Film editors and music – Temporary music (part 2)

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Continuing with Film editors and music – Temporary music:

Tip VI: Less is More

It’s best to use temporary music sparingly because if it’s wrong, the whole experience is compromised.

In Tyrannosaur, we only used foley as Peter Mullan walks through the house looking for Eddie Marsan. The images tell the story and its quiet nature adds tension because we don’t know what will happen. We added music after Peter finds Eddie’s dead body as a resolution to the tension built up in the scene. It’s a kind of release or punctuation, instead of wall to wall music.

Similarly, we didn’t score Olivia Colman’s breakdown and admission to the murder. Adding music to a scene with such raw emotion and spine tingling performance would have been sacrilege.

Tip VII: End Music before Climax

You may consider using music prior to a discovery or climax in the drama. End the music earlier than expected so that the dramatic section has no music, possibly only sound effects. This may increase the tension because the silence may be deafening.

Hitchcock didn’t use a musical score in The Birds, only sound effects. Try being unpredictable and do the unexpected because audiences are knowledgable and we want to keep them on the edge of their seats.

Tip VIII: Mickey Mousing

I would only use the Mickey Mousing technique for animation or comedy. This parallel scoring synchronizes music to the actions of a character which can be very humorous, especially on cartoons. This technique was used dramatically in 1949 in The Heiress, winning 4 Oscars but I wouldn’t recommend it in contemporary dramas. 

Editing music where the beats hit all the cuts make it feel like a music video, detracting from dramatic tension and possibly taking the audience in the wrong direction. I wouldn’t do this unless this is the desired outcome.

In Dirt Music, the characters play in a band so I used one of their songs during a montage and we all loved it but when I replaced it with temp score, the scene had much more depth and subtext. 

Tip IX: Emotion without Manipulation

I usually don’t score dialogue scenes because I find temp music distracting and interferes with the drama. Temporary music on emotional scenes has to be carefully chosen, edited and you must ride the levels accordingly. The goal is to help the audience feel moved but not manipulated. When I watch films, if there is one note of manipulation, I feel cheated and the film-makers have lost my attention. Find a dramatic or enlightening shift in the scene and try underscoring that. 

If you have to shorten temp music, it’s tempting and easy to take the last note in the piece but I recommend keeping the music unresolved, like a question mark instead of a period. The goal is to keep the audience curious and fascinated instead of relaxing whilst hearing the finale too early in the film. It’s subliminal but one note can really damage the mystery. How you introduce and end your music is extremely important. Keep music levels a bit lower than expected so that it doesn’t overpower the dialogue and emotion.

Tip X: Watch Film without Temp Music

One important stage before locking the film is to watch it without temp music to check that the edits work on their own. You can easily fall into a false sense of security if you like the temp music so if the film doesn’t work in it’s raw state, adjust the edits. Don’t get locked into the rhythm of temp music because the score could be very different.

Conclusion (and bonus tip)

Editing temporary music can be overwhelming and challenging but as editors, our job is to present the best version of the film as early as possible. Embrace this stage and be bold. If you don’t like a track, you can easily replace it.

I sometimes change tracks on a weekly basis to keep the film sounding fresh. The importance of the assembly and director’s cut is to experiment and explore ideas that may transition into the final score.

Music is processed differently but when you have succeeded, the tempo and melody will elicit universal and visceral reactions to the film. 


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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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