Composers Confab: Creating The Best Score For Your Film
By Lisa Leeman
One overlooked, but quite crucial element in a documentary, is its music. A well-crafted score can make a difference in the shape, mood, pacing, emotional texture and character of a film. And the right chemistry between filmmaker and composer can help achieve that full-bodied, visceral cinematic experience that we all yearn for as audience members.
Documentary gathered some top film composers--all of whom have worked in a variety of genres including documentary--to talk about working in nonfiction, the collaborative process, the challenges of working around and against a temp score, the final mix, as well as the nuts and bolts of budgeting and scheduling.
The bottom line is communication--for filmmakers, knowing what you want for your documentary; for composers, having that visceral sense and creative drive to complement that cinematic vision with a strong sonic foundation.
Mark Adler, Jeff Beal, Miriam Cutler, Peter Davison, Joel Goodman and Camara Kambon represent a wide range of experience and award-winning work. Adler (www.markadler.com) graduated from UCLA film school, and his documentary credits include the theme for American Experience, Arthur Dong's Hollywood Chinese, Ellen Perry's The Fall of Fujimori and Richard Keller's Two Days in October. Beal (www.jeffbeal.com), a graduate of the Eastman School of Music, has collaborated with Jessica Yu on In the Realms of the Unreal and Protagonist, and won an Emmy for his score for Peggy and Dorothy, which aired on NBC as part of the 2002 Winter Olympics. Cutler (www.miriamcutler.com) composed the scores for Rory Kennedy's Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, Katharina Otto's Absolute Wilson, Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's Lost in La Mancha, Arlene Nelson and David Nelson's Positively Naked, among many other credits. Davison's credits (www.peterdavison.com) include, among others, several series for PBS, such as Our Families, Ourselves; Inside Out; The Unfinished Nation and The Endless Voyage; and feature docs that aired on Bravo (Smothered-The Biography of the Smothers Brothers); History Channel (Escape: Tales of Suspense); and A&E (Mary Magdalene). Goodman (www.joelgoodman.com) has a plethora of prominent documentaries to his credit-Jean-Xavier Lestrade's The Staircase, Irene Taylor Brodsky's Hear And Now, Oren Jacoby's Constantine's Sword, Linda Hattendorf's The Cats of Mirikitani, Alice Elliott's The Collector of Bedford Street, among others. Kambon (www.inflx.net) has created scores for La Corona (Amanda Micheli and Isabel Vega), Citizen King (Orlando Bagwell), Malcolm X: Make It Plain (Orlando Bagwell), This Far by Faith (Noland Walker) and OJ: A Study in Black and White (Marcia Smith).
Composing for Docs
Lisa Leeman: You all have really impressive careers; you've all worked in many different genres--fiction, theatrical, TV, one-offs, series, orchestrals, CDs. So what is specific to documentaries and specifically challenging to documentaries in the scoring process?
Joel Goodman: In fiction, you have somebody who's writing the story, you have a dramatic thread, you know how it's going to end. In documentary you may watch the whole film and know how it's going to end, but you need to bring out the drama.
On the other hand, you're going to get a lot of directors and producers who will tell you, "Don't bring up the drama; we want something that just creates more of a subtle mood." And in a very subtle way you're taking the audience and putting them in a different place on how they interpret something.
It depends on who you work with. Every producer and director is different.
Miriam Cutler: The other thing about documentaries, I always feel this incredible responsibility to be very heartfelt and pure in my approach, because this is somebody's real story. I try to use the craft of music to express what the beats of the film are, to find a truth with that and to always respect the fact that these characters are living people and they've been incredibly brave.
That's one of the reasons I love to work with live musicians; you can bring more emotional content. You have this cumulative affect of these honest, pure, heartfelt performances building on each other to create a bigger truth, something that really resonates with an audience.
Mark Adler: One distinction between scoring for documentaries and scoring for dramatic films is that in a dramatic film you have suspension of disbelief working for you. Everybody knows they're actors, it's a script, the camera was placed there consciously, there were multiple takes.
And that's not the case with a documentary. And very often the one "artifice" that is at least detectable by the audience is the music. And that makes scoring documentaries a much, much tougher job. I think people's threshold of what they'll accept is much, much higher.
LL: I don't think it's just audiences. I think filmmakers are often scared of too much music or the music being too big.
MA: And I think they should be. The filmmaker is the first audience, and the composer is their first audience.
