THE FILM SCORING PAGE
of Jeffrey Taylor
Updated - September 4, 2008
[1:07, MP3-1.05MB] Country-western style background music for the opening barber shop scene.
Some of you might find this interesting. And then, of course, the rest of you won't. For about the last two years now I have been studying the art of film scoring with Hummie Mann's Pacific Northwest Film Scoring Program. I have now finished the last level, during which we actually wrote music for student films. This level is commonly referred to as Film Scoring 5 or FS5. Thank heavens it's over as it was quite the bumpy road traveling in a rickety vehicle going frighteningly fast to an unknown destination filled with snakes, spiders, a ruthless dictatorial instructor, and other scary creatures. OK, so much for allegory.
So what exactly is the process? What was the experience like and what might the future hold?
FS1 and FS2 were presented in a summer "intensive" program in June of 2006, and it should be noted that these classes were truly intensive. Ordinarily these FS levels last for ten weeks, but these first two were condensed into a week each, with two FS level classes presented each day to total the normal ten.
FS1 is an introduction to the film industry and film scoring in particular. How is a film made? Who writes the music and how? What are all the procedures? How are the music and film synchronized? What does a contract look like? What are the composer's responsibilities? And how the heck do you talk a director into giving you a gig in the first place?
FS2 is a study in jazz theory or harmony. When I was in college, during my brief experience in music school, I had some beginning studies in music theory, but not to the degree that I absorbed everything and certainly not terribly deep into the theoretical abyss. Nevertheless, between that and a good deal of self-study along the way it was sufficient that I was able to pass the entry test that allowed me to pursue FS2. But then came the first class and all my experience with triads was suddenly overwhelmed by four-note chords... sevenths. My God! And throughout the course the chords would get bigger and more complex. The use of progressions became more of a science than an art and the way a chord was put together suddenly demonstrated the myriad of options available. Unfortunately, only about half of this course managed to "stick" at the time.
In January of 2007, those of us who had taken FS2 in the summer intensive, were allowed to audit the course on its regular schedule for no extra charge. This time, with enough space between classes and regular homework assignments things finally began to fall together. And once I'd passed the course it didn't make much sense to stop so on to the next level I went.
FS3 was a course in orchestration. It was an up-close familiarization with all the orchestral instruments (and then some) and how they can be chosen to play the music you've written. There were in-class demonstrations on most instruments with some creative assignments to help us know best how to write for them.
In previous years FS4 would have been the final level and the one which had people actually writing for films, but Hummie found that since no one had written anything tangible up to that point he had neither a demonstration of writing skills nor a true indication of the knowledge of procedures from his students. Frequently he found that making up for some shortcomings and lack of experience was a great waste of time and energy which subsequently impacted the film schedules. In an effort to minimize this problem FS5 was created and a new FS4 stuck in between. This new course wound through the steps of putting a score together in a small classroom setting, but as we would soon find out it was just a taste of what was to come.
HOW DO YOU WRITE MUSIC FOR A MOVIE?
Originally I was going to present to you the steps we went through in FS4, but now that we have completed FS5 it seems most appropriate to use the experience and music from that since it is all from writing for an actual film, not a hypothetical assignment. So here's how it went.
In January of 2008, the entire FS5 class gathered at Hummie's for a screening session, where we watched a dozen or so films of varying lengths, subject matter, and, without question, quality. We then decided on three films we might each like to work on, in order of preference. Assignments were made based on the most frequently requested films and the students that wanted to work on them. Each film was assigned a team and each member received a copy of the raw film, locked and ready for, but without music. My team consisted of three members, Michael Gelotte, Marge Rosen, and myself, and our film was called "A Fistful of Mud."
