Scoring for Film and TV

by Ned Bouhalassa


1. What do I need to start working in the film and TV industry?


First of all, you need to work on your patience and your confidence. It may take more than 5 years before you start to do really interesting and well-paying gigs. That's the reality in most endeavors, right? This is where having confidence in yourself really comes in handy. When the business cell doesn't ring for days, and no work-related emails come to you for weeks, it's important to continue to have faith in your value as a collaborator.


Next, you need to have very good communication skills. Producers and directors want to be sure that you are serious and that they can count on you. The first thing they will look for is if you are quick to reply to their messages, answer their questions. They also will be very relieved if they can tell that you actually listen to them, that you take written notes during meetings, and that you ask them to repeat something when it is not clear. Don't pretend to understand something confusing, especially if it's coming from a director, or you risk composing the wrong cue(s), and wasting your valuable time.


Make sure your tools are in good working order. You can't have your computer crash on you regularly when you're under the gun. Especially when you're working for TV, as there's very little time. If you can't record in your regular studio (because it's at home, for eg), find a cheap studio in your town that you can book with little advance notice. I have a friend who converted his basement into a studio. He has excellent gear (mics, tube amps), and is very easy to get along with. Because it's not a big pro studio, I can call him with 48-hours notice and generally get some time.


Study your craft. Listen to film and TV soundtracks, as well as all kinds of 'cinematic' music (techno, jazz, classical). Read music magazines and books, like Jeff Rona's excellent The Reel World. You can never know too much about your trade. Pay attention to criticism from clients, friends and loved ones. You don't learn anything from accolades (though they help with self-esteem), but constructive criticism can help you grow as a writer.


2. Is it really all about contacts, and if so, how do I make them?


Yes, contacts are extremely important. Contacts get you in the door, but talent and professionalism will keep you there. In the chain of film/tv production, music is one of the last steps. By the time they get to you, directors and producers may be stressed out from having gone over-budget, from being late, pressure from the broadcasters/distributors, etc. Sometimes, they may expect the music to 'save' the film/series. And they're spending some serious money on you, so they have to trust you. Why should they take a chance on someone they don't know? Chances are they won't. They will, however, be more open if one of their collaborators/friends speaks highly of you. For example, the editor may say that he/she has heard your demo and thinks it's great. Or the secretary may recall a documentary he saw that featured your music. Perhaps the cameraman met you at a party, heard your demo cd and thinks you seem to be very serious and eager to work. Which brings me to the second part of this question.


You can make contacts almost anywhere, but the best places are obviously industry events, like film-opening parties, wrap parties, sets, film festivals, etc. Festivals come in all sizes. You don't have to go to the big ones to make interesting contacts. In fact, it may be much easier to talk to someone at a smaller festival. You can also become part of a film society or independent film group. There are some in most large cities. You'll meet up and coming filmmakers there, along with young producers. Editors can be your best friends. They often place the temp music or guide track, and have a big say in the choice of the music. If they place some of your music as temp, and the director likes it, you may have a good chance of being hired.


3. Do I need an agent?


That's a tough question to answer. The type of agent that hustles your work regularly may only be found in Hollywood, and even then, may only do that for their big clients. Nevertheless, I believe that even if your agent does not get you work, the fact that you have one may help to give you a 'professional' edge over your competition. Note that I use the word, 'may'! Sometimes, an agent has a good knowledge of law and can look over your contracts, which can save you the cost of a lawyer. In some cases, your agent can also act as a kind of manager. They can help you make decisions about what kind of work you should be going for, whether or not you should take a specific contract, what your demo is missing, and what is going on in town. Remember, these people spend all day on the phone and in meetings, and they have an ear to the ground. It's very useful to be able to check with them regularly to know what projects are in the works in your city.


4. How much should I charge?


It really depends on where you live, as things like the cost of living, and the general state of your local economy will have a profound effect on what producers can afford. Obviously, the more experience you have, the more you can make. I started out doing things for free or for next to nothing. It helped me to build up my CV and my demo tape (we're going back a few years...). IMV, when you're starting out, it's important to get as much experience as possible. If it means charging less, then so be it. You'll make up for it later! There's a good chance that as your career grows, you will want to be flexible. There are some projects that you will only do for money, and others that you will do because their content excites you or you're being asked to write music that you love. If you have an agent, then you don't have to worry about negotiating directly. Try to get the agent to negotiate their cut of the overall music budget, so that, if the agent charges you 15%, get them to negotiate at least 15% more than what the producers initially had in mind. Royalties can also play a big part in your decision to take on a project. For instance, you may accept to do a TV series for less up front than you might normally, because you know that it will air all over the world, or at least in Europe, where many countries are very generous in their royalty payments. Finally, always give at least 100% of yourself, regardless of the money. The fee will come and go, but your music and reputation will remain.


