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Old February 24th, 2007, 01:46 AM   #1
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How to score a film with a professional composer/musician

Ok, I'm not sure whether this is the correct forum, but I have a a question about film scoring - any info any help would be appreciated.

I am in pre on my first big (feature-length) project, a documentary on the social, economic and educational realities of Richmond California. The feel of the docu is meant to be more artistic and feature-ish than the standard docu. I have just firmed up a deal for the film to be scored by a professional musician and composer (who is trained in too many styles/instruments to count). We will hopefully get studio time, so we dont have to record it ourselves. We will also be mixing in some old blues recordings for historical reasons. He is an immensely talented and creative musician and composer, on guitar, piano, cello, and violin, and proficient on flute, drums, clarinet etc. My point is he is very versatile - last week, he was composing a blues piece and a symphony. We will probably be going for blues/jazz feel to the music.

But I just realized I have no idea what exactly to ask him to do (he has scored an independent film before, but it was in the 70s so I doubt hisexperience will carry over ;).)

So I have this musician, but I don't know what to do with him. I was thinking of sitting him in front of the footage (maybe even the final cut) with his instrument and letting him go (like for Daed Man, but not quite as cool, cause he wont just record the whole take then and there, and he's not Neil Young). I know he'd perform well under this arrangement, though we certainly wouldn't record the final take during this first session, just let him get an idea. And he will certainly not be limited to one instrument (though I think it might be best to limit it to one or two instruments for the film). He can then go home wit the footage and compose/play around as he please. Is this a good way to go about it? Any other ideas?

Another question: For a documentary, is it distracting to have music under the interviews sometimes? We are recording and mastering the voices to have real presence so they wont be upstaged, but even so... Is it best only to have music in the transitions and non-interview sections? I know these are artistic decisions, but I want to know the opinions of a potential audience also well-versed in film-production.

Thanks for your help - sorry I'm so verbose.
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Old February 24th, 2007, 04:18 AM   #2
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I've used a composer on a couple of short dramas. On one we had temp tracks on the other only a temp opening music. I only played the film with the temp tracks once to him, so he could get a feel from where I was coming from. However, one big problem with temp tracks is that people tend to fall for them and it can be extremely difficult for them (especially funders) to get used to the idea that they'll be replaced.

The best thing might be just to talk to the composer about your film, it's subject matter and how you feel about the emotions being conveyed. You could take music that you feel gets close and play it to the composer and discuss it.

As to if you should play music over interviews - it's something that can either be annoying or work extremely well. If the interview extract is short there's little point in losing the rhythm of the film by cutting out the music, but on longer interview sections it can just get in the way. Usually with documentaries less is best in this regard - I always associate it with low budget day time television docs where a dog has just died.

My composer also gave me some choices, which we discussed before he did the final soundtrack.
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Old February 24th, 2007, 05:39 AM   #3
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Brian, thank you for the response. I had actually not considered a temp score to show the composer. I was thinking just bare footage (or rough or, ideally, final cut) to give him the idea of the film, and for him to respond to it. Thank you, its a good idea.

I obviously plan to talk to him about the film, but I want a clear idea of what kind of score I want from him first. ie, do I want just little bits to fill, or a full score.

Yes, I realize that the music over interviews can be a disaster.

Thank you.
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Old February 24th, 2007, 05:48 AM   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Brian Orser
...
So I have this musician, but I don't know what to do with him. I was thinking of sitting him in front of the footage (maybe even the final cut) with his instrument and letting him go ...Any other ideas?

Another question: For a documentary, is it distracting to have music under the interviews sometimes? We are recording and mastering the voices to have real presence so they wont be upstaged, but even so... Is it best only to have music in the transitions and non-interview sections? I know these are artistic decisions, but I want to know the opinions of a potential audience also well-versed in film-production.

...
While you might let your composer view the raw footage and/or rough cut to get the feel of the show, he really can't compose much and certainly can't record until the picture edit is locked down since the flow of the images will determine the rhythm and tempo of his music.

IMHO, music under interviews where we're seeing the speaker on the screen would be a distraction unless the interview is in a location where some ambient musical background makes sense (a brass band in the distance if you're interviewing a circus clown just after he leaves the ring at a performance, for instance). OTOH, if you're doing regular sitdown interviews and you cut away from the subject to show us what he's talking about, bringing up some music just before the cutaway and running it in BG as the interview continues VO, fading it up a bit during long'ish pauses in the speech and back down to background again as he resumes talking and then fading the music out as we come back into the interview set and see the speaker once more might make for a nice smooth flow.
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Old February 24th, 2007, 06:28 AM   #5
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Hi Brian,

I can only speak for myself (a composer first and foremost) as everyone works differently but as (other) Brian says temp tracks can be invaluable to a composer but ONLY if they accurately convey the feel you are striving for in a particular scene - make sure you aren't leading him a merry dance. This happens an awful lot, especially if the director isn't able to discuss things in musical terms. Interpreting director's comments is something that experienced composers become very used to - "I need this music to be more purple" etc. - but solid audio ideas are much easier to grasp, just take your time to get them right. Quite often producers throw music on because it's the right tempo or in the right key but that doesn't really help that much.