Peter Davison: We are sort of generalizing here because there can be historical documentaries, documentaries about one specific person, and each one is going to take a different musical approach. Documentary films are real life, and if you have something happening, even if it's a ten-minute cut of somebody doing something, and if you suddenly score that, it's not real anymore. A lot of directors have said, "This is taking me out of the picture because suddenly there's all this music here and I don't know what it is." So I think spotting is very crucial in documentary films.
Camara Kambon: I find it hard to make a generalization with documentaries and features. But when I compose and I'm in the process of dealing with musicians, how I interact with the movie, how I interact with the characters is all the same. What I try to do is really connect. There's a specific sound that directors are coming to me for. Although instrumentation may change, orchestration may change, context may change, the sentiment behind it is all the same. What I want to do is always come with integrity, with passion.
Jeff Beal: I was a fellow at the Sundance lab a couple years ago with a colleague, and I put out this thesis that I think documentary scoring is really a different animal creatively. And we had a pretty strong disagreement about it. He said, "No, it's exactly the same thing; you're solving dramatic problems and putting a musical voice to it."
I've found that a lot of the documentary films I've done have actually been more heavily scored than some dramatic things I've done. And I think part of the reason that's happened is that a lot of times in a narrative feature the spotting is very particularly motivated by a performance or a moment in the script that is very much contrived to elicit a direct emotion. Where a lot of the times when you're trying to be a little more covert about the relationship of the music to the piece of film, you can have longer stretches of music, and the music can be a parallel track with its own personality and attitude that's not necessarily hitting every beat in the story like a film score would, but is also motoring the audience through the movie and hopefully making your emotional point.
None of us would say we're fans of the wallpaper school of scoring, and obviously certain films are beautiful with very little music. But part of what I find interesting about writing for documentaries is that you have more places you can go that aren't the same choices you might make if you were scoring the more narrative pieces.
LL: Do you think there's more freedom in documentary scoring?
JB: I think audiences and directors are embracing the idea of music. I don't know if there's more freedom, but documentary is an area of filmmaking where there's a lot of creative experimentation.
MC: What's happening is because you don't have the studios involved, there are a lot more independent films. I work primarily in independent docs, and the reason I do is, I love the freedom. It's between me and the filmmakers, and that's the end of the story. There's no marketing, there's no testing, there's none of that. They've left us alone because the money involved is much smaller.
What you have is this complete commitment to the creative expression and the truth. And the thing about docs, they can really surprise you. No one can write this stuff.
The Process: When to Bring on Your Composer
LL: Let's talk about process. Different composers like to get involved with projects at different stages. A few composers I know will get involved while you're cutting and will develop themes, and it becomes a synergistic thing back and forth. Others don't want to see a thing until rough cut or fine cut or locked picture.
JB: I'm definitely in the "in as early as possible" camp. I have enjoyed the fact that a lot of documentaries have existed for a longer period; not only was I involved earlier in the process but by being involved earlier I had a longer time to conceive of the music.
And I don't always use that extra time to write; I use the extra time to think. You can't speed up the process of just ruminating on something creatively. I was thinking about what Miriam said about the luxury of not having a big budget and not having that pressure. One of the other luxuries is having this intimacy and time with the filmmaker.
The technology that a composer uses has changed so much that instead of just being relegated to those last three or four weeks of production, I love the idea of feeling much more like a fellow filmmaker. I feel sometimes the presence of music will help inform editing or storytelling choices in a way that a filmmaker's very appreciative of. Without that early chance to have a composer onboard, that interaction wouldn't happen in that way because things have already been decided, or the picture's been locked.
PD: I also like to come in as early as possible, maybe while the editing is happening, and start playing ideas for the director and producer. I'm not so fond of scoring to a rough cut. You do all this scoring and you get it all just right and the timing's just right, and then you get the fine cut and it's, "Well, can we change this little thing here and this bit?" Suddenly, your music's starting to go all over the place! So I prefer to write to the hard locked picture to do the actual scoring.
But I do enjoy feeling like I'm part of the creative process of the film itself. You can feel much more that way if you're brought in early on and get to sit with the editor and watch things.
And one of the things that I enjoy is there's just the person who's making the documentary itself, and the editor who come to your studio and listen to what you've done. It's a lot more productive and you can move forward and just come to decision a little quicker.
