One of the key rules to a successful film production that most new filmmakers will learn at any film course is to spend twice as much time on pre-production than on production. The idea is to focus on script development, understanding your characters and making sure you have a tight screenplay that hits all the right beats, that as a director you spend enough time planning all your shots and you know when (and why) you will choose a close up over a wide shot so that filming goes smoothly.
So while many filmmakers will do all of this and will have a rock solid script, a tight shot list and a detailed storyboard and even thought of the perfect lighting, they have only worked on 50% of their picture; the visuals. The other 50% is sound and the part that is most frequently left out only to be thought of in the end is music.
Or one way to look at it so that takes the importance it needs is to think of a film’s score as its nonverbal treatment – it defines and complements the tone and rhythm of the film. Music describes the characters; their wants, their needs, their problems.
This article gives some suggestions and bits of advice to aspiring filmmakers who work on no or low budget films trying to tackle one challenge at a time and learn before moving on to their next movie.
Look for your composer before you start shooting
Do your research. Even if they come recommended, even if you heard one of their scores and liked it, each person has a general style and things they like. If you are director that does romantic comedies and dramas, chances are you will not be interested in a slasher B movie. Similar with a composer – they are a creative persons and they have their taste and their inclinations.
Find someone suitable and listen to samples, reach out to directors whose films he has scored to ask how the relationship worked, ask to meet for a coffee or lunch before you trust your film with them. Ask for (and listen carefully! to) samples, showreels, others scores and standalone tracks.
Tell a story together
As a director or writer/director you have a more or less clear vision of the story you want to tell, your characters’ actions and their feelings, you know how you want it to look and you spend enough time with your DoP in prep and on set discussing angles, lenses, lighting. You have your visuals covered; this is 50% of your film. The other 50% is your sound and that includes your dialogue and ambience sounds and the music.
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of music on a film; one that describes your character’s emotions and is more of an esoteric music (see Carter Burwell’s scores e.g. Carol) and another that is there to prepare your audience for what is about to happen (see John Williams’s music in Jaws). Depending on the story you are telling and the way you want to tell it, your composer can help you convey or create those emotions that visuals and action alone cannot. Treat them as your creative partner and not as a one-time hired gun and give them the freedom to create their piece of the puzzle and build on your idea (more on that later).
Communication is key!
This tip could be part of all the others but I feel it needs its own space so that it is emphasised. Composers work almost independently of the rest of the crew. They might have a chat with your sound editor or mixer but they will mostly only deal with you and with the picture. This means that you might have very little interaction with them but they are your No.1 creative ally.
Your composer is probably the one person you can talk about your character’s feelings with. Your AD as loyal to the vision and perhaps creative as they may be, has more pressing issues to deal with (making sure the film actually gets shot), your vfx person or colourist care more about it making look beautiful and true to the world you are building and the main character’s feelings when their boyfriend dies don’t really matter to their job. But they do to you and your composer is the one person who will get it. Talk to them about it. And after you’ve had a couple of chats about the less visible aspects of your film, leave them to it.
They are creative people so allow them the freedom to interpret your words and pictures as best they see fit. If you have a roughly good idea of how you want your film to sound, give a few samples and ideas. Reference other films that have achieved what you are looking to do but remember – you are not a musician, so avoid trying to use musical terms that chances are will confuse both of you.
Budget for your composer
When you are on a very very tight budget you focus on one thing at a time. You decide that you can go roughly about one or two months without a job and still use a big chunk of your savings for the production, you have your script and most of your friends are coming on board for free to lend a hand in whatever capacity they can but you pay for the gaffer who bring their lights and you pay for a good camera and a good sound recordist (you have a lot of exteriors and you need as clean a sound as you can get). Your plan now is to tackle one issue at a time. You spend two weeks in pre-production and one week in production, make sure everyone is fed and you actually have leftovers and you pay for everyone’s travel and by the end of filming you are broke. And after editing your film yourself, you realise it is time for music.
With no cash available, you trawl through endless libraries of weird mashup and as the days pass and you start losing the will to live and hating your film you realise you need a professional to take over and score your music. But at this point you have spent all your money. You either shelve your film until you have enough savings or you find the cheapest option available who might not be the best. So make sure you keep some money aside.
There is no right percentage because each film is different and has different needs but for what is essentially 40-50% of your film (the over 50% being the image and a 10% sound mix) it is worth setting some money aside from the beginning. Yes, you are on a tight budget, but find your composer and speak to them in advance. Be honest about your situation and see if you can come to an agreement.
Beware the temp score
A temp (for temporary) score is your friendliest enemy. It is very easy to get attached to a scene with a wonderful instrumental piece by your favourite band. If your favourite musician is Bowie, having his voice on your film will never be topped no matter how good your composer is. Equally, never use other soundtracks from other films. Inevitably, you will be seeing images of that film in your mind, and so will your composer. Always use tracks that you find in music libraries that are a little bit less that what you want. Tracks that help carry your film but don’t quite deliver it. When your composer gets your temp will know what you are aiming for, they will add their artistic signature and aim to elevate your film. And when you receive it you will be able to see your film in a new light.
Bonus tip! Make sure you talk about deliverables
It will save you both time and frustration if you know what you are aiming for. Do you want a single track? Do you prefer stems (ideally avoid it unless you know exactly what you are doing with your sound mix or you have an experienced sound mixer doing this for you.)? What about bit depth. As a new filmmaker, it is OK not to know everything and it is OK to ask. Seek your composer’s advice. As with the creative aspects of music, they are your most qualified collaborator to help.
Reading through these tips you will notice a theme: whatever you do, whatever you are making, no matter the budget and the size of your team, talk to your composer. They are your ally and your partner. I hope you find these tips useful and will take them on board when making your next film, TV episode, online content or advert. It would be wonderful to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.