In the DVD featurette about the music of Spider Man 1, Tobey McGuire says that Danny Elfman’s music is good because it is “not noticed” and that this is the best compliment you can give the composer of a film score.
I forget which great golden age composer it was who said something like “if music is not meant to be noticed, then why do we bother writing it?”
What I think Tobey meant was this; film music is great when it fits the film so perfectly that it feels completely natural.
This is a very important distinction.
When music is the perfect fit for a scene it becomes part of the whole film experience, which is there to support the story. Just like the sets, set dressing, costumes, lighting and acting.
None of these other elements “disappear” or are not “seen” by the audience. Actually if they are not seen or relegated too much to the background, then they cannot serve their purpose, which is to support the story!
The danger with Tobey’s statement is to think that a good score should not be noticed, and to take that at face value, which can negatively influence the presence of the score in the mix.
The bottom line is this; in order for film music to be effective and support the story, it should be noticed!!!
In last week’ s post, Scooby Doo showed us that melody is still an important asset to a production at any level.
One of the challenges is when to present your melodies and when not to. A common fear among directors is that melody will interfere with the dialogue.
Of course it is crucial for the dialogue to be well understood, but melody doesn’t get in the way like you would imagine when you are first listening to a composers demo or when doing the final mix, times when you focus your attention too much on the music.
Here is a recent example.
The great film “Memoirs of a Geisha” opens with a narration, a voice-over by Sayuri as an old woman. Under this voice-over her theme is played on cello with a light wind accompaniment.
The Sayuri theme is beautiful, melodic and distinct, yet it does not interfere with the words. (And music with voice-overs is a particular challenge since the audience does not have the lips and gestures to reinforce the words.)
Ask yourself, did any of you notice the music there when you were first watching the film? Did it detract from the narration? Of course not, since you were listening as audience members.
But now that I have drawn your attention to this, if you were to watch this scene you would listen to the theme more and start focusing on it with a film maker’s ear, and might say “there should be no melody here, I am listening to it instead of the narration.”
What decision would you have made if you had heard this melody as a demo from the composer or during the mixing session?
I asked my wife after she watched that opening scene if she heard the music. She said yes, sure. Did she hear the narration? Well, yeah… of course.
Melody under narration and dialogue works prefectly well. The audience’s mind can take both in simultaneously.
As filmmakers, it is important to listen to the music being put in your film from the audience’s perspective. It is wise to not focus on the music entirely either during a demo presentation or during mixing, but on the dialogue or the action, because that is always where your audience will be focused as well.
And when in doubt, put melody! A good melody makes music more memorable, approachable and likable, all of which can only make your film better.
A director friend sent me this video from The Battle of Britain. In this clip there are no sound effects, only music!
This got me wondering: what is more important, music or sound effects?
The decision is context-dependent, of course, but in an action scene like one, what would you say creates a more visceral gut reaction from the audience: an orchestra pumping away this incredible action music or the sounds of planes, guns and explosions?
Personally, I like both. I found this scene felt odd without the sound effects, but these days things have gone the opposite way and sound effects drown out the music almost entirely.
This is what I think: we all know what running feet sound like, guns, explosions and all other elements of an action scene, but we have never heard the music score which is unique to any given film.
So I think the music should be mixed clearly and the effects mixed lower so that they don’t drown out the music but are still audible.
We only need an impression of the sound effects for them to be understood by our ear, but not so with the music.
That’s what they did in Indiana Jones 3 during the tank chase scene, for example. The tank effects tracks never drowned out the music, even though the action occurred right next to the tank and even on the tank!
I believe in the magic of music and image, that it is a special element of film making.
If I dare say, the sound effects add the realism, make us believe what we see on the screen. but it is the music that brings the magic.
But I am a bit biased!