5. What should I put on my demo?


Put your best stuff. Don't worry about having too much music, as the people listening to your cd can always fast forward or skip to the next track. If you're not sure of the content of the project you're pitching for, try to have a wide variety of material, show that you're versatile. If, on the other hand, you know that the show or film has a very specific audience, then stay focused in your choice of material. Start off with something punchy and short, like an appetizer. If you can, avoid placing 3 tracks in a row that are in the same key or tempo. Make sure that the tracks are well mastered so that the listener won't have to keep playing with the volume control. Don't leave any glitches, bad fade-outs, clipping noises in any of your music. This is your one chance to make an impression, so make it perfect. Don't forget to have your name, coordinates in bold. You may also want to add a short version of your CV on the CD jacket, just in case they don't have your cv on hand while they're listening.


6. Do I need a website?


Do you need a job? Of course you should have a website. Preferably one that is not full of ads. Think of it as a multimedia CV (resume). Keep it simple, stay away from the latest internet plug-in technology. TV and film people are generally not as geeky as you'd expect. Make sure your email is very visible. Use a very common audio format for your excerpts, like mp3. Don't be shy to have a picture of yourself - it makes your website more memorable. Make sure to have a recent News or Blog section that announces your latest work.


7. How do you deal with synching the sound and picture together?


I use QuickTime and import the video into my MIDI/audio sequencer (Logic). The client gives me two versions of the project, one with temp music and one without. I load up the one without temp in Logic.


8.  What software do you use to sync your audio to image?


Logic Audio. Others, like Digital Performer, Cubase, ProTools, etc (I'm a Mac guy, but I'm sure PC applications can do the same as Logic - see Sonar and Cakewalk, for example).


9, What format should I deliver my music in?


Whatever format is asked by the post-production supervisor. Typically, for a small budget television series, wav or aiff stereo  on a CD-R or DVD-R will do the trick. They will ask for a 1-frame-long, 1khz sync beep, to be placed 2 seconds exactly before first image or black (for eg, at 09:59:58:00). For a feature film, you may be asked to deliver several tracks, perhaps in Pro Tools format. This is because directors and mixers may want to have the option of taking out part of the music in your mix, like the piano, while leaving room for the strings. These are the kinds of choices that they may only be able to make during final mix, when they hear the combination of dialogue, foley, ambiance and music.


10. How much compression should I use on my mixes?


It depends on the medium. For TV work, I tend to use a lot. On almost every track, and then on the entire mix. In a TV mix, chances are your music will be buried, so if you want most of what you've written to be heard, you have to really crunch it. You may also want to EQ out the very low frequencies, as they won't be heard on most television sets, and may just show up as distortion because the little TV speakers won't be able to handle them. For a feature-film mix, I will be much more gentle, but I will still use some. Remember that your music still has to compete with dialogue, foley and ambiance. Of course you want to have a good dynamic range so that your music has the right combination of subtlety and punch, but also make sure that the audience will be able to hear the detail in your work.


11. How do you pan your sampled instruments/synthesized sounds in a mix?


It depends on the medium I'm writing for: if it's for TV, than you can be sure that I reduce the soundstage to 20%, meaning that I pan the instruments from middle left to middle right, seeing as how many people still watch TV in mono or with the left and right TV speakers barely more than 20 inches apart; for a feature, I will pan wider, say 60%, as I consider that sound designers/mixers like to have effects and ambience fill out the edges; if it's for home stereo listening/headphones, then as wide as I want (realistic might be 80%, experimental will be 100%). I try to base my choices on what is traditional in a 'real' setting, but I'll sometimes cheat, in order to balance out the mix.


12. Why use high quality sampled instruments as opposed to hiring studio musicians?


When I work for TV, there is very little time. Unless it's a big budget Hollywood series, you can't hire a staff that will look after your studio's technical issues (upgrade or crash anyone?), hire the musicians, book the recording studio, prepare the parts, edit the recordings, prepare the release forms... you get my drift? Don't get me wrong, nothing can replace a professional musician. When I get a chance, I love to work with them. But it's usually for feature films. Oh, and it does make a big difference, especially when it comes to expressing emotion.


13.  How common is it to employ sampled instruments in soundtracks for television and film?


On TV, it's very, very common. In film, much less, at least when it comes to Hollywood films (average budget is what? 30 million?...). Independent cinema composers, on the other hand, are much more likely to use sampled instruments. Of course, Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer and co. do use sampled instruments for mock-ups.


