writing board on the desk that I can write more easily on. That would make writing the inevitable changes as I do my mockups more convenient. Right now I use the side of the desk. That works fine, but not as elegant.
This is not as barebones as John Williams’ workspace but certainly less techno-heavy than Hans Zimmer’s studio.
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!
[frame align=”left”][/frame]I read on an online forum that a composition “teacher” (if we can say that about this person…) told a pupil that four-part writing is useless and to forget all about it. It has nothing to do with composition.
All I have to say to this is… what stupidity! Four-part writing is the essence of composition.
Let’s say we use four-part writing exactly as-is, you know – Bach Chorale style. Just like that it is perfect for many, many film moods: inspirational, religioso, grandiose, heroic, epic, fanfares, westerns, battle music and the list goes on.
Four-part writing can instantly become two, three or five-part writing with zero extra effort. You have counter-melodies and accompaniment patterns possible while maintaining control over the total sonority.
You can use four part writing as-is for accompanying a melody (four-parts under a tune) or you can also break up your four-part writing to have arpeggiated patterns, waltz patterns, ostinato patterns and all kinds of accompaniments. All great composers have done exactly that! (I am still in shock that somebody calls themselves a composition teacher and doesn’t know this.)
But four-part writing is much more than that for me. At it’s core it is about the simultaneous control of both the vertical and horizontal planes. I know that this sounds very fancy, but I don’t even want to limit that concept by using the word “harmony”, because this brings to mind traditional chords. In my concert music I like to think in terms of sonority and not traditional harmony. In other words, I’ll use tritones, sevenths and fourths as freely as thirds and sixths, and I control these the same way as you would with that Bach chorale style. Four-part concepts are also an integral part of jazz harmony teachings! The chords are slightly different, concept is the same.
There was other craziness espoused by this “teacher” but I’ll stop there. My point is that four-part writing is important and used all the time by good composers. It’s much, much more than a Bach chorale! It’s not an option if you want to be a good composer.
Can you think of easy to spot examples of four-part writing in films? Here are some to get you started:
- “Hymn for the Fallen” by John Williams
- “Lando’s Palace” from Empire Strikes Back
- “Asteroid Field” from Empire Strikes Back at about 2:19
- “All Systems Go” James Horner Apollo 13
- “Aases’ Death” by Grieg. (Not film music, but very cinematic.)
[frame align=”left”][/frame]Being a film composer is not just about the epic film scores. In reality, it’s mostly not. Your craftsmanship at musical story-telling is in large part made up of what you do during those small moments.
So today we’ll take a brief look at how John Williams, known for his epic film scores, handles a small transitional cue.
But before we do, here’s a few questions to ponder.
How short can a cue be? If they are very short, do they create an episodic TV feel? Cues can be very short as long as the editing warrants it, but short cues should not happen too often because they will quickly become apparent to the audience and grow tiresome.
Should there be thematic material? Overall, I would say that the score, just like a good composition, should be consistent in tone and content. Other factors are important to consider.
- The Length of the cue: If the cue is too short for thematic content, then don’t put a theme in.
- The type of film: A short thematic leitmotif would be appropriate in a fantasty film, but perhaps not in a serious drama.
- Where you are in the arc of the story: Once the characters are more fully developed it might be more relevant to put in a melodic association even in a short cue. But then again, perhaps you wish to build a sense of mood and character early on.
Short cues are often transitional, so this means they will occur during important structural cuts, taking us from one scene to another.
Entrance and exits are also important. I remember reading “On the Track” where it stated that cue entries should be invisible, so it’s best to come in with a light crescendo in the strings or something like that. That’s not exactly the quote, I didn’t bother looking it up, but I have personally found that this is not true.
A good entrance will be “invisible” if it’s properly motivated by the story. It’s not a volume issue, it’s a story issue! Well, that’s another post entirely, so I can revisit the subject of cue entrances later.
For now, watch the cue below with everything discussed in mind. Watch it a few times.
