Composing a film score

The world of film scoring

When entering the world of movie soundtracks. your goal should be to stand out. You want to be the composer that captures the mood better than any other. For an action film you want to be able to enhance the movie to the point with people’s blood runs faster just because of the music.

Make no mistake about it, film scores are compositions in entirety as much as any other symphonic work. Writing a film score is about building themes, creating consistency and linking sections of the film musically.

A professional film soundtrack is supposed to enhance the plot without distracting from it. This is the fine balance. Are you a flashy writer? You very often will find yourself having to tone it down. Are you a subtle chordal peaceful melodic writer? very off and you will have to go against your own compositional instincts and lean towards more exciting writing. of course it all depends on the film itself.

One of the most epic heroes of film scoring is John Williams. He is famous for using the brass section to punctuate powerful characters.

Where do I start?

The first step undoubtedly is to watch the film. Repeatedly. If possible watch it with the director or the producer. Try to get an overall feel for the movie and possibly sleep on it. Marinate on it and allow it to become part of you. Once the creative juices are flowing a theme will jump out at you. Whether sitting at the piano or the guitar or on your music program.

Often a movie will lend itself to one thing that has variations. This theme will usually appear in the opening scenes or credits. It’s the variations on this theme that can tug at people’s heartstrings.

On second and third watching of the film, be short of focusing on key characters. It is not unusual for a particular character to have a parcticular theme attached to them. The obvious example is the villain. Having a dark ominous motive every time he appears.

For example John Williams has a similar theme every time Darth Vader or the Storm Troopers appear. The variations never take away from the sinister nature of these scenes. On the other hand, when princess leia enters there is a theme that goes with her and so on. Put down your ideas on the staves and discuss them at the piano with the film maker. the person who wrote the film and those who intend to direct it will already have their own ideas. So they may not be able to express the it’s important to get inside their head and work with them closely.

Always consult with the director about their ideas for the music. While viewing the film and noting aspects, watch it with the director one time. Talk about their ideas for special moments and the music generally. Many directors understand instruments and orchestration better than you think. Consult them for different styles.

Constructing a Timeline and cue notes.

The importance of constructing a timeline cannot be understated. The process is a little similar to great animation studios such as Pixar and DreamWorks. Where they employ storyboards and timelines in that sense, you want a list of queues and visual descriptors.

On one of your many viewings you should begin to pause the movie and write down specific times that coincide with very important events. Some of them maybe subtle yet just as important. One of the more interesting aspects of writing music for a film is that you could be predictive in your scoring. you literally have the power to change the mood and create an ominous feeling before a scene even occurs!

This creative licence and power should always be balance with the directors opinions. Does he or she intend to give the coming scene away? This is always possible and helps to toy with the emotions of people. And let’s face it, emotions are what you are dealing with mostly. That is your primary job along with the actors. Preempting a scene and building it up with tension using string tremeloes and discordant brass voicings can allow a climactic moment to jump out even more pronounced.

Having said all of this. Surprise moments are just as effective. sunny day style music with a light string orchestration and a gentle woodwinds can be rudely interrupted by gongs comet clashing cymbals, electric guitar and lower brass. It all depends on the style of the movie and the desired effect.

Crash symphony productions in Sydney is well known for their ability to combine music with video production. It is the idea Sydney Recording studio to get this sort of job done.

Tempos and instrumentation

Tempos affect the mood of a scene. The same theme sped up to double or triple the pace packs much more of a punch in a chase scene! Also experiment with various chordal ideas. One common device is to take the same theme and put it in a minor key. Modulation is also a very useful tool. Shifting up a minor third often is just as effective as a tempo change. Part of the process when choosing important cue markers is noting down where a tempo change or modulation may be useful.

Instrumentation is the other side of the coin. The variety of instruments at your finger tips these days is mind boggling. Its not even necessary in fact. The good old 70 piece symphony orchestra of centuries ago provides more than enough tone colour to paint various moods. From the spindly nerdish sounds of a bassoon to the bold brashness of a triple forte trombone. The lushness of violins and violas well voiced to the haunting sounds of a solo cello in the lower register. These different combinations all provide different atmospheres.

Listening to other film scores from different genres will broaden your mind and help you to understand different contexts.

Never forget the power of a solo piano. The piano itself in the hands of a maestro can provide very intimate moments. As an example take this scene with Sandra Bullock from Bird Box.

The simplicity and near silence allows room for the actors and the script itself to breathe.

Simplicity is your friend.

Fleshing out scene to scene in the work room of your composing hours is not the hard part. Like every other musical or artistic endevour, the challenge comes from knowing what to leave out! You may have voiced a chase scene and be happy with it, only to find a director had a different idea. “Thin it out towards the middle”, may often be the comment. The old saying “less is more” has never been more true than in film scores. A good Sydney recording studio can provide priceless advice on over all contour and timing.