14. Do you find your electroacoustic background helpful when composing for film?


Absolutely. First of all, studying electroacoustics changed the way I hear, forever. It opened me up to the possibility of using every sound in a musical context, not just 'traditional' instruments. It also allowed me to feel much more comfortable around technology. Not only am I at ease with computers and MIDI, but I'm also very good at using softsynthesizers/samplers and effect plug-ins, like filters, delay, reverb, because I understand how they work (OK, I'm not a rocket scientist, let alone a computer music doctor, but I do have a good grasp of the basics!). In terms of composition, I have also applied some of my electroacoustic experience in creating evolving textures and creating tension. Finally, it made me a better mixer.


15. How is your experience working with directors?


In general, fantastic. They always care very deeply about their work, and you can learn so much from listening to them. Often, they will not have a deep understanding of music, but they will have an excellent artistic instinct. They might suggest something that you at first find awkward, but that then inevitably makes the cue, and therefore the picture, better.


16. How do you produce a 1khz sync beep?


I used the EXS24 sampler. By default it, and other softsynth/samplers like Spectrasonic's Trilogy for example, will play a sine wave spread out across the keyboard. Since A3 is 440 Hz, it follows that B4 will get in the ballpark of 1 Khz (you don't have to be exact!). Record yourself playing a staccato note, then edit it to be 1-frame long with your favourite editor set to SMPTE ruler mode.


17. Where should I place music and where should I leave it out?


There are no easy answers to that. If the editor/director has already placed a guide track, then this will be your first road map. Most of the time, they have good instincts, and will make good choices. Often though, you can add or take out music in a scene and try to convince them that this is a good idea. You might feel that music should appear any time when there is no dialogue, but the truth is that it really depends on a few factors: has there been a lot of music before this particular scene? If so, you might want to leave some breathing room for the audience. Many people, including myself, feel that silence is as musical as sound, and can certainly have as much impact; was the dialogue that preceded this scene intense? If so, it might good to let the audience sit with the moment a bit; is there a lot of ambience and foley? Your music might be drowned out anyhow, so it might be best to let the soundscape take over.


Often music is used to help with time and/or place transitions. You might write a cue that follows a traveling car shot, a character walking up a hill to meet someone, or for a series of cross-fades of a character's day in the city. Music can also be used to underline emotion, but this is one of the more difficult areas of scoring. Add too much sadness to an already sad scene and you might be drowning the intent. One way to verify this is to watch the scene without music - does it still feel sad? If so, then you might want to go with something very subtle. It's kind of like cooking with feta cheese: do you really need to add salt?!! I don't like rules myself, but one thing which I try not to do is to use music with a strong melodic content under dialogue. This will often lead to a competition for the audience's ear, and you can bet that in the final mix, your music will lose. The point is that the director wants the dialogue to be understood, so make sure that your music acts as a backdrop for the text and the actors' play. Please remember that you can always find exceptions to these tips, and that I'm referring to general scoring contexts.


Try leaving holes in your music. You'd be surprised how much more interesting a cue can be if it is allowed to breathe. This also creates tension, and music has tension (and release) at its heart. In a film or TV show, there are other sounds filling up the space, and we can hear them during the breaks in your cue, so you don't have to worry about 'dead' air.


18. Should the music have a presence of its own, or is it just there to add to the story/pictures?


I suppose this depends on the type of cue. If it there is a narrator explaining something over the music, then the cue should accompany her/him. Keep in mind that writing for image is about collaboration. It's not about your music alone. Your score is part of a greater whole which includes dialogue, sound effects, ambience, and images. Of course, there are times when the music is so powerful that it takes over. But that is an exception. You music can be the most important element during transitions, dance scenes, car rides, poetic montages, and of course, during the opening and closing credits. I feel that if your music is helping the audience to understand and feel the movie or program, then you have done your job well and you can be proud (oh, and you'll also get re-hired). Please park your ego at the door!


19. Should you stick to one theme with variations, or should each section of the film have its own theme?


This is the kind of question that is difficult to answer because both ways can work. One of the advantages to the theme and variation idea is that it makes the score homogeneous, organic. Every cue flows from the same source. This can help to tie different narrative parts together. But it can also be hard to execute well. First of all, the original theme has to be rich enough that it can inspire a large variety of offspring. Now rich does not necessarily mean complex. Some themes are very simple, and yet still yield a large number of variations (think of Beethoven's 5th Symphony). When I start on a new project, I like to come up with 5 or 6 different themes. If the director likes these, then I know that I can make variations on them and that the chances are that he will like these too. In order to keep things 'organic', I may decide from the outset to limit myself to a few instruments, to one musical world. This way, my themes can be very different, but they will come from the same place.


20. How often should the director come over to hear what I've done?


On average, I will ask the director to come over about every 3 days. This is because I have found that this will reduce the chances of me wasting time writing something that he/she will not want to use. Once again, communication is key. You want to know ASAP if the director feels that you're going in the right direction, especially at the beginning of the project. Hopefully, they will understand if your work is not in a finished state, that it's a rough mix.