Needless the say, the film was a parody on the old spaghetti westerns, including "A Fistful of Dollars." The story, in brief, centers around three characters: Charlie, the old man who runs a barber shop in town and a ranch that yields a special mud that Derek, the gay son (and second character) uses for sublime facials in his beauty salon. Ace, character three, is the gunslinging bad guy that wants the mystery formula for the mud and will kill for it. After establishing Charlie's integrity in the beginning of the film, Ace shows up on the ranch demanding the formula. When Charlie refuses, Ace guns him down. Derek gets a call at his salon informing him of Charlie's death and sets out to find his father's killer and dispense with him. His search begins as he marches into the local bar and ultimately leads not only to the information he wants, but the enlisting of the bartender, Butch, to teach him how to be a gunfighter. After the requisite training sequences Derek is finally ready for the showdown where, at the typically last moment, he successfully gets his revenge.
Our first step in the process was to "spot" the film. The team sat down one evening in front of a video monitor and broke the film up into the individual cues and determined what elements required themes. We decided that one theme would be for Charlie and the mud ranch, another would be for Derek, and finally one for Ace. We also decided, without knowing exactly what music would be written, who would be writing what cues. Our initial meeting with Hummie gave us approval to proceed and each of us set about writing our three themes. After a couple of meetings at which we all presented these themes, Hummie chose Michael's theme for Charlie, Marge's for Derek, and mine for Ace. We then set off to write the cues and would not assemble as a team again, spending all our time in individual meetings with Hummie. Here are the three themes upon which the music for the entire film was based. Click on each to hear the theme played.
My cues were 1M2, the barber shop scene which required some country-western background music, 1M3, the title sequence, 1M6, Derek drives to the bar, and 1M7, the first gunfighter training session. Our next step was to write a sketch, essentially a glorified piano sketch that was to ultimately include pretty much everything that would be in the final orchestration. Determining how each sketch would go required knowing the precise time codes and length of each sequence, having an idea of how the appropriate themes would be used, establishing "hit" points for emphasis of actions within the film's storyline, and breaking the segment into meters and speeds that would result in music of exactly the right length for each cue. As we wrote each sketch, using the appropriate themes for each, we would present them for approval. With a good deal of Hummie's assistance eventually each cue would be approved in sketch form and sent on to the orchestration phase. Interestingly, my cues never required the theme I wrote and so were all based on Michael's or Marge's themes. Here's an example of one of the cues in sketch form before orchestration. This used Michael's theme.
1M3 - final sketch
The process of orchestrating required knowledge of all the orchestral instruments, their ranges and special qualities. Proper orchestration required correct use of voicing, dynamics, and articulation and a lot of time was spent (at least on my part) making the corrections necessary. There were elements of both harmony and voicing that were particularly difficult for me and I'm still not sure they have been properly absorbed, but we ultimately produced scores that were ready for the final production step, the recording. Now here is the same cue from the previous sketch in orchestral form as rendered by the music software I used to create the score:
1M3 - final orchestration
Finally we were ready for the recording session. An orchestra of volunteers was assembled from around the region and we all met with scores and parts in hand. As Hummie conducted each cue the corresponding composer sat in the recording booth listening and providing occasional comments, corrections, or direction. Once the recording was done the last step would be to get together in the home studio for a mixing session to balance the master recording for final use in the film. This final mix took place in early August, some seven months after the initial screening. And shortly after that we received copies of the finished film, with music, and a declaration that we managed to get through it all.
Here are all of my cues in both software and live versions. Unfortunately not all the orchestra players were at the peaks of their games and it is my opinion that the software versions were actually better, but the live recordings provided us with a lot of important feedback that we can ultimately use in future writing. I'll be honest, I don't expect to do any authentic film scoring anytime soon, but I do intend to apply the principals I've learned to all other forms of composition so there will have been some definite benefit to the long ordeal.
1M3-Title Sequence [0:45, MP3-715K] Charlie leaves barber shop and opening titles. [Same file as above.]
1M11-The Gunfight [1:26, MP3-1.35MB] This cue was scored by Marge Rosen but includes the Ace Theme of mine. Marge's music is great!
All music on this page © 2008 PNWFSP, A Fistful of Mud