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Working with filmmakers: a composer's view

 A Composers View

by Chris Joye

As a composer, working with a filmmaker can create a number of obstacles that need to be overcome in order to write music that satisfies both the filmmaker and the composer, and most importantly, contributes a meaningful voice to the film’s story. There are certain skills that a composer should develop so that these obstacles can be prevented from arising.

  • Interpreting simple adjectives into emotions and story-telling.

    In my experience as a film and television composer, working on feature films, documentaries, shorts, television commercials and pilot episodes, it is imperative for a composer to be able to interpret simple adjectives into emotions and, ultimately, compose music based on those adjectives and emotions that carries the story. For example, “calm”, “exciting”, “light”, “sympathetic”, or “mysterious” are all examples of adjectives a director may give me for a particular scene and, perhaps, for the mood they are trying to evoke. Many times filmmakers do not consider that there are many ways to convey these simple adjectives in music. Filmmakers are not typically musicians, and thus, may not be able to describe the exact shift in music that is necessary to reflect a change of mood for a particular scene, for example, from a minor to a major tonality. We, as composers, need to be able to interpret verbal, and sometimes vague, descriptions into our own understanding. Blindly composing music and hoping it will fit very rarely works, and so, gathering as much information on how the filmmaker feels the music should act before starting to write is very important. Even more important, however, is understanding the film’s story – a composer should read the script, watch the rough cut, and ask the filmmaker questions. Getting inside the story to understand the emotions, the characters, and the plot is essential to allowing the composer to tell the story through the music.

  • Understanding the requirements of a scene.

    A filmmaker may not have thoughts about what music would best be suited for their scene(s). For example, the filmmaker may not have a specific genre, tempo, emotion, or high and low points in mind, which means sometimes a composer must use his or her creative imagination to fill in the blank. Thus, another important skill a composer must develop is the ability to understand what a particular scene requires based on his or her past experiences, both musically and personally. One way to save time with a filmmaker is to listen back to some of your old music compositions, try to drop in a couple that seem appropriate as your own temporary ("temp") music tracks, and see how the filmmaker responds to your thoughts. If the response is positive, you will have a starting point for the music and can begin composing, without worrying that time spent composing will ultimately be wasted.

  • Working with temp tracks.

    Many filmmakers will have temp music in a scene already, to demonstrate what emotion or mood they are hoping to evoke, and/or, to aid in the pacing of the rough cut and editing process. Sometimes these temp tracks are extremely helpful in setting up your own composition. But an obstacle can arise when the filmmaker does not understand that it is not always feasible to recreate, for example, a Star Wars cue composed by John Williams into an original cue with a $500 budget and only one day of composing time, and also to make it sound as good, if not better. While composers may have a plethora of virtual instruments at their fingertips, creating "realistic" full orchestral MIDI mockups is extremely time consuming, and even still, will not sound like the real thing (e.g., as good as an actual orchestral recording of the composition). Explaining the realities of budget and time constraints at the outset of a project can help alleviate these misunderstandings.

Personally, I don't mind when a filmmaker provides temp music in a film. It allows me to save my own time and the filmmaker’s money by cutting back on potential revisions, because I can already determine the general (or specific) mood, tempo, or emotion that the filmmaker is trying to achieve. There remains something to be said, however, about not having any temp music—leaving it up to me and/or the filmmakers' specifics to create the perfect accompaniment—because it allows me to exploit my creativity, presents an exciting challenge, and can result in some outstanding, original results. Of course, it can also result in some time-consuming revisions if you have not had some in-depth conversions with the filmmaker prior to composing!

For those filmmakers who are working with a composer for the first time, be patient with the composer! Remember that whereas you may have been working on the film for months or years, the composer is just jumping into the project and attempting to help tell your story. Being able to convey the most amount of information to the composer on how you'd like the music to complement your film will ensure a smooth and timely post-production adventure, for what can otherwise be a tricky process. If time permits, obtain some music you feel would be appropriate for your film, or at the very least, brainstorm some adjectives that will convey to the composer the emotion you would like to evoke in your scenes.

For those composers who are just beginning on a film, be patient with the filmmaker! When discussing the type of music you will provide for your filmmaker, remember that you are working with someone who may have never thought about the composing process before, or, alternatively, who may have very set ideas on what the music should sound like. Gather as many adjectives as you can from the filmmaker on the scenes, and assimilate these into an overall concept before you start to write. And while creating skeletal sketches of the cues to send to the filmmaker for their opinions may sometimes work, keep in mind that a filmmaker may not be able to envision something as simple as a pizzicato bass part or a sustained string section, if it doesn’t exist in your sketch yet. You should also remember to learn the film. Ask for the script and any rough cuts that the filmmaker has developed. Keep in mind that if you are writing cues with a lot of sync points (where the music accentuates a point in the dialogue or action), you may need to wait until a more final cut is available, since even a simple edit of a few frames can force you to rewrite the entire cue, or to create an odd measure or tempo change that will throw your musical form off (both undesirable results).

Composers and filmmakers all approach this collaboration process in their own way, which means the “ideal” process will vary from project to project. Don’t be afraid to slowly develop what processes work best for you, while remaining flexible enough to work with all types of filmmakers. The best way for a composer to gain experience is to step in and start writing to picture.

 

Chris Joye
Chris Joye is a Denver-based film and television composer and multi-instrumentalist. A dual-major graduate of Berklee College of Music in Film Scoring and Bass Performance, he has credits in numerous feature films and documentaries, television and web commercials, and has music being licensed with companies such as Red Bull Media House UK, The New Yorker, MTV, and VH1. He is currently finishing his fifth album geared towards commercial licensing, composing for a feature film in Chicago in production and working on a number of web-based ads.