Without a temp track, there are just so many ways in which any scene could be interpreted musically, so many styles and instruments that could work, that the composer can end up wasting valuable time conjuring endless variations for every cue. But you also have to remain flexible and trust the person you have commissioned to do the work. Of course, he can't copy the temp tracks outright, so be prepared to let go of them and use them only as a guide. Another advantage of using temp tracks is that you can get on with editing and therefore by the end of the first cut you will know exactly how much music you require and have a good idea of the pace etc.

The more you can give the composer to work with the better. That means audio clues, storyboards, scripts, graphics, rough cuts or preferrably a fine cut with your own notes regarding interpretation and visualisation. The problem is always that if you are only providing a fine cut for music to be added to, there is little time for the composer to complete the score before the final dub. Best to get him some rough cuts so he can get some cues and ideas together, then he will usually have to go back and rework them a little to fit the final film, but the hard work is done - you know what to expect and he knows that you will be happy with the basic compositions.

To get him to compose music on the spot at the first viewing seems a bit mean to me - I certainly wouldn't be too comfortable with that, though I'm more of a composer and less of a performer. I prefer to fully discuss and digest the material and then go for a long walk to allow the ideas to come before locking myself in the studio until the early hours in order to tease them out into something the director can appreciate. But again everyone works differently. You just don't want to rush the initial phase and make your composer feel uncomfortable, find out how he works best.

If I understood you correctly, I'm surprised in this day and age that your composer doesn't have his own recording facilities. You will need to ensure you are happy with what he is doing before going into the studio, otherwise it could all get very messy and expensive.

Both Brian and Steve have chipped in regarding the editing of music to interviews and I concur - nothing more to add there.

Good luck with it - sounds like a fun project.

Colin
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Old February 24th, 2007, 06:35 AM   #6
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If you give him roughs to cut music to, let him know that the cuts may change in length in the fine cut. This should change the way he composes.

All of the sound eventually gets put together in one "composition." He will need to hear dialog and effects so he can stay out of the way or enhance.

Regards,

Ty Ford
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Old February 24th, 2007, 08:50 AM   #7
 
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Colin Willsher
Hi Brian,

I can only speak for myself (a composer first and foremost) as everyone works differently but as (other) Brian says temp tracks can be invaluable to a composer but ONLY if they accurately convey the feel you are striving for in a particular scene - make sure you aren't leading him a merry dance. This happens an awful lot, especially if the director isn't able to discuss things in musical terms. Interpreting director's comments is something that experienced composers become very used to - "I need this music to be more purple" etc. - but solid audio ideas are much easier to grasp, just take your time to get them right. Quite often producers throw music on because it's the right tempo or in the right key but that doesn't really help that much.

Without a temp track, there are just so many ways in which any scene could be interpreted musically, so many styles and instruments that could work, that the composer can end up wasting valuable time conjuring endless variations for every cue. But you also have to remain flexible and trust the person you have commissioned to do the work. Of course, he can't copy the temp tracks outright, so be prepared to let go of them and use them only as a guide. Another advantage of using temp tracks is that you can get on with editing and therefore by the end of the first cut you will know exactly how much music you require and have a good idea of the pace etc.

The more you can give the composer to work with the better. That means audio clues, storyboards, scripts, graphics, rough cuts or preferrably a fine cut with your own notes regarding interpretation and visualisation. The problem is always that if you are only providing a fine cut for music to be added to, there is little time for the composer to complete the score before the final dub. Best to get him some rough cuts so he can get some cues and ideas together, then he will usually have to go back and rework them a little to fit the final film, but the hard work is done - you know what to expect and he knows that you will be happy with the basic compositions.

To get him to compose music on the spot at the first viewing seems a bit mean to me - I certainly wouldn't be too comfortable with that, though I'm more of a composer and less of a performer. I prefer to fully discuss and digest the material and then go for a long walk to allow the ideas to come before locking myself in the studio until the early hours in order to tease them out into something the director can appreciate. But again everyone works differently. You just don't want to rush the initial phase and make your composer feel uncomfortable, find out how he works best.

If I understood you correctly, I'm surprised in this day and age that your composer doesn't have his own recording facilities. You will need to ensure you are happy with what he is doing before going into the studio, otherwise it could all get very messy and expensive.

Both Brian and Steve have chipped in regarding the editing of music to interviews and I concur - nothing more to add there.

