pivots, lean composer

The Lean Composer – Part 2: Pivots

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Where were we?

Last week we explored the concepts of lean manufacturing and lean startup and we started drawing parallels between the tools used in lean management and the ones a composer can acquire in her/his path to the lean state of mind. The MVP (minimum viable product) and its composer-related counterpart, the MVC (minimum viable cue) are the main characters of the previous chapter. Today we talk about pivots.

Pivots in lean management

Whenever a product doesn’t generate the expected growth a solution is often to pivot. A pivot is a structured change of direction that tests a new hypothesis about the product while keeping a foot rooted in what is already working. If an entrepreneur realises sooner rather than later that a pivot is needed, pivoting becomes a tremendous tool for the success of his startup. Often more than one pivot is necessary to enable the product finding its state of grace, but (usually) each pivot takes less time and less energy than the previous in an exponential way.

Pivoting cues

Similar to the dismay felt by an entrepreneur when she/he reads negative metrics is the feeling a composer experiences every time some of her/his beloved cues are rejected. When we have invested plenty of time and energy on those cues that feeling can become overwhelming as we see the deadline approaching and little or no progress made. Most of the times, through the concept of pivoting cues, you will realise that progress has in fact been made even when a cue is rejected. It is of fundamental importance to be sure to listen to all feedback that comes with those rejections and even ask for additional feedback when we feel we are not sure what did not work. Based on that feedback (and, very important, our guts) we can decide to keep some elements of the cue and pivot it in one (or more) of the following ways:

Orchestration pivot

Sometimes a director doesn’t share your love for the sound of oboe, or woodwinds or does not perceive the dramatic nuances that a glockenspiel can bring to the mix and will reject the entire cue at once. Changing the orchestration of a cue can have a strong impact on how the music you wrote for that scene is perceived by the director and the audience. Caution: not all directors are musically trained, some may say “flute” and mean “clarinet”. Be sure to identify the timbres that she/he doesn’t care for regardless of how she/he refers to them as.

Tempo pivot

One of the enemies of a composer dealing with a titanic amount of work and a very short time to carry it out is lost of objectivity. When we concentrate for hours on a voice leading in the string section we might fail to realise how a different tempo would work better with a particular scene. This, of course, won’t go unnoticed by the fresh, objective eyes and ears or our director. Rewriting the cue in a new tempo while keeping most of the remaining elements can save this kind of situations. Some other times a more extreme tempo change can generate new fresh solutions (i.e. trying a theme twice as slow or twice as fast).

Sync points pivot

Sync points can be a subjective matter. Do you highlight the bomb explosion or the people ducking? Do you hit the “I love you” or the “I know”? Most of the times the decision is a personal one that can be influenced by objective factors, such as which sync point we are hitting right before and/or right after the one in discussion, the cue’s main tempo, the theme’s shape and so on. When we choose to highlight a few moments in the scene that the director doesn’t want us to we might end up with a rejected cue. In such a scenario I recommend going once more through the scene with the director clearly asking which moments need highlighting and which do not. If we are lucky a few cosmetic changes (such as adding a beat or two in a measure, or a minimal tempo variation) can save the day and make everybody happy.

Theme pivot

You chose to write a cue at the end of the film, the good guy finally confronts the bad guy and you decided to play with the good guy’s theme only to find yourself in front of a disappointed director who was rooting for the bad guy all along. What do you do? Simple, rewrite the cue and use the bad guy’s theme (but keeping some of the elements such as the orchestration or tempo). Bonus alternative: why not trying to make use of both themes together, maybe in a question and answer fashion?

Arrangement pivot

What if you thought the shoot-out sequence needed an epic approach but the director wanted a minimalistic cue instead? You can try to keep the theme’s development as is and only change the arrangement.

Style pivot

This kind of pivot can be used when the style you selected for a cue is not in line with the vision of the director. For example you might have decided to score the spy scene with an orchestral jazz vibe (à la Incredibles) but then need to rewrite the cue as a drum ‘n bass track. Again, here a few of the cue elements might be able to stay unchanged (such as the sync points or the theme and tempo).

Pivoting means preserving momentum

Many composers, especially the more experienced ones, naturally and subconsciously resort to devices similar to the aforementioned. But it is the conscious deciding to pivot and subsequent realisation that progress has been made that helps us keeping a good attitude, high energy and overall a more realistic sense of how much road we still need to walk. Being able to preserve momentum is an invaluable skill that the modern composer has to have in order to effectively face the tumultuous journey that writing a score can be. In order to do so there is another concept rooted in the lean management world that I think should be part of every composer’s arsenal: small batches approach. Learn more about small batches in next week’s chapter!


Also published on Medium.

Giovanni Rotondo
Giovanni Rotondo is an experienced film and television composer based in London. He has scored many award winning feature films, TV movies, documentaries and video games. More info here: giovannirotondo.com

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