Scoring for film

 

by Astrid Lund Østrup, Class ’14

I graduated from Sonic College in 2014, focusing mainly on communicating through sound design.
As I have always felt inspired by moving images, I wanted to delve deeper into the art of composing music for film, and I got accepted at a candidate education in Film Composition at Esbjerg Conservatory.
This education is very project based, as we are continuously composing for films made by students from The Danish Film School in Copenhagen. In the following blog post I will share some of my thoughts and experiences regarding the working process.

Communicating with the director
A film director recently asked me what my musical core competence was. As I was not sure exactly which genre is my speciality I answered that I completely immerse myself in the movie. Obviously, feeling and understanding the movie and especially the director is a necessary starting point when you are scoring for film.
A few times I have made the mistake of working without properly understanding what the director wanted the music to do. Thus I ended up writing music that lacked a clear direction and didn’t work for the movie at all.
Practically any kind of story can make me relate somehow, as long as I understand the purpose and soul of the movie. If I’m not sure in which direction the director wants the movie to go, it is my job to ask him/her the right questions.
Remembering that scoring for film is a collaboration and not only the composers task is important. I learned the hard way that it is never a good thing if a director gives me freedom to do whatever I want and leaves all the big decisions up to me. Although it may seem like an easy task, it often turns out later in the process that the director really doesn’t know what he/she wants (or doesn’t know how to express it), and it is almost impossible to hit the mark if you don’t know what it is. That is why I must always insist on getting directions so I don’t waste time composing in the blind.

Many different scenarios can unfold when I sit down with the director (and sometimes also the sound designer and the editor) to discuss what the music should express and add to the story.
Some directors like to play a few examples of music to illustrate what they think the score should sound like. Some even give the film editor a temporary track which he/she can cut the scenes to. This is called ‘temp music’, and it can be a challenge for the composer to get the director to accept the new score if he/she has fallen in love with the temp music.
This scenario is not unusual to take place unfortunately. So if a director insists on using temp-music in the working process, it is important that I ask him/her what exactly it is about that music that they like.
Some directors know a lot about music and are able to point out which specific elements they want. Others might have a hard time expressing themselves in musical terms. Because of this several experienced film composers have warned me about talking to the director in musical terms (unless you know them very well of course) as it will often turn out that we are not really speaking the same language after all.

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Sometimes, what the director likes about the temp music might be something as simple as the sound of the reverb. If I on the other hand think it is the chords in the melody I will waste a lot of time going down a wrong path.
I work best when the director gives me as clear and precise instructions as possible. By this I don’t mean which genre or what kind of instrument he/she wants, but what the music should do emotionally. I’ve experienced that it is useful to talk in metaphors when you talk about music with the director. In this way the directions I receive will describe feelings and structure and this gives me a working process that is both targeted and free at the same time. For instance the director could give me directions like ‘the music should sound like a metallic and relentless train’ or ‘an alluring siren song’. Recently a director made me compose for the phrase ‘It could have been so good but it turned out so bad’. This way of describing the his preferences was very inspiring to me and he was happy with the music I came up with.

As every film and every crew is different, so is the order of things in each working process.
Sometimes the director would like me to start working on drafts before the movie has even been shot. Other times I am not involved in the process before they send me the final cut of the movie and we can do the spotting.
‘Spotting’ basically means deciding where the movie needs music and writing down the specific time codes.
Besides good communication I believe an important feature in the collaboration between director and composer should be trust.
If I feel like the director trusts me to do a good job, I am not afraid to experiment. Often not doing the obvious is what makes a movie not just good but great! Reversely, trusting the judgement of the director enough to do what they say, even though we might not agree at first, will definitely make the work process smoother.