Hello, hope you all had a great Valentine’s Day.
The film I scored a while ago called ‘Comforting Skin” had a run at Slamdance recently and is now heading out to a variety of other festivals, getting some well-deserved attention.
Here is a short video from the scoring sessions for “Comforting Skin”, conducting a chamber ensemble of very talented players.
You can read more about the film on my website where I have a page dedicated to the film.
The score makes use of many contemporary harmonic and orchestration devices. I am thinking that it could be insightful to share some of these in both score and audio form on “Getting the Score”, if that is something you might be interested in. Let me know in the comment box!
My first musical love affair was with John Williams’ score for “Star Wars”. I remember clearly lying down in my mother’s living room as young lad of 8 or 9, chin in hands, listening to the entire soundtrack on the vinyl I received as a gift.
I read and re-read the liner notes as I listened to the music, a single page containing descriptions of all the tracks and all the themes. Even though I was quite young, I treated that piece of paper like gold and it is still intact in the original record sleeve from 1977, here in my studio.
I was taking piano lessons at the time and asked to play the music from “Star Wars”. I received a photocopy of the music, which I practiced very hard. I drew my own cover for the sheet music, taking great care with it. It was a x-wing being pursued by a tie-fighter with the Death Star in the background.
I can still sing you every single note of the Star Wars score. And now, many yeas later and with a master’s in composition behind me, I can tell you which parts of Star Wars come directly from the Rite of Spring. And you know what…?
I don’t care.
My love for this music is a link to my childhood, and there’s nothing that can change that. And on top of that, now that I know what happens during the composition of a film score (deadlines and temp scores) I can easily forgive a few minor “hommages”.
After my Star Wars score I received the vinyl for Superman. Same story and now I know every note.
After that it was the vinyl for E.T. Same thing.
I had brief affairs with Vangelis, Danny Elfman and Henry Mancini, but they never lasted. I always came back to John Williams.
To say that John Williams is the reason I love orchestral music so deeply is perhaps not a stretch. Our adult lives are shaped by our childhood experiences, and John Williams’ music was a big part of my childhood. In an era before VCRs, his music was a connection to my favourite films and I listened and listened until the scores became the central element.
Now, as I make my way as a professional film composer, his music is a constant reminder of the level of excellence I aim to achieve in my own career. From the indelible melodic writing to the glowing orchestrations, to the perfect dramatic placement of the music and the pacing of the score, John Williams music remains my biggest source of inspiration.
John Williams can go big, no doubt about it. It’s always his big score moments in correspondingly big scenes that people talk about, but from my vantage point as a film composer, I am just as fascinated by his skill at going big on what may seem like smaller scenes.
From the point of view of craftsmanship, it is those less obvious moments that can be much more educational.
Here’s an example of such a score moment; the funeral scene in Superman, where they bury Clark Kent’s father.
Look at these stills taken from the film; how would you have scored it? (Or go to 34:12 in the film and watch it without music.)
Would you have scored it in a sad tone? Dramatic? Dark? What we see is this:
- They are dressed in black
- It’s a funeral!
These are the obvious surface elements of this scene, so it seems to make sense to write sad music. I bet many composers would have done just that.
But Donner and Williams were much better storytellers than that. They understood what this scene was…
This is the film’s inciting event. The death of his father is the event that makes Clark Kent become Superman.
What’s an inciting event? It’s that one thing that happens to your hero that makes him or her take action.
Just before he dies from a heart attack at 33:30 in the film, Pa Kent has a talk with Clark, saying “I do know one thing is that you are for a reason [..] .and it’s not for scoring touchdowns.” It is these words which will give Clark Kent’s life purpose, and his father’s death a few seconds later that will make him take action.
So what does the music do? Does it play the sadness? No! Williams knew this was a turning point in the story and he wrote a beautiful theme that is softly heroic, uplifting and grandiose. It soars over the shot of Clark and his mother leaving the cemetery as the camera cranes up over a wide landscape, hinting at the adventure that is about to begin.
