small batches for the lean composer

The Lean Composer – Part 3: Small Batches

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Welcome to the last chapter of this 3-part adventure. In the past 2 weeks I drew parallels between the lean management concepts and the world of composing for the moving images. In particular I talked about the MVP (minimum viable product) and the MVC (minimum viable cue), as well as discussing the various ways a composer can pivot a rejected cue. Today we will explore how the small batches approach can make our workflow more agile and save us precious resources.

Toyota’s bright intuition

During its journey Toyota reached the following conclusion about manufacturing: most of the time working in small batches is (counterintuitively) faster than doing the same work in large batches. But even in the few exceptions where this isn’t true the small batches approach has an invaluable advantage over its counterpart: it uncovers project-threatening issues early on in the process. This is one of the ways the once small car manufacturer made its factories increasingly more efficient. Here is a simple analogy to better grasp the concept: you need to put 100 letters in 100 envelopes and write on them 100 names/addresses. Intuitively you would write all the names/addresses first, then fold all the letters and then insert them and seal the envelopes, right? This would result in taking more time than doing one letter at a time (I know, hard to believe but apparently proven). But even if it took the same time, what if the envelopes were too small? Massive waste of time and resources…

Small batches are a composer’s best friend

Being faster is certainly a virtue sought after in composers more and more, but being fast comes second after not wasting valuable time. Thanks to the small batches approach you will be able to spot any problem there might be in your workflow right at the beginning of the process, when you still have enough time and energy to make changes and enjoy a smooth rest of the ride. Here are some examples of how to apply the small batches approach to your system:

Send a small number of cues to the director instead of waiting longer to send a ton

I know that feeling: holding your breath for hours/days until the director responds to the last batch of cues you sent for review… You might be tempted to send a large bunch of cues, statistically she/he will at least like a few, right? Well, maybe, but in the process you will have let more time go by and taken a bigger risk: if there was a major issue involving a group of cues (i.e the director not liking the style of a particular instrument you decided to use in all the cues related to a given character) you would find yourself in an unpleasant situation with very little time to rewrite. So once you have a couple of cues, be brave and send them right away.

Perform all the exports/bounces for one cue at a time

When preparing the approved cues for recording/mixing/mastering… your intuition might suggest to perform all the bounces first, to then tackle all the midi files exports, then all the reference files for the copyist, and then update all the cues info on the excel document that you use to keep track of the project advancement. Beware, this could lead to potential setbacks! Typically loaded with more work than a human should be subject to, you will have very good chances of loosing track of missing bits or overlooking an error in the whole batch until very (if not too) late in the process. So try taking care of all the operations related to a given cue before going to the next. Aside from giving you a better tracking of to-dos for every cue this alternative method helps you find any error in the export process very soon, saving you precious resources.

Implementing 1 new piece of gear/software in your workflow at a time

The modern composer knows she/he has to eventually update her/his sound libraries, DAW software, computer OS, gear… I recommend doing so one step at the time. Before ditching your entire orchestral libraries in favor of the new hot library in town try the strings first (or whatever section/instrument you prefer) and see if you like the interface, playability, general feel. If the DAW will crash you’ll know who the fault is. If your computer RAM will suddenly dematerialize you will know who to blame. This approach will put you in the position of knowing where to take a step back when necessary. In the case of libraries it is a very good practice to have a template that can easily and quickly be modified, upgraded, reverted to a previous state. I am using Vienna Ensemble Pro and so far I am very happy about how its modular nature enables great agility and flexibility, more about this in a future post…

Sometimes large batches are quite ok too…

Let’s make things clear: this is not one-sided case against large batches. In fact I think there are places where the large batches approach is the best one. Here are a couple of examples:

Laying themes ideas in a cue before orchestrating

When I am “sewing” my themes to a scene, I try to move horizontally as fast as possible to keep an objective perspective on the dramatic value of my music and catch all the precious initial ideas (which most of the time have proved to be the best ones). Only once I have locked the themes, the tempo and meter of a cue I then go back and develop it vertically (orchestration). Doing the opposite would augment the risks of wasting time: imagine if the wonderful orchestration of the past 3 bars that took you half a day instantly becomes a waste of time when you realise you should have changed theme and harmony 5 bars ago…

Take quick notes first when orchestrating a cue

Closely following the practice or laying themes here is another example of a beneficial large batch approach: orchestration. When possible I start with a fresh pair of ears (if you literally just finished sketching the cue try listening Strauss’ The Blue Danube or Mozart’s overture to The Marriage of Figaro before starting the orchestration, it works every time). I hit play on my DAW and listen, trying to hear in my mind what kind of orchestration would best complement each section of that particular scene, as soon as I identify a sonority that I’d like to try I take note of it along with the measure number, careful not to stop the music until the end. This way I can keep track of what precedes any given point in the cue more efficiently.

Conclusion

Like many things in life choosing whether to follow a small or large batches approach in any given part of the process requires thoughtful consideration. One thing to keep in mind is that you should not cross small batches from the list of possibilities just because it is the counterintuitive approach. Try it and let me know how it goes!

There you have it, a complete guide to become a lean composer! What’s that? You are fluent with the lean management concepts and would like to suggest other areas where that world collides with a composer’s? Awesome please do so in the comments or shoot me an email at giovanni[at]filmscoringtips[dot]com and I promise I’ll reply!


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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