Understanding Film Music Industry Standards
Before we learn how to score to picture in Logic Pro and how certain software components function, we will look at film music and the film music industry. We will talk about how to prepare for working on a real project and delivering the final score, how music blends with film in support of the picture’s needs, and the role of a film composer as a storyteller to heighten the audience’s emotions.
The intent here is to prepare and equip you for what can be a challenging and constantly evolving task of being a film composer.
So, in this chapter, we will cover the following topics:
- What is film music?
- How does the film music industry function?
- What is a spotting session?
- How can a film composer effectively express emotion through music?
- What are the character qualities of a successful film composer?
- What skills are required of a film composer?
What is film music?
When it comes to understanding this industry, understanding film music is perhaps the best place to start. Film music is music written to serve and support the elements of a film. It is not for the audience to enjoy as they would when they go to a concert or music venue; instead, it is created specifically and solely to serve the picture.
It can incorporate familiar genres of music such as classical, jazz, or pop, taking just a single style or a combination of styles to enhance what’s on the screen. The music should not draw attention to itself but instead evoke emotion in the viewers. When properly coupled with a film, film music helps the viewer become more deeply involved in the film, without even realizing that the music is there.
It is also important to know that film music is not to be composed as, let’s say, a symphony would be, including a sonata followed by three movements, or a pop song, which includes verses, choruses, and bridges, or any other structure that you would see in different music genres. Since film scoring is crafted based on a specific mood, story, events, characters, scene cuts, and tempos, you are not limited to a specific structure or defined parameters – this is the exciting part of film music.
Next, it’s important to look at the film-music industry and understand how it functions, starting with film production.
How does the film music industry function?
Film production goes through multiple stages of development, including pre-production and then production, before entering the phase of post-production. This phase is where film music comes in, along with other musical elements to be added, such as finished songs, Foley, SFX, sound design, and underscores. Together, all these elements contribute greatly to the final experience of moviegoers.
Let’s quickly look at the history of the film-music industry.
A step back in time
Originally, the composer would sit at a piano with a pen and a blank sheet of music paper while watching film excerpts on the tiny screen of a Moviola projector. A common workflow would involve complex time calculations and conversions to make sure the composer’s initial ideas were in sync with the picture, all of which was done by hand. At the same time, the composer would meet with the film director so that they could watch the film together and swap ideas so that the composer could understand the director’s vision (this meeting still happens today, and we will explore this shortly).
After the completed score had been sketched out, which commonly consisted of five or six staffs on a single sheet of music paper, it was then passed to the film’s orchestrator. The orchestrator expanded the written sketch and filled out all the required instrument parts for a full orchestra before preparing it for the live orchestra recording session. When the entire score was successfully recorded, the music was then mixed and sent over to a dubbing stage, where the dialogue, SFX, and music were mixed. Once approved by the director and producer, the entire mix was attached to the picture and the film was ready for distribution.
This process required the film composer to have strong synchronization skills, and the film director also had to trust and understand the film composer’s ideas. As a lot of film directors didn’t (and often still don’t) have much music education, they didn’t know what the score would sound like outside of just a piano until they heard the final score.
It was this uncertainty on the director’s part that led film composers to come up with the idea of creating something called orchestral mockups. This was developed in the 80s with the introduction of the Music Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI). MIDI allows the sequencer to connect and communicate with many synthesizers and samplers to create and emulate the sound of a real orchestra. As you can imagine, this process was very costly and cumbersome, and stacking countless synthesizers, sound modules, and samplers loaded with recorded orchestral samples never seemed to be a fully satisfying experience because of the sound quality limitations. However, it was good enough for the film director to make the final decision to accept or reject the composed score and so it was used.
Scoring to picture today
As the music industry continued developing ways to achieve better-sounding mockups, in the 90s, well-known film composer Hans Zimmer decided to create a custom-made software sampler by recording the London Symphony Orchestra. This huge move forward in the development of music technology set new standards in the music industry. The usage of computers and software samplers took over and found themselves in countless film composers’ studios during the late 90s and more so at the beginning of the 2000s.
The well-known software sample library EastWest, developed in 2001, provided a great-sounding sampled orchestra that was available to film composers worldwide. The orchestral sample libraries are installed and streamed on multiple computers, to offload the heavy RAM and CPU consumption, so that a vast amount of great-sounding orchestral instruments were at the film composer’s fingertips. This was a game changer for so many film composers at the time. It was one step closer to achieving great-sounding orchestral mockups. Film composers were thrilled and so were film directors and producers.
Since then, going ahead in time just over 20 years to today, film composers can still use one, two, three, or more computers networked together to accomplish the demanding task of scoring to picture. Specifically, they use Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software (such as Logic Pro!), which allows them to load a movie file and synchronize music to picture. It can also load multiple patches of different virtual libraries, instruments, and countless audio files.
Music is prepared “in the box” using a computer with a DAW such as Logic Pro. This is often logistically less problematic since there’s no live orchestra involvement. Today, more than ever, the samples of live instruments sound excellent, making this the choice of many young film directors, who do not have funds for live players.
