Composing Under Tight Deadlines

Jims-Studio-Film-ScoringOne of the more challenging aspects of creating music for film projects is composing under tight deadlines. Several years ago, I attended a panel session about film and TV composing where one of the panelists was the composer for the TV show Survivor.  He began his talk with the following bit of sage advice  … “how many of you here are composers?”, at that point everyone  raised their hands. Then he said “O.K., how many of you are writing at least 2 minutes of fully-produced, mixed, and mastered, original broadcast-quality music every single day?” At that point only one or two people still had their hands up, while the rest of us slowly brought our hands down. Then he said, “Those of you who still have your hands up are the real composers.  To the rest of you, that’s the level you need to be at if you want to be a TV or film composer”.

His message was clear. If you want to get hired as a composer, you need to hone your skills so that you are able to create quality music consistently and quickly. You can only get there by doing it a lot!

I took this advice to heart, and set out on a path over the next few years to challenge myself to write as often as I could. While I still can’t claim to be writing 2 minutes of music every single day with demands of a full-time day job, I did hold myself accountable to write more often and get better at writing in various genres (see the following link for various self-imposed projects along that journey my songwriting projects).

Recently I put my skills to the test by accepting the role of composer for a creative team who had entered a 48-hour film contest hosted by the IFP (Independent Filmmakers Project) in the Phoenix area. For this contest each team was presented with a basic list of requirements for their film (acceptable genres, a line that must be said in the movie, and one prop that must appear – in our case that was a red balloon).  Then after a quick beer at a local micro-brewery launch event, each team was sent out with only 48-hours to write their script, create their storyboard, shoot all of their scenes, do all of the video editing , add the Foley track (sound effects), write and record the musical score, and deliver the finished film back to the panel of judges by the deadline.

The film team that I’d signed up with decided to do an action film. This meant that the film would need music from start to finish to highlight the on-screen action and suspense. Since our film was 5 minutes in length, this certainly fit the criteria of doing my 2 minutes of  original broadcast-quality music every single day. If you’ve never tried this kind of writing exercise before, all I can tell you is that this is much harder than it seems.   If you’re really honest about doing your best-quality work and holding yourself to a high standard, you will be working long and hard each day to get your 2.5 minutes of killer music wrapped up.

This was a very valuable learning experience as well as a chance to make connections with local film makers.  Here are some of the important things I learned along the way:

Communicate with the producer often and understand his/her vision for the project!

By communicating often with the producer you can come to an understanding about the kind of sound you will need to deliver, as well as a timeline for anything that can help you in the composing process.   Through my initial contact, I was able to get a storyboard for the film before any of the shooting began.   This provided me with a way to get a head start on creating musical ideas for the opening theme, suspense theme, and closing music before I had any film to work with.   Then I could focus on refining those initial ideas after getting the first video edits back from the production team, rather than waiting to write any music until seeing the first video edits.  This saved hours of time since I didn’t see the first film edits until less than 24 hours before the deadline.  There’s no way I could have finished my music if I’d not started when I did.

As you watch the film, try to understand how the music can provide the missing part of the narrative

As a film composer, you get to mess with the audience’s head, enjoy it!   Your musical ideas, and the sounds you select, can have a huge impact on the way the audience interprets the on-screen drama.   It’s your job to convey to the audience how they should “feel” about each scene. Oftentimes the scene is missing something to bring it to life, either because the visual or dialog doesn’t convey everything that is happening.  Or, perhaps the actors aren’t delivering their lines in a convincing way to match the situation unfolding on screen (keep in mind that the actors aren’t hearing any background music or sound effects when they are trying to sound convincing in their scenes).  As a composer, it’s your job to be that missing ingredient that tells the audience “something bad is about to happen”, “this guy is missing someone and feeling sad, even though his face doesn’t show it”, “help is on the way”, or “the shit is about to hit the fan!”. This is the funnest part of the process, figuring out that missing element and providing it to the audience with your score.  When you get it right, its very gratifying!  It also helps you to appreciate how important the musical underscore is for any film.  To give you an example of just how important that is, watch this film clip that shows how various kinds of music can drastically change the way a scene is interpreted :

Know where to find your sounds quickly, and select your sound pallet early!

In creating your musical score you have to decide fairly early on what kind of “vibe” you will need to deliver for your scenes. Are you going for something that needs a big, lush, orchestral sound,  a small intimate acoustic sound, or an industrial-techno synthetic sound?  In my case, I was trying to create a feeling of suspense, uneasiness, and danger throughout the film.   I had to know where to find these sounds to deliver this sort of vibe very quickly so that I could focus on creating the music. Before taking this project, I’d spent a lot of time going through my patches in various sound libraries I use, to categorize various presets according to kind of project I’d use it for.  In one of my synth libraries, it allows me to put a list of keywords into each patch that I can search from later, such as “suspense pad”, “action hits”, “mysterious pad”, “twisted sound splashes”, “underwater documentary sounds”, “sad strings”, etc. This provided a convenient way for me to quickly go to my synth libraries and decide which sounds were going to be used in my pallet of sound to create my score for each scene. Getting that out of the way quickly saves hours of time of hunting and pecking my way through a huge amount of sound presets for every library I use. When you’re under a deadline you don’t have the luxury of time to be searching for the perfect sound.  You have to know where to find those sounds quickly.

Here is the final version of the film that I scored for this contest.  Although our team didn’t win the contest,  I made a lot of filmmaker contacts in the local community and got a referral for another composing project as a result.

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