What is the process of composing music for a film

A celebration of music in film on Sundance Film Festival
Nyamka Ganbold

What is the process of composing music for a film

A celebration of music in film on Sundance Film Festival
Nyamka Ganbold

Sundance Film Festival took place virtually this year and it was a great opportunity for us to follow some events as they have been launched complementary on some social media platforms.

So we had to join the film festival’s annual celebration of music in film on clubhouse, programmed by Sundance Institute’s Film Music and Artist Community Programs. Without any expectation, we found ourselves experiencing an amazingly intimate and insightful talk where the most notable composers in the film industry shared their valuable and inspirational experiences and gave great advices. T

his conversation, open for everyone around the world to join, featured the following composers and filmmakers and inspired us to write this post on the process of composing music for film:

  • Oscar winner Mychael Danna (composer, Life of Pi, Little Miss Sunshine, Moneyball)
  • Emmy winner Mac Quayle (composer, Mr. Robot, American Horror Story, Ratched)
  • Germaine Franco (composer, Disney’s Encanto, Little, Tag)
  • Jongnic Bontemps (composer, My Name Is Pauli Murray, 4400, Citizen Ashe)
  • Emily Rice (composer, Miss Juneteenth, The I-Land)
  • Adam Milo Smalley (music editor, The Lion King, Gladiator, Kung Fu Panda)
  • Abiram Brizuela (director, Artist Community, Sundance Institute)

We want to share here the journey of how these well known composers bring music into the world - from the idea to a recorded piece - and we will quote some parts we thought are remarkable and helpful for the composing process.

So let’s start. What is the process of composing music for film

Getting started is the most difficult part of composing. Fortunately composers get lots of input before they start to write the music. This comes primarily from spotting sessions with the director.  And before this starts you should be clear of your role. Your are first a storyteller and second a composer. Your job is to help to tell the story through music says the Emmy winner Mac Quayle, who successfully worked as a composer for the famous series Mr. Robot, American Horror Story and Ratched. For him the process for working on any kind of format - narrative or documentary - is quite the same.

”I think the process is quite similar. At the core of all of these different genres I am trying to help the story. That’s what music is here for. To aid to tell the story. So whether it’s a 10 episode show or film, if it’s fiction or non fiction, music is gonna essentially be doing that. The workflow may be different - TV tends to be faster, less time to do the work, less time to perfect it. Film may have more time to do that. Typically watching the scenes that have been sent to me and scoring to the picture in all those different formats.Video games are different - it’s more about creating these elements which then the game makers take and put into their game and how their computer system plays the various things when action is happening on the screen. So it’s a little more removed from my input telling the story but it still helps telling the story.”

Going to the spotting session with this in mind might help you to talk with the director more specifically and better understand the narrative vision of the director.

This leads to our next point...


... Talking with the director

We all know that talking about music is not the easiest job. Especially since music is such a subjective thing. The music editor Adam Milo Smalley (The Lion King, Gladiator, Kung Fu Panda) says from a music editor point of view how he communicates about the music with composers.

“Music is hard to talk about, it’s hard to communicate and I think that’s the biggest challenge with a director and composer relationship. That’s why I think the music editor has - whether be it a scratch or tool to build a temporary track - to say “ok, this is the color that the director is thinking about. This is the way that we can say this is a starting point rather than just saying what kind of music might go here.”


Depending on the format the directors have different way of communicating as Germaine Franco tells from her experience working as composer in various animations of Disney.

”Animation directors have different way of communicating. You’re working with lot of pictures primarily. Directors and animator speak about music in colors. Use imagery of colors and warmth.”


But there is a different way of communicating and talking about music within the various formats. At this point we want to quote Oscar winning composer Mychael Danna (Life of Pi, Little Miss Sunshine, Moneyball). Danna shared his approach coming up with a film’s musical direction by talking with the director.

