Film Scoring and Design

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Music and design have always been a part of my life.

I started out my creative journey studying Design and later on studying film scoring. I then understood there was a real connection between these two areas: both are applied arts.

As I began my journey into film scoring, I realised that my Design education helped me tremendously in conceptualising and tailoring my music to a film, working with guidelines that allowed me to be more efficient and more professional.  

Directors don’t always know nor wish to express their needs in musical terms, and with this in mind, I’d like to explore how the design process could be applied to the film scoring one so that we might communicate differently and work better together.

Design: a definition

From a quick google search we find that ‘design is a work process which has a user’s perspective and drives development based on your specific customers’ needs.’

Design is functional and responds to a very specific brief, we do the same with film scoring. Design communicates and so does applied music. Design creates memories, attachment, it makes you feel something specific, so does applied music.

But in practise before any design is undertaken, research, discussions and a ‘plan of action’ is always put into place first. A very detailed brief is needed so that the designer can take all the requirements and potential problems into consideration before even starting on any visual or conceptual ideas. 

Could composers and directors adopt a similar structured way of working before we try out any musical ideas? Some already do, others may have a more organic way of working. But can we adopt a ‘Design’ approach for a more efficient and professional work practise?

The similarities:

There are similarities when it comes to our workflows. First, we have discussions during a spotting session, we figure out what is needed and where the music should come in. We then go away and try out some ideas based on these discussions. We feed these ideas back to the director and upon feedback we adjust, start again, discard, keep etc until we have a score that both parties are happy with. Once it is signed off, re-recording with musicians/orchestra and mixing can take place before we hand the music over to the sound editor or supervisor. Often, the workflow evolves naturally as a result of back and forth discussions and because music isn’t a tangible thing, it can be challenging to know exactly what is needed until music ideas are playing against visuals.

But could we work out a more structured way of working inspired by some of the fields of applied arts? Can we clarify as much as possible beforehand what the score might become? 

In my own experience I’ve often had to impose a structure of sorts to my clients so that I know exactly what I need to deliver, work fast and efficiently, and so that the director is more involved in the process and we are working from the same page.

Examples of Design fields:

Architecture

Deals with building blocks, the structure and the function of a building.

Similarly, our music is constructed with components, arrangements, melody, notes, tempi and functional harmonic progressions that convey an emotion or help with the pace of a scene. The music has start and end points defined by what the scene needs in the same way a building has practical and structural functions. Overall, the music follows the contour or the arc of the film and it is informed by its structure, it supports the intention/function of the film.

The blueprint: How about working together on a blueprint or a detailed plan of where the music will happen, how much of it there should be, what it needs to convey? Where the climaxes and silent moments are. This can be as detailed as you want it to be. It is an opportunity to also gauge how many cues would be needed in total. A preliminary timeline sketch on paper or an excel document of what we’re looking to achieve would make things clearer and give us a structure to work with (other than the visual framework). A signed off document with clearly outlined requirements, sound ideas, number of cues, duration, timings would make it easier and more efficient for composers and directors. This could be referred to in further discussions and be a useful tool for generating cue sheets if needed.

Graphic Design and identity

Communicates values, ideas and the general identity of a company via a visual means.

Composers do the same with orchestration choices, arrangements, melody, thematic ideas and a general ‘sound’. It all reflects the identity of the film. 

The funnel: In the initial phase of scoring to picture, we can borrow the idea of the funnel from the Design process: based on our blueprint, let’s start out creating broad ideas, themes, textures, orchestral combinations that could potentially work with the picture without any attachment to these ideas. 

We keep things broad and general working within our guidelines and as we keep progressing forward, the funnel narrows down to more specific ideas that work better and that the director likes. The ideas are ‘infused’ with the identity or the sound of the film because of the preliminary exploratory work we’ve undertaken.

Fashion design

Measuring, cutting, tailoring fabric to create a particular garment. Creating a look, an identity, telling a story with precise tailoring and creativity.

Composers tailor their music carefully with the right arrangements and a specific choice of sound colours, or they might opt for thematic ideas, leitmotivs to represent a character or a concept. With our blueprint, discussions and development phase in mind, the composer tailors their music to the picture.

Patterns and presets: Composers ‘dress’ the film with their music, measuring, adjusting and cutting it to fit a scene. Fashion designers often use patterns and templates in their work. The same approach would facilitate our workflow: saving presets on a synth sound we’ve created specifically for the film, loading up a pre-mapped out orchestral template, applying the same instruments bus presets (compression, EQs, Reverb etc) from cue to cue. If we’ve worked on thematic ideas, saving these as arrangements in the DAW and recalling them for each needed instance would save time. This also enables us to keep a continuity of sound and musical ideas that are defining the film’s identity.

Product design

Function determines form. How the user interacts with the object will determine how that object will look, feel and behave. 

In a similar way, film music has a very specific function, it needs to convey what the director wants and it needs to support the film. The scene, the protagonists, colours, sound FX, action and emotion are all factors that will affect what the music will sound like and be made of. They have a direct influence on what composers will create and they will take them into account.

The assessment phase, testing and fine-tuning: Once we have music cut to picture that responds to the brief outlined in our blueprint, let’s assess how it’s working. Does it respond to the brief? Does it function well or should there be more fine-tuning? Can we sign it off? This may also be a time when a new picture lock affects what we’re doing (it might have come through earlier in our scoring process), how does that impact the music?

Let’s schedule in an assessment phase before the music is signed off and we can re-record live instruments, an orchestra and before the mixing stage.

Conclusion

Film composers juggle many roles in the scoring process and in effect they tell the story as much as the director.

Like designers, they conceptualise, internalise, identify, clarify, visualise, build, tailor and communicate through their music to fit the concept of the film. They are able to ‘manipulate’ the audience to convey the intention and the director’s vision.

Their role goes beyond expressing an emotion or reinforcing an action, they are an important protagonist in the team of people that make a film come together and just like Design does in various fields their music evokes memories, it makes you connect with the film, it illustrates its identity and it consolidates or validates it as a product to be enjoyed by the audience. When both composers and directors work in unison with a blueprint, a defined plan of action and a creative direction that is mutually agreed upon beforehand, we don’t leave it all to chance and we are able to better communicate what will benefit the film and the viewer’s experience.

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Mathieu Karsenti

Mathieu Karsenti

Mathieu Karsenti is a multi award-winning music composer, musical director and music producer. He has composed and produced music for prime-time TV shows for BBC, CBBC, Cbeebies, BBC3, ITV1-2, Channel 4, SYFY, Bravo, Sky1, for top production companies as well as for UK celebrities. He has also scored original music for festival nominated and prized independent short films, feature films, corporate videos and documentaries. His production music is currently represented by EMI, Universal, Warner/Chappell and BBC Worldwide with placements on top TV shows across the globe. He has studied music production and engineering at Pointblank college, Composing for Film and TV and theory at Berklee College of Music online and orchestration at the Hollywood Music Orchestration Workshop with Conrad Pope in Vienna, Austria. Since 2017, he has successfully released his cinematic/Neo-Classical music independently to showcase his distinctive voice on personal creative projects. More info here: www.mathieukarsenti.com

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