JG: Looking at documentary as a different animal, certain stories develop over time. And you may know a producer or a director you're working with who's out there shooting. And I love to know everything about that process. I'm working on a film that I haven't yet started to write, but I've followed the story for over a year.
Then as they're editing the film, I start writing music for it. But my MO typically is however the director wants to run. I have certain directors who wouldn't think of calling me until there's a locked cut. But then there are people who want to hear music before they get in the edit room.
MC: For me, the more I've gotten into working with computers, I've become obsessively perfectionist. I don't mind writing and rewriting new cuts and trashing stuff that isn't going to be used, because it all lends itself towards perfecting it by the end. We've gotten it to the point where by the time I'm done with it, I'm going to feel good when I go see it in the theater-unless the mix sucks!
But I know that I've written the best music I can, people have heard it, we've tried it, we've refined it and it's going to reflect a real integrity by the time it gets to the film.
LL: I think it might be news to some filmmakers that composers would like to be involved earlier on, that composers might even start experimenting with themes.
MA: The longer I do this, the more I prefer to be involved earlier on. There is a value to waiting until the locked picture. That value is the fresh perspective that you have; there are a series of problems to be solved that you can see with a fresh eye, and if you're involved earlier on, you may become a little worn out in terms of your ability to see it freshly.
But the more I do this, the more I like the idea of experimenting and trying things and going back and forth. I love the collaborative aspect of that process where you write something to an assembly, and the filmmaker may actually cut the scene to it, send it back to you, you look at it and say, Maybe I can do something here.
CK: I actually embrace the idea about coming on earlier. But it only makes sense if everybody's on the same page. There's a difference between a director who says, "I have my idea, this is what I want, do what I want," and [one who says] "We're gonna go on this journey together, experience this together, explore together." Then you're a partner in the process.
For a lot of newer directors, that concept is a little harder to grasp because they're so excited about their idea. To really understand and really get the music that you want, you have to be able to trust one another. From there the process really becomes something worth going through, because everybody's giving their 110 percent to make it that special project.
LL: What do you want filmmakers to bring to you, to start the process?
MC: Most of us are very open to however a filmmaker wants to work. But a lot times filmmakers will say, "Well, I'm really open; I have no ideas about this." But the truth is, they have a lot of ideas! So before we start, I say, "Well, let's just talk about this because I think you have ideas; you have preconceived notions. You have instruments you hate, you have instruments you love. If you have a prejudice against a certain kind of music, I don't want to write that."
Temp Music: Pros and Cons
LL: What about temp music? Some composers love it, some hate it, some want it stripped out. I use it because it lets me see how my material is working and it gives the composer a sense of what I might want. But I know that doesn't wash for a lot of composers.
MA: Temp is just a reality of where we are now. It's so easy to produce, at least relative to how hard it was 20 years ago. You download a good thing from iTunes, pop it in and you can get a very polished effect. In the best possible world, there would be no temp music on the track when a composer at least hears it for the first time.
I was at Sundance recently, sitting in on a composers panel, and someone used a really nice turn of phrase: "Composers are like fly paper with temp music." You know it, you hear it and it sticks. So, assuming that they will be hearing it with temp music, it isn't always possible to get it stripped out before you hear it. I've discovered that you have to develop techniques to get it unstuck. You have to figure out ways of forgetting about that, or tricking yourself or unhearing it.
At the same time, there are values in having that temp music as a jumping-off point. It's that sort of conundrum that if you can break past it, you can get to a really interesting place: How do you take what's instructive about the temp and not have it stigmatize your process so that you can't feel freely creative about what you're bringing to the table?
PD: But that temp should be seen more as a safety net than a springboard, because one thing that we composers do is if we look at an image and there's no music on it, we'll start to hear something in our head. And if there's music with that image already, we're not going to hear that music in our head. The director has denied themselves the possibility of that first music.
JB: It's great when there's some openness from the director or the producer to hear something different. And every once in a while you get the opportunity to do that. I just did a big project, and it was my first time working with this director. It was very inspiring to work on. I went in a completely different direction than the temp, and it succeeded. They didn't change a thing. I told the director, "Thank you for having the openness."
