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Over the past days, a few people have asked for various things from my first movie and ‘baptism of fire’, ‘The Runner’ – photos, DVDs and the soundtrack. I shared the soundtrack on SoundCloud (above) and it got me thinking about what I learned about music on that first feature film. Here are my thoughts…. Why not listen to the score as you read?
- The Music IS VERY IMPORTANT
And so it follows that the composer is a key crew member – I would say their contribution ranks alongside the screenwriter, editor, DP, designer. In some instances, even greater. And yet so many filmmakers leave this key relationship to the very end, sometimes even sending off their film for ‘some music’ and having little or no relationship with the composer. This blows my mind! Work as hard with your composer as you would your casting director to get the best actors for your film.
- The music gets mixed too high
In the final edit of many films I see from new filmmakers, the music is mixed to loud, or it’s too ‘bright’ in the soundtrack. This can often drown out the dialogue and sound effects, dominating the film. There will be moments where the music should soar and take center stage, but this choose theses moment carefully. As a general rule, take the level of the music down a bit in the entire soundtrack.
- There’s too much music
It’s a sign of an insecure filmmaker when there is wall to wall music (aside from action movies or where the story calls for it). The way it usually works on a low budget film is this – you do a cut of a scene, it’s not great because of script, acting, sound, editing problems, but adding music seems to add a lovely sheen. You move onto the next scene and you do the same. By the end you have a 90 minute film with 88 minutes of music! If there is too much music, the brain starts to filter it out and it quickly just becomes a noise, like wallpaper. Choose your music cues carefully.
- Don’t fight with sound effects
I learned this very important lesson on The Runner when we had a crescendo of music at the same time as an explosion. In the final dub, the mixer turned to me and said ‘which do you want?’ as mixing the two sounded mushy. In the end we had to do just that, but it made for an underwhelming moment. On the flipside, there is a spectacular highfall in the film, performed by the late great Terry Forrestal – in the mix Mark, the editor had asked us to leave that moment silent – all we would hear is the gun shots and wind – and it was extremely effective too. Taking the score out in a moment that on many levels cried out for music, only emphasised the drama of the sequence and avoided pushing it over into melodrama (listen to track 8, ‘Highfall’).
- Use Sound Effects instead
Does the scene need music? The combination of sound effects, foley and atmospheres can be extremely effective and often, is more effective than music. Allow your sound designer these calms before the musical storm. Consider… the first half of the attack on the Death Star in Star Wars has no music, nor does the scene with Ripley fighting the Queen alien in the climax to Aliens – what we have respectively is just Ben Burtts excellent sound design in Star Wars and in Aliens, motors whirring, hissing aliens and a screaming Ripley. These are creative choices to reign in the music so that when it’s needed, it can come in strong and take the drama up another notch.
- Have a theme and use it
Even in major movies I am often amazed how I can come away and have no memory of the score. When I leave the theatre, I should be humming a theme, or it should be haunting my subconscious. Think almost anything by John Williams, or John Carpenters ‘Halloween’, or Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard on ‘Gladiator’… All are memorable and immediately recognisable scores. I tried to do this with The Runner – you can hear the main theme most clearly, the one that repeats throughout the score, in the track ‘The Island’ (3) where in the story, the team get choppered onto the mysterious Survival Island.
- Don’t let the composer go crazy
Often a simple drone is enough for a scene, or no music at all – without input, some composers want to compose an opus EVERY sequence. And who can blame them? They are often under appreciated, under resourced, under paid and up against stiff competition. New composers especially find it hard to reign in their creativity. The score should always underscore and support the drama – on rare occasions it can dominate, but even then it’s really supporting the emotion of what’s going on in the mind of the audience. If your Spidey senses start tingling that you may be getting too much music, or music that is too complicated or ‘big’, step in and have a word.
- Don’t fall in love with your temp music
When you add some Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, James Newton Howard, to your movie, it can transform the experience. But… you know and I know that neither of us can use that temp music as we can’t afford it, nor can we afford the London Philharmonic! We are setting up ourselves up to fail. What usually happens is that the filmmakers fall in love with the multi million dollar score and when the composer gets onboard, there is nothing for them to add creatively – the film makers just say ‘copy this’. This happens on even the biggest movies – I saw ‘The Wolfman’ last night which had clearly been temp scored with the cracking music for Coppolas ‘Dracula’ by Wojciech Kilar – even Danny Elfman who scored ‘The Wolfman’ seemed unable to escape the temp score the editors laid in during post production.
- Don’t get music rights to use in festivals only
This is a classic cock up – you temp score with a track from a band, who then allow you to buy (very cheaply) the rights to use it in your film but at festivals on;y. You screen at a festival, win some awards, and then sales agents, distributors and broadcasters start sniffing around – they have fallen in love with the soundtrack too by now. Then you drop the clanger. You only have festival rights for the music– you offer to change the music, but like you, they want the original soundtrack. And they won’t pay for it and you cant afford it. You are screwed.
- Don’t leave it until the last minute
You are just asking for long, painful nights of creative compromise. Music is probably the last major creative stage your film will enter – yes there is picture grading and sound mixing going on at the same time (which are both creative), but the music is a chance to really take your film to the next level and alter it’s character dramatically. It’s ironic then that most of the time, composers are given a pittance of budget (as the film went over budget), and very little time (as everyone said, ‘we will deal with this tomorrow’). Try and ring-fence your music budget and start working on the score as early as you can.
The soundtrack for The Runner was performed and recorded in our living room by Gary Pinder, using his synths and recorded to DAT. Both Genevieve and myself sat with him every minute of every day of every week while editor Mark Talbot Butler oversaw the sound track laying with Chris Dickens. I trusted Mark and Chris to sculpt and incredible acoustic world for the film and felt it was prudent to oversee the music score.
In the score you can hear heavy influences from Black Rain, Scarface, Blade Runner, Outland, even Rambo 3 – all of which were used in temp scoring the film. I was already a movie soundtrack nut and knew instinctively what each scene needed, after which I would whip out a cassette and we would watch a scene while also listening to a bit of Hans Zimmer or Jerry Goldsmith. Back then there was no way to sync temp music so it could only ever be used as inspiration (unlike today where you can lock that music to picture and fall in love with your temp score).
Good luck with your scores, and remember, start work early and keep it reigned in.
Onwards and upwards!