Film Composing: Crafting an Artist Product

By • September 30, 2010

One of the biggest challenges composers face is getting so wrapped up and personally invested in their music that they lose sight of the bigger picture: we are hired to create a product designed to someone else’s specifications. Avoiding this pitfall can easily make the difference between whether a composer, 5 years from now, is building a successful composing career or flipping burgers in LA, still hoping for their “big break.”

One of the greatest film scoring instructors of our generation, Don B. Ray, used to talk about how film and television composing has many parallels with being a custom suit tailor. In the first client meeting, the custom tailor takes careful measurements of his client and engages in extensive discussions and demonstrations about the choice of style and fabric and other client wants and needs, not unlike a spotting session where a composer gathers notes and hears examples of what a director wants at various places in a film. Just as a suit client probably has a basic idea of what he wants before he ever arrives at the tailor, directors usually have a pretty good idea of what they are looking for in a custom score before they hire a composer.

Just as a tailor invites a client over for a first look and fitting, film composers demo synth mockups of their scores to get initial feedback and see how the score “fits” with the director’s expectations. But here’s where composers often go wrong…

If at that first fitting the tailor’s client said, “Sorry, that jacket just doesn’t fit right in the arms,” the tailor’s response of course would be to take more measurements, determine what the specific concerns of the client were about the jacket arms (ie, too long, too short, too tight, etc) and do some more work on the jacket to address the client’s concerns. After all, the client is in the best position to judge the look and fit of the suit, yes? Can you imagine what the client would say if the tailor said in response to a misfit suit, “actually no, I think it does fit – I spent a lot of time cutting an measuring the fabric, and I’m sure it fits.” That tailor would not have a business for long.

And too often, when composers are told at the first demo session that the music that they have poured their heart and soul into is “just not right” or “doesn’t work”, composers take that rejection personally and get defensive about their music – after all, what gives some non-musician the right to judge, criticize and even reject the composer’s passionate, heartfelt, intricately crafted, beautifully produced work of art that is the culmination of 20 years in the business and produced in six-figure studio? The completely inappropriate defensiveness of the composer is often felt by the client through a vibe, rather than voiced with specific words, but the end result is the same: the composer has “made it personal.” And that, my friends, begins the downward spiral that more times than not results in a composer getting fired or the composer-director relationship being damaged beyond repair.

When I do seminars for new composers or composing students, one of the most important messages I relay to participants is: In almost every case when your music is rejected, the problem is fit, not quality. Never, ever confuse the two.

As film composers, we must never lose the perspective that in the big picture, we are in some ways like custom tailors – we are in the business of creating something to someone else’s specifications – an artistic “product” whose acceptance is determined not by us, but by our client. It is our client’s vision we are writing to, and it is our client who will determine whether our music “fits” their vision or not. And if they decide it doesn’t fit, it’s up to us to avoid “making it personal.” Instead, we must dispassionately focus on our music as a custom product and determine what, if anything, can be done to make that product it a better fit to our client’s vision and expectations. As composers we must always be diligent and thorough in our efforts to understand our client’s vision, and if there’s a fit problem, we must realize that it’s more than likely the result of us not completely understanding and fulfilling our client’s vision.

For many aspiring film composers, the utilitarian aspects of this profession can come as a big shock. These composers find themselves unable to mold their own artistic vision to match that of their clients, and as a result scoring gigs become a clash of the artistic visions – composer vs. director. And if that’s what a composing gig devolves into, you can bet the composer will not come out the winner.

That’s not to say that composers shouldn’t inject their own creative and artistic view into the composing equation, but as composers we must always place the creative vision of the director first and foremost, and must understand that rejection of our music is not about quality, it’s about not being able or willing to write to the direction and vision of someone else – the director.

In creating a custom score, a film composer’s job is to first thoroughly understand the vision of the client, and then to realize that vision musically by using our composing skills as a creative tool to craft an artistic product that in great detail matches our client’s creative vision. While composing certainly is our creative process, ultimately it is the client’s creative vision we must follow.

Comments

By Dan the Music Master on October 1st, 2010 at 12:04 am

I enjoyed the article. It offers perspective to aspiring young composers.

By Jay Asher on October 1st, 2010 at 11:29 am

Spot on, Mark. And also, we should stress that in “talkies”, dialogue is king.

By Jesse on October 1st, 2010 at 11:29 pm

Gotta try to please the client, goes without saying. However, no happy client is worth the damage of becoming a style whore for them. When people used to say top film composers are “chameleon-like”, they weren’t suggesting they worked outside of on their own musical voice, to any specifications given, which has become the norm today.

By Christi Pemberton on October 4th, 2010 at 7:00 am

Thank you for this great article. What you say is so true….as composers we are artists who can become easily attached to the work that we create. We have to realize, however, that although we are using our passion and creativity to compose music for our clients, it is the client’s creative vision and needs that need to be met. Using the custom tailor example was a good idea to make that point even clearer.

By Deane Ogden on October 5th, 2010 at 2:41 pm

Excellent article and points, Mark. These are the things they do not teach in school. Spot on, as usual!

By Peter Weis on October 7th, 2010 at 8:56 am

Thats completely true. Its a hard lesson to learn though. Any artists, musician, composer, will always be emotionally tied to there music. One quick way to learn that lesson though: Pay bills with your music. Support your lifestyle with your career in music. Works like a charm.