Good luck with it - sounds like a fun project.

Colin
This should be given the "Post of the Week" award.
Well said. As a composer, it's amazing what editors think they want, what they expect, how fast they want it, how little they communicate it, etc.
Then there is the director that uses temp music, becomes attached to it, and wants the composer to rewrite the same piece rather than create a piece that better fits it. Therein alone lies the difference between working with Ken Burns and Ric Burns. Ric understands that the composer is a co-creator of an ambience, a spirit, a moment. There is a symbiotic partnership that needs to take place at some level.
As with any other relationship, the more you communicate, the better off everyone will be. The more complete the picture, whether verbal or visual, the easier the composer's job will become.
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Old February 24th, 2007, 03:27 PM   #8
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Originally Posted by Douglas Spotted Eagle
This should be given the "Post of the Week" award.
Ha! Thanks Doug. What's the prize? :o)

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Old February 24th, 2007, 03:49 PM   #9
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I'm also a composer. and Colin makes some great points. He also says "...as everyone works differently...", which is quite true. Here's my preference...

Regarding temp tracks, I prefer not to hear them. The risk is that it pigeon-holes the music. Many moons ago my son made a film that used copyrighted music (he was in HS at the time.) I recently composed something *completely* different than the temp, and we both agree it works much, much better. So, my personal recommendation is to *use the temp track for editing*, but not as a specific direction for the composer.

On the other hand, if the first version of the music stinks, play the temp track and let him know that you'd prefer something like that.

One common mistake that my son makes when editing without a temp track is that he sometimes enters a scene and shows some immediate action. Sometimes it's much more effective for the music to build some tension, give the audience a moment to grok the situation, then show the action - possibly as the music goes silent. If there's no time to establish a scene, there's no time to play any establishing music. Using a temp track can help the editor to avoid that problem.

All right. Timiing. It's okay to give some rough edits. Just don't expect the roughs to lead to any finished music. Maybe the composer will get a chance to think about the orchestration or a theme, but he shouldn't do much more than that until the picture is "locked". Maybe he'll rough out a few bars and ask you what you think, so you can get on the same page, stylewise, before the schedule crunch hits.

Once the picture is locked, it's time for the spotting session. You should have all of the dialog included, as well as important foley or special effects. (You don't need all of the sfx, just key events like gunshots, roars and other stuff you won't do in a documentary.) If you can do a print with on-screen timecode, that's best. You want a common and locked timing reference.

During the spotting session you decide where there will and won't be music. Each segment is called a "cue". You create a cue sheet that lists start and end times for each cue. The cues can be delivered one at a time. The cue sheet is not just for spotting the music, but for tracking copyright and royalties down the road.

Regarding instructions there are three levels:
1) The overall feeling/style/vibe of the film. Communicate your premise, your vision, the themes, the story, the overall arc, the characters/people etc. The very best way to communicate the type of music you want is to identify the composer or movie that you think is closest to your vision. If I say Star Wars or Napoleon Dynamite, you know exactly what I mean.

2) The style of each cue. You might want blues in one cue and an emotionally soaring orchestral sound for the next. Again, mention composers, movies, CDs, songs or whatever. The composer might offer suggestions. Listen, but don't lose sight that it's your film and vision. If his idea matches the vision, go for it. If not, don't be shy.

3) The emotional arc of each cue. This is often the most important aspect of a good score. A character might enter the scene full of bluster, yet break down in tears by the scene's end. Clearly identify the emotional changes and the note the timecodes. This may not be as critical for a documentary underscore, but if the blues music peaks and fades at just the right times, it will be much more powerful than any but the most lucky temp music.

Item 3 is the main reason to hire a composer. (That and the copyright thing.) Talk about moods and emotion, not musical style or terms for the arc of each cue.

Before the composer leaves, talk schedule. Let him know that you want to get the individual cues back as soon as they are done. That way you can get him good feedback quickly - and replace him quickly if it doesn't work out (unlikely, but possible). Also talk about delivery formats, and if you want him to deliver mixed music, or the independent "stems" (sub-mixes).

The composer should leave with a detailed cue sheet, a locked version of the film with timecode, a clear schedule and a clear understanding of the delivery format.

The next step... leave him alone.

TV composers often complete 4 minutes (or even more) of finished music per *full* day. That's full throttle. Expect less. Two minutes a day would be good. Less than one would be a problem. That should help you set a reasonable schedule.

Best of luck!
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Old March 12th, 2007, 09:06 PM   #10
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Wow you guys. Thanks a lot. I'm so sorry I haven't checked for your answers until now. I was really busy.

I don't have time to address everything, but I'll take everything into account. Thank you very much. Very informative.

Once again, thank you.

Brian Orser
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