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Making A Living From Music For Picture: Part 5

You Got The Commission — Now What? By Bill Lacey
Published April 2006

Making A Living From Music For Picture logo.

So, you've been commissioned to write the score for something. What on Earth should you do next? We provide some suggestions, with real-world scoring examples for you to try.

This month, taking over this series from Hilgrove Kenrick, I'll be exploring how you might go about approaching the task ahead of you when you reach the point to which every budding music-for-picture composer aspires: when you win a commission to score something. As Hilgrove explained last month, when scoring music for film and television, it's important to understand what's expected of you, and how you can satisfy those expectations. Writing music for oneself provides endless opportunity for choices and changes, but writing professionally requires that you make quick decisions about the direction you wish to take, and about the fastest and most expedient way of taking it.

To make matters worse, as Hilgrove has also pointed out in these pages, every employer communicates about music differently, and not always in specific musical terms that make your job easier. Furthermore, time is usually of the essence, and your ability to identify what clients want is just as important as that of writing compositions to accompany their films.

As this series continues, I'll try to help you to understand how to make the right choices when addressing these issues. By way of example, we'll be looking in detail at a number of films that I've scored. We'll get to know who the directors are, what they are looking for, and discuss critical issues such as schedule and budgets, just as I had to do with them when I was commissioned to provide score for their visuals. What's more, you'll be able to try your hand at scoring a scene or two from these films yourselves: Quicktime movies of scenes from the films we discuss will be available for download from the SOS web site. After all, there's no better way to learn how to write for films than to jump in feet first! So let's get started...

Who Am I To Tell You All This?

Author Bill Lacey in his studio.Author Bill Lacey in his studio.Photo: Damon Colquhoun Well... in addition to scoring 10 films, I've written music for four television shows and hundreds of commercials, promos, and trailers in the USA. I also do sound design and post-production mixing for film and television, as well as mastering for major record companies. I've worked on one Grammy award-winning CD, four Grammy-nominated CDs, received a CEDAR Award for my post-production sound work on Fellini's La Dolce Vita and won a Pro Max Gold Award for the score for a promo for Showtime Networks. I've provided music and/or audio to companies such as MTV, VH1, Showtime, NBC, CNN, Pepsi, American Express, RCA Records, Telarc, ABC and Saturday Night Live. And I've worked with producers, directors and artists such as Pat Metheny, Martin Scorcese, Keith Jarrett, Elmer Bernstein, Wynton Marsalis, Robert Kraft, Orrin Keepnews and John McLaughlin.

Meet The Director

From your initial contact with film or TV directors, you must try to understand what they require from the music. Learning how directors communicate — either through their choice of temp tracks, as Hilgrove explained last month, or by understanding spoken references in face-to-face discussions, which I'll cover this month — is key to ensuring that you meet the criteria for the job, and establish what will hopefully be a long-lasting relationship.

Of course, the chances are that your first foray into scoring music for film will not be an epic Hollywood blockbuster. That's the bad news. The good news is that whether you're trying to break into this business in the UK or in the States, where I'm based, there are more films and TV programmes being made today then ever before, and there's a lot more work to go around than there used to be. Especially since the advent of the new digital video formats, as well as cost-effective digital video-editing systems such as Final Cut Pro, more and more people have been empowered to make films. In the UK, there are many more independent TV production companies than there used to be, the independent film market worldwide is growing daily, and many great films are being made for a fraction of the cost of Hollywood blockbusters. So the independent sector is probably where you'll find your best opportunity to make an entrance into the world of music for picture.

It's important to find a way to balance your creative desires with the need to accommodate the intentions of the filmmakers who engage your services. You are both a creative partner and a hired hand. Don't lose sight of the fact that your purpose is to elevate the story, to add to it where it makes the most sense, to accompany the actors on their journey, and to add something special that can only be achieved musically — not to show the world that you are indeed the true heir to the great film composers who went before you. Never lose sight of the fact that you are one of the last links in a long chain that has spent considerable time executing the filmmaker's vision. You might be an important link, but you are merely one of many.