PD: Sometimes I find the temp score a little intimidating because sometimes it's so good. Sometimes it does help you have a jumping-off point that gives you some kind of idea of what the filmmaker's thinking of. I haven't had this come up too many times, but a director will say, "You know, I want an impressionistic score." And suddenly it's what his definition of impressionistic is. You don't have to explain it to the composer in necessarily musical terms, but more in terms of how you want it to feel or what kind of emotion you're trying to express. But don't say, "I want some baroque here." That kind of thing can get a little confusing.
MA: I had a similar experience. The guy said, "I want a bebop score." And I thought to myself, I love bebop! Luckily I didn't get anything written before I found out what he meant was, "I want a doo wop score!"
One of the things we need to do is really draw the directors out and try to get some elaboration and let the discussion continue so that we get down to the root of what they're actually looking for.
LL: As a filmmaker, I can't imagine not using temp music. It shapes scenes, and it gives me a sense of experimentation in mood and pacing. But listening to you all, maybe filmmakers should show composers two versions of the locked picture-first, with all the temp music stripped out, then later, with it back in.
MC: Well, you wouldn't want to see the second version before you've written something. It'll still influence you too much. The point is, if you like someone's mind and how they think and how they experience music, then you'll like having what their unadulterated ideas might be.
LL: But that's scary to me because if I'm not showing you my temp music, how will you know what I want for this scene?
MC: I always know what I wrote and what I need and what my director wants. But I want to also see what they would do. Will the director like it? So I want to have both.
CK: I actually embrace the temp for what it is: a reference. Then you're not starting from zero.
JG: Sometimes it's great just to listen to music. You don't have to put it to picture. I was once on a project and I had the hardest time figuring out what the director wanted. But I was talking to a composer friend of mine and he said, "What kind of music does he like? What CDs does he have in his collection?" It opened up a whole different place for us to go, and it worked.
JB: I've done a lot of films with Jessica Yu, and Jessica is brilliant on a whole lot of levels. But when we're working together, she is much more comfortable talking to me after I've shown her a few things. It's in that void of just words, trying to somehow verbalize a feeling, because music is everything beyond language.
JG: So many directors and producers don't know how to speak in music, and that becomes a difficult thing. But if they can speak emotionally, they can allow themselves to get in the process and collaborate. It's what someone said, "Talking about music is like dancing about architecture." It's an ephemeral thing. Yet we're all really skilled at talking about music and understanding it.
I go to great lengths to make the directors and producers feel comfortable. One of the fears that they have is, we can change the emotion of what's happening in the film.
JB: To go back to temp music, one of the things you can get from temp, good or bad, is instrumentation ideas. Even if I hate the music--if it's too on the nose or ahead of the story or too big or just not the kind of theme I'd write.
The music is so many different things, and the first thing it is in film is, it's color, it's sound. And it's the color of that sound against the story that is the very first thing that reaches the nonverbal part of the brain. You don't have time to analyze it; it just hits you.
I also think about jumping into the void and serving up a few things, even if you're not ready to commit to a whole approach. There's always that first meeting; it's kind of like the first creative date. The interesting thing is the amount of success with which that first date happens doesn't always have a large affect on the end result. Sometimes a bad creative date results in the best score.
Or sometimes the directors who push me in directions where I would never think of, just because of who they are or their particular universe of likes and dislikes, will end up going off in this direction in which I'll discover something that I hadn't done before.
The Collaborative Process: Working with the Filmmaker
LL: What makes a good collaboration?
CK: For me, the common language is emotion. That's what I'm gonna draw on, in addition to your film, to get us where we need to be.
The other thing is the process of trial and error, when you have the time to do it. It's a lot easier to say what doesn't work than it is to say what does work. We start to have a dialogue, we start to feel the emotion about why it doesn't work.
JG: It's really important that producers and directors understand that writing a score is a process. Just like editing and constructing the story, it takes time. And to help make that process go a little faster is the preparedness of the producer and director and knowing what they want in this scene.
MC: Part of the purpose of the music is to accentuate or underscore. I always say it's like punctuation marks--Do you want to underline this? Do you want to put a period here and an exclamation point?
MA: Another thing is, music is doing in documentaries what it isn't doing to the same frequency in dramatic films: It provides an arc of energy that pushes through scenes and shots.
Sometimes it's just there to create a mood. I'm thinking about the one I'm working on now; the director said, "This is a lot of material for us to get through and music needs to have a certain energy level in order to keep things from sagging." Now that's a very specific function that shouldn't be dismissed or minimized. On the other hand, there needs to be an emotional reason. And whether the director is able to articulate it, or whether your job is to help him find it, that's the other thing that has to happen.