By Jonnichi on October 7th, 2010 at 10:36 am

Thank you so much for these great words of wisdom. of course, who feels more sensitive about life in-general—only an artist/composer. However, there are living priority one must face or live up to if he/she is going to exist in this business. A director/composer marriage e,g. Spielberg-Williams comes so seldom into perspective. So, let us live and learn or must I say “Learn and live.” Your experience is the best teacher. lol

By Dan Carlin on October 7th, 2010 at 11:32 am

Nobody ever accused Don Ray of being slow on the uptake.
Thanks for this, Mark. Greetings from Boston,
Dan

By Nick Repetto on October 7th, 2010 at 3:37 pm

Excellent article and advice! I remember when a director asked me to work on his trailer for an animal show and he kept saying, “it’s not what I want, but this one fits!” I quickly learned to put my ego aside and actually “listen” to his vision.

By Matt Dunkley on October 21st, 2010 at 3:06 am

absolutely right Mark – I’ve been on many film sessions (as an orchestrator/conductor)
where the composer’s “favourite” cue has been thrown out – and it’s because the
composer has stopped serving the picture at that point and started serving him/her self.
We’ve always got to remember that the picture (and the director’s vision of the picture) is
king. The great film composers never forget this – whilst also giving us fabulous music

By Phil Kelly on October 22nd, 2010 at 12:10 pm

Excellent article Mark !

It explains one of the primary points I bring out when I do film composition seminars : You’re hired to provide to the best of your ability what the CLIENT
wants for his project and excessive emotional connection to “your notes” is best avoided as much as is possible. It also behooves the composer to try to think in cinematic terms when communicating with a director.

When all is said and done, it comes down to: ” Well -you hired out, didn’t ya ? “

By Jesse Hopkins on November 15th, 2010 at 9:48 pm

Phil,
I’m paid per draft, like a writer. I write what I want, if they ask for crap, I walk. Even porn stars have limits.

By Jesse Hopkins on November 15th, 2010 at 9:53 pm

And lest you think I do not serve picture, I do. Sometimes, the CLIENT doesn’t know how to serve the picture, and when that becomes apparent, it’s bye bye. It’s their product, but a professional freelancer’s payment is not contingent upon approval, so writing dumb, pandering music is no fault but the composer’s.
Apply this…

http://www.wga.org/subpage_writersresources.aspx?id=187

…to film scores, and you’ll be truly free to serve the picture:

By DennyJ on November 23rd, 2010 at 10:21 am

This is a fundamental principle that should be taught in film music school, but it is never touched on.

By Fernando Moura on November 29th, 2010 at 10:18 am

All clever and interesting, Mark but it only works if the client already knows what kind of “suit” he wants to wear on the specific “ocasion”. Have you ever been in a situation where film directors/producers don’t have a clue about their films’ musical needs?
How would you deal with this?
How would you charge someone that doesn’t know if a tuxedo or a slack will be the best for them in a specific situation?
Who will deal with this? The composer or its manager/agent?
Any hint about this REAL situation will be welcome.
Cheers from Rio.
F

By Daniel Peixxe on January 8th, 2011 at 12:24 pm

That’s the truth. Totally! The hardest lesson for us composers to learn is to put our ego aside and write the right music not from our point of view but the client’s. Many times I found myself in situations like Fernando Moura pointed out: the guys just don’t have the faintest idea about what they really need or want. In such situations, if the director/producer already trust me as a composer it’s easy to find a solution suggesting musical ways to go through. But we are talking about real life here… Frequently they are so lost and so insecure that is better for us to admit in advance to ourselves that we’re gonna have a hard, hard time. The only way I know to deal with that is to take a deep breath, fill myself with patience and… Face the music! It’s part of our job.

Greetings from São Paulo.

PEIXXE

By Adrian Peek on January 11th, 2011 at 9:55 am

My instructors always told us to never “marry” what you write. Being “professional” also includes being able to keep your emotions out of the scoring-rewrite process, while putting great emotion into every note one scores. When a Director tosses one of my cues, it becomes a for-library cue. Being able to write several differing cues for the same scene is accomplishment in and of itself.

By A. Composer on June 2nd, 2013 at 4:16 pm

A couple of things….
I took all of Don’s classes at UCLA, which were good practical classes assuming you already had the technique required for what is said in this article.

Many times a director is clueless about what music will improve their picture. That being said, the director’s wife, girlfriend, the producer’s girlfriend, daughter, guitar-playing gothed-out son, the music supervisor, the studio label (who are interested in the soundtrack album), the associate producer, editor, star, star’s girlfriend, cinematographer….

All of these people have opinions about music, and if any of them have the director’s ear, their opinions will be listened to and the director will act on them if he or she doesn’t know the difference. And this is not to mention the way music is cut to the picture, which adds another layer of uncertainty, as the current fashion is to play everything…such that the music becomes part of the SFX track in many “Blockbusters”…

Great film music is timeless, and doesn’t rely on this year’s pop idols or need to be in a style that’s “hot”. This will only date the picture and make it seem old fashioned in a few years.

Unfortunately, many people who call themselves composers are really pop musicians who have taken some classes in “film-composing”. The actual techniques required are not easily learned and require a wide spectrum of abilities and don’t depend on a “look”…but that’s how many people get the jobs these days…That or the other ways that people get jobs in Hollywood, nepotism or connections or networking…then they hire others to do the actual work.

But what really holds people back is that they do not develop the TASTE to know how to place the correct music in the correct places in a film…and this has nothing to do with composing, but everything to do with art and other things that are quite intangible…and that is something that Don Ray stressed.

He died before his time….

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