The first visuals we're going to look at as example material are from a short film, The Destruction of Civilization, which was written and directed by Shawn Hamilton (see the 'About This Month's Film' box, over the page, for more info). This was Shawn's fourth short film, and it was shot on 35mm film and transferred digitally to the computer for editing. In between making films, Shawn works as a production accountant for very large-budget films; his clients have included Miramax, Filmworks and Forty Acres And A Mule (Do The Right Thing). His industry work has given him the necessary experience to negotiate the business of filmmaking, and budget appropriately.

The chain of events by which I became involved in this project was a little different to the pitching process described by Hilgrove Kenrick last month. What Hilgrove described is very common when pitching for TV scoring work, both in the UK and the US. But rather than by having to make a formal pitch, many of my film jobs have come about by directing potential clients to my web site to listen to my showreels. If they like what they hear, I try to set up a meeting so I can learn more about the project, and they can get to know more about me. I find these meetings crucial to securing the job for various reasons, which we'll now consider. Firstly, I consider it a worthwhile effort because I usually don't have to write any music before the deal is struck!

In the case of Shawn Hamilton, I responded to an Internet advertisement that he had placed in his search for film composers. My first meeting with Shawn was brief and informal. He wanted to meet me, get an idea of what kind of films I liked, how I worked, and, of course, what I've done before. It certainly helps to have some credentials, and experienced composers are far more likely to be treated with respect than beginners. Once you get this far, it is much easier to negotiate the terms of the project and discuss the budget (see the 'Money Matters' box on page 86).

In addition to discussing money, another important point to negotiate at these meetings is a clear idea of the time within which the score should be delivered. I find that this helps both parties. Your client can feel comfortable that the music will be finished on time in order to meet whatever necessary deadlines exist. And you will have a certain degree of protection from endless revisions and picture changes. Incidentally, I always advise clients that if they edit the picture after this completion date, and want to make changes to the music at that point, then it's going to cost them more.

It helps to be personable and a good communicator; your showreel will not be your only selling point. And as pointed out last month, you should also keep in mind that for many filmmakers, especially new ones, hiring a composer can be a bit unnerving. It's really the first time in the production of the film that they relinquish control — at least since they received the script. They know they need music. They may or may not have specific ideas about what kind of music they want. They may have someone else advising them as to what music they need for their film. Yet at this critical stage of the film's development, the baton is passed to a stranger who is charged with taking the film to another level. You will go away and lock yourself in your studio. This is often not easy for a filmmaker who may have just finished weeks or months of enjoying the most detailed control over the film during the editing stage. It's your job to inspire confidence that the film will be well cared for in your capable hands and that you will be delivering precisely what the filmmaker is looking for. Of course, the hard part is pulling that off!

In the case of scoring The Destruction Of Civilization, while the director and I agreed to move forward at the conclusion of my first meeting, it wasn't until my second meeting with him that I actually got to see the film. I think it's wise to sit quietly and watch the film the first time without commenting on music. Try to get a feel for what the film is about, what it's really trying to say. When it's finished, I always try to get the director to talk about the film, about what they are trying to accomplish and what they had in mind for music (if anything). Keep an open mind, as your first impressions as to what style of music is appropriate may be vastly different from what the director intends. Everyone talks about music differently, and it's up to you to decipher what is being communicated to you. Some people speak about music in the abstract, while others may have a more literal style. It will be rare that a filmmaker will speak to you in purely musical terms, and I advise you to refrain from getting too technical when you communicate; it's not usually helpful if you try to impress your client with your vast vocabulary of music theory. Find a common point of reference from which to communicate ideas. It may take you a while to get to that point, but the effort will make for a happier client and a more successful collaboration.

It was at our second meeting that we 'spotted' the film. This is the process of going through the film scene by scene with the director and deciding whether or not music is needed, what type of music may be required, where it may start or end, and any other helpful notes that the filmmaker has to offer. Sometimes this can go very quickly, as the director may have already inserted temp music into the film. And as we saw last month, temp tracks have the potential to be nothing short of controversial.

About This Month's Film

Director and author of The Destruction Of Civilization, Shawn Hamilton.Director and author of The Destruction Of Civilization, Shawn Hamilton.Photo: Damon Colquhoun With The Destruction of Civilization, Director Shawn Hamilton (above) has created a dark satirical look at greed and corporate corruption. The story chronicles the rise and fall of hamburger mogul Clarence Leroi as he guides his company Bling Burger to financial success using a questionable and unapproved additive substance. Knowing full well that the additives have not been approved and may lead to grave consequences, he pushes forward despite warnings from those within the corporation. After the initial success of additive WMD, the health of the public starts to suffer, ultimately leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths and making Clarence a wanted criminal. He is put on trial by the board of directors of Bling Burger and is dealt the justice he deserves.

