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 ...