Music & Pictures (Part 2)
So You Want To Be A Screen Music Writer?
Producer/composer Robin Lumley continues this series designed to take the mystery out of writing and recording music for film and television.
Musician, producer and film music composer Robin Lumley continues his six part series designed to take the mystery out of writing and recording music for film and television.
If you haven't been wished it elsewhere in the pages of this erudite periodical, a very Happy Christmas and Prosperous New Year to you all! That's got nothing to do with the subject matter for the next couple of pages, but it gets me started; always the hardest thing to do, whether writing articles for magazines or music for films. Yes, getting started... it's a toughie in this game, and I mean not only writing the first note or phrase, but breaking into this highly competitive field in the first place. Breaking in is, of course, something I'll be trying to help you with round about Part Six, but writing the first (or any) note is definitely the province of this month's discourse.
Last month, we discussed the history and evolution of screen writing, which was a fairly non-technical essay, and strived to introduce you to the medium. This month is, if anything, less technical, and will attempt to steer you into the right state of mind for soundtrack music writing. This state of mind is essential for success and acceptance within the industry.
If you are a song or music writer, either as a solo artist or within the confines of a band situation, your parameters of operation are either self-imposed, or at least very wide in terms of the music being music for its own sake, designed and crafted to be heard alone, on record or gig, without any concern for subsidiary considerations or interests. Music for music's sake, art for art's sake, or even music for money's sake, it doesn't matter much which. If you're stuck, consciously or subconsciously in any of these brackets then you'll have to make a definite mental change of gear, because the demands of screen music writing require subjugation from the pure art form of simply creating music.
This does not mean musical prostitution in anyway, shape or form, but merely a knuckling-under to a new discipline; one that can be just as stimulating and rewarding in its own way. If you read this column last month, you'll remember how I stressed the symbiotic nature of the operation... a melding of sound and vision, and how the two must be appropriate to each other so that the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.
Whether we're talking 30-second commercial, or 90-minute feature film, you are no longer your own boss... you now have a creative partner to consider, to whit, the film director himself. He can either be a real pain (in which case you'll have to put up with him and try subtle diplomacy) or he'll be a real help. But in any event, it's his film and he's responsible for it; every single audio and visual frame. We musos are hired hands, specialists in our own right, but rented in to help the director realise what he has in mind. This does not infer the prostitution angle I yelled at you in italics a minute ago, but a team spirit.
Let's try an example: a year or two ago I worked on a TV commercial for Sony videotapes, not to be screened in Britain (John Cleese took care of that with his excellent, although virtually music-less series), but in Canada and other ex-patriate countries. On the day set aside to record my music track, I had the whole thing worked out, with a main theme that repeated itself and worked beautifully to picture, finalising with a five-note musical statement that summed up the whole, over the 'pack shot' (which is commercial film jargon for the last couple of seconds when the product finally appears on screen and the plug is made).
So, I duly performed my written bits, with the last main theme. And here's where I started to fall out with my director. Viewing the whole thing musically, that final phrase was essential to my musical piece, but he disagreed picture-wise. After a bit of bawling and shouting, we left off my beloved phrase, retained a string chord and voice-over, and the commercial went on to win an Industry Award in Chicago. Typical!
Looking at the project months later, I realised that the director was absolutely right; my phrase, fine music though it may well have been, spoilt the effect of the pack shot completely. In other words, I learned to co-operate, and see the whole thing in perspective. A lesson learned the hard way, but it sank in... I started seeing things from a pictorial point of view and realised that my beloved music, however perfect on its own, was of no use to the picture unless it enhanced or reinforced the overall concept, and that this might mean subjugating the lone value of the musical piece to the audio-visual whole.
When I state that things must work together, there is firstly a very obvious meaning, and that is the synchronisation of screen events and music. Technically, where this occurs is known as a 'hit point'. For example, where a door slamming, or an arm movement, or what have you, requires reinforcement by musical means. This requires yet another new discipline for the music writer: that of making the music appear natural and flowing, yet still incorporating the hit point, as if it just so happened.
And another thing: atmospherics and their enhancement. Given a piece of silent film footage of a quiet, peaceful lake at dusk, for instance, the overlaid music could completely alter the final impression. One could write moody, romantic melodies, evoking calm and beauty, or one could write threatening JAWS-type themes, implying something dreadful or ominous was about to occur from the apparent peaceful scene. Thus, the viewer is completely manipulated by the music, totally regardless of the visual content involved. Of course, this kind of end result requires close liaison with the director about what he wants to achieve in his finished result.
In other words, the music writer must totally swallow his pride and not compose what he sees fit, but what is necessary for the combined audio-visual moment.
I have found that over the years, as one becomes more familiar with working with picture, and especially in terms of 30-second TV commercials, that you end up underwriting, with great economy, rather than plastering great wads of music over all and sundry. In fact, this can be of distinct help in other musical areas because it creates within the writer a sense of economy, so that every note and phrase tells, and is never self-indulgent.
And if you're a solo writer, ie. having no partner, and overdubbing everything yourself when doing your commercial or whatever, you'll find that this attitude of economy helps you in other musical areas, such as your own songs or instrumentals.
However, there is one big exception to all the foregoing. Everything I've said so far pre-supposes that the film has all been shot, and mostly edited, and you've been called in to supply the music - the usual procedure. But sometimes, with a highly imaginative director, that man might like to sit down with you in the pre-production stage for long conversations, and ask you to compose and record the complete music track before the cameras even 'turn over' at all. You'll both sit there with piles of storyboards, which are the proposed film, as it were, laid out in cartoon-strip form (a bit like 'Fred Basset' in the Daily Mail) but in full colour and with lots of annotations and ideas written under each drawn frame. This process is done anyway for every film, but in this particular instance, you are drawn in at a very early stage because the director regards the music as such an important aspect that he wishes you to record the lot first, so that he can actually shoot and edit his film to your music track.
This does not mean that economy, realisation of symbiosis, and last minute changes are not going out the window, but it does mean that the director and yourself can be absolutely certain what music is going to be needed. Of course, this is a very exciting position of trust in which to be placed, and may even require you to rough out an 'audio map' (a nice euphemism for demo) to be resubmitted for further discussion or approval. Any film company will normally be willing to pay the costs of this operation - they call it 'research budget' - so that on the day that the music is recorded 'wild' (that means just as is, and not simultaneously to picture), it's going to be exactly what the director wants. Even at this last minute stage, you must expect him to be picky, and change odd bits and pieces, but at least up until then, you'll both have worked together and formed some kind of personal understanding and chemistry, so that discussions between you are easy, with an air of supportive, mutual give and take.
So far, these first two essays have been more in the mind than practical, but next month we move into the hardware side of how matters are actually carried out, with equipment, studios, sync-systems and the whole technical hog. I can only hope that you've gathered much from the story so far, learned some lessons the easy way (although there will never be a substitute for experience) and you're all set to find out what problems await you in a film-dubbing studio.
Feature by Robin Lumley
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