October 7, 2021

When to plan for music

Filmmusic: why planning for music at the earliest stage is so important.

Nyamka Ganbold

hen it comes to the soundtrack of a film there are several ways filmmakers approach it. Some plan the music while they write and start budgeting at the same time. An ideal way to work. But what is the most common way of starting to work on music and is there any secret recipe?

We were curious about this. So we went out there and asked filmmakers in different forums how they usually handle music. When do they start to plan the score and start considering source music: during the script phase or any other time?

The response about their approaches were quite different but one stuck out the most: "Music is one of the last things, so it often gets what is left. Both little money, and of course what little time is left - 'We can give you 3 days to do the score.'"

This really struck a chord with us. We were nodding and thinking: Yes, this is unfortunately a very common situation. We have all been there and done that. Whether as a composer, producer or director. So how can we avoid this and when is the best time to implement music in the story, plan and budget it?

We sat down with Corinna, our CSO and talked about her experiences when she was working as production manager and music supervisor. Corinna Poeszus is an experienced executive with over 30 years of experience in music, digital media, film production, advertising and TV-entertainment. She was the general manager of Universal Music Publishing Production Music and senior director of sales and licensing in the BMG Group. So when it comes to film music, there is no one more experienced than her. She shared some precious stories we can all learn from with insights and examples of how and when to plan film music. So keep on reading and learn how you can avoid these nightmare scenarios around film music and get inspired.

There is never a "too early" when it comes to filmmusic

We all know that there are two kinds of music in a film, which we need to implement: source and score. For the score we usually work with a composer and for the source we have to clear the music rights. So depending on how much music we are planning to have in the movie, we calculate the budget. This is the first reason why you should plan the music from the earliest stage. The rule is, there is never a "too early" when it comes to music.

There are several directors who work with their composers before even starting to shoot the first scenes. For example Jim Jarmusch with his film Only Lovers Left Alive, where he worked with the composer Josef Van Wissem. According to the interview he gave for Motion Pictures, Wissem says that he started to compose before the filming even started: "Yeah, I started writing some pieces last summer, without thinking about the film. I hadn’t seen anything yet, so I just wrote a group of pieces that I thought would fit well together, and I gave those to Jim. Most of them ended up in the film. Then we went into the studio and added drums and guitar."

The less the film budget is, the earlier you should plan and start contemplating on the issue of music

The latest you should decide on music is when the script is already written and the director is on board, suggests Corinna. Then you can discuss source music in the script and make decisions whether to use them before it's too late.

“We had this situation once, where the director, script writer, producer and the producing manager, in this case: me - were sitting together and going through the script. The first 10 minutes of the film was about two friends having a car accident. So the scene in the script begins like this: ‘Two friends walking towards their car. Suddenly one of their cell phone starts to ring. The ringing tone is a song by The Rolling Stones.’ Here starts the first discussion on music. The producer wants to take out the song and replace it with a normal classical ringing tone because they could never afford a Rolling Stones song. The director on the other hand wants to have the song for any price. ‘The protagonists are young, hip people. They don't use a normal ringing tone’, he argues.

"Since this scene with the cell phone ringing happens before the car crash, I suggested we take a song from a less known german band called Crash Test Dummies. Because no one knows that these two friends will have a car accident when the cell phone rings, but the cell phone tone indicates it through the band name. The director was impressed by this idea and saw it as a plant and payoff. So we took the german song.”

A very creative solution that costs the film production even less. This could only happen because the music was already considered in the development phase and discussed before shooting.

"The less the film budget is, the earlier you should plan and start contemplating on the issue of music, both your first choices and possible alternatives that you'll eventually need to license and synch with your picture", Corinna emphasizes.

But in the filmmaker's world it is unfortunately the other way around normally.

If you know from the beginning - from the treatment to script - how much score and source music you want in the movie, the budgeting will become much easier. Because you then know whether you can afford the music and avoid uncomfortable situations like not getting the music rights after the fact.

For instance the film Cruella from director Craig Gillespie is a pool of source music, giving the movie it's character by using really famous songs. In an interview with Den of Geek the director tells that when Disney president of production Sean Bailey told him that he want the source to be used in a similar way to what he did for I, Tonya. Gillespie then warned Bailey upfront that there was going to be a huge bill for this.  And it turned out that they had about 50 songs in Cruella .

“I learned a lot when I was doing I, Tonya” he says. “It’s all in the prep. You really have to design the movie to support it. The camera and the way the camera moves in the scenes, it has to be designed around the music. So that's all mapped out in advance. We know there’s going to be song in the film. It's like Okay, this is going to transition to a song here. We will have about 30-40 seconds, and so forth'”.

Again an example how useful it is, to plan the music ahead. It helps the film and the post-production at the same time.

“By the time we get to the set, I have hundreds of songs on my phone”, describes Gillespie further. “Songs that probably a music supervisor would never give me because it's the Stones and the Doors and Queen, and they always try and stay away from those because of the price tags. But I just picked stuff with no parameters that I just felt could really support what was happening in the scenes.”

This kind of creative exposure with music can end up pretty cruel too. Corinna told us a story, where they couldn't have the rights for the music they used as source in a scene. They had already shot the scene and couldn't get the rights from the publisher even though the record company already agreed on it. They couldn't shoot it again with a different source cue because the main actors in the scene were abroad for shooting another film. Corinna assured us that she faced such unnecessary horror events plenty of times.

The best solution to this problem is, you exchange the song with a similar song and edit it in the scene. But looking for a similar song can cost you time and money. At this point you wish that there was a tool or platform that could just automatically suggest a replacement and give you the license because it’s so much work.

Knowing what songs to use ahead  helps you to foresee the challenges you might face.

A creative outburst from the director could  cause problems too. Planning and discussing ahead wouldn’t leave you in this situation.

But nothing against creativity. Knowing what songs you want to use from the beginning helps you to be aware of the kind of difficulties you can expect.

You have time to find creative solutions that are beneficial to everyone. One more very inspiring example which Corinna told us, and we feel so strongly about is a scene in the German movie Mondscheintarif.

You see the main character listening to the Song “Weep” by Reamonn. As she steps out on the balcony you see a bunch of guys walking downstairs on the street. As soon as the camera shows the guys closer you realize that the guys are the band and are actually singing the song. A perfect way of showing a dream sequence in a film.

Including the band in the movie is a win-win situation for everyone. The film has its source cue, you don't have any troubles with the recording and publishing company since the band is involved in the movie, and even the band can get their share on performing rights. “It’s so useful if the producer also has some knowledge of the music business.”, says Corinna. But this would be another story.

“It’s so useful that the producer also has some ideas in the music business.” says Corinna. But this would be another story.

So we have learned that planning the music and handling the rights from the earliest stage on can encourage creativity, make the budgeting easier, prevent you from horrible surprises and create a win win situation for everyone.

One last question we couldn't leave unanswered: Why is music always being put at the end, even though everyone is aware of the fact that it's better to plan it ahead?

“Unfortunately it’s true that music is being put at the end to be handled in post-production. I think it's because music is a thing you can't see and touch. That's why it's being so underestimated and always put aside to the end.”, reveals Corinna.

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