8 IMPORTANT TIPS ON WRITING MUSIC FOR FILMS WHEN YOU FORGET HOW TO DO IT

Every composer knows this feeling. You just successfully finished scoring your last film and then another one brought to your table. Seemingly, the process should be easy hence you just finished scoring one. However it feels like you forgot how it supposed to be done and how you have previously done it. If ‘how the hell have I done it before and from where I’m supposed to start now’ is a question you found yourself asking at least once, here are 8 tips that will help you remember from where to start.

First thing first, there is no such thing as ‘a correct’ way to score a film. Every composer has his own technics of scoring a film and each of them can be super-efficient for one but dreadfully inefficient to the other. James Newton Howard once said “I wish I had some great words of advice. The only advice I have ever been able to give anybody is to focus on writing music, and if you’re writing a movie score particularly, don’t worry about the picture. Just write great music and the rest will take care of itself”. We will get back to James’ words slightly later to show you how right he is, but maybe most important – why. Before being able to just focus on the music there are couple of things to clear out first. Let’s begin:

1. Never skip the spotting session – to cut a long story short, spotting session is a meeting session with the director, the music supervisor etc., in which you sit in front of the movie and talk about the film, the music, the game from last Sunday, the characters in the movie and their stories, general ideas for the music etc. Why is it so important? Because that is the time and place you learn about what the director wants, his thoughts and expectations, and about his general vision of the music for the film. So what is the information you will want to receive during the spotting session:

  • What kind of film is it? It sounds obvious but actually it can be very tricky: This Is The End (2013), the horror-comedy feature directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, was beautifully scored by Henry Jackman. On one of his interviews he said that although this is a comedy it isn’t actually sound like one. By listening to the music itself you would never guess that this is actually a comedy feature film. This example can be given for almost every film out there, so first thing is to stress up the attitude of the music.
  • Is there a preferred music style? Or is there a specific music style which is not welcome?
  • What is the deadline for handing over the final score file?
  • What is the budget?
  • Which scenes will include music and which are not (sometimes tend to change)?
  • What are the subtexts in each scene?

And those are only the tip of the iceberg. Oh and here is another small but important tip for you: never forget the film producer; he is the one who control the project and it is quite a bad idea to put his thoughts and ideas aside, once he brought them up – at least if you will ever want to cooperate with him again in the future.

2. Making time marks in your project file and writing timing notes in the Master Cue Sheet – A Master Cue Sheet is a worksheet we use to list the scenes we are about to score. In this worksheet, we have details such as where this scene is located in the movie, beginning and end time of when the music should kick in and out, and also important notes about the cues. Next step is to go back to your project file (using Cubsae, Protools, Logic Pro etc.) and mark those beginning and end points in the movie file itself. That way we won’t have to go back every now and then to look for those details and could only focus on making great music. Wait, we are not through yet. Inside of those time frames, it is very important to mark your vision regarding on how to address each scene, meaning how you will address the changes that occurring in the scene or a sequence of scenes. For example, let’s say that we have a scene in which our hero runs in the streets while it’s raining, in the middle of a New York traffic jam, only after he found out that the girl he loves is in trouble (sounds lousy, yeah I know). Now let’s say that the filming angles and the rhythm of those shots are changing every couple of seconds; in the first shot we see our hero leaves his car behind and start running from the side of the street, then in the second shot we see the whole big picture from above, and then in the third we see him in sort of close-up running as fast as he can between the cars. You can choose rather to compose flat music that will accompany the whole scene from beginning to end, or you could divide those segments in the scene by composing a dynamic cue which will change slightly in rhythm, attitude and even tempo according to the changes in the picture. Normally it would depend on the weight and attitude of the music that the film requires, but further to our example let’s talk about the second possibility. How do you plan this dynamic music to run through the entire scene? Simply by delimiting those segments’ time frames. You can use a sound like a single drum, and you then mark the beginning and end points of each segment. Now you have the ability to focus only on writing a suitable music to those segments, and to be synchronized with all the changes going on the screen without having to literally be destructed by messing around with the picture.

3. Full understanding of the scenes and subtext – It is immensely important to truly understand the movie, the scenes and its subtext, before you start writing even one note. This is actually rule number one: know the story, the dilemmas of the characters, their stories, what are the things that keep them going, what motivate them, what is the meaning of each face or reaction they do in the scenes, is there any subtext going on and how it inflects on the story or the other characters involved etc. There is a lot to know when it comes to scoring a film but understanding the dramatic is maybe the most important one. Composer Frank Ilfman said: “To convey emotions through music that touch the listener and ultimately unite the whole film, you must have a sense for the dramatic. You need to feel the music, not just hear it. That’s where the real gift is”. Composer Haim Mazar, who scored The IceMan, an American crime thriller film based on the true story of longtime notorious hitman Richard Kuklinski, told on one of his interviews that the score he wrote for The Iceman, defines the two aspects of Richard Kuklinski’s life: the Cello tells the story of Richard’s the family man, while the electric sounds tells the story of his career as a hitman. The understanding will help you with pouring content in the form of music into those time frame segments which I have wrote about in the last section. Bottom line is, the director will fall in love with the great music you will ultimately write, only because all the information you have collected through the entire process, suddenly came together and brought you to this creation.

