In this guest post, Australian composer and lecturer at the University of Tasmania, Heath Brown, shares some insight how to avoid the many, many pitfalls of using music in your films.
The alchemic results of combining music with moving pictures can be extraordinary. The right score or soundtrack can elevate a film, enrich its world. Maybe even add a layer of wry commentary (like the recurrent paraphrasing of Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question in the score for Zodiac). Music can help with pacing, it can heighten emotion. It can even have its own semiotic rhetoric, deepening the relations between events and characters, enriching subtext.
Like all powerful tools in film making, music can also completely ruin your film. It can make your premise look silly, it can make actors look bad, and it can undermine the drama you fought so hard for on set. Here are five common mistakes made by both directors and composers.
All composers hate and fear temp-love. It is a ubiquitous pox on our craft, from the big end of town to the up and comers on laptops. Temp love occurs when scenes have been cut to pre-existing music. It starts out as a guide, but as the editor and director work on a given sequence over many days, their familiarity with the temp track becomes a kind of insidious bond from which the composer must attempt to coax the filmmaker. If a director has come to identify the temp music as inseparable from the film, the composer is set up to fail. At best, their job becomes copying the original as best they can without infringing copyright. This is what’s known as a soundalike. While they are a recognised part of the industry, you can expect your composer to be about as enthusiastic about it as an actor would be if you kept directing them to “play it more like De Niro!”
Temp or reference music can be a great thing. It can facilitate communication between composer and director in a concrete, unambiguous way that is sometimes hard to achieve verbally. But if you come down with a case of temp love, you are essentially giving up originality for familiarity. You are also greatly restricting the ability of the composer to draw upon their extensive expertise and experience in helping you tell your story as effectively as possible.
Trying to fix things
Going into a shoot, you probably have a pretty clear idea of what you want to get. You may watch the film over and over in your mind before you’ve even stepped on set. Then you have to go into the world and actually shoot the thing. Sometimes, what you get, it isn’t what you had in mind. Whether it’s a performance, or a location, or the weather, any number of things can mean the scene comes out a different way to what you intended. When it comes to the score, it’s important to score what you did get, not to try and use the score to push it into being what you wish you’d got. Trying to score stuff that isn’t there seldom works and usually makes everything worse. You’d be surprised how many times you’ve thought ‘bad actor’ when you should have thought ‘bad score’. Use the score to bring out the drama of what you have, not to try and make up for something that you didn’t get.
People often cite the scene in Psycho where Marion Crane is driving as an example of music doing all the work and the picture being quite benign. This is not true at all; Marion’s facial expression is all tension and worry, and the lighting reinforces this. As does the edit, in which, after cutting away to the POV shot, we return to ever closer shots of Marion’s face. It also moves from day to night through the sequence, and from fine weather to rainy. There’s no doubt that Herrmann’s masterful score ups anxiety of the scene – it’s not considered one of the great scores for nothing – but Herrmann’s music works so well because it’s all there visually, waiting to be teased further forward by the music.
Just as music can help make a scene more dynamic and exciting by emphasising key turning points and story beats, it can also have the opposite effect. If the music in a scene plays through a turning point without noticeable change (you may have the music in to simply establish a mood) then the effect is to reduce the intensity of that moment. The score is often guiding the audience’s response to what it sees. In the above example, the audience are guided not to change their emotional perspective on the scene; the mood is maintained despite a turning point. This has the effect of flattening the dynamics of the scene.
Sometimes the solution to this is to work with the composer to create an energy shift in the music at the appropriate moment. Other times, the right thing is to pull the music altogether, allowing the performances and visuals to drive the scene.
It’s worth noting that flattening is sometimes the desired effect. A training montage (think Rocky) is a great example of this, where we just want to watch events unfold in sequence without being pulled into each moment. We’re watching from a distance, pulled into the sweep of the sequence, but not into the beats of each scene.
Letting your composer loose
Sometimes directors want to show their respect for the composer and their craft by just sending them off with a cut of the film and eagerly waiting for the score to be turned in, finished. I’m sure there are instances where this works out well, but by and large it is a mistake. Both sides of the equation – director and composer – may see the music as the composer’s terrain, which of course, it is. But they miss the key point: the music, like every other aspect of production, should be in service of the film: and that is unquestionably the director’s terrain. Having worked with the script, on set, in the edit suite, the director knows exactly what the intention has been for each scene. They can sometimes then make the mistake of thinking that that intention is evident to everyone. Oftentimes, it’s not. We composers may completely misread the intention of the scene and score it against the filmmaker’s intentions. We need direction.
Imagine a scene in which a character tosses their keys to someone across the room, and that half an hour of screen time later they die in a car accident. In one score, we could underscore the key-toss with an ominous touch. In the other, we play straight through and don’t bring attention to it (see no. 3 Flattening above). In these examples it’s not only that particular moment which is different, but the whole next half-hour of the film. One score foreshadows the accident, and has the audience tensely awaiting its arrival, while the other score ensures the audience is initially oblivious and then later taken by surprise. Which of those films we are making should absolutely be the director’s decision.
Taste over function
We all love music and everyone has their own particular taste. You may love the sprawling scores of Hans Zimmer. Or maybe you lean more toward the music of the indie classics of the 70s (I know I do). It may be that you wrote your whole script while listening to the Inception score. And now you’ve shot and cut your movie and it’s time to score it. Unlike Inception, you didn’t have the budget to have the kind of large scale visual world that Nolan could afford, with the Paris streets folding over on themselves, or skidoo chases through the snow. Maybe your film is smaller in scope, visually. The ideas are still big, and the narrative tight, but it all takes place indoors and is more verbal, with less physical action. It may be that, to your disappointment, the epic Zimmer-esque score you envisioned just isn’t going to work.
This is a case where, once again, you have to score what’s there. An epic score may actually dwarf the drama of your film, drawing attention to the limited locations and smaller scope of the story in a negative way, rather than using the score to bring out and make the most of the kind of tense, intimate drama that you actually have. Likewise, you may love the sweeping orchestral scores that accompany a great many Hollywood films, but in your gritty, urban drama, it just doesn’t fit. If you try and shoe-horn it in, you may inadvertently alter the whole perspective of the film; the classical score isn’t of the characters’ world, so it positions us, the audience, as distant and removed; the music is for us. Instead of the intimacy that may have been achieved with a solo electric guitar, we are removed from the characters and they become a remote spectacle.
By working with what’s onscreen and engaging collaboratively in the scoring process, you can unlock surprising and exciting new layers to your film. Avoiding the practices outlined above can help put you on track to creating a score that enriches and enhances your film.
Heath Brown is an Australian composer who works across a range of media. He has a passion for music, film and the amazing things that happen when you put the two together. You can check out his full bio, credits and examples of his work here.