“That’s really the essence. That’s the core detective work we have to do. For me it’s the same process whether it’s a romantic comedy, or whatever kind of film it may be - it’s getting into the core of the story. And the core of the story as reflected through the vision of the director. So I spend a lot of time talking with the director. It seems like procrastination from the outside but it’s not. Well it is kind of but it’s also that you NEED that time to to talk with the director. Why did you make this film? What is it about the story that you want the people to leave with. Tell me about this character. It’s about deeply understanding the story. And remembering that we’re composers and musicians second and first we are storytellers and that”s our role. And that’s the thing we really have to get right. I do that on every film. It doesn’t matter what it is. If it’s video game or short film or even a jingle. It doesn’t matter. That’s how I would come at anything.”


Once the spotting session is done and the cue sheet has been made you ideally know what the director is going for. You know what the story is and if there is a temp track you have a sense for what kind of sound and rhythm the director is imagining with the picture.

Now it is your turn. Now your ideas and your voice are being asked for. That’s where we come to the next step ...

As you start to make big movies yourself you have other people you can run ideas by. And can sort of point you in the direction not only with the music but also about the process.

... Coming up with idea

Here we want to share the idea finding process of Mac Quayle. To the question that idea is a composers currency,  how he comes up with them and do they ever run out, he answers:

“I find one of the biggest sources of coming up with the ideas is the deadline. So if the due date is 3 O’clock tomorrow, I have to come up with an idea. I mean there is just no choice. And so there can’t be any writers block. I wasn’t able to do this ten years ago. I worked a little slower and I’ve became faster at my craft and I’ve also been able to trust myself a little more so that if I have to do it I just do it and spit it out and hope for the best. It’s always successful but usually it’s passable. And the other thing about ideas is, I love to say that I will welcome ideas from everywhere. And so there are so many ideas that can come on a project. There is a team of people, there is an editor, they will have ideas. The directors on the show will have ideas, the music editor will have ideas, the temp tracker will have ideas. There is all these places so I welcome all of them. I love collaborating that way. I never feel like I am the composer so I am the one that has all the ideas and you all need to listen to me. That is not my position. So bring on the good ideas.”


Once you have found your idea you have to bring your voice, your tone, start writing and eventually recording.

When the composers were asked how they find their voice, the audience received so many inspirational insights as well as good advice. Here are some of them starting with the composer Germaine Franco (Disney’s Encanto, Little, Tag) on how she found her voice, her uniqueness and what she recommends to do for young composers:

”We’re always given a new kind of challenge. There is always to crack what is the tone of this film and how do I get there. You have to experiment. You have to start again at the beginning for every single film. And that happens to every composer no matter how many films they have done. Whether you have done one or twenty - the process is very similar. And you’d  think ‘I don’t want to just do this kind of music, ‘cause people are going to think I can only do that. That might be your way in to the film world in the same way my way to film was on Coco. I happen to know a lot about Latin music ‘cause I played it and I loved it. You don’t want to be a stereotype but at the same time that could be your strength. Use the tools and the experience you had in life and that is how you’ll move forward.”


As for the composer Mac Quayle, his own voice just came without him noticing:

“I don’t know if it was something what I ever consciously attempted to do. I just would do what I felt in my gut and also what was asked for me by filmmakers. And project after project, even if they were quite different stylistic, people tell me that they hear my voice in this voice. But I am kind of deaf to it. I can’t really tell you what my voice is and how I achieved it. It is just kinda this thing that happened.”

So hearing these stories makes it seem like you just have to embrace your uniqueness and go with the flow. And in this stage of composing it is very important to be courageous about your own voice and feelings. Maybe this encouraging quote from Adam Milo Smalley’s, music editor, will help you in the times where you doubt your voice and think that you sound the same: (or read this post on how to find an idea from Justin here.)

“I want to encourage all the composers to find the own voice, not to sound like anybody else and to find their own rhythm, their own culture and own spirit and expressing their own voice of music.”