The most extreme example of this is something like, "We'll need music here because our sound is bad."
LL: So it's less important that you have great temp music or have genres of music or instrumentation? Obviously, it comes down to emotion; that's what you're all saying, right?
JG: Whenever music happens, you want it there for a reason. There are so many historical documentaries 57 minutes long and have 55 minutes of music. Why? It's so much more important if we really understand the value of space.
When you listen to a drummer, it's not the notes and the times he's hitting it, it's the space in between the hits that make you want to get up and dance.
LL: What do you do if a director wants to set you on a path that isn't what your instinct or vision for the score would be?
PD: Well, that's a two-sided question. One person might come up with an idea that I never even thought of, using some great instrument or something. On the other hand, it might be something where you just feel, This is not going to work.
MC: You have to try it, and hope that their better judgment will prevail. But there are times when you have creative differences that can't be reconciled. I try to stop that stuff really early now. I don't want to go through the process if a person's too hardheaded and doesn't want to even try anything else.
LL: What are the red flags for you?
CK: It always comes back to the personal relationship. If you're not vibing, then you have problems. You want your director to really embrace you so that you're in their world and you can see what they see to the right and you can see what they see to the left.
There've been times when I've said I was very committed to what I thought would be best for, not a scene, but the film. And I try to explain using things like synergy, and talk about the film and why it's important to me. Coming up with something that's really significant to that particular project and is really a part of the bigger picture-that's something that you can't just make like that. You have to through a process to get it.
JB: With a director who hasn't worked a lot with music or an inexperienced director, sometimes the best thing you can do for them as a composer is to really help them see their movie.
LL: How do you do that?
JB: Before I give a meeting, I'm very particular in trying to step back from the work and look at it with the film and make sure that it's making a complete statement-not just what the music is doing but what the whole thing is doing.
And if somebody has some crazy idea that maybe I'll try, and I think it's interesting but not really, I'll show them that, but then maybe I'll try something else so they can see that and just be very open about it; give them choices.
Theme, Structure and Rhythm
JB: We haven't talked about tempo a lot, but a film has a rhythm. This is one thing you can discuss with your filmmaker--the tempo, the speed of the cuts, the speed of the dialogue, the rhythm that the movie puts you in. Once you find that rhythm as a composer, it's really interesting how you can take a piece of music from one scene and just plop it in somewhere else and all of sudden it's like, Oh, done!
Another area that becomes good to discuss with the filmmaker is this whole idea of density. I love music with layers, and sometimes it's just what the film needs, but a lot of times it's finding that right balance of sound or music as silence and interrupted pulse. There are all sort of ways that music can speed up or slow down a film, make it even quieter by just feeling like there are these long pregnant pauses.
JG: Something we haven't touched on is using a theme. In documentaries there are themes but they are not relied upon nearly as heavily as in dramatic films. I could score a dramatic film that has four themes and 37 cues, and 34 of them are drawn from those four themes. Whereas in documentaries I find, Oh, we need a little something here, and I'm always trying to be a little more dramatic.
CK: I've experienced this a lot, especially with songs or even different scores that I look at as different layers. There's an underscore that has these thematic ideas, but along the way there will be these spikes that come in and out that may be totally unrelated or related.
MC: One of the things that's different about docs is that it's never a problem to get into a cue, but how do you get out? A lot of times in a feature film you'll have a scene and it ends. But docs can have ideas that go running through the film and it may continue the idea, but then you have a talking head, or a scene, or some footage, a montage. So the biggest challenge is how to get out and when to get out because whenever you get out, it's going to be noticed.
The Playback: Listening with an Audience
LL: Jeff, I read an interview with you, and it intrigued me because you said you go to premieres of your work and you learn a lot about the process in your films playing for an audience, and that informs what you do. Could you talk about that?
JB: I come from a performance background. Before I got into film music, I was a jazz trumpet player, so I realized as the film projects got more and more interesting and I got less interested in going out and performing. I was getting a lot of that same energy from being a fellow filmmaker, but I wasn't getting that sort of final moment. So the best I can do is sit with an audience and watch a film. But a lot of times we get so caught up in the minutia, and we forget that somebody's gonna eventually sit in that darkened room and it's just gonna happen.
