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Composing Music for Film

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Discussion on how to score a film.

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      15.01.2013 18:21
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      A brief history and explanation of scoring for film.

      Welcome to my passion. I gained an interest in the subject back in 2008 upon hearing Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard's score for 'The Dark Knight', and Hans Zimmer's closing piece 'Chevaliers de Sangreal' for director Ron Howard's 'The Da Vinci Code'. I'm talking about the music behind the film; the score, the soundtrack that carries the film and ultimately tells a story in itself. Having already established an interest in music prior to this, by beginning keyboard lessons in 2004 and bass guitar lessons in 2005, I had been seeking something that actually meant something to me. My Dad would always say 'Who's your favourite bass player?' and I would struggle to give names - it really meant very little to me (saying that, I still play bass in a local covers band!). But I remember listening to end of 'The Da Vinci Code' over and over again one evening in awe; I had finally found inspiration in something and it felt great. It's been something I've been aiming to pursue now for four years, and every day I work my hardest to progress and eventually live the dream.

      It began with Hans Zimmer, and I was stuck in a little Hans Zimmer rut for quite a while - not that I was complaining! But it was upon watching 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1' and hearing Alexandre Desplat's score that my mind (and ears) was opened to the possibilities and other talents in the field; this score remains my favourite to date, simply due to its power, emotion and diversity. But I found myself exploring other composers, learning that there was more to film music than Zimmer. I view my foundation to my passion in film music to a triangle of composers, Zimmer and Desplat providing two of the corners; the third corner belongs to a composer who I always respected and subconsciously enjoyed even before I realised how much I loved the genre: John Williams. Recently celebrating his 80th birthday, he is simply in a league of his own when it comes to writing music, providing SO many memorable tunes that I'm hard pushed to find anybody else who parallels - and he's just absolutely spot on when it comes to everything else: writing, scoring to picture, orchestration etc. It wasn't until my second year of university that I began scoring; I'd found a way to invest money into getting the necessary equipment - which wasn't cheap, I tell you - but I knew that university was the best place to begin, and I would rue missed chances if I didn't start it up. I've come a long way since, and find myself these days, while still being thoroughly inspired by various film/TV/video game soundtracks and composers (Martinez and 'Drive'; Jesper Kyd and the 'Hitman' and 'Assassin's Creed' franchises; David Arnold and Thomas Newman, and the recent James Bond movies, to name but a few), I find myself these days listening to the greats of the late-19th and early-20th century Western art music scene; namely, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Claude Debussy and Richard Wagner amongst many others. If I could give one piece advice to somebody looking to get into this field (and it's advice I'm giving to myself too, as I'm far from 'in' at present), it would be to study these masters - how they write, how they orchestrate and in some cases, how they score - Richard Wagner's Operas were the first "films", although filming wasn't invented at this point; but the composer envisioned a time where such drama could be presented without materials being visible, such as the stage and orchestra. In fact, he was the man to invent the 'hidden orchestra', whereby the orchestra is placed in front but below the stage, out of sight from the audience - a concept still used today. I thoroughly believe (and have been given such advice on good authority) that studying such composers in depth is the key to gaining a far better understanding of music generally, let alone the art of film scoring.

      This said, such an orchestral approach to film scoring is diminishing, sadly. Other styles are equally, if not more popular these days. Since the 1970s and the introduction of synthesisers to film scores, becoming particularly notable in the 1980s with films such as 'Chariots of Fire' and 'Blade Runner' (both Vangelis), 'The Terminator' (Brad Fiedel) and 'Rain Man' (Zimmer), electronics have relentlessly intruded on the orchestra. Despite this prominence of synthesisers in the 1980s and into the 90s, it was very much a separate entity from the orchestra, with many fantastic scores showing up around the same time from composers such as Alan Silvestri, Michael Kamen and Randy Edelman. I see the 00s as the decade where the two fully merge, and the orchestral approach sees its breakdown. Admittedly, Zimmer is one of the biggest culprits of this breakdown, whereby he doesn't write for orchestra per se, despite consistently using a string and brass section. I argue that with an extended brass section (with goodness knows how many trombones), a lack of a solid woodwind section and the combination of synths, albeit subtle at times, prevents the 'ensemble' Zimmer more commonly writes from being described as an 'orchestra'. In this brief discussion on the subject, I here provide you with a spectrum for film scores, although there is far more to it than this: on one side there is the orchestral approach, and on the other: electronic, and there are many different sounds in between.