Okay, we are now done with writing and recording. Now we are getting close to the end of the film music composing process ...

.. Feedback

This is quite a hard part. Especially when you are really into the pieces you have created and kind of fallen in love with them. And then getting little critiques and having feedbacks on things you personally rather wouldn’t change. When this happens think back where we started first: We are storytellers first and musicians second. So if this part of music doesn’t really serve the scene that well, don’t be too attached to your version and try to be open to changes. Or as the composer Jongnic Bontemp (My Name Is Pauli Murray, 4400, Citizen Ashe) says, it’s not only about the music, it’s about the politics as well.

“As you start to make big movies yourself you have other people you can run ideas by. And can sort of point you in the direction not only with the music but also about the process. About how to navigate political situations. Because so much of what we do, even when we get to certain levels, it’s about the politics. It’s about the conversations, it’s about exuding confidence. It’s not about the music. It’s being able to deliver, it’s about having a team.”


Keeping this in mind you might go into the feedback round a bit more loose.

One of the most interesting things the composers were mentioning in the talk was the imposter syndrome. This is a very common thing among film composers. So hearing how they handle this was a mind opener to us. We couldn’t leave it out from this post and we had to share with you the experience of Mychael Danna with imposter syndrome. For him the imposter syndrome is something which is constantly there, and you shouldn’t see it as something negative:

“That never goes away. It hasn’t for me and for my fellow composer friends I spend time with. I don’t think anything changes as fast as when you have this blank page at the beginning of a project - it doesn’t really matter what the last project was and how many times you’ve done it - there is still this feeling of how do you do this again? How am I gonna get to the end? All these minutes music to write and the due days. I still feel like I am still learning and still hopefully getting better. I don’t think you should see it as something you’re going to grow out of and see as something negative. Because I think It’s part of the process. This uncertainty. That spurs you on to exploring and discovering and taking risks, where the real magic happens.”


These were our favorite picks from the talk “A celebration of music in film” which was part of the Sundance Film Festival Program and took place on Clubhouse. Listen to the whole conversation here.

What is the process of composing music for a film

Nyamka Ganbold

role
social media & community
age
favorite movie

Sundance Film Festival took place virtually this year and it was a great opportunity for us to follow some events as they have been launched complementary on some social media platforms.

So we had to join the film festival’s annual celebration of music in film on clubhouse, programmed by Sundance Institute’s Film Music and Artist Community Programs. Without any expectation, we found ourselves experiencing an amazingly intimate and insightful talk where the most notable composers in the film industry shared their valuable and inspirational experiences and gave great advices. T

his conversation, open for everyone around the world to join, featured the following composers and filmmakers and inspired us to write this post on the process of composing music for film:

  • Oscar winner Mychael Danna (composer, Life of Pi, Little Miss Sunshine, Moneyball)
  • Emmy winner Mac Quayle (composer, Mr. Robot, American Horror Story, Ratched)
  • Germaine Franco (composer, Disney’s Encanto, Little, Tag)
  • Jongnic Bontemps (composer, My Name Is Pauli Murray, 4400, Citizen Ashe)
  • Emily Rice (composer, Miss Juneteenth, The I-Land)
  • Adam Milo Smalley (music editor, The Lion King, Gladiator, Kung Fu Panda)
  • Abiram Brizuela (director, Artist Community, Sundance Institute)

We want to share here the journey of how these well known composers bring music into the world - from the idea to a recorded piece - and we will quote some parts we thought are remarkable and helpful for the composing process.

So let’s start. What is the process of composing music for film

Getting started is the most difficult part of composing. Fortunately composers get lots of input before they start to write the music. This comes primarily from spotting sessions with the director.  And before this starts you should be clear of your role. Your are first a storyteller and second a composer. Your job is to help to tell the story through music says the Emmy winner Mac Quayle, who successfully worked as a composer for the famous series Mr. Robot, American Horror Story and Ratched. For him the process for working on any kind of format - narrative or documentary - is quite the same.