Temp Music — Enemy Or Friend?

One way that filmmakers communicate their ideas about the music they feel is appropriate for their film is through the use of temp tracks. These are temporary music placeholders that are typically used to help filmmakers establish a tempo and feel for a scene during the editing process. It is not uncommon to find some of the best music ever written being used. This can be very helpful in getting a clear idea of what the director is looking for, but it can also become an obstacle to the completion of an original score.

The first problematic issue presented by temp tracks is that they often raise the bar beyond the realities of the budget. It will not be uncommon to find grandiose themes with large symphonies, often accompanied by full choirs. Should the budget not allow for such use, you are left to implement the ideas with your virtual orchestras. And regardless of how advanced the state of sampling is today, there are some things you just can't convincingly pull off. It will be your job to discuss with the director what can be reasonably expected given the budget and time available.

The second issue is that of course the temp tracks are copyrighted material. It is illegal and unethical to copy them. There's nothing wrong with drawing inspiration from temp tracks, and neither is it unethical to mimic the style, tempo and orchestration. You just can't use the same notes! And you'd be surprised at the battles you'll sometimes have to fight over that very point. On the whole, I've found that filmmakers tend to be fairly reasonable about this. My experiences relating to this matter when scoring for TV, on the other hand, have been more painful!

The third issue that sometimes arises occurs after you begin the scoring process. A filmmaker may have been listening to the temp music for months. Once they hear something new there is often the tendency to want to fall back on the familiar. It is this attachment to the temp track that can ultimately be your biggest source of frustration. It can be a challenging task to develop original ideas for the score, yet not lose sight of the temp music and the director's comfort zone. If you're having trouble with this, ask the director to be more specific as to what they are uncomfortable with in your score; help them to identify what doesn't feel right. It would not be unusual for a mix issue to be the cause; sometimes, the introduction of just one instrument can throw things off. Not all clients can articulate that, and so the entire track may be rejected. You'll have to use your instincts to try to sort out whether something can be salvaged from an idea, or whether you should cut your losses and start from scratch.

Money Matters

Everyone you will ever work with in film — until you reach that exalted status that the rare few achieve — will tell you they don't have much money left in the budget for music, so get used to it now. The chances are slim that you'll find anyone with deep pockets willing to finance your ascent to greatness; instead, you'll have to negotiate a fee that you can live with. I do this for a living, and getting paid is of paramount importance. You need to find a way to convey that to prospective employers when you meet them.

It is also important to me that I take only those jobs that I feel I can handle (both in terms of the nature of the work and also my existing time commitments) or that will challenge me creatively, or that will look good on my showreel — or all of the above! After all, writing music for picture is a substantial commitment of time and resources.

Usually I make it clear that I 'strongly prefer' (rather than insist) that I get paid for half of the fee up front and the remainder upon delivery of the finished score. If the client really doesn't have the money, or is less than honest about their intentions, you'll find out at this point.

Generally, I think it's often very hard for musicians to talk about money, but this is a business, and you must not be shy about getting what you feel you deserve for your creative efforts. After all, you're not a charitable organisation!

Let The Scoring Begin!

For The Destruction Of Civilization, Shawn Hamilton gave me two DVDs of films that had music that he thought might work well for his film. He did not have any temp music in his final cut, and was looking to me to help him find the right musical direction. It was not particularly helpful that the music referenced in these films were at the opposite ends of the musical spectrum. Additionally, one primarily utilised solo piano, the other a full-scale orchestra. Of course, there's nothing wrong with either being used in the same film; it just wasn't the most helpful way to establish the starting point. I held further discussions by phone with producer Frank Murray, who had considerable film-production experience. Unlike Shawn, Frank had a musical background and described things in more specific musical terms. So while Shawn spoke more in the abstract and used other films to communicate his ideas, Frank spoke more literally about instrumentation, tempo, melodic motifs, and so on. With these DVDs in hand, a script and a Quicktime movie of the final cut, I began to sketch out some initial ideas as to the musical direction of the film.

