Film editors and music – Temporary music (part 1)

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As the technology evolved, the film editor’s job expanded. We are now also responsible for creating credit sequences, compositing visual effects, sound design and editing music.

The following suggestions are aimed at aspiring film and TV editors; those new to the craft who want some guidance; and to experienced editors who want to compare and contrast different working methods.

I love the craft of editing and am always amazed at the transformation a film undergoes until you lock picture and a huge contributing factor is music. Editing temporary music is a daunting task so I will share a little insight regarding my approach in the hopes of inspiring you through the following tips.

Tip I: Choose sound tracks with the same tone

Despite being controversial because temporary music is so subjective, my first tip is to embrace it because it’s expected and required. Music is part of the storytelling so if it’s selected and edited creatively, it will communicate on another level and elevate your film. The purpose of temp score is to allow the director and producers the opportunity to experience the film’s potential with all the elements, despite their temporary nature.

When I begin a job, I choose sound tracks that have a similar tone to my film. I lay in different pieces of music to get a feel for what works. The cues may affect you differently so you need to discern what you require the music to do? Does it enhance the scene? Do you really need it?

Music helps to reveal the story, advance the plot and underscore emotion but it can also elevate, add energy and excitement to a scene. Music can help disguise a problem in the plot or if a certain actor is being mistaken for the wrong character, recurring motifs or themes can solve these issues by allowing the audience to subconsciously make the right associations. It is ideal if the themes develop throughout the film and increase in intensity allowing the emotion and characters to develop. Make instinctive choices based on your taste and innate rhythm and allow your sensibilities to shine through.

Tip II: Ask for sketches and experiment

Temp music is often used as a template which sometimes gets copied but hopefully acts as a springboard to a great score. If a composer is hired early, ask them for synthesized sketches that you can experiment with and help develop the score. In my assembly of A Very English Scandal, I used upbeat temp music for the 60’s but placed a choral piece during the bitter-sweet ending when Hugh Grant is on the balcony being celebrated whilst Ben Whishaw is travelling on a bus having lost his court case. Both characters have gone through hell and their lives are destroyed so the music evolves with the characters and reflects their inner journeys and tremendous loss.

If a composer is attached but is unavailable to send sketches, I would suggest using their previous sound tracks because they may have the same tone and sensibilities that are required for your film. On the feature film Pure with Keira Knightly, I used temp music from Nitin Sawhney’s previous albums that had a contemporary feel but also had an etherial quality that worked beautifully for our damaged characters. Everyone loved the temp so Nitin was hired to compose the score.

Tip III: Use Unfamiliar Scores

Don’t use evocative scores from famous soundtracks as they will conjure up images and/or themes from other movies. Using popular music in your film is a short-cut that will result in negative feedback since executives watch many films and most editors are using the latest award winning scores. Less familiar scores may sound original and more organic in your film. Finding the appropriate tone and orchestration is difficult and laborious but use temp music with instruments that the director likes and/or suits the film. Through research and experimentation, you will be rewarded with a unique and distinctive temporary sound track.

Tip IV: Monkey See, Monkey Do 

If the pictures and music are telling you the same thing, one element is redundant. I use music contrapuntally so that the audience is intrigued instead of being told what to think and how to feel. The music has to add another, deeper layer instead of mimicking the images. In A Quiet Passion, when the young actors morph into older actors, we used Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question which is eerie and adds a disconcerting quality to the scene. It also sets the tone for Emily Dickinson’s bitterness, failing health and eventual death, played sympathetically by Cynthia Nixon.

Tip V: Layer several tracks of music

Layering music tracks on top of each other can create a whole different feeling. I sometimes layer up to five pieces of music that compliment or contrast each other. One of my tracks is best described as Ostinato which is a continuous pattern that can repeat itself, speed up or slow down but it adds an underlying rhythm like a ticking clock, building tension and marking the passage of time. When I layer other tracks on top, I’m using Polyrhythm by combining complimentary or conflicting figures. I then usually add long melodic strings to add emotion if necessary but you can create original, interesting and discordant pieces that elevate your temp track.

I used these techniques in The Crown: Hyde Park Corner, when King George VI is found dead and the members of the Royal Family learn of his death. There is shock, emotion and chaos which was reflected in the five pieces of temp music that I edited and then it was composed brilliantly by Hans Zimmer and Rupert Gregson-Williams. I was thrilled to be collaborating with these giants because not only did I have many amazing sound tracks from their previous films to draw from but when I requested individual stems for my temp tracks, they graciously sent them to me!

End of Part One…Click here to read part 2

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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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