”I think the process is quite similar. At the core of all of these different genres I am trying to help the story. That’s what music is here for. To aid to tell the story. So whether it’s a 10 episode show or film, if it’s fiction or non fiction, music is gonna essentially be doing that. The workflow may be different - TV tends to be faster, less time to do the work, less time to perfect it. Film may have more time to do that. Typically watching the scenes that have been sent to me and scoring to the picture in all those different formats.Video games are different - it’s more about creating these elements which then the game makers take and put into their game and how their computer system plays the various things when action is happening on the screen. So it’s a little more removed from my input telling the story but it still helps telling the story.”

Going to the spotting session with this in mind might help you to talk with the director more specifically and better understand the narrative vision of the director.

This leads to our next point...


... Talking with the director

We all know that talking about music is not the easiest job. Especially since music is such a subjective thing. The music editor Adam Milo Smalley (The Lion King, Gladiator, Kung Fu Panda) says from a music editor point of view how he communicates about the music with composers.

“Music is hard to talk about, it’s hard to communicate and I think that’s the biggest challenge with a director and composer relationship. That’s why I think the music editor has - whether be it a scratch or tool to build a temporary track - to say “ok, this is the color that the director is thinking about. This is the way that we can say this is a starting point rather than just saying what kind of music might go here.”


Depending on the format the directors have different way of communicating as Germaine Franco tells from her experience working as composer in various animations of Disney.

”Animation directors have different way of communicating. You’re working with lot of pictures primarily. Directors and animator speak about music in colors. Use imagery of colors and warmth.”


But there is a different way of communicating and talking about music within the various formats. At this point we want to quote Oscar winning composer Mychael Danna (Life of Pi, Little Miss Sunshine, Moneyball). Danna shared his approach coming up with a film’s musical direction by talking with the director.

“That’s really the essence. That’s the core detective work we have to do. For me it’s the same process whether it’s a romantic comedy, or whatever kind of film it may be - it’s getting into the core of the story. And the core of the story as reflected through the vision of the director. So I spend a lot of time talking with the director. It seems like procrastination from the outside but it’s not. Well it is kind of but it’s also that you NEED that time to to talk with the director. Why did you make this film? What is it about the story that you want the people to leave with. Tell me about this character. It’s about deeply understanding the story. And remembering that we’re composers and musicians second and first we are storytellers and that”s our role. And that’s the thing we really have to get right. I do that on every film. It doesn’t matter what it is. If it’s video game or short film or even a jingle. It doesn’t matter. That’s how I would come at anything.”


Once the spotting session is done and the cue sheet has been made you ideally know what the director is going for. You know what the story is and if there is a temp track you have a sense for what kind of sound and rhythm the director is imagining with the picture.

Now it is your turn. Now your ideas and your voice are being asked for. That’s where we come to the next step ...

As you start to make big movies yourself you have other people you can run ideas by. And can sort of point you in the direction not only with the music but also about the process.

... Coming up with idea

Here we want to share the idea finding process of Mac Quayle. To the question that idea is a composers currency,  how he comes up with them and do they ever run out, he answers:

“I find one of the biggest sources of coming up with the ideas is the deadline. So if the due date is 3 O’clock tomorrow, I have to come up with an idea. I mean there is just no choice. And so there can’t be any writers block. I wasn’t able to do this ten years ago. I worked a little slower and I’ve became faster at my craft and I’ve also been able to trust myself a little more so that if I have to do it I just do it and spit it out and hope for the best. It’s always successful but usually it’s passable. And the other thing about ideas is, I love to say that I will welcome ideas from everywhere. And so there are so many ideas that can come on a project. There is a team of people, there is an editor, they will have ideas. The directors on the show will have ideas, the music editor will have ideas, the temp tracker will have ideas. There is all these places so I welcome all of them. I love collaborating that way. I never feel like I am the composer so I am the one that has all the ideas and you all need to listen to me. That is not my position. So bring on the good ideas.”


