Director / Composer: On Adjustments

Composing question

So I just heard my new film score and love it for the most part...

But the last two minutes seem a tad too cheery/hallmarky, while I want something more "meditative-content"
Also, he put in some chimes and pulsing violins I that don't fit.

We discussed the film and score quite a bit, so I feel responsible that my intended ending mood didn't come across from our discussion.

-How often and how easy is it to ask for adjustments to a score (my first time working with a composer).
-Is it annoying to mention specific instrumentation/rhythm aspects or must I stick to just discussions of mood?

THanks
 
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directorik

IndieTalk's Resident Guru
-How often and how easy is it to ask for adjustments to a score (my first time working with a composer).
I think this depends on the people involved. there isn't a
"one-size-fits-all" answer. some composers are open to
repeated adjustments. some are not. some are personally
offended. You are working with this person. How do YOU
think the composer will feel about adjustments to the score?
-Is it annoying to mention specific instrumentation/rhythm aspects or must I stick to just discussions of mood?
Essentially the same answer. Some composers might be
annoyed. How do you think this person will feel?

All creative interactions have their challenges. Over time we
learn how to judge people and work well with them. This is
your first step on that journey. Be open and honest and
transparent with your composer. If you meet resistance back
down a bit and learn. Bottom line; if you don't like the end
results you can always find someone else.
 
So every movie ever scored has had to have adjustments of some sort. You really do not need to burden yourself with wondering if it is okay for you to ask for a change. This is YOUR movie, you have a vision for what you want, and you will be letting yourself, and your entire team down if you do not get it because you don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. So please, do talk to him, have him work over the cue, re-write entirely if necessary, it is well within you're rights, and basically, your obligation to ask him.

Now, I am a composer, not a director, but I have worked with a few, and spoken with both countless times, and this is a common question, so here are a few things to keep in mind:

1) just because the music is not what you want, doesn't mean that it is bad music, or that he is a bad composer, so be sure to say that when you are breaking the news that something needs to be redone.

2) you're right that it MAY partially be your "fault" because of a miscommunication. But as a composer, we expect this. Very rarely do you find that extremely musically talented director who can convey in musical terms exactly what he/she wants (Clint Eastwood and M. Night to name just two). And that is fine, there is no need to apologize for this whatsoever. Now if you did a bad job just generally communicating your needs for a cue in the spotting session, make sure you talk through it enough to discover where the disconnect was, and figure out how to get the two of you on the same page.

3) (and sort of tied into #2) If it turns out that he composed exactly what you asked for, and you don't like it, don't be afraid to admit that you were wrong about what you wanted. This is the most common, and most frustrating thing that as a composer we have to deal with in directors or producers is as follows - They say I want a particular cue to sound "x" (insert any descriptive, emotional quality that a scene might have. Sometimes "x" is even a specific instrument - God help us - or exact style). The composer writes precisely "x" and presents it to the director. The director is frustrated with the composer and says "this is not what I asked for at all. Not even close!". Sometimes it is just a miscommunication, but often it really is the director's instincts on the music were wrong and he/she didn't realize it until it's been scored.

4) Which brings us to #4. If you DON'T have a music background, know music theory, the intricacies of the technical limitations and variations of tone within the range on a particular instrument, then DO NOT try to communicate the musical requirements of your score in those terms. This makes it really difficult for the composer, who will not be fooled anyway, and will be extremely limited by musical specifications you may present to him, even though, without them, he might very well be able to provide you with precisely the cue you are looking for. Like I mentioned above, we're composers, we do not expect you to be or you wouldn't have hired us. So don't worry about sounding music savvy, talk in film terms.


Anyway best of luck to you in getting the cue you want. There is a fantastic book, called "On The Track" which is for film composers, but it dedicates an entire chapter to the art (not science) of talking to a director from the composer's point of view. While I'm sure there is literature out there from the flip side of that coin, I think if you can get your hands on that chapter of "On The Track" it'll give you a very unique perspective into the challenges that a composer is facing when trying to discover the music being asked of him.
 
I just realized that you specifically asked about mentioning instruments/rhythms. And so I must specifically answer here. NOOOOO!!!! Do not! You've a professional composer there, trained etc., and if your musical instincts are better than his, fire him. If yours are not, then don't limit him wit specific instruments, techniques, rhythms, or anything, trust your composer.
 
-How often and how easy is it to ask for adjustments to a score (my first time working with a composer).

I'm going to agree with Mark on this one: It's completely expected, a standard part of the job. That's not to say you should completely ignore your composer's sensibilities but on the other hand, a composer who can't take criticism or directors' requests for adjustments is in the wrong line of work!

-Is it annoying to mention specific instrumentation/rhythm aspects or must I stick to just discussions of mood?

I'm going to disagree with Mark on this one, but with a caveat. A director mentioning specific musical details, such as instrumentation, rhythm, etc., can provide the composer with useful insight/information about the director's intent or expectations. The caveat is that you should generally provide this information on the basis of it being a rough guide/pointer, rather than expecting it to be an exact, specific instruction.