Part of the power of what a good score can do is really create this happening where the attention of the viewer gets so caught up in it that it becomes this meaningful experience. And it's only when you sit with other people and have that experience that you can really judge. A lot of it's non-verbal; you feel it. It's energy in a room of people all having a communal experience with a piece of material.
And sometimes I'll think, I went too far; I didn't need to sell that so hard. Or you'll just have a different objectivity from what you did, as opposed to when you were first viewing it.
LL: As a filmmaker, I always have work-in-progress screenings, but I don't always invite the composers. I can see that it's really important to have the composer there and feel how it's playing on a bigger screen with a larger audience.
JG: There's a filmmaker I've worked with where it's a very similar kind of thing. Being in the room with him, playing a cue, out of the corner of my eye I'll detect a shift in how he's holding himself and I know if something is working or not. And what's curious is that he's not the most articulate guy in the world, but he does have tremendous instincts. And I would much rather work with somebody who can't even describe what it is they want but has some instinctual compass that I can pick up on. That non-verbal stuff is really powerful.
MC: I always try not to watch them when they're watching. I try to watch the screen. I really notice that when the director's in the room. I'll start seeing it in a whole new way, just because there's another person in there.
The Administrative Perspective: Budgets, Contracts and Schedules
LL: Let's talk about some pragmatic stuff--contracts, schedules, budgets. In terms of changes and notes, I've heard of composers who specified the number of changes they would do in their contract. Do many people do that?
JG: I would never do something like that on a doc. I don't think anybody here would.
MA: What's the point? You're not going to make any money anyway! You better be doing it because you love it.
JG: I had one experience, though, speaking about revisions. It was a really phenomenal film, brilliant filmmaker, but she could not get over the temp. I did eight different versions of this cue, and at least two of those eight were such a legal nightmare. And she still wasn't happy. And I had to be honest with her, and I said, "I don't think I have an answer for you on this."
MA: I wouldn't put something like that in my contract. The most important thing in all this is the relationship. You're assuming good will in both directions.
LL: What about schedules? What's an ideal schedule? What's a realistic schedule?
MC: Leave enough time for your composer. It will only make your film better. Once you're in post-production, it's very hard to get time with the filmmaker. For me, if I have a month to write and a month to record, that would be great.
MA: It depends on what's necessary. I just recorded an orchestra in Eastern Europe. You've got orchestrators and copyists involved, you have to record the orchestra, you have to come back and mix it. It takes time.
MC: The more musicians, the more time.
LL: Two months sounds really luxurious to me. What's the bare minimum, respecting your process?
JB: The problem that I found on every type of work I do, the time is not just to write, it's to produce and record musicians. And it's not always a function of money. Once you have those wonderful performances they take longer to mix because all of the intricate idiosyncrasies about the way somebody plays an instrument are not as dependable as the samples, so you have to actually fold that sound together and get it back to where it was.
I'm so passionate about live musicians on certain projects where a lot of times I'll record them as I go so that I have them--which is also helpful when I present because there it is, here's your harmonica.
LL: Are you having to pay the musicians for these early sessions? How does that work?
JB: If it's somebody outside, obviously I'll hire them before and have them come down. Sometimes they'll do a demo session and we'll say, If it goes fine we'll put you under contract.
But I have noticed that certain time constraints are for writing, and you have to stop writing and start thinking like a producer, and also think of things that maybe you weren't conceiving of when you were writing: What sort of special creativity could this player bring to my score that might really color it? Those are really fun sessions to do as a producer, but those take longer than just soup-to-nuts and you're done.
MA: But it varies. I have a project--we talked about being brought in on the project very early--and all of a sudden at the end of the project I had two weeks to write and record the score, even though I was in months before. And the filmmaker said, "Are you going to be okay with this? Are we going to get what we need?"
Sometimes having that challenge of only two weeks left and you've got to record x minutes of music--you have to close the door, take the phone off the hook--sometimes the best things come out of that.
JB: The best invention ever for a writer is the deadline. We all know what that endgame is, and it was so stressful when I was starting out. You're just completely overwhelmed; you're managing so many different things-not just your own creativity, but you're recording other people, you're dealing with contracts and there's a session date and how many musicians do you want?
JG: To answer your question, some people can write on average two to three minutes of music a day. So you use that and figure out how much music is in the film and you go from there. If you're recording two or three musicians for a 45-minute score, depending on how many instruments they're playing, you can get it done in one day; it might take two days. You might want two or three days to mix that 45-minute score. Depending on how you're recording, and what you're writing, most scores are being done in what I would call a hybrid score of the music-some synthesized things and then some live stuff.