Additional ways of scoring to picture can be achieved using an iPad or iPhone, though it might be a little challenging because of the many limitations that those devices present. For example, these portable standalone devices and their software and hardware components are not equipped with enough power to handle demanding tasks like Mac computers can. Within that context, there are many other types of iOS music software available today for composers, such as notation programs, but again, there are limitations because they are only phone devices. Despite the iPhones' and iPads' existing software ability to control Logic Pro, which can help in the film scoring process, they can’t handle the complete task of scoring.
As you experience and learn about this constantly evolving industry, you’ll decide what method will work for you, either by using sheet music and sketching out your music ideas first or going directly into Logic Pro. Scoring is subjective, and what method works for someone else may not work for you, and that’s okay.
Now that we’ve explored the history of scoring, let’s start talking about the meeting between the composer and director. This meeting happens before you start scoring to picture.
What is a spotting session?
Given the same script, two different film directors would likely create quite different versions of a scene of a film. So, too, would two film composers likely score a scene differently. Both film directors and film composers bring their unique creativity to a project; however, collaboration and clear communication are essential to realizing a creative outcome in which the composer’s score seamlessly supports the film director’s vision. The film director and film composer must find a common artistic language to envision what a film needs. This often begins with what is called a spotting session.
Understanding spotting sessions
A spotting session is a meeting where the director and composer (though others can be involved too) determine and agree on what type of music will need to be composed and where the music will need to be placed within the movie timeline.
The composer’s task is to translate the emotional aspects of scenes into the music of the film score. This “translation,” though, must fit into the director’s overall vision. It can be counterproductive for the composer to make any decisions related to the score before they understand what the director is seeking. Without such understanding, the composer is shooting in the dark. This can lead to a lot of time spent on music that doesn’t support the director’s true vision and, therefore, is a waste of time. This is why the spotting session is so important.
Before the meeting
Before the meeting, the film editor and/or film director preselects existing music, called the temp track or temp music. This music gives them an idea of what they’re looking for or what the film may need before they meet with the film composer.
Temp music is not normally a film composer’s first choice because they have to emulate the audio examples to the point of nearly copying the temp track, instead of being able to create their own new and fresh score. This is an additional challenge for the film composer. What makes it more challenging is that the film composer needs to have the skill to follow the director’s request, retain the feel and the style of the temp music, and, at the same time, compose an original score.
The film composer will be sent a movie file with the temp track attached to it before the first spotting session. It is helpful to know your computer system so that you can ask the director or video editor to provide you with a movie file based on your computer system.
Since working in small movie chunks is more efficient, today, film directors and composers have found a way to work with one another by cutting the entire movie file into so-called reels. Take a look at the following diagram:
Figure 1.1: Film reels
So, if you are scoring 95-100 minutes of film, for example, you may want to ask the film director to cut the footage about every 20 minutes or so. The film director, however, makes the cuts based on the events and the story flow in the film, so they will not cut the reel in the middle of the story. In this example, you would end up with five reels in total.
In the case of a 60-minute film, you can request the director to cut the movie into 3 reels of 20 minutes each. You will work on one reel at a time. When you start composing to picture, you might end up with many different cues (or music pieces) inside the reel. Each cue might have a different revision until the director is completely satisfied with your score. Once the director is completely satisfied with each cue within the reel, including all the final revisions, and they’ve been approved, then you will move on to the next reel.
Next, we will examine how a film director or editor shares their notes on temp music and the directions that the film composer will need to follow.
Spotting notes, also commonly known as cue sheets, are a list of important film cuts and descriptions that discuss the type of music that the film director is looking for. Cuts are also known as hit points, or spots where music needs to line up with important events in the film.
These spotting notes or cue sheets may or not be provided by the film director, depending on how the film company likes to work, but film composers will always have to make notes. If the film director doesn’t provide the written notes ahead of time, either way, the film composer will have to make notes during the spotting session meeting.
The following figure shows an example of some spotting notes:
Figure 1.2: Cue sheet example
This cue sheet example presents a general idea of what type of information should be included at a minimum (some cue sheets may be more elaborate or different based on what film company you are working with).
As we learned earlier, a feature film can be divided into, for example, five reels. In the preceding cue sheet example, in the Cue column, you can see a description of 1m1. Here, the first number represents the reel, m stands for music, and the second number represents the cue. So, 1m1 means reel one, music cue one; 1m2 means reel one, music cue two; and so forth.
The list of time codes in the Time Code In and Time Code Out columns is where the music should start and end for each cue. Time codes will be discussed in more detail in the next chapter.
For each music cue, you should know what the director’s intentions are. The fourth column, Music Description/Mood, describes what the music’s intended feel/mood should be at specific points in the film. Since most film directors are not familiar with music terminology, they will tell you what they want via emotions or feelings they want to evoke, or what style and genre of music they want. This is often discussed during the meeting.
