Most of the time when talking about the topic of “diversification” as film composers, we are referring to the skills necessary to write for a variety of different mediums, genres, or projects. I’d like to talk about diversifying in a different light – being a diverse collaborator.
Diverse collaboration to me means that in this process of filmmaking you are a solution, not a problem. It means possessing the skillset to creatively and intuitively behave your team out of the tight spots that others might have behaved your team in to. It doesn’t just mean that you can write great music for any number of situations or scenes, but also that you are solid in a room, you know how to treat people, you know your gear, and that you follow through on tasks delegated to you. In fact, your diversity as a collaborator might be one of the greatest assets you can provide a director who has hired you to score his or her film.
And it’s not always easy – diversity and flexibility as a collaborator can be tough. You have to be on your toes as much as on your guard. In the post-production process, schedules are tight and claustrophobic which tends to create tension and sometimes friction amongst those being held responsible to pull off a miracle at the eleventh hour. I have found that in times like these, when directors are almost always already on the edge of insanity, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Whatever you can do at this point insure a smoother ride for them, do that.
There are some simple work habits that have helped me collaborate well with people over the years. Each of these suggestions are basic yet important fundamentals that I’ve held fast to and tried not to deviate from. This list is itself a diverse one – some of these ideas are technical, while others are philosophical in nature. Each of them, however, has played an important role in my business, guarantying a smooth working collaboration every time.
In this, my first “Tao” column, I’ll attempt to define some of them, and then I wanna hear yours!
- NEVER play a director a cue that you don’t really love.
These are in no particular order, but this might be the most important one in the bunch. I’ve done it both ways in my career- I’ve submitted something I thought was absolutely perfect for the scene, and then on one particular occasion, I thought I’d be “smart” and submit two things: one that I thought was perfect, and one that I thought was lame and would most assuredly guarantee that the director choose the first one. Yep…you guessed it. The director chose the lame one, and I was forced to run with it. Now every time I hear that cue in that particular movie, I cringe. NEVER ever ever ever play the director a cue that you aren’t 200% in love with.
- Demo in as much detail as possible.
“The more you show, the more you’ll know.” – Christopher Young.
Directors don’t speak “music”. It is up to you to utilize your mock-ups to determine what it is that they like about what they are hearing, as much as what they don’t like about it. Ask a lot of questions. Upon them saying, “Yeah, that just doesn’t work for me”, find out “Why”. Is it an instrument they don’t like, or an entire melody line? The former is easy to fix, the latter… not so much. More often than not, less is more in a film score so the more color you add to your mock-ups (assuming your thematic material has already been approved), the more opportunity there is to strip away layers until they finally hear what they like.
- Save EVERY version of EVERY cue.
I’ll never forget one time while working on a pivotal cue for an action scene, I saved what I thought was the best version of the cue that I had come up with yet. The problem was that I saved it over the top of the prior version. But that’s okay, cuz this one was better, right?! I played the cue for the director, and he confirmed what I had told myself would never happen in a million years: “Yeah that’s cool, but I liked the last one better! It had something this one doesn’t.” FRICK! Moral of the story? Save every damn thing you do. You never know what is going to catch their ear and what isn’t, even if you think you know.
- Find out who the boss is, and deal only with them.
Never accept a job where a committee of 10 people must approve each cue revision. You’ll end up taking a great score and turning it into a giant pile of crap trying to please a committee. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: “Approval by committee never ever works!” Find out who the decision maker is and work ONLY with them. If there is no single decision maker (Hint: its usually the director), then don’t accept the job. You’ll thank yourself for it later. That said, there are exceptions to every rule. On “The Way Home”, I had two decision makers – the director AND the producer – but they functioned as one. If one of them approved something, it was understood by all that I had my “final approval”. This worked flawlessly, and given the time pressure of our deadline, it HAD to.
- Triple check your mixes against dialog and FX.