And at this point I don't see any reason why a composer isn't mixing the music as they go. It's right in front of you, it takes a little more time, but you have to present your demo to the client and they're going to have to hear something.
MA: I'm working on a demo now and I've got dozens of guitar samples where each sounds pretty good, and I'm bringing in a guitarist because I know this director has been playing with guitar stuff in his temp; he's got the sound of that guitar player in his ear. There's no way that my mockup is going to stand up to what that guitar player on that temp track is doing. But I have the added benefit of working with a live human being in a room. I'm not a guitar player, even though I know enough about the instrument to write for it, but they're going to be able to tell me more about articulation, phrasing and little nuances.
Now the thing is done, you present it and if two or three of the half-dozen or dozen cues that you give them work, you know you're more than halfway there.
PD: This is pure nuts and bolts, but let's say you either have a contract or agreement that says the score will be done on March 15, and I'll get you a rough cut on March 16. But then the editing takes a little bit longer, and they have to reshoot a scene. And then suddenly, instead of getting it on March 1, you get it on March 12. And the music's always the last little thing.
MC: I've started to really try to push for a higher quality experience for all of us in terms of when we're working. I used to always mix everything myself; I'm working with an engineer now, a guy who actually mixes movie scores. I tell my filmmakers, Look, if you give me this much more time it's just going to be better. Do you want to cut back now, after five years of filming and editing?
JB: Let's get back to money. A lot of filmmakers don't come into post having saved money! So if you have a vision for your music that's going to be involve some more resources to really tell your story, build that in early and stick to it.
LL: Does anyone feel comfortable sharing a range of what an all-in package would be? If someone was going to budget five to ten players versus orchestra-
MC: You can figure at least $100 an hour per player, and you have ten players and you figure it's going to take at least 20 hours to 40 hours-
LL: But when we're writing grant proposals, what we want to know is, Should we budget $20,000? $40,000?
MC: It's better to overestimate because you don't want to be left without enough money. What I don't understand about filmmakers, there's what you hear and what you see on the screen. It doesn't matter if you spent five years filming, three years writing, whatever. All the audience knows is what they see and what they hear. So why isn't what they hear as important as what they see?
JB: There was a wonderful blog in the LA Times during this year's Sundance Film Festival about the quintessential Sundance score. It wasn't written by a composer; it was written by a film critic. But he identified a real trap that a lot of filmmakers fall into by just hiring a friend who plays a little guitar or just not really putting something up there sonically that will elevate. And it's not about size or resources; it's also about hiring somebody of talent, which takes money.
CK: A lot of that happens because you have directors who are afraid that if they don't have the money, they don't want to insult you based on where you've been and what your résumé is. I'm at a point in my career where I don't just do movies because of a paycheck. I do it because it's doing something for me. If there's something in your film that moves me, and I feel that I can contribute in a way that I know I can just shine, then this is going to work.
The Mix: That Soul-Killing Moment
LL: Here's something that will get your juices flowing: Should composers be at mixes?
JB: I tend to not be at a lot of mixes. It's mostly logistical because I live pretty far from town.
I do like to come in for playbacks. I find that there's so much minutia involved in mixing the film, that in a way I would prefer if I had a music editor there to be minding that store and call me and let me know how things are going. A lot of times in independent films there's not even a music editor. If it's a young, inexperienced director, or somebody I have a new relationship with, I might feel more obliged to pop in more often.
A long time ago I met John Williams up in northern California; we were recording some music. Somehow the subject of mixes came up and he goes, "Oh, that can be a soul-killing moment!" I really was amazed that somebody of his stature was still that invested in it. Every composer knows that feeling. When you create something, you have a sense of how it's going to sit in the film, and when it doesn't, you're so disappointed.
I do my own mixing and I love that part of the craft; I love sculpting the sound. I'm extremely passionate about writing around dialogue and making things sit. I found my best ally has been just sonically minding the store. I usually give them stems so that if there's one offending instrument, it can be turned down. That's always more helpful than harmful.
LL: That "soul-killing moment" is when they mix the music down?