During the meeting
During the spotting session, both the film composer and director watch the film together, go through the spotting notes, and talk about the film director’s vision for the film and the role that the music will play in it. This is an important time for you to ask as many questions as you need to understand the director’s vision and get the job done.
In the meeting, you will open a movie file that should be synced in Logic Pro, along with the burnt-in timecode (BITC) window that the editor will give you so that you can make specific notes about the film’s events. The film director will point to a specific timecode location and, from that, you will write a specific music cue.
In the following BITC example, you can see that the window shows TC 01:00:00:00. TC stands for timecode, the first two numbers refer to hours, the next two for minutes, followed by seconds, and then frames. So, if the director asks for the music to start at this timecode, they are asking for music to start exactly at the 1 hour, 0 minutes, 0 seconds, 0 frames mark:
Figure 1.3: Movie with BITC example 1
Figure 1.4: Movie with BITC example 2
The process of reviewing spotting notes might also involve looking at the provided temp track list from the cue sheet. The two of you will likely consider questions such as the following:
- Where should music be playing and where should there be silence?
- What should the music be doing in this or that scene?
- What does the director want the audience to feel?
The film director will use mood descriptions, also referred to as buzzwords, instead of musical terms to describe how they want the music to be. For example, they may ask you to compose music that is magical and, at the same time, mysterious. For reference, the following chart lists some commonly used mood descriptions:
Figure 1.5: Moods in film music
The film director may also send you additional YouTube links as examples, to help describe the mood, and you should include those in the Reference/Temp Music column (shown in Figure 1.2). The film composer should take notes of these descriptions while reviewing the film.
Using music to convey complex emotions while using moods
Expressing moods in music composition can be challenging – the film composer has to use the music to convey a very complex set of emotions to the audience, in a way that is effective yet subtle, and that does not draw too much attention to itself. If the music is too obvious, the score is no longer effective, and the audience will be focusing on the music rather than the story.
The composer uses tools such as musical instruments, sample libraries, and recording equipment to reflect the emotional state of a character or scene in support of the underlying drama. The film score can greatly deepen the visual experience by providing “the right sound” that triggers emotions in the viewers. It helps viewers absorb all of what a complex scene presents.
When watching a movie, have you noticed that when the main character appears, a specific musical phrase will play each time they appear? Each main character can have a musical theme known as a leitmotif (this comes from a German term that means “leading motive”). Think of the menacing music that plays when Darth Vader appears in Star Wars. That signature sound or so-called leitmotif helps the audience identify characters with ease amid sound effects, dialogue, action, the main score, and more.
End of the meeting
The end of the meeting is a good time to ask the director how the final score needs to be delivered. This means either scoring using a computer (commonly referred to as “in the box”) or utilizing a live orchestra. Scoring “in the box” is relatively inexpensive compared to a live orchestral session. The director’s choice, based on the film production’s budget, will determine the outcome.
Now that we’ve discussed the spotting session and how the composer will know exactly what the music needs to do, next, we’ll talk about what character traits will greatly impact the quality of your work.
What are the character qualities of a successful film composer?
The following are important character qualities that a film composer should possess:
- An open mind: The ability to follow directions and take on other people’s ideas without holding on to or forcing your own ideas and thinking
- Full of inspiration: Taking initiative and coming up with helpful and creative ideas that will contribute to the film director’s overall vision
- Empathy: The ability to relate to others’ experiences in many different life situations
- Spiritually inclined: This enables you to focus more on others than yourself, and helps you sense and understand the needs of others
- Intuitive: The ability to anticipate situations that may come up so that you can be a contributor instead of a spectator
- Good listener: Being attentive to what is being said will help you interact and execute what is being asked of you
- Attention to detail: The ability to execute all the tasks successfully and thoroughly no matter how small or large the project is and deliver it without any problems
- Positive attitude: Easy to get along with, agreeable, diplomatic, motivated, humble, not dwelling on problems and difficulties, learns from mistakes, and confident
- Motivated: Having an attitude of taking challenges as opportunities is a key to repeated clients
What skills are required of a film composer?
- Able to play at least one musical instrument
- Strong music theory, harmony, and improvization skills
- Efficiently arrange and orchestrate music
- Write music quickly for delivery
- Strong knowledge in using computer technology such as Logic Pro (DAW)
- Mix your own music
- Create orchestral mockups
- Compose a variety of different styles and genres of music
- Able to score to picture in Logic Pro (DAW)
- Create music with a limited amount of time and resources
- Good time management and organization skills
- Good knowledge of the business of music, including the costs of orchestras, recording sessions, and budgeting
You don’t need to have all of these skills right away as you venture into film music, but you’ll want to keep working on these areas to help you reach your desired potential.
Thus far, we have taken time to understand what film music and the film music industry are by touching on the history of scoring, what a spotting meeting is, what cue sheets are, and having a very brief look at delivering a score. We also reviewed the challenging aspect of conveying emotion through music to the audience, as well as the character qualities and skills that are expected of a film composer.
In the next chapter, we will be looking at film scoring terminology, as well as how to use film and music components when scoring to picture.