Once you have found your idea you have to bring your voice, your tone, start writing and eventually recording.

When the composers were asked how they find their voice, the audience received so many inspirational insights as well as good advice. Here are some of them starting with the composer Germaine Franco (Disney’s Encanto, Little, Tag) on how she found her voice, her uniqueness and what she recommends to do for young composers:

”We’re always given a new kind of challenge. There is always to crack what is the tone of this film and how do I get there. You have to experiment. You have to start again at the beginning for every single film. And that happens to every composer no matter how many films they have done. Whether you have done one or twenty - the process is very similar. And you’d  think ‘I don’t want to just do this kind of music, ‘cause people are going to think I can only do that. That might be your way in to the film world in the same way my way to film was on Coco. I happen to know a lot about Latin music ‘cause I played it and I loved it. You don’t want to be a stereotype but at the same time that could be your strength. Use the tools and the experience you had in life and that is how you’ll move forward.”


As for the composer Mac Quayle, his own voice just came without him noticing:

“I don’t know if it was something what I ever consciously attempted to do. I just would do what I felt in my gut and also what was asked for me by filmmakers. And project after project, even if they were quite different stylistic, people tell me that they hear my voice in this voice. But I am kind of deaf to it. I can’t really tell you what my voice is and how I achieved it. It is just kinda this thing that happened.”

So hearing these stories makes it seem like you just have to embrace your uniqueness and go with the flow. And in this stage of composing it is very important to be courageous about your own voice and feelings. Maybe this encouraging quote from Adam Milo Smalley’s, music editor, will help you in the times where you doubt your voice and think that you sound the same: (or read this post on how to find an idea from Justin here.)

“I want to encourage all the composers to find the own voice, not to sound like anybody else and to find their own rhythm, their own culture and own spirit and expressing their own voice of music.”


Okay, we are now done with writing and recording. Now we are getting close to the end of the film music composing process ...

.. Feedback

This is quite a hard part. Especially when you are really into the pieces you have created and kind of fallen in love with them. And then getting little critiques and having feedbacks on things you personally rather wouldn’t change. When this happens think back where we started first: We are storytellers first and musicians second. So if this part of music doesn’t really serve the scene that well, don’t be too attached to your version and try to be open to changes. Or as the composer Jongnic Bontemp (My Name Is Pauli Murray, 4400, Citizen Ashe) says, it’s not only about the music, it’s about the politics as well.

“As you start to make big movies yourself you have other people you can run ideas by. And can sort of point you in the direction not only with the music but also about the process. About how to navigate political situations. Because so much of what we do, even when we get to certain levels, it’s about the politics. It’s about the conversations, it’s about exuding confidence. It’s not about the music. It’s being able to deliver, it’s about having a team.”


Keeping this in mind you might go into the feedback round a bit more loose.

One of the most interesting things the composers were mentioning in the talk was the imposter syndrome. This is a very common thing among film composers. So hearing how they handle this was a mind opener to us. We couldn’t leave it out from this post and we had to share with you the experience of Mychael Danna with imposter syndrome. For him the imposter syndrome is something which is constantly there, and you shouldn’t see it as something negative:

“That never goes away. It hasn’t for me and for my fellow composer friends I spend time with. I don’t think anything changes as fast as when you have this blank page at the beginning of a project - it doesn’t really matter what the last project was and how many times you’ve done it - there is still this feeling of how do you do this again? How am I gonna get to the end? All these minutes music to write and the due days. I still feel like I am still learning and still hopefully getting better. I don’t think you should see it as something you’re going to grow out of and see as something negative. Because I think It’s part of the process. This uncertainty. That spurs you on to exploring and discovering and taking risks, where the real magic happens.”


These were our favorite picks from the talk “A celebration of music in film” which was part of the Sundance Film Festival Program and took place on Clubhouse. Listen to the whole conversation here.