Scenes from The Destruction Of Civilization (clockwise from top left): Corrupt burger mogul Clarence Leroi makes a fortune using addictive substances in his company's foodstuffs, aided and abetted by his trusted assistant Cole Powers, but he is eventually forced into hiding, put on trial, and, at the end of the film, gets his just desserts.Scenes from The Destruction Of Civilization (clockwise from top left): Corrupt burger mogul Clarence Leroi makes a fortune using addictive substances in his company's foodstuffs, aided and abetted by his trusted assistant Cole Powers, but he is eventually forced into hiding, put on trial, and, at the end of the film, gets his just desserts.Photo: Damon ColquhounEvery film is different, and for this one, the first thing the audience would see was going to be a title sequence. However, the title graphics were not finished at this point, so I had to move forward without it. Using the DVDs as a reference, and after viewing the film again and reading the script, I put together five musical sketches that might serve as starting points for the score. Four of them were designed to accompany the first scene or two, the fifth being a possible opening or closing theme. When I listen back to them today, I think they're all awful — and they have no connection to where the music would ultimately settle. Only some sound-design elements survived this first round (I also did the sound design and mix for the film).

After more conversations with Shawn and Frank, I went back to the drawing board and produced a few more demos, but this time I got closer. I'm a big Hitchcock fan, and there were many elements of the film that reminded me of some of Hitchcock's darker and more offbeat moments. It turned out that Shawn is also a fan of Hitchcock, and of Bernard Herrmann (Hitchcock's composer for his greatest films, including North By Northwest, Vertigo, and Psycho — yes, he wrote those strings for that shower scene). I count Herrmann as one of my greatest influences, so it was with some satisfaction that I received the following reply from Shawn after the second round of demos: "I like the new song. I think it will work well if it becomes more and more distorted, like a Bernard Herrmann song."

Shawn was not suggesting distortion of the kind guitarists are fond of using (confesson: I am a guitar player with no keyboard chops who does all his composing on... a keyboard). Rather, he was looking for something with more of an edge to it. Now I knew I was going in the right direction, and from there the pace picked up. I had settled on a quirky satirical tone that would work well with the intent of the film. The orchestration would consist of the following: a string orchestra, a celeste, French horns, trombones, flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, tam tam, and harp.

I do most of my scoring from within Pro Tools, running Digidesign HD hardware on a Mac. With NI's Kontakt as my main sampler, I relied on the Project SAM horn and trombone libraries, as well as my favourite source of sampled orchestral instruments, the Vienna Symphonic Library's Opus 1.

Possible Mission

If you wish, you can now try your hand at scoring two scenes from the film, as the director has graciously allowed SOS to supply its readership with 'Before' and 'After' versions of two scenes. This month, I'll explain the 'Before' versions (which contain dialogue and sound effects, but no score), and set the stage, and then we'll consider how I produced the score, and take a look at the 'After' versions of the scenes (complete with music) next month.

The first scene is called 'Burger Boy's Apartment — The Fundamental Scapegoat'. The film is a series of flashbacks, and at the beginning of the film we see a young child that is being exploited by Bling Burger as part of their 'Slums Outreach Program', a PR stunt to increase sales of burgers to urban children. As a consequence of Bling's use of an untested and unapproved food substance in their burgers (Additive WMD), the poster child Burger Boy dies from eating Bling Burgers. Desperate to turn this disastrous event to their advantage, corrupt Bling Burger CEO Clarence Leroi and his henchman Cole Powers appear to pay their respects to Burger Boy's father, with the actual intent of planting evidence that competing fast-food chain Fundamental Burger was behind the unfortunate and untimely death of his son. You can download the Quicktime movie for this scene at Movie icon

I think you'll get a feel for the scene right away, as the intent of the story here is not subtle; don't be afraid to inject a tinge of humour into your score. Limit yourself to the instrumentation listed earlier, as that is what the director prefers, and keep in mind that you don't have to fill every moment of a film with music. The music is there to help tell the story, not to be the story. It sometimes helps me to think of my music cues as characters. Since a story with too many characters can be hard to follow, I create just a few musical characters, and then develop them in different ways throughout the film.

