The more involved I have become with the world of film music, the more that I've realised the disconnect in expectations between filmmakers and composers. As we have familiarised ourselves with instant gratification, ease of access and a service-on-demand type of culture, we seem to have forgotten that good things take time. And the question is being asked far too often: why do I need an original film score when I can just use existing pieces from a music library?
As the quantity of media consumption continues to increase and the need for screen music is at an all time high, you would think that composer opportunities would be everywhere. Yet, the value placed on the craft seems to be declining. We are living in the day and age where everyone with a laptop has access to the world's best sounds for producing and film scoring. It has opened doors for music makers everywhere and then rapidly closed them as the oversaturation of aspiring composers makes for tough competition and lower pay rates.
I have seen a large proportion of composers offering to work for free so that they can get that highly prized credit to their name which they believe will finally put a light under their career and carry them through to Hollywood. In fact, I'm occasionally tempted to do the same. It's this kind of attitude though, that allows others in the industry to take advantage of us. Years of music classes and instrument tuition, countless hours of personal development, and thousands of dollars spent studying bachelor's or even master's degrees; at what point is our music worth something?
The oversaturation of aspiring composers makes for tough competition and lower pay rates.
Sometimes the dream of writing music for film can get in the way of the reality of needing to pay the bills. This only changes when directors, producers, and executives recognise the value of composers to their films and the industry as a whole. Of course not every project has the budget to pay a composer fairly (low pay is better than no pay), but those that do should let it represent the value of the composer to their film. Well known composers, Paul Thomson and Guy Michelmore, discuss motivation for composing work consisting of at least one of three things. "Either, you're paid to do it, or it's fun, or you learn something. If you're not getting one of those three, don't do it." This advice would serve aspiring composers well as they navigate the beginning of their careers. It creates value for the craft. Part of the issue is that beginning directors and composers don't fully understand one another's jobs. The relationship between these two is important and they should make an effort to learn how the other works, their process, and what they need in order for them to do their job well.
The iconic duos shown in the pictures here demonstrate just what a good composer/director relationship can do. The filmography of directors like Spielberg and Nolan are memorable and so are the accompanying soundtracks. When directors and composers both understand each other's roles, their workflow, communication, and synchronisation with one another all improves for the betterment of the project. I'll leave it to a director to explain the details of their job, but at least I can talk a little about the role of a composer. This is a generalised step-by-step process but is fairly consistent based on my experience.
Before a film or TV series is in the pre-production stage, the composer will meet with the director and writers to discuss the story, characters, musical ideas and instrumentation. Ideally, the composer can come away from that conversation with an understanding of what themes are needed and a starting point in mind. From there, the composer writes, comes up with a few simple ideas, and presents them to the director. Often this will happen using a solo piano or an instrument the composer is familiar with. It's worth refraining from producing a whole orchestral mock-up of the first idea, because it can be a big waste of time if the theme isn't satisfactory. Once a theme is approved the composer may spend some time making a fully produced version, or a suite, as is often found in film score albums.
By this point the composer has done about as much as they can without being able to see the actual film. Depending on deadlines, more music may have to be written prior to receiving cuts of the film, but this is like playing the lottery. It's unlikely that music made in advance will perfectly suit the camera cuts, emotion and aesthetic of a scene. This is why it is crucial that composers receive a fine cut of the film with enough time for them to do their best work, scoring to the scenes in a detailed and refined way. I've heard it put recently, that composer's write to an edit, rather than for an edit. This is the most important work of the composer and it's the thing that separates an original score from a film matched with library music. No temp track will be able to compare to the work of a screen composer when it comes to perfectly suiting the scene. The difference is noticeable and it's a shame when creators of the film artform settle for second best.
It is crucial that composers receive a fine cut of the film with enough time for them to do their best work, scoring to the scenes in a detailed and refined way.
Why Composers Matter
I like to simplify the composer's role down to a few words. We enhance the emotion, drama, and excitement of the story. The key word here is story. We are in fact storytellers, or at least translators, who are given a script and visual so that they can tell the same story in a musical way. And one of the ways that we do this is through thematic writing.
Musical themes can be found in every TV show or movie that hires a composer. A theme is made up of short motifs that can represent a character, an emotion, a setting, or something else. They are carefully crafted to suit the specific project for which they are written. However, sometimes it is less about the themes themselves and more about the way that the themes are used. When themes are brought back later in a film than when we first heard them, we sub-consciously associate the two and the music has new meaning. For example, the love theme from UP ("Married Life") first appears when Carl and Ellie are newly weds and setting up their new life together. As the couple age, the music evolves and changes until we hear the same theme during a scene at Ellie's hospital bed, followed by her funeral, and Carl is alone. It's a heavily emotional scene heightened by the use of Michael Giacchino's thematic development; it's bright and bubbly, then forlorn and reminiscent. When writing music, it's a general rule that you never hear exactly the same thing twice. Reprises may reiterate a theme multiple times throughout a film, but with a twist, giving audiences new perspective and emotional understanding of what is happening in a scene.
Library music doesn't offer the same sense of storytelling through themes. This is just one of the things that makes composers special. I don't have time to mention the benefit of having a composer for original sound palettes, modulating harmony or Mickey Mousing, but these are additional skills that real musicians bring to a media project. I hope this blog doesn't fail to communicate my adoration for filmmakers and composers across the globe. We are all doing fantastic work. Rather my goal is simply to highlight the wonderful art of composing and its value to the film community. I look forward to meeting directors and producers that I can form a healthy working relationship with. To the producers, directors and filmmakers out there, an encouragement; try not to sacrifice time on post-production by having tight deadlines. Get to know your composer and how they work best, early on in a project. Choose originality. Choose great storytelling. Choose art. You will be glad you did.