This is music for story-telling.
And another thing, this is a Superman film. It’s bigger than life. Williams knew this and the music is crucial in giving the film the right tone and scope.
So the points to remember are these:
- Always consider the story
- The overall tone of the film?
- Where you are in the structure of the story
- What is the subtext? What can the music add to the scene that you can’t already see?
Now go watch that scene!
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.
My career is starting to take off, so I feel that I can actually share my thoughts on this subject with some certainty and hopefully help those who read it.
The information may not be complete yet, but please read and comment, ask questions and I will perhaps flesh this out and create a stand-alone page out of this.
Best of luck to you in this promising new year!
[heading]First is the Music[/heading]
Be a solid composer who knows his craft.
As a film composer you will need to write quickly and with facility. You must be flexible and be able to capture a wide variety of moods on a deadline, which means you must have a big palette of colours at your disposal. How do you get that? Music theory and experience both musically and with writing to picture.
There will be no time to experiment under the gun and you won’t get a second chance.
Be a Dramatist
Writing film music is really about being an actor with notes. So make sure you understand story and character and how music plays a role in all that. (“Getting the Score” often deals with that very subject.)
Is is a good business decision to work on having a unique voice in your writing. You must stand out because there is a sea of composers out there. So knowing who you are musically is just as important as being flexible. It’s ideal when you can balance both. Although many have made a living being chameleons, you never notice chameleons, they blend in too well.
So the bottom line is, study, study, study.
Build quality contacts
Work on projects for new film makers to build your reel, but be a little picky at the same time. You can waste a lot of time saying yes to every project and have them go nowhere, and you right along with them.
Contacts are built by:
- Sending a demo – done mostly digitally now: it must impress and stand out since they get a lot everyday. (See above.) It must be custom tailored to their project.
- Following up on demos a week after.
- Get a face to face meeting if possible.
- Keep the relationship going and don’t just say hello when they have a project.
“Big follows small” is a law of marketing which also applies to self-promotion in film. Start with small films, build your resumé, and move up.
Do Good Work & Put it Out There
Being heard is important to build contacts. So put your music out there. Everywhere. The best place is in a film, but Facebook and other social media are also good. Don’t spam.
It’s About the Film
“We judge ourselves by what we believe we can do, others judge us but what we have done.”
I forget where I read this, but it’s the truth. Especially in film. Your credits will be important and filmmakers will hire you based on them.
Composers ride the wave of success and failure of a film, just like any other part of the creative team. So make sure you pick the best projects that are available to you.
If you don’t have any credits, look to the first point.
[heading]Third is the Work[/heading]
Know how to talk to film makers
You must understand everything you can about films: story, editing, directing, acting and especially story structure and screen writing. This is important in order to be a good dramatist (see first point) but also important to have meaningful discussions with the film makers.
Treat every director and his film like if it was Spielberg
Then you will get hired back.
Don’t be a Yes Man
Come prepared to spotting sessions, have opinions and ideas on how to make the score truly an asset for the film. They hire you for your expertise, so be an expert, bring something to the table and they will appreciate that, every time. Just don’t be a jerk.
Be a Good Listener
Yes, that goes right along with the point above. It’s your job to find the right balance between the two.
[divider top=”0″ style=”shadow”]
So there you have it, a short primer on getting started in film music. Like I wrote above, it’s not complete so please take the time to comment, ask questions and I will fill it out further.
The landscape of film is constantly changing, with the global recession and the state of pirating, this is true now more than ever.
I have been told more than once that mid-budget films are on the way out and it will either be very low budget or high budget. I don’t know if it’s true or not, I am no economic prognosticator. Others have told me that there needs to be a new model for making films, a more streamlined approach that brings the cost down and the quality up.
So either way this hints at a growing pool of films with low music budgets but high aspirations.
A great soundtrack can dramatically increase the production value of a film, and there is no better way to get a great score than with live musicians. The filmmakers might believe that they can only afford a score with samples and synths, but that is not the case.