You aren’t the only contractor working on the project at this stage in the game. Make sure you are communicating with all department heads, ie. mix engineer, lead foley artist, dialog editors, etc. Check your mixes against the scenes – never skip this step, even if you are in a rush. There’s nothing worse than getting to a dub and having to concede that your music be buried in the mix because it conflicts with more important elements in the film. And remember – Dialog will take priority every time. No exceptions. Never try to compete with it. You’ll simply lose that battle.
- Give the film YOUR voice. Try to avoid trends and gimmicks.
An original score is a huge investment in trust and belief in you by your employers. Creating a trendy/gimmicky score will result in it sounding outdated and cheap in two years. Your director/producers deserve more and have paid the price to bring you in. Don’t skimp by simply stringing something together using the latest loops and plugins that every single other composer is using. Be original and come up with something that will “brand” their movie in people’s ears and minds, and never ever be afraid to inject your personality into your scores. After all, they hired YOU for a reason.
- Create simple motifs and themes.
Don’t get too complex with your themes and motifs. Don’t use more than two or three themes or two or three motifs to identify those themes. Even the heaviest symphonic scores are simple in their effectiveness. John Williams is the obvious master of this tactic. Listen to how he brilliantly reuses motivic ideas throughout his entire score, never deviating far from the original theme or idea. A score that is too complex serves to do nothing but dilute the storyline and take the viewers attention off of where it should be.
- Create “threads”.
Building on my last point, I like to think of the score as a big quilt that wraps itself around a film. The “quilt” (score) is made up of dozens of “blocks” (cues) and each block has within it several “threads” that associate each block with the rest of the quilt. Once you have a theme that supports the film well, check to see if there’s a way to use only one line of the theme in other themes to help “thread” the score together. In your film score, there are all kinds of ways to “state a theme” without really stating it within the context of its original useage. Additionally, the “thread” can also be the use of some sort of instrument that lends identity to the score. Think of what Mark Isham did in “Crash” with a female solo voice juxtaposed against a thick liquidy wash of synthesizers. “Threads” are everything in helping to give the film a musical identity.
- Think big.
As an independent film composer, by the time the producers are ready for your music, there is not much room left in the budget. Yet, the everyone has met and its unanimous: Real instruments – maybe even a large orchestra “would sound amazing on this film!” Well, yes, that might be true, but the reality is that you can’t get something for nothing. Or can you? Online networking has opened up so many more possibilities that weren’t there even a year ago, and the reality is that in today’s technological age, it IS possible to get together a group of people who would love nothing more than to get their names on something that Hollywood is up to. So think big. Don’t let the “budget” paint you into a corner that really doesn’t exist. Many times I’ve recorded a decent orchestra on a shoe-string budget for a film that, in my opinion as the composer, really needed an orchestral sound. It is always worth turning over every rock and calling in every marker to get something bigger than everyone thinks is even possible when people are looking to you to deliver something amazing. So, go on, be the hero and save the day! You’ll get hired again by giving more than you are being asked to give. Everyone wants someone like that on their team.
- Over Communicate.
Okay… forget #1! THIS might be the most important one of the bunch! Dale Carnegie said, “The worst thing you can do in business is leave people to their own wondering.” So true. You can never communicate too much. It’s impossible. Find out how your client likes to communicate, whether by email, phone, fax, iChat, whatever… and DO IT TO DEATH! Tell them everytime you revise something, rewrite something, notice something in the picture that you didn’t notice before… anything to help them understand that you are working hard for them and doing what they’ve asked you to do (and sometimes what they HAVEN’T asked you to do!). NEVER let your creative team not hear from you in days. That’s the cardinal sin. The score is likely the first time that the creative team has let go of the project to an outside independent creative talent like yourself, and they need reassurance that you are not killing the “baby” they just spent the last two years of their life carrying.
Sometimes, part of being diverse means being flexible and ready to do whatever it takes. The job of a film composer is one of service to the director and service to the film itself. We cannot afford to be unbendable or unteachable in our careers. Being diverse in how you handle situations and flexible in how you handle stress and obstacles is vital to your success in this business. Some of it will come with time and learning the hard way, but most of it can come with common sense and solid planning.
This is my list – if you have a few of your own, I’d love to hear them!