4. Finding a great idea – It can be a main theme as it can be also short cues, intriguing sounds etc., that speak in the same language, attitude and the tone of the movie. Sitting in front of the film with the keyboard next to you but without having a basic idea of what you are about to try next, can turn out to be a perfect recipe for time wasting. Scoring a film can be a very horrifying process as it is for a composer, so sitting around while playing freestyle hoping to luckily fall on some nice tunes is simply to relay on luck. In other words, delimit the scenes you about to work on, know everything you can about the movie, know what the director wants, and then sit down and try to come up with great ideas that will take you further in the process. One of the best methods that I tend to use, after having as many information as I possibly can about the movie and the story, is to simply imagine myself in the shoes of the people in the scene. It can be the good guy, the bad guys, and even a crazy old lady who is being targeted for assassination efforts by Tom Hanks (The Ladykillers for anyone who has not watched the movie). Mark my words: Everyone has his own life soundtrack; we all hear music in our heads in almost any event or situation in our life – and so are the characters in the films we work on. The only trick is to find their certain music.

5. Focus on the music, not the film – So you had the spotting session, you now have that long list of the Master Cue Sheet, you have delimit the scenes and its segments, you have a really good understanding of the film, and even has a super great ideas on how the movie should be sound like. Great. Now forget about the film and start focusing on the music. Just like the quote of James Newton Howard from above, “…don’t worry about the picture. Just write great music and the rest will take care of itself”. Once you have all the pieces together all you need is to feel the music and you will see that it will work out fine. It is also brings me to the next section:

6. Work ‘restrictions clean’ – Choose two or three main scenes, those that you feel will be easier for you to start from. When you start putting all of your ideas into them, put aside any form of restrictions; mute the metronome, take off your quantize option, and just feel the music. Having any sorts of restrictions can block you from having full control and full attention to the most important thing in this business – writing music and fast. Working ‘restrictions clean’ will also help you to translate the emotions you feel while playing the music into the screen, and that is a gold winning ticket for a composer. After having the main idea of the melody, you can start shape it into a full music cue and to make any needed changes until you feel you nailed the scene.

7. Reuse the main theme more than once – The main theme of a movie is its musical signature. Movies can be amazing also with only a nice soundtrack; but a great soundtrack can turn the film to be memorable. For me, a great soundtrack has always been one that even hours after living the cinema I can still hear the music playing in my head. In order to etch the main theme in the people’s minds, there should be several references of the main theme, in different variations, along the entire film. For the convenience of the demonstration, let’s make up an action film; Bamm, Universal Studios’ logo went on the screen and the main theme starts to kick in. Through the next couple of minutes, while the opening titles are still running and the first action sequence run on the screen, the powerful main theme is still playing. Let’s go 15 minutes into the film; there’s a chase, an upbeat music plays in the background, something surprising happens and then there is a brief jump to the main theme melody and back to the previous up beat cue. Let’s go another 40 minutes into the movie; the partner of our poor hero gets killed by the bad guy. Our hero finds an old picture at his partner’s house of some fishing trip they went together years ago (damn, I won’t be a screen writer after all) and suddenly the main part of the main theme starts playing in a very different style and tempo to fit the situation and mood of the picture. This example can be found in many great movie titles along the years, such as The Rock, Speed, Point Of No Return, Days Of Thunder, Titanic, Home Alone, Jurassic Park, Bad Boys 1 etc. Look at it this way; if your main theme is very catchy, after 90 minutes (at least) of hearing parts of a very catchy main theme over and over again – people will hum your music all the way back home if they want it or not.

8. Conformance testing – Always keep in mind that our job as composers for visual media is to tell a story, define it correctly and then present it in a way that will highlight the movie and will make it even better. What we don’t want is the music to take over and by that destroying all the hard work of the people who worked on it. That is why it is important once in a while to do a conformance testing. Meaning we turn back to the beginning and watching the cut with the music without stopping. Sometimes when we are inside of a project too long it gets easy to be blurred about how the music reacts with a scene. Sometimes, while doing this test, you will suddenly find out that something won’t necessarily work for you in one of the first scenes as it has been earlier, and you will have to find solutions to bring back the same magic you felt back then. Most of the times the director will be a fair checks and balances factor for you, so scenarios like that often won’t happen so much. But it is still recommended to do that at least once or twice during the whole process.

That’s it for now. I hope I succeeded a bit to illuminate the darkness for you. Keep the great music rolling.