Gone will be the army of orchestrators, assistants, mock-up artists and engravers. If the composer is trained (and has solid time-management skills) he can do his own orchestrations and score preparation as I have done many times. Some many even mix their music but I prefer hiring someone for that myself.
This is what I did for “Comforting Skin”, a film where the filmmakers thought they would only get a synth score, but I put together a group of 7 musicians, found a studio and engineer, did all the orchestrations and score preparation myself and ended up with a score that does not need to hide.
Budgets get higher with a full orchestra, but it does not need to be full orchestra all the time, just like you don’t need to see the full set all the time to know you are there, and this way costs go down.
But don’t forget, you can only pick two: cheap, fast or good.
A video of John Williams conducting the Train Chase from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade live with an orchestra.
This one is especially insightful as we get to see the streamers and punches used for synchronizing the music to the film during recording sessions.
This requires a very good sense of rhythm and solid baton technique.
This is something I did for a good many cues for my “Legend of Silk Boy” score, conducting the Evergreen Orchestra with streamers and punches to guide me. It was a challenge!
this is called “free conducting”, when not using clicks, and this is great for when the music is very rubato in feel and you wish to achieve a musical result. The click, when it comes to rubato, can make things feel very stiff.
However, for a rhythmic scene like this train chase, where the tempo is pretty steady throughout then clicks would work just as well I would imagine. On the other hand, free conducting allows orchestral musicians to listen to each other the way they normally do, to achieve intonation and phrasing. And if you use a group of musicians used to playing together then that is a real advantage.
So here’s the video!
When you see on-screen action (fighting, running etc…) the music tends to follow along in some way. It might hit some of the action or play along with some cool action music.
But when do you not follow the action?
I am currently scoring the feature film “Comforting Skin”, and there is a moment where a short fight occurs that did not need musical emphasis.
Without giving away too much, I can describe the scene this way: the protagonist has just revealed something important to her friend. This is a climactic moment in the film, an important part of the story’s arc, and the music is a part of it.
Then a secondary character attacks the friend from behind and a short and violent struggle ensues. (Only about 4 seconds of screen time.)
I initially tried music that followed along the short fight, a short burst of musical violence, but it was immediately clear that it didn’t work.
So I thought about it for a minute and asked myself some questions:
Q: This climactic moment is about who? What is important? What is this scene about? (All variations of the same question.)
A: The scene is about that climactic revelation between the two main characters who have the central relationship in the film. This moment is an important one in the arc of their relationship. It is not about that secondary character fighting.
Q: How does this fight relate to this moment?
A: It ties up that secondary character’s role in the story as she gets almost knocked unconscious, but does not affect the core of that scene.
With that in mind I wrote a cue which responded to the climactic reveal; light, ethereal, surreal music. And I played right through the short fight, completely ignoring it, and it worked wonderfully- because it made dramatic sense!
If music hit the action it would emphasize what was not important to that scene and would take away from the important story element.
So, what is the answer to: When should you not hit the action?
The answer is: When it is not driving the story.
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…
I am currently scoring a feature film called “Comforting Skin”. Right now I am in the planning stages, setting goals for the score and there is an approach I plan on taking I’d like to discuss here.
This is a dramatic piece with horror, suspense and some supernatural elements. Because of the genre, this is not going to be a big thematic score.
However, there will be motives and themes, and after reviewing the story and film and discussing it in detail with the director, part of my current plan is to have a theme or motive for “dread”.
Dread, this feeling of impending doom, is a main thematic element in the film, it is the drive of the story. (I am being simplistic in order to not give anything in the story away, but you get the idea.)
As the story advances, my plan is to have this motive, or theme, develop in length and strength. I will only hint at it at the start and it will gradually overtake everything.
It will be present when appropriate as other melodies or textures are played and will not be associated to any specific character.
The bottom line is this; a motive or theme doesn’t have to be associated to a character, place or event, but can be something that drives the tone, mood or a concept in the film.