Remember that music composition has been around for many centuries and has evolved countless terms, many of which are; imprecise, ambiguous, have different meanings in different contexts or have different meanings to how those same terms/words are commonly used in everyday speech. I've worked with many directors in my 20+ years in the business, some had more command of musical terms/specifics than others but not one had a fully competent command and I've probably had just as many miscommunications with those who employed specific music terms/instructions as those who avoided them. An experienced composer will therefore usually take an approach along the lines of: Give the director what s/he wants, not what s/he asks for! However, this approach isn't foolproof either, which is why adjustments are pretty much always required.

G
 
-How often and how easy is it to ask for adjustments to a score (my first time working with a composer).
-Is it annoying to mention specific instrumentation/rhythm aspects or must I stick to just discussions of mood?

THanks

Composer here :

1. In theory you can ask for as much changes as you think fit - practically it's in the interest of everyone to keep the number as low as possible of course
2. No, it is not annoying to ask for specific instrument changes, the more detailed feedback you give, the better.

This said :

I know it's an unpleasant subject to many, but if you are not paying your composer this would not stand. You should be happy with what you got and you cannot expect someone working for free to do revisions.

If you are paying your composer : it is an important part of our job to understand what a director wants, even if he is not a musician at all. Which is the case mostly, communication is the key.

Also this said : be open for a discussion, new ideas, it's a collaboration from both sides, you might learn something here as well.

Good luck, Max.
 
One more, since APE (Audio Post Expert) did not mention it. Solid composers are more than willing to work with the audio post department as well.

As an example… On a project the director wanted the footsteps in a chase scene to be very prominent. However, the score for that scene was loaded with percussion. Obviously, footsteps would get lost amongst all of the percussion instruments. The composer was more than willing to work with me - and the director, of course! - to make adjustments.

Filmmaking is a collaborative effort. Anyone who is not willing to subordinate their ego to the story and the directors vision (or is unable to make changes) should not be in the entertainment business.
 

sfoster

Staff Member
Moderator
One more, since APE (Audio Post Expert) did not mention it. Solid composers are more than willing to work with the audio post department as well.

As an example… On a project the director wanted the footsteps in a chase scene to be very prominent. However, the score for that scene was loaded with percussion. Obviously, footsteps would get lost amongst all of the percussion instruments. The composer was more than willing to work with me - and the director, of course! - to make adjustments.

Filmmaking is a collaborative effort. Anyone who is not willing to subordinate their ego to the story and the directors vision (or is unable to make changes) should not be in the entertainment business.

The movie Brick had a chase scene with the most prominent Foley footsteps I've ever come across. (I've studied chase scenes extensively)
 
One more, since APE (Audio Post Expert) did not mention it. Solid composers are more than willing to work with the audio post department as well.

This raises some interesting, although possibly off topic, points. ... In my experience, there is usually no opportunity for the composer to work with the audio post dept. The composer and audio post dept usually start work at exactly the same point in time, when the locked-off edit is available. So there is no audio post for the composer to work to and only the editor's/director's temp/guide music for the audio post dept to work with. With the exception of the production sound accompanying the pic edit, the composer is effectively working blind, just guessing what sound will be there, which the music will have to work alongside. The composer's completion deadline will be the first day of pre-mix and only during the pre-mix process will everyone start to get an idea of exactly how it's all going to work together. If it doesn't work together, the re-recording mixer will play with the splits and effectively re-edit the music cue until it does or, the decision will be taken to drop the music cue. It doesn't usually fall on the composer to make adjustments at this stage, his/her job is already completed and there's no possibility of everyone just sitting around waiting for the composer to make adjustments. The composer does of course make adjustments but these are discussed during the various approval meetings (between the director and composer) and completed before the final delivery deadline (the start of the pre-mix phase). It's entirely common that the composer has no contact whatsoever with anyone in the audio post dept, ever!

I'm not by any means saying this is how it should be done, I'm saying this is how it's usually done in practise; that this is the common/traditional professional workflow for the vast majority of TV (which employ the services of a composer) and low budget features. There are much better workflows IMO, which can easily be far more effective and avoid many of the pitfalls of this traditional approach but they tend to only be employed on much higher budget features or by a rare few, particularly enlightened directors.

BTW, with your example (and a traditional workflow), most experienced film score composers would (should!) be wary of creating (highly percussive) percussion heavy cue/s in the first place, precisely because of the strong possibility that it won't play nicely with other audio elements.

Having said all this, it's most unlikely the OP is constrained by this typical pro workflow and is probably only loosely following those same basic conventions and so could/should consider the interaction/collaboration of the composer and whoever is doing the audio post, as you suggested (and as I failed to!) :)

I know you (Alcove) are probably more than aware of all this already, I thought it worthwhile putting it out there though, for the possible benefit of others.

G
 
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