JB: Yeah, that's if you have an expectation of something in a big action scene or-
MC: They told you to make it loud--
JB: One of the nice things that's happened in film lately has been that we are firmly ensconced in the 5.1 world for anything that's theatrical, including a documentary. So there are actually more places to put your music. I find it's more helpful-especially in fiction films where there might be a lot of sound, or you have a really busy film but it also has a very active score--if you can have the score live behind the audience in surround, it can just exist and have more space to be with those things.
But it's the compositional intent of something; part of the drama of something is sheer volume--
MC: And dynamics--
JB: And if you carefully build those peaks and valleys dramatically and sonically, and somehow they're all smoothed over and whitewashed, you're just like, Oh.
CK: I find that the project isn't done until it's printed. So I like to be there because with all of the other issues that may come up on the dub stage, even though I have my editor there, I know what can be sacrificed and what can be highlighted.
MC: Sometimes, the mixer will say, "I could just edit this from here and put it here." And so they do it, and it actually works, but musically it doesn't work at all-it's not on key; it's like they've made it off beat; it's like a different theme. It ruins the whole buildup.
PD: There's probably a fear that composers being at a mix will result in the music being too loud or hurried up, but we're certainly as concerned about something being too loud as being too soft.
JG: I'll go out on a limb and go in the opposite direction: I prefer not to go to the mix. If I go to the dub something invariably breaks.
I actually enjoy mixing my own music. And I go to great lengths to make sure that it works perfectly with what's going on. And as far as I'm concerned, at that point in the process, everyone's familiar enough with it and I've done my job to a very high degree.
MA: The times where I have had that sort of heart-sinking feeling, I can easily trace that moment in the dub back to the spotting. I knew that we'd over-spotted or this wasn't the place for music. You argue your case, you lose and you go ahead and do it, and sure enough you get to the dub and it's wrenching. And at that point I've actually said, "You know what, drop the cue." It's too much to expect everyone to have a perfectly crystallized vision of what the tracks should be like going into this. But it's about moving towards clarity and specificity and hopefully arriving at that somewhere before the dub. Should there be music here, or is the sound the most important thing here? Is there a chance they're going to battle each other out? Making those decisions earlier on will make the mix a much better process.
MC: That does bring up another thing: There should be some kind of meeting between the sound people and the filmmaker and the composer. It can really create more camaraderie.
MA: Here's an issue: Very often in documentaries, you have a sound editor who's also a mixer. But it's certainly been my experience that, whether it's conscious or unconscious, it's almost like a Ouiji board: The fingers just push those levers up the board.
MC: I try and have a talk with the filmmakers before the mix and explain, "OK, you know this guy built the sound and just be aware that you have to think about what you're looking for in that scene."
That's important for filmmakers to understand. It's one thing to have your own ProTool system. But it's another thing to work with a guy who sat in on a cinematic mix and maybe he has the ear. Mixing film is a talent. And even for a small documentary, it can make a huge difference.
Before The Process: Things to Know
LL: Is there anything else you wish filmmakers knew before they came to you, or knew during the process?
JB: I would say to the filmmaker, "Prepare to be surprised." Because the thing we try hardest to do as composers is to get outside of the creative ruts that we've repeated over and over again in films. And part of getting out of that rut is to experiment and try new things.
There's that first moment when you have an expectation when you sit down to hear something. You gotta figure out a way to clear your head and approach that composer and what they're doing on their own terms before you try to backtrack to the temp or the other music. Those are all useful things, but try to meet the composer on their own creative ground and work with that space they live in.
MC: I always have this thing that I call the gut reaction test. I write something, I think it's great. Then I walk away, come back and listen to it over again-"That's great." That was my gut reaction to hearing it again. When you're in it, you're used to it and it ruins your ability to be objective.
So what I'm looking for from my director is their gut reaction. A lot of times they'll really want me to be happy so they'll say, "Oh, that's good!" And I'll say, "No, what is your gut reaction?" They may convince themselves they like it now, but it's going to be that situation where down the line they're never going to like it. I'd rather have their gut reaction; it will be so much easier than having to fix it later.
The director can affect the music just like the music can affect the film. So if we're jamming on ideas and we're enjoying each other, it's going to have a great effect on the music.
LL: It is one of the most fun parts of the process. But remember, most of us filmmakers are control freaks!...Thank you all for coming!
Lisa Leeman is currently directing the feature doc One Lucky Elephant, and producing the feature doc Crazy Wisdom (directed by Johanna Demetrakas).