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Timings Part I: Breaking it down

So what does a composer do after the spotting session?

Well, spotting notes are written up by the music editor (or composer on smaller projects) and then a copy is given to the composer and the director.

Here’s an example of spotting notes from a film I scored called “The Citizen.”

The important elements of spotting notes are; start and end timings, the duration of each cue to calculate the amount of score to be written, and a short resume of what was discussed during the spotting session.

From the spotting notes detailed timing sheets are written up by the music editor (or composer), which will then be used by the composer as a reference for all his timings.

The timing sheets provide a detailed description of the scene to be scored including all elements which might require a musical response (cuts, actions, dialogue etc.) along with the related timings in the hundredths of a second.

Here is an example of a breakdown sheet from a film I scored called “Say Yes.”

Now, I don’t know how many composers still use timing sheets, especially since many of them don’t even write a single note on paper, usually just playing right along to the image.

But personally, I find a lot of benefit to actually writing out my own timing sheets whenever I can. (And I also still write the vast majority of every score on paper first.)

In order to write a timing sheet for a given cue, I have to pay attention to everything that is significant;  looks, dialogue, subtext, plot points, cuts, pans, actions, whatever, and then I slow it down in order to get the exact timings!

Nothing can get you into the heart of a scene more than writing some spotting notes!

Another reason why I like spotting notes, as you can see from the scan above, is that I like to jot down notes on the timing sheet itself – notes, ideas and thoughts, and I also use horizontal lines to find the form of the scene which will give direction to the musical flow.



The Spotting Session – definition

The spotting session is when a director and composer get together to watch the film and decide where the music is going to be and what it’s going to do. This occurs before the composer starts writing the music.

People present should be the director, the composer, the music editor and perhaps the producer.

Many composers like to see the movie before a spotting session, I know I do. That way the composer is better prepared to bring well thought out ideas and insights which leads to a more productive and meaningful exchange between the director and composer.

A composer who knows his stuff, understands film music and has a strong grasp of storytelling is worth his weight in gold here. I mean, let’s face it, a director needs someone he can count on and the spotting session is where the foundation for the score gets laid.

Exact SMPTE time codes for the entry and exit points of each cue need to be written down. This provides the total number of cues and duration of the score to be written, an important element of time management for any project.

So, where should a music cue start?

  • At the start of a new act
  • At the start of a scene
  • On an emotional beat
  • Anywhere you can imagine…

The possibilities for the entrance of a music cue are as endless as there are stories to be told! And furthermore, it is an aesthetic decision (meaning it is open to personal interpretation) so it is impossible to set it down in a list. Spotting will be the subject of many future blog entries.

Spotting a movie is an art that requires the following:

  • Knowledge of story telling in film
  • A solid understanding of the story being told
  • Awareness (on the composer’s part) of directorial an editorial decisions
  • Understanding off what music can bring to a scene

(And by the way, good spotting is not just where the music is present, of course, but where it is absent.)

Finding the entrance and exit of a cue is the easy part, the hard part is deciding what the music will do during that time period!

I can’t give you a list of all that music can bring to a scene here, but I can say this.

  • Consider the arc of the film, not just the scene as an isolated event.
  • Avoid discussing musical specifics
  • Discuss what the music should do as if the composer was an actor

The length of a spotting session varies, but I personally like to take as much time needed to really pick the brain of the director so I can fully understand the story, the film and the director’s intent.

At the end of the session I always want to be 100% clear on what the director’s goals are for the film. I also want to have a vision of what I can bring musically to the film and to have expressed that as clearly as possible so that the director and I are on the same page.

Having a clear vision for the score, a mutual understanding and trust, and knowing how much work there needs to be done, those are the goals of the spotting session.

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