      Composers come in all sorts of shapes and sizes; some have not a clue about the orchestra, others are very well equipped. In explaining the general system of writing for film, one needs to understand this. Again, as this is a rather brief discussion, I can only be quite general, but one should also understand that EVERY case in film scoring is different. There is, 99% of time, some sort of complication that causes a shift in the system. However, generally speaking...

      The film composer (and his team) is one of the last people involved in the process of producing a film; he simply has to be, as a film score should complement and convey EXACTLY what is going on onscreen. Now that doesn't mean that it needs to 'mickey-mouse' (a film music term that arose in Classical Hollywood, meaning to mirror exactly what is on screen; i.e. tiptoeing onscreen may be portrayed in the music via light pianissimo pizzicato strings) per se , but it should always, without exception, bear the film in mind throughout. Film scoring is a rushed business - since the dawn of 'talkies' (the non-silent film being 'The Jazz Singer' in 1927), composers have had very little time to write the music. Most often, around these early decades, composers would only write the themes and key sections simply due to time constraints, with a team of orchestrators writing the rest of the music. Fortunately, times have changed and composers now have more time to score - albeit not a lot more time! Orchestrators are still absolutely vital to the process, however, especially in the case of said composers who 'have not a clue about the orchestra'. It varies from composer to composer, however. John Williams, for instance, writes his music on 8-stave manuscript paper (8 'voices' is more than enough when it comes to writing for orchestra, as despite the vast number of instruments, rarely, in terms of the pieces as wholes, are all instruments sounded together in 'tutti', and oftentimes parts double each other), but provides such extensive notes (such as which instruments will play what, where) that the orchestrator almost becomes obsolete, simply 'preparing' the music to be performed by the orchestrator. Others write ONLY the themes, with the orchestrators doing the rest, but this is a rarer case these days, with competition being so fierce that nobody's going to want a composer who doesn't understand at least the basic concepts of music very much. The most common cases are the in-betweens though; I, for one, would love to orchestrate my own music if I was writing a feature-length film score, but would be quite loose on my 'annotations' as I know an older and far more experienced orchestrator would do a much better job.

      Backtracking slightly, I should outline the general process of film scoring. It begins with a 'spotting session', wherein the composer, music editor, director, producer and any other vital bodies involved will collate with the final cut of the movie and discuss each scene in-depth in terms of music - should there be music at all in a certain scene? If so, what sort of music? Any specific details? And so on. Some directors are very, very meticulous, others not so much. Before the solid establishment of the digital age, the film would then need to be 'punched', relating to the timecode, so that composers could sync their music exactly to the film. Nowadays, because everything is now done on superfast computers, it can all be recorded digitally with the film playing onscreen. So, the next stage would be the x amount of weeks the composer takes to write the film score, which is often dictated by the production team; time constraints dictate to what extent the composer writes, as if he doesn't have much time, he may leave certain aspects to the orchestrators or music editor. Hans Zimmer presents quite a special case, however. He owns and runs a company in L.A. called 'Remote Control Productions', which comprises of multiple composers from all over the world. As far as I'm aware, for the most part, directors contact Zimmer and RCP if they want a film scoring, and the task is then delegated, although some directors likely specify which composer they require. I refer to the composers as Zimmer's 'minions', as there aren't really any other cases like this in the field. While these composers get film music jobs to themselves, they also aid Zimmer quite a lot under the surface. Even in a film such as 'The Dark Knight Rises', in the OST CD sleeve notes, one finds 'Additional music by Lorne Balfe', likely due to said time constraints; as to how much music Balfe actually wrote for the film, one may never know, but it could be said that many of Zimmer's employees write very similarly to their boss.

