Film editors and music – spotting session

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During the spotting session, the composer will screen the film with the director and editor, sometimes for the first time. I enjoy these sessions because it’s refreshing hearing from an objective, unbiased and creative point of view.

Usually the director and editor are not musically educated so we have to describe the intentions for the film without proper musical terms which composers are used to but it can be comical at times. My only musical training consists of guitar lessons when I was 8 and I played the drums in the school band when I was 12 so composers, please be gently with us.

Describe Essence of Film

If the composer hasn’t watched earlier cuts of the film, he/she would have read the script. We discuss the essence of the story and characters and why we reached a certain version of the scene which may have deviated from the original script. What is the overall tone? How should the story and score develop? Discuss the differences in structure which may be for emotion, character arc or plot development. This will aid the composer to delve deeper into the narrative allowing the score to percolate in their minds. 

Mute Temp Music

Temporary music allows directors and producers to view the film with all the bells and whistles but the wrong music could destroy this experience. During the spotting session, I prefer to mute the temp music which can be a distraction. It’s more important to discuss the raw scenes and how a great score can enhance the film.

If a certain piece of temp music works brilliantly, play it and explain why you love it; it could be the instrumentation, theme, tempo, or simply how a certain chord affects you emotionally.

Score Subtext

One of the most important aspects of the spotting session is to discuss how you want the audience to feel. A great scriptwriter will write dialogue that is unrelated to the state of the character and a brilliant director will visualise the subtext of what that character is truly feeling or thinking. The composer needs to score the subtext, not the surface. This will increase the complexity of the scene and give the characters and film more depth.

How much Score?

The amount of music used is always questionable because until you are mixing the final orchestrated score, it’s hard to imagine how it will blend with all the other elements and how you will feel. It is better to compose more music than less so you don’t need to edit or duplicate the same cues. Most composers may suggest scoring some additional scenes so be supportive and allow them to follow their instincts. At this stage, only they know the ideas or themes that are floating in their creative brains so I would encourage all suggestions plus alternative versions if necessary.

Transcend early music choices

When a director listens to music during the early stages of writing, developing or directing, it may serve them well and allow them to visualize the film but I would suggest changing it. A film undergoes many transformations so the music has to evolve with it. The rhythm, character arcs and development of the narrative may be different so the music has to transcend early ideas.

In the assembly of Tyrannosaur, I placed Seasons In The Sun by Terry Jacks on the montage of the wake and it worked well and was emotional. On the first day of the director’s cut, Paddy asked me to change it to Sing All Our Cares Away by Damien Dempsey and it elevated the scene immensely. Not only was it more contemporary and emotional, but it described the characters better, “Mary loves the grouse” connects better to Olivia Colman’s character and “He’s consumed by rage, like his father at his age” speaks about Peter Mullan’s character. And the moral of the song is “We grow strong, or we fall” echoing the characters’ growth and transformation.

On another film, the director listened to slow classical music during the shoot that he grew fond of so he didn’t want to change it during the edit. This really slowed the pace of the film down and in my opinion hurt the overall effect.

Discuss Source Music

It’s important to show and discuss what source music will be purchased or if any diegetic music is required from the composer.

In A Very English Scandal, the production purchased a few 60’s songs but none of them were Rock ‘N Roll enough for Ben Whishaw’s photo shoot. The character had found fame and was into sex and drugs but we couldn’t afford the Rolling Stones so I used Friday on My Mind by The Easybeats. This song has a 60’s sound, fast pace and is about partying which perfectly reflected Ben’s character. Hugh Grant’s character had gotten married and had a baby so we used Stranger on the Shore which was slower and more old fashioned. By intercutting and juxtaposing these two diverse tracks, they reflected the contrast in the characters’ lives.

In Hope Gap with Annette Benning and Josh O’Connor, we needed a pub track so the wonderful composer Alex Heffes offered us several tracks that we could mix as much pounding base as required.

Update Cuts

You may have a spotting session prior to locking the film so it’s important to communicate and keep the composer up to date with any changes to the film as this impacts on their work, instrumentation and orchestration. The composer will send sketches of synthesized music so it’s important to be honest about your compliments or criticisms as this will help to improve the final score. 

In conclusion

An editor may be the composer’s closest ally since you are both trying to achieve the same goals through rhythm, pace and emotion. We have also spent months working closely with directors, trying to reveal their vision so we have lots of insight to draw from. Although there’s only one music spotting session, keep the communication flowing because everyone needs to be up to date and in sync with the production. This will allow the music recording and mix to run smoothly. 

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Pia Di Ciaula ACE, CCE

Pia Di Ciaula ACE, CCE

Pia Di Ciaula is a Canadian film and TV editor based in the UK. Di Ciaula's credits include Tyrannosaur, directed by Paddy Considine, winning 40 awards worldwide; A Very English Scandal directed by two time Oscar nominee Stephen Frears, starring Hugh Grant; and Netflix's multi-BAFTA, Emmy and Golden Globe winning series The Crown, directed by Emmy winner and three time Oscar nominee Stephen Daldry. Di Ciaula has won a BAFTA award for Best Editing and received nominations for a Gemini, two Genie's, BAFTA and RTS nominations for Best Editing.

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