Monday, 2 July 2012

Who Does What?: The Film Composer

Music has always had an important role in the history of film. Even during the silent era there would be live music playing alongside the movie, ranging from a full orchestra to just a guy and an out of tune upright piano. The film's background music or "score" is an essential ingredient of a well made movie and I'm going to take some time to try to explain who does it and how it's done.

Now the time a composer gets involved in a film differs with each film. The usual time is during the beginning stages of post-production, where movie's director discusses their plans and ideas for the film's music with the composer.

All worship the Mighty Ennio!
Sometimes a composer gets involved much earlier. A classic story involves Italian director Sergio Leone and his musical maven the legendary Ennio Morricone. In his later films Leone would give Morricone a copy of the script long before shooting began. Morricone would then write music for certain scenes inspired by the screenplay. Leone would then listen to the music while filming those scenes. Composing the shots and the action in time to the music.

But the usual practice is to get the musical ball rolling in the early stages of post-production. Once a rough cut of the film is ready the composer can begin spotting.

Spotting involves the composer, the director, and sometimes the producer analyzing and discussing the film. They lay out the tone of the overall film, as well as the specific requirements of individual scenes, including timing and which moments are more important than others.

Then the "syncing" begins. The composer then goes through every scene making notes of the timing he must consider when composing the music. The old fashioned way is to use a stopwatch and a notepad, but nowadays a lot of composers use sophisticated software to lay out a sort of map for the music they will be composing.

Legendary film composer Bernard Hermann.
That 'map' is called a "click track" where the composer calculates the beats of each particular scene, and the cues that dictate where the music goes in and out.

Then the composer can finally do some composing, writing the music for the film in the tone and style that directors wants for the film. 

Once the score is composed it's then "orchestrated," or "arranged." This is where the members of the orchestra, or band that's going to play the music is assigned their parts of the score, and their cues.  Now a lot of the time this is done by a specialist arranger or orchestrator, but a lot of composers like to do their own arranging and orchestration.

Then the music is recorded under the direction of a conductor who is watching the specific scene being scored, and listening to a click track giving him the essential beats and cues for that scene.

Then the final edits and tweaking are done, and the completed film is set to be released.

Now it's a common practice for directors to use preexisting music as 'temporary' tracks to give composers a rough idea of the tone and timing they're looking for. However, this can backfire, like the case of 2001: A Space Odyssey when Stanly Kubrick rejected an original score by Alex North in favor of making his temporary track permanent.

An oddity in the history of modern movie music is Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. The film doesn't have a traditional film score, in fact the only music in the film comes from within the scenes, on radios, or being played on piano. Instead Hitchcock had his frequent musical collaborator Bernard Hermann to work with electronic audio pioneers Oskar Sala and Remi Gassman to "compose" the sound effects of the birds.

But that's a bit of a digression.

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