      After composition, the score is orchestrated and prepared, a process often overseen by the composer, but usually contributed to by 4-8 people. The scoring sessions are like gold dust - hiring the space and the very talented musicians who perform the music doesn't come cheap, and with only 3 hours a day to record, it's another rush-job. Editing of parts is live, whereby the composer or somebody else involved may notice something terribly wrong with a 'cue' (the name given to an individual piece of music within a film score) and then it's a chaotic dash to isolate the problem and rectify it. Oftentimes, even after the score is recorded, the team are often required to go back to certain cues and redo parts, and this is known as 'redubbing' or 'overdubbing', whereby, for example, if a timpani part is particularly drowned out or quiet in a cue, a timpanist may be called back to re-record the part, and then it is put into the mix to accentuate the low part. Mixing, mastering and proofing occur after all of this. And after a frantic 6-8 weeks or so (again generally speaking), it's a wrap - you've got your film score. Worth noting is that nearly every single composer in the industry has written a film score and gone through most if not all of these stages before the director decides to scrap it as it's not right for his film - and so the process starts again but in a far more rushed, condensed form. However, all money, including for the original composer's services, still has to be paid, meaning that the whole process has cost a LOT, and more so than most other films! Luckily, for companies such as Disney, this isn't too much of a problem...

      The system I've described above has been in place for many years now, and really only describes, in a general way, the orchestral approach; but I'm sure you can eliminate any stages that don't apply to somebody writing an electronic score. In those cases, it is much more straightforward, and often offers the composer more time. But again, these days, there is a big crossover, which has caused the disintegration of classic orchestral scores, in that most feature films call for some time on the scoring stage, and it's almost been forgotten that thousands of effects can be produced by a 50-piece orchestra, say. This disintegration is also down to the rise of the digital age, and also the way in which home studios have become much more affordable and popular, and how the online, unsigned music market has become so commonplace. Anybody can score a film these days, as long as you invest a certain amount of money into a powerful workstation (such as a Mac Pro) and various hardware and software. I've made that step and it's rewarded me with some fantastic opportunities: I've "scored" three short films to date, with a slightly longer but far more important short film coming up in Spring 2013. Competition is ridiculous these days for these reasons outlined above, and in many cases, it's the old cliché of 'who you know' that applies here. There are various steps I'm taking at present to try to develop my skillset, network and chances of making it into the field. I graduate from Leeds University this summer, and my plans include a move to London amongst various others hopes and dreams. I love music, and I love film, and they're bare minimums for entering the film music world. I hope that this discussion has provided with you some interesting knowledge on what is a rather underground subject; either way, thank you for taking the time to read this. I've provided below a list of scores/films mentioned in this discussion and some related, and also a link to a film I scored in my second year of university.

      My fast-approaching graduation also means that I have decided to end my time on Dooyoo, after I have written my final review later this week. Work is likely to pile up massively over the next few months, especially with my dissertation due in in two months, and I need to get my head down. Meanwhile, free time needs to be dedicated elsewhere, as I need to focus on my dreams and plans for the future, and that means a lot of private study. I've thoroughly enjoyed my time on here; the community here is great, and I've enjoyed sharing reviews and opinions with all of you, but I've got to prioritise in order for me to pursue these said dreams. Hopefully one day I will be working in the film/TV music industry, but in the meantime, I'm doing all I can to make that possible. Wish me luck!

      Thanks so much for reading!

      -== Films & Composers ==-

      Casino Royale - David Arnold
      Quantum of Solace - David Arnold
      Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1 - Alexandre Desplat
      The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - Alexandre Desplat
      Kindergarten Cop - Randy Edelman
      The Terminator - Brad Fiedel
      Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves - Michael Kamen
      Drive - Cliff Martinez
      Skyfall - Thomas Newman
      Back to the Future - Alan Silvestri
      Chariots of Fire - Vangelis
      Blade Runner - Vangelis
      Star Wars - John Williams
      Jurassic Park - John Williams
      The Da Vinci Code - Hans Zimmer
      The Dark Knight - Hans Zimmer
      The Dark Knight Rises - Hans Zimmer
      Rain Man - Hans Zimmer
      Inception - Hans Zimmer

      -== Windows To The Soul ==-

      If you would like to listen to any of my work, please visit my soundcloud, at soundcloud.com / casey-brady1 (remove the spaces - Dooyoo won't let me publish without). And if you would like to view/listen to a short film I scored about a year ago, please type in 'Windows to the Soul Minsberg' into Youtube. Thanks!

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