8 Things Every Composer Needs To Know When Scoring To Picture

Whether you're the music composer for a Hollywood blockbuster or a smaller production, there are certain things you NEED to be prepared for. Experienced composer, Jay Asher, shares the knowledge.  

Nowadays, there are lots of schools that train composers not just to write concert hall music but also to score films. And yet it is entirely possible, that someone will be given the opportunity to score a film or TV show that has not received that training. Here are 8 things you absolutely need to know should this happen for you.

#1 – It is Not Your Film!

In 95% of cases, except on mega budget films, the musical scoring is post-production, late in the game. So the composer may invest two to three months in the film while the producers and or director may have literally spent years pitching the film, creating scripts, making deals with the participants and getting it green-lighted before a single frame is shot. 

So when you disagree with the person who is the primary decision maker about the nature of the music or your execution of it, you need to keep this always in the front of your mind, however much you want to do a great job.

#2 – Your Music is Not the Most Important Element

In most films/TV shows, dialog is king and nowadays, FX are second in importance to the picture mixer and his clients.

As a composer, I hate the fact that so many filmmakers and picture mixers are so in love with FX. If you watch the climactic chase scene around Mount Rushmore in North By Northwest there is no dialog AND there are no FX. You do not hear the wind whipping around nor do you hear rocks sliding and the participants breathing and grunting and groaning. You only hear Bernard Herrmann’s wonderful score. While it is less realistic than if you heard the FX, few contemporary films have a scene that matches this for power.

Music score by Jay Asher

But that would likely never happen anymore. And yet I see film after film where that great cue I heard on the CD is totally buried beneath the sounds of the squeal of ties, slamming of brakes, and explosions, etc. So we composers have to suck it up and learn to accept it. (sigh)

#3 – Understand the Mechanics of Putting Music to Film

Unless you are just turning in songs that a music editor will be editing in to make them work with the picture, you need to have a working understanding of frame rates, hit points, sample rates, etc. There are lots of books and available treatises on this. If you do not take the time to get a firm grasp on these things, you run the risk of having your music thrown out because it simply will not work well with the picture or requires too much time and effort to make it work well. Plus, you will have made yourself appear amateurish and will get no respect, and will deserve no respect, from the other technical people involved.

#4 – Be Aware of Frequency Range Conflicts

One of the most disheartening things I went through in the beginning of my composing career was having my cues either mixed so low I could not hear them or thrown out altogether because I was not aware of the danger of frequency range conflicts.

That lovely trumpet melody you wrote? If there are male characters speaking at the point in the film, you are in danger of this happening to your cue. Those scintillating shaker and hi-hat patterns that make your music cue so very exciting? If there are female characters speaking at the point in the film, you are in danger of this happening to your cue.

Download a frequency range chart from the internet and become familiar with the frequency ranges of instruments.

#5 – Learn How to Create Stems

Almost all filmmakers and picture mixers today are used to composers delivering stems instead of just a stereo mix. This allows them to control the elements of the cue for different picture considerations in different places in the film. This is a Pandora’s box for a composer. If you give them too many, you run the risk of the final cue in the film sounding nothing like what you had in mind but it makes it less likely your cues will be thrown out or mixed almost inaudibly. But it is great to isolate any elements you are worried about as a safeguard. Also, it is great when your royalty statement arrives and you see that your cue was used in three places in the film instead of just one.

music plays last fiddle in the film making process.
That said, if it is a really low budget film or if they are in a horrific time crunch, they may only want a stereo mix and in that case, you simply have to mix those suspect parts down in volume.

#6 – If You Can, Create One Mix for the Picture and an Alternative One for Your Own Purposes

Some of the best cues I have composed in terms of how they worked with the film are not necessarily ones that are all that impressive just to listen to, while sometimes the opposite has been true. So when time and money permit, it is great to have an alternative mix that does feature that lovely solo trumpet melody that you had to mix down in volume for the film.

#7 – You’ve Finished, but You’re Not Finished

When possible, I always want to compose to a “locked picture.” This means that while there may still be missing shots, voice overdubs and FX to be added, the timing of the scenes will not be changed. This used to be fairly easy to get but thanks to digital editing stations, filmmakers are now frequently making changes right up until the very last minute and you may receive a call or email telling you that they need you to make timing changes to that cue you worked so hard on to make just right. 

It is frustrating but it is part of the game, so when you negotiate your fee you need to keep that in mind.

#8– You Need a Good Contract

contract

No one can predict with any accuracy what will happen to that small budget film that flies under the radar, only to achieve massive popularity. If you do not have a contract that clearly spells out what you can and cannot expect in that case (and if you are not a “name” you have very little clout in that regard) you could lose a lot of money. So either spend the money on an entertainment contract lawyer or turn to a knowledgeable and experienced composer friend. In the worse case scenario, do a Google search to see if you find some examples.

Jay is a Los Angeles-based composer, songwriter, arranger and orchestrator, conductor, keyboardist, as well as vocalist. As a composer, he is best known for scoring the New World Television series Zorro. Among the films and TV movies he has arranged, orchestrated and/or conducted are Paramount Pictures' Blame It On Rio Read More

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