The scoring process – tips and thoughts
A teacher of mine keeps telling me how ‘film doesn’t lie’. If you make a really great and interesting tune it is useless if it is not exactly what the movie needs.
Writing music for film is very different from writing music for the sake of music – it is a craft in itself. Taste is irrelevant when scoring for film in my opinion. The only thing that matters is if it works for the film. Of course you will always try to make music that you find tasteful somehow, but the goal is not to make music that can function without the film. If it works well together with the images and the sound design, it is good film music.
My idea of a ‘real’ film composer has always been someone who can write notes on paper just as fluently as they can write in their mothers tongue. The ‘old school’ composer so to say. Someone who is classically trained, has perfect pitch and and knows a symphony orchestra like the back of his/her hand. I admire these kinds of composers a lot, and I am working continuously on becoming more familiar with writing classical scores. But oh boy is it an art form in itself. Nowadays however, it seems to me like a lot of film directors are looking for a composer who can do ‘sound design music’. By ‘sound design music’ I mean music partially or completely consisting of elements based on sound sources which are not from recognizable instruments.

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Working around shortcomings – and using them creatively
I played music most of my life but due to my a-mathematical and a-systematical way of working, I never took much notice of what respective key I was playing in.
This can be a real hindrance if you are jamming with a band (I think the few people who has ever joined me in a jam session can attest to this), but I found that ignoring the theory is often an advantage when scoring.
Because I am not fully aware of which musical clichés’ I might be using nor what ‘norms’ or ‘rules’ I might be breaking, I am able to compose in a childish and intuitive way. This can be extremely liberating and often very useful.
I always compose by tapping in midi unless I am scoring for guitar or vocal – then I use my guitar or my voice.
In my working process, editing and mixing is at least 50 percent of the job. As I don’t exactly have a queue of professional musicians begging me to play my music for free, I have to make compromises where I can.
If I am scoring for a classical orchestra for example, I will start by composing with midi, using instrument samples. In the end I have to prioritize which instruments that require to be played by real musicians. Usually I can camouflage the unnatural sound of the sampled instruments if the most prominent voices are dubbed by a few musicians, to add some human expression.
When working with a deadline and a small budget I have to take what I can get, even if it means recording with someone who is not as good as I would like them to be. Through these challenges I have learned to somehow make up for the shortcomings by editing my way out of them. I’m not the best guitarist in the world, so if I am going to play the score myself I must take this into account in the composition process in order to make the production work. Of course you can’t make a really bad guitar recording sound good, but if I play decently and do enough takes to have some good building blocks, I can cut out the imperfections and make it sound tight enough to work. My point being that it is important to practice the craft of working with what you’ve got, because scoring for a low budget film does not involve a big budget for professional musicians.

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The common thread
When watching a film, I find it disturbing if the score has no common thread and feels it like it has been done by different composers who haven’t been working together in the process. It can ruin the credibility of the story if there is poor correlation between the different cues. In particular if we are dealing with the type of film music that is supposed to affect the viewer subconsciously.
To make sure that there is consistency in the music all the way through the film, staying in the same tune and/or using the same group of basic instruments/sounds can often get you a long way. However, making the same melody repeat itself in different variations and degrees of intensity is a useful trick for binding the story together.
Usually repetitions feel very natural to the listener, and they can help making the identity and soul of the movie become more clear. I like to think of the score as one long piece of music (with occasional breaks) that takes the listener on a journey through different moods and atmospheres.
Richard Wagner’s very used ‘leitmotif’ technique involves this trick exactly; creating systematic repetitions though the score. Leitmotif means associating melodies or harmonies with certain persons, moods, places or events and then referring to them through the score by repeating the melodies. When using leitmotif it is important to consider if the film needs the themes to ‘spell out’ the respective associations with a recognisable and catchy melody, or if it should be done more subtle in order to speak to the subconscious.

The final mix
Most sound designers/sound editors love it if you deliver your music in stems. This makes perfect sense, as they will have better conditions to make room for the dialogue and the sound design. As I always write and mix my music in stereo, I must be prepared to make some small or more radical changes in the mix if the sound designer wants to mix the music in 5,1. Asking myself already in the composition process how I imagine that the different elements will eventually be placed in the final mix, will make the transition from stereo to surround less problematic and time-consuming.
5.1 or not, I always ask to be present when the music is mixed into the film so I have the opportunity to have a say, and because this crucial process is so interesting to be a part of.

As The Danish Film School own the rights for the movies made by their students, I am unfortunately not allowed to upload any film clips.

You can hear some examples of my work below: