You are here

Making A Living From Music For Picture: Part 6

Making A Living From Music For Picture: Part 6

We look at the completed orchestrations for the film project introduced last month, and begin to consider the problem of what to do when a director demands revisions to your work...

Just as there's no single way to approach making a living in this business, there's no one way to compose music. Where do you begin? Some composers rush to their CD collection or DVD library for inspiration before writing. I tend to do that in-between jobs. Once I'm commissioned on a project, my approach is to clear my head and avoid listening to music as much as possible before picking up the pen, or, rather less elegantly in my case, placing my fingers on a plastic MIDI keyboard (I no longer use a pencil or score paper; a sequencer is now my musical sketch pad). For me, I find it's important to leap forward and not agonise about what those first notes should be. When scoring for film or television, there is usually no time for doubt and hesitation. You get the gig for a reason, and it's more than likely that the director likes what they've heard from listening to your prior work. So breathe deeply and go for it!

By now you've probably downloaded the Quicktime clips from The Destruction of Civilization via the links provided last month and tried your hand at scoring them. It's time to reveal what I did to create the finished score, and why.

Getting Started

The first scene, 'The Fundamental Scapegoat', ran to 49 seconds, took place in a small room and didn't have a lot of dialogue. The acting was a bit campy, as the characters did their best to feign sorrow and indignation. I had already established that the director was partial to the music of Bernard Herrmann, and agreed to an arrangement consisting of strings, brass, woodwinds and percussion.

An excerpt from the finished score to the first scene from The Destruction Of Civilization introduced last month, as seen in Pro Tools, with the scene itself running in a video window locked to the soundtrack, and the various sampled instruments making up the score (harp, cello, bass, celeste, clarinet and bassoon) visible in the background.An excerpt from the finished score to the first scene from The Destruction Of Civilization introduced last month, as seen in Pro Tools, with the scene itself running in a video window locked to the soundtrack, and the various sampled instruments making up the score (harp, cello, bass, celeste, clarinet and bassoon) visible in the background.My broad understanding of musical references was a help to me here (see the 'Know Thy History' box later in this article). While Bernard Herrmann is most often associated with the piercing strings of Psycho, I didn't think that was what Shawn Hamilton, the director, had in mind. Instead, this scene made me think of another Hitchcock film that Herrmann scored, The Trouble With Harry, in which the residents of a quiet Vermont village stumble upon a dead body in the woods. I felt something light and restrained was required — after all, there wasn't much action in the scene — and that there should be a mildly sinister edge, to reflect the dubious intentions of the main characters. And of course Shawn had let me know that he wanted a little 'distortion', or edge, to the overall score.

To start with, I created a new project in my sequencer (Digidesign's Pro Tools), set it to a sample rate of 48kHz (remember, TV and film live in the 48kHz world, whereas most music studios operate at 44.1kHz), and made sure I had the frame rate of my source video correct (as I'm based in the US, it's typically 29.97 drop frame). I then imported the Quicktime file Shawn Hamilton had supplied me with into Pro Tools and extracted the audio to a new stereo audio track. Finally, to complete my setup, I created the audio and instrument tracks I would need to load my favoured virtual sample libraries and sound sources, along with their corresponding MIDI tracks (you can see all of this in the screen grab opposite).

When working with virtual orchestras, the key to making them sound real is to use the correct articulations. Unlike hardware synths with generic string patches, modern orchestral libraries allow for very precise control over not just what notes are played, but exactly how those notes are played. I knew I would need strings, and in particular I needed pizzicato, tremelo and legato articulations. The Vienna Symphonic Library has set the standard for sampling almost every imaginable articulation. Their Opus 1 Library contains most of the necessary articulations you'll need to do a convincing score, and the VSL legato strings, for example, have reached new heights of realism that were almost impossible to obtain convincingly before. When I scored this film I was using Native Instruments' Kontakt v1.5, which required the external use of VSL's Performance Tool for the legato patches. Kontakt 2, however, has built-in scripting, and VSL have made scripts available so that all you need to do is load the patch and go. As I would be using French horn and trombone swells in the next piece, I loaded my favourite patches from the Project SAM brass libraries that sample an actual volume swell, rather than trying to recreate that when mixing. I also loaded a full set of Vienna woodwinds (flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon) that allowed me to access the necessary articulations via keyswitches. Finally, I loaded tam tam, celeste, and harp, and was ready to go.

For The Birds

I once scored a promo for the sequel to Alfred Hitchcock's film The Birds. The client was very emphatic about exactly how it should be scored: they wanted it to sound "just like the music from The Birds". In one of those awkward moments you're bound to find yourself in at some point in your career, the client had to be informed in a strategically diplomatic way that there was in fact no music at all in that entire film. Those incredible moments of terror in the film as Tippi Hedren is attacked were achieved entirely with the use of an electronic keyboard called the Trautonium. Instead of providing him with music, Hitchcock soundtrack regular Bernard Herrmann served as a sound consultant, and worked closely with Remi Gassmann and Oskar Sala, achieving for the director some of the most terrifying moments in film — and all without any music! Anyway, I knew what the client was trying to say... and I gave them my best stab at a 'Herrmann-esque' soundtrack.


You can hear the results of my efforts by downloading the clip containing the finished score from Movie icon

To begin the scene, I created a pizzicato bass and cello figure that became the foundation of one of the two main themes running through the score. The music begins some six seconds into the scene, just after the character Cole plants the evidence, turns and sighs. As I hinted last month, it's not necessary, or even desirable in all cases, to score every second of film. It's just as important to know where to leave room for the action to 'breathe', to give time for the audience to catch their breath after a previous cue, or allow for dialogue to proceed unimpeded. Each situation is a judgement call. When you come to this part of the process, you may already have discussed such decisions with the director during a spotting session, but sometimes it will be up to you alone.

Part of the finished score from the cue, as seen in the Score Editor in Apple's Logic Pro.Part of the finished score from the cue, as seen in the Score Editor in Apple's Logic Pro.I broke the scene up into two smaller cues, choosing to leave the listener hanging a bit just after Clarence picks up the planted evidence and pretends to be shocked at his discovery. The first part employs tremolando cellos, used as a cliché to provide suspense as Clarence follows Cole's cue to investigate his discovery. There follows a pregnant pause as Clarence questions the father, who is dumbfounded as to the origin of the planted evidence with the Fundamental Burger logo on it. Again, sometimes a pause in the dialogue is there for effect, and is best expressed without music.

The second half of the cue introduces the woodwinds, harp and celeste. While the pizzicato basses, cellos and woodwinds play a syncopated figure, the celeste flows over that with a steady stream of eighth notes, a motif I use to represent the satirical nature of the film. I started the second half of this cue when the father mutters in disbelief, stunned that his son might have been eating burgers by Fundamental, and I knew I wanted my final notes to land on the last cut of the scene, which is a shot of Clarence and Cole looking seriously determined to punish Fundamental Burger for this outrage. There's more than one way to achieve this. I didn't want to deviate too much from my tempo, which had already been established. In situations like this, I used to break out a program called Cue, which would let me enter the timecode reference (or feet/frames position) relating to the desired start and end points of the piece of music in the film, and would then calculate the tempo that would hit the mark (or create a tempo map automatically for me). For these cues, I ignored tempo markings and bar/beat lines in the sequencer and just played my Prophet T8 keyboard controller while viewing the picture, conducting myself and playing the part through a few times until it worked with the visuals. You can't do this in every situation, but in this case it was faster to do and felt more natural. When scoring with virtual libraries I try to inject as much natural feeling into the pacing as possible, and avoid quantisation. When I first got into using computer sequencers, I was the master of quantisation, and used it on everything. But as time has gone on, I've increasingly avoided it. It's great for techno and dance music, but not so good for traditional symphonic scoring. Just as with any decent rock and roll band, there is always a little give and take with tempo in a real orchestra. It's not precise, but it flows naturally. So these days, I find that the more 'slop' I introduce into my arrangements, the better they sound. And lacking any serious keyboard skills (I'm a guitarist, really), it's pretty easy for me to do!

The Rule of Three

When I studied conducting and arrangement with master conductor and orchestrator Gary Fagin in New York City, he illustrated an approach that was evident in the music of many great composers, whether intentionally or not: limiting the complexity of your composition to no more than three parts. He suggested that while most composers were perfectly at home with listening to music that had far more complexity, the average listener would be overwhelmed. We studied the symphonies of the great German composer Gustav Mahler, whose name one usually associates with large and complex scores. But much of the work that we examined had no more than three parts happening at any one moment. Sure, there were lots of instruments playing, but much of them were merely doubling the same parts. At the time, I had a tendency to write too many parts, a consequence of youth, inexperience and also a common pitfall of using a computer sequencer. This is not a hard and fast rule, and there are always exceptions. I've tried to follow it, and much of the music I've written adheres to this principle. As they say, 'less is more', 'keep it simple, stupid', 'silence is golden'... er, you get the point.

Bada Bling

The second clip, the finished version of which can be downloaded at Movie icon finds us further along in the film, as we witness the disastrous effects of Additive WMD and learn of the downfall of the Bling Burger empire. This is one of the most important scenes, as it ties all the pieces of the film together. Using a montage of newspaper clippings, it unravels the story and brings us to the moment in the film where Bling Burger CEO Clarence Leroi is placed on trial by his former board members. The cue lasts a minute and three seconds, and there is a voiceover throughout the entire scene.

Seen in Pro Tools, the more extensive arrangement for the second scene from The Destruction Of Civilization, incorporating flutes, oboe, violas and trombones in addition to the previous scene's instrumentation.Seen in Pro Tools, the more extensive arrangement for the second scene from The Destruction Of Civilization, incorporating flutes, oboe, violas and trombones in addition to the previous scene's instrumentation.Photo: Jason BlockFor this cue, I expanded on the motif introduced in the second half of the previous scene, but without the staccato phrasing in the woodwinds (as you can see in the screenshot above). The pizzicato bass motif (doubled with the harp) plays in contrast to the eighth-note celeste line. This plays for seven measures before the tone changes and we cut to the scene with the formerly happy couple eating behind the dustbins. At this point, the pizzicato bass motif modulates down a minor third. Cellos and violas play a legato counter line against the bass, while French horn and trombone swells punctuate for dramatic effect. As the piece winds down in intensity, the tremolando strings return to reinforce the dark consequences of the public health crisis and the search for the missing Clarence Leroi. Pizzicato violins double the bass part at the end as well, for added effect. The goal here is to represent the passage of time.

It's worth discussing dialogue again here. In film and television, dialogue is king. If you can't hear it because your music is too busy, you've failed in your mission. Whenever someone is talking, the music needs to be supportive. There are different degrees to achieving this, but unless the director wants the music to dominate for dramatic effect, you should restrain your scoring in these moments. Remember, this film is about the story, not your music, and the music is only there to help tell the story more effectively.

If you tried to score these scenes and your results were nothing like mine, don't worry. You'll get another chance with the next film we'll be discussing. There's no one way to make these scenes work; I might score them differently myself if I were to do them again today. Luckily for me, the director Shawn Hamilton loved the cues. But this raises another question; what happens if the director doesn't like what you've written? What if all of those long hours of hard work lead to disappointing results?


How you handle revisions to your work can be one of the most important make-or-break factors in your music-for-picture career — especially when you're trying to get established. Clearly, this is a contentious issue. You should not expect that everything you write will be perfect, and even if you think it is, directors may not agree. Or they may not feel that you have given them what they've asked for, which is why it can be useful to discuss this topic with your employer before you begin the process. On the one hand, it is your obligation to compose generally what the director wants. On the other hand, composers are not mind-readers, and can't reasonably be expected to rattle off fresh cues endlessly until the director is satisified.

Allan Tsao (right), director of Ghost Soldier, working on the custom-built set of the film.Allan Tsao (right), director of Ghost Soldier, working on the custom-built set of the film.Photo: Jason BlockIf a director doesn't like some of your work, you both have a mutual obligation to reach a compromise — at least in theory. Ideally, directors in this situation should do their best to articulate what the problem is, and be specific about what they would prefer, and you should try to accommodate these requirements. On the one hand, directors should appreciate the extraordinary amount of time it takes to score a scene, and should not dismiss your efforts lightly. On the other hand, it's their film, not yours.

With my television work, one technique that works in some instances is to define the precise parameters under which revisions are made. Usually two or three ideas, or sketches, are presented for the client to choose from. Then two or three revision cycles are made at the direction of the client. Beyond this point... well, I always try to ensure in our preliminary discussions that it is understood that more money will have to be forthcoming for any further revisions the director requires. If the budget is fairly stingy, then there might be fewer revisions. Larger budgets may require more flexibility. There are no hard and fast rules, and each client reacts differently to this topic. Of course, it helps to have a degree in international diplomacy to navigate through all of this!

I find it a little more complicated to specify revisions for film work, as the volume of music is generally substantially greater. Mind you, on the whole film people are more understanding and reasonable than television clients, although that doesn't mean you won't fall victim to differences of opinion between, say, the director and the producer. For me, the best solution is to listen to the director's arguments, and do your best to accommodate them. Some of the best music I've written came about by kicking and screaming my way through a revision. Of course, some directors have also — in my humble opinion — watered down and ruined some of my best work as well! Try to keep sight of the bigger picture. In the end, it's the film that counts. And if you believe you've done everything asked of you and the client is still not satisfied, don't be afraid to bring up monetary matters. Just be as non-confrontational as possible.

Every scoring experience you ever have will be different from the last. Regardless of your experience level, each project will present a new series of challenges that you'll have to react to. With that in mind, let's move forward to our next challenge.

Know Thy History

In part two of this series, Hilgrove Kenrick recommended a number of contemporary film composers whose work you can learn from. To that excellent list I would add the works of the great Hollywood film composers of the past, who created the art form and from whom all else flows.

Making A Living From Music For Picture: Part 6Making A Living From Music For Picture: Part 6 As you'll know from this month and last month's instalment of this series, one of my personal favourites is Bernard Herrmann, who, in addition to scoring most of Alfred Hitchcock's greatest film classics (Psycho, Vertigo, and North By Northwest), scored Orson Welles' epic Citizen Kane as well as the sci-fi classic The Day The Earth Stood Still and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. Herrmann also laid the foundation for the modern horror genre with his scores for Sisters and It's Alive. You can learn a lot more about Herrmann on a web site hosted by the Bernard Herrmann Society at

Another favourite of mine is Jerry Goldsmith, who gave us The Blue Max, Planet Of The Apes, Patton, Chinatown, The Omen and Alien. The score for Planet Of The Apes, in particular, is a great example of how to make do with a small budget and limited ensemble (here Goldsmith was no doubt helped by his experience scoring episodes of the original Twilight Zone TV series — to which Bernard Herrmann also contributed). You can learn more about his career by visiting (see below).

Elmer Bernstein is perhaps best remembered for his memorable scores to the classic western The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape. He also won an Academy Award for his scores to The Man With The Golden Arm and Thoroughly Modern Millie, as well as Oscar nominations for To Kill A Mockingbird Hawaii and Trading Places. There's much more to learn about him at (shown below left).

These are but a few of my favourites. Other great composers to investigate are Max Steiner (King Kong, Gone with the Wind), Franz Waxman (Rebecca, Suspicion), Dimitri Tiomkin (Lost Horizon, The Guns Of Navarone), Miklos Rozsa (Ben Hur, Ivanhoe) and Alex North (Spartacus, The Agony And The Ecstacy).