The second scene is called 'The End of Bling — The Epidemic Spreads'. At this point in the story, we have a montage with a voiceover by a character called Coseker, who, as a former board member of Bling Burger, now serves as prosecutor at the trial of Clarence Leroi, the company's former CEO. It is Coseker's narration that ties the pieces of the film together as it jumps from the past to the present. Coseker presents evidence in this scene of how the public was seduced by Additive WMD, how a public health emergency developed as a result of the unforeseen side effects of eating Bling Burgers, how the corporation eventually fell, and how its CEO Clarence Leroi goes into hiding.

This scene is roughly the same length as the previous one, but it needs to flow in a different way and have some momentum that wasn't required in the first. It also needs more of an edge as the scene progresses, and we learn of the many Bling Burger deaths. You can download this scene at Movie icon

Inspirational Quotes

"Any tone can succeed any other tone, any tone can sound simultaneously with any other tone or tones, and any group of tones can be followed by any other group of tones, just as any degree of tension or nuance can occur in any medium under any kind of stress or duration"

Vincent Persichetti, 20th Century Harmony , WW Norton & Company, 1961

For me, there are no more meaningful words that inspire me to take chances musically. Despite all my years of music study, I find it essential to start each job from a clean slate and throw the rulebook out the window. What you've learned in the past will find its way back naturally, and it's less likely you'll get hung up on improper voice leading or awkward intervals. Rules are made to be broken. Do whatever works to get to the finish line.

Making A Living From Music For Picture: Part 5

"I can dress the corpse. I can't bring it back to life"

Bernard Herrmann, quoted in A Heart At Fire's Center , Stephen C Smith, University of California Press, 1991

Oh how I've longed to say these words to many a client! Of course, you can't, unless you're Bernard Herrmann (one of the greatest film composers of all time, and probably my favourite). It is your duty to do the best you can when engaged to score a film, not to be a film critic. Many scenes I've scored are all the better with the right music. Still, there are those times when nothing will help.

"We're only in it for the money"

Frank Zappa, 1968

I couldn't resist! Just remember, as much as you love what you do, you're still doing this for a living. It's your job to get that across to your client. Don't be shy. You deserve to get paid, and paid fairly. It's the job of a filmmaker to budget accordingly.

Importing Your Movie

Virtually all modern sequencers can work with a digital video file such as a Quicktime movie. Each sequencer may handle it differently, but the concepts are the same. As this film was generated in the States, its format is in the US NTSC standard, running at a frame rate of 29.97 frames per second (drop-frame, or DF), rather than the European PAL standard at 25 frames per second that many SOS readers may be used to. So the first step after you create a new project is to make sure you've set your timecode reference to 29.97DF (assuming that your sequencer has such a feature) and set the sample rate to 48kHz. Most film sound you'll be dealing with will be at 48kHz, rather than 44.1kHz.

Once this is set, you need to import the video, and again, each sequencer handles this slightly differently. In Pro Tools 7, you'll find a 'Quicktime Movie' option under the Import option in the File menu. In Logic Pro 7, you'll find it under 'Open Movie', found in the Movies command under the Options menu. And in MOTU's Digital Performer, use the Open dialogue box found in the Movie options under the Project menu. Once the movie is loaded, you need to import the audio from the movie so you can hear the soundtrack (often archaically known as the SOT, or sound on tape). In Pro Tools 7, one of the Import options under the File menu is 'Audio From Current Movie'. In Logic Pro 7, the 'Extract Audio From Movie' option can be found in the Movies section of the Options menu. And in Digital Performer, you click on the mini-menu in the movie window and select 'Copy Movie Audio To Sequence'. If you don't use one of these sequencers, consult your user manual, but the steps should be very similar.

Timecode may or may not be visible on movie files that you'll be working with in the future. I usually request it, but it's not absolutely necessary unless you're working on something that is very cut/hit specific (if the tempo of your music needs to match picture cuts, or some specific visual event, for example). There's no timecode on our sample movies, and you can work without it just fine in this instance.

Next Month

In our next instalment, we'll look at exactly what music I eventually scored for these scenes, and why. We'll also take a look at a new film, and discuss how to handle a situation where the director continues to recut the opening scene after you've begun the scoring process.