MFG member Brent Holland has been composing music professionally for over 20 years and has had the privilege to create music for all major network broadcasting companies in North America including: CBS, FOX, NBC, ABC, NASA, PBS, Cox, Clear Channel, CBC, Radio Canada International, SRC, CTV, TVA, APN, CHUM, CORUS, RDS, Global, etc. Credits include feature films and international broadcasters. Mr. Holland holds to his name, two Bachelors of Fine Arts, one in of them is in Music, and the other in Theatre Design. Contact info below.
Putting Music to Picture is a series of articles derived from my real-world-guerilla-grass-roots 22 years of experience scoring for film, TV, docs, etc. coupled with my work in composing for and operating a stock music library. In short, these are articles for the rest of us who make a living everyday in the business of the non-Hollywood world. These are not “how to” articles, but instead, they are “try this” articles interjected with stories and anecdotes of my everyday experiences in the trenches.
Stop, Look and Listen
Music, like film, is nothing more than story telling. Moreover, as with film, the creative process is abundantly complex, and as with every story, we need a starting point.
As a producer or director, how often have you gone through budgets, and whatever is left over is what goes towards the music portion of the project, and then question yourself, “How integral to my project is music anyway?” A good response to that question is, “As important as any other element in my project.” For example, what does a good actor bring to the delivery of the lines? A great editor? DOP? Costume designer? How do they, each in their own way, contribute to achieve your vision? Sometimes, a music score can actually save a scene from the trash can and turn it into a gem.
Overall, what would serve the project better, a new post production special effect that’s eating away the entire budget, or allocating more attention to the music score. In the end, what will the audience notice more, the effect or the music? Shouldn’t the music score be given at least some consideration and not default to last on the list?
Making decisions and taking directions.
At what point in the project should you start thinking about your score? The cliché answer is: “at the beginning”. However, in truth, you’ve probably never found that to work in the real world. Most folks are far too engaged in the scripting to jot down anything more than notes on the script and those ideas about music usually stem from the music they happen to be listening to at that moment on their iPod. More in “tune” (pun intended) with the “reel” world, is to starting thinking about your music score when you’re in the process of story boarding or in lieu of that, setting up to shoot a scene, which happens to be my personal favorite. There’s something about the “vibe” live on set when lighting a scene and figuring out camera movements that tends to be a good time for creativity. Take advantage of it. Your mind is already in the groove making those decisions about mood and direction, why not music too? Either you, or someone else, make written bullet point notes of why you are taking the direction you are with that scene. Don’t trust it to memory; you’re far too weighed down with your film for that. Five lines would suffice. Now extend it one step further and consider how music could serve to enhance your vision of that scene.
Contrast / Big Contrast or Little
Here’s an exercise for you to try out. Look at a scene in terms of contrast of light and dark. A small amount of contrast could be represented by the shadows you create through lighting and why. Where’s the focus in the scene? What needs to be accented? What’s lurking in the shadows? If there’s no dialogue, should the music score carry the story? Do you need a full on symphony or just a moody drone underneath? Maybe something in between like grand piano & strings could serve best? As an example of high contrast, sometimes a scene may not need music at all as the best way to convey your idea. Think of the scene at the end of the Godfather III with Al Pacino holding his dead daughter hysterically screaming in silence. The silence of the scene speaks volumes. Now, I know what you’re thinking, decisions, decisions, decisions; which leads us to:
Research allows you to build up a knowledge base of what works in a film and what doesn’t work at all. Here’s another exercise highly recommended for developing your own sense of aesthetics towards scores. Take one of your favorite scenes of any movie and turn the sound off. What feeling did you get? Does the scene carry itself without benefit of music? Ok, now, turn the sound up, is there a noticeable change? Is the story carried better with music or, like the Godfather scene mentioned above, is music really necessary for the scene? Turn the sound down again. Can you guess why the film maker chose the music in that style and narrative for the scene?
Now while keeping the sound off, take your iPod and play one of your tunes over the scene. Choose a pop tune with lyrics if you’d like. Notice how it changes the story. If it’s a dramatic scene, try comedy music over it and vice versa. See what the music is doing to your understanding of viewing and experiencing the scene. What is it about the music you have chosen that works for you? Moreover, what doesn’t work?
So, you have always admired Spielberg (or not) and want to do something serious like Schindler’s List. What is the music doing in your favorite scene in Schindler’s List? Look at the tempo. Is it slow? Medium? Fast? What instruments are playing? Is it a solo instrument? A drone? Why do you think Spielberg and John Williams (composer) chose the direction they did? Does the score “crowd “the scene or fit like a glove? Another common cliché is “the music must serve the picture”. I have never adhered to this one because sometimes it is desirable for the music to be the focal point of a scene. Think of Randy Newman’s score for The Natural. When Robert Redford tags the ball out of the stadium and the score explodes and lifts you right out of your seat along with the ball. Goose bump time. The story, the artistic vision, is what must be served. Which leads us to:
The Big Picture -Serving the whole story not just the scene.
Themes and repeating motifs can add cohesiveness to any film. A good analogy here can be akin to costume design. A costume can really help bring out a character. Throw a fedora on Harrison Ford and he’s Indiana Jones. Throw a poorly disguised German helmet on Darth Vader and the storm troopers and they become the epitome of evil: “the bad guys”. Throughout the film these costumes can and do change. On, off, dirty, backwards, whatever. Your music score can accomplish the same thing. A theme can be composed specifically for a character. For example, who do you think of when you hear the John William’s theme for Indiana Jones? Think of the theme or Darth Vader in Star Wars? They’re both synonymous. Often, a love theme is composed for, well, the lovers. Every time you see them you hear the theme. For example it can be used as an “echo” when one of the lovers is thinking of the other. The theme, like the costumes, changes over the course of the story. It can take on a sad narrative or in the case of coming together at the end explode with fanfare. Think of the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, the part when Kevin Costner and Maid Marion wed at the end. The love theme has been present throughout the film in various guises but now explodes and leaves us with that fairy tale ending. Thanks to the late Michael Kamen for that sensational score.
Every Picture Tells a Story, Don’t it?
There probably seems to be an enormous amount of possibilities presented here. Ok, now relax. It’s all good. Really. Remember your first film and the one you’re currently making now. Without question you have grown since that first venture and have increased your knowledge and that has translated into your skill as a film maker. The things that you had learned you now bring to all your future endeavors. It’s called experience. By thinking about your music score all you are doing is increasing your skill set. While it may seem daunting at first, eventually if you want to swim you have to jump in to get wet. And all that takes a starting point.
B&H Gold Production Music Library
the power of music
if there were words for it
we wouldn't need it
the Montreal Film Group with permission from Brent Holland.
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