For more on film music and its history, check out, or books like The Art of Film Music by George Burt (ISBN 1555532705) or Film Music: A Neglected Art, by Roy Prendergast (ISBN 039330874X).

Meet the Director

The next film we'll look at is called Ghost Soldier (see the 'This Month's Film' box below). It's a short film written and directed by a talented young director named Allan Tsao. Allan has written, directed and produced many short films and videos. He is a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music where he studied piano (a fact that was unknown to me while scoring the film — more on this later). Before I worked with him, he had previously interned with HBO Sports, CBS 48 Hours, and the popular comedy series Sex & The City, and he's currently developing a screenplay for his first feature film about the infamous Unit 731 during World War II. Ghost Soldier was his graduate thesis for New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. As you'll see, this film is not just an ordinary student film, and I was eager to work on it with Allan.

As with the film we discussed last month, I responded to an ad on the Internet (although I didn't know at the time it was to be a student film). Filmmakers who solicit CVs on line are often deluged with them, and standing out from the crowd can be hard. I invited Allan to visit my web site and listen to my work. It also helped immensely that he was based only 15 minutes' drive from my studio. When I first met Allan I was very impressed with his ideas and approach to film-making, and the film really caught my attention. It was visually stunning, had some very strong performances by the ensemble, the sets resembled a big-budget Hollywood film, and it had action — and who doesn't want to write an action cue?

Ghost Soldier had a very long gestation period. We watched the film at our first meeting, discussed generally what music would be required and talked about financial arrangements. Over the next few months, the picture was edited a number of different ways. I spent a few more sessions viewing the film with Allan, discussing the changes and talking further about music. Finally, it appeared that the final cut was ready, deadlines were in place to meet, and the Quicktime video was delivered on an iPod.

Unlike our last film, this film had a temp track. For copyright reasons, I can't reproduce the temp track with our 'before' film clip, but I will say that Allan's original instructions were that the temp music was not terribly important to him and it was just filler. He didn't request any specific orchestration, so I ignored the temp track and went with my instincts. You can download the film clip at Movie icon This is a war film, and we're in Iraq. As you'll see, there are brief flashbacks that take us back in time. The challenge here is to convey the serious predicament the two soldiers find themselves in, yet introduce a musical motif representing a bittersweet longing for the past as the flashbacks are introduced.

Last month, I discussed the importance of finding a common ground when discussing musical ideas with your clients. I was surprised to learn that Allan had a serious musical background (which I only discovered while preparing for this article!). At the time of my commission, however, he made no attempt to communicate his ideas to me in purely musical terms. I asked him about that recently, and he told me that he was more interested in learning what I thought and could bring to his film rather than impose his perspective. He felt confident in his ability to discuss musical ideas from a more abstract and thematic point of view, rather than in strictly melodic and harmonic terms.

About This Month's Film

Making A Living From Music For Picture: Part 6Photo: Jason BlockGhost Soldier is a short film set in modern-day Iraq during the US invasion. Two American soldiers, James and Misha, are captured and moved to an underground prison, and the film chronicles their imprisonment. James fights off despair by digging deeper and deeper into his memories from the past to find the strength to survive. He looks back to his childhood girlfriend, Emma, and the time capsule they buried in his back yard when he was 10. As James fights to stay alive, he clings to the hope that his relationship with Emma still has some significance, even though Emma is now sharing her life with someone else and James has not seen her for a decade. Shot on 35mm film, Ghost Soldier features beautiful cinematography and custom-built sets.

Next Month

So download the clip, give it a shot, and in next month's instalment of this series, we'll look at what I wrote for the finished score. However, I'll warn you now that the story is more complex than the case of our first film. Allan continued to edit further, and even changed the temp music — which went from being filler to having more significance. The plot thickens... And, of course, we'll also have another new film to look at and try scoring for. Until then...