The Creative Process. It’s a tough thing to talk about for me because my creative process (CP) is in such a constant state of flux all of the time. From project to project, my CP changes up drastically. And then sometimes, what worked on one project also works great on the next.
What I will offer today is a sneak peek into the creative habits of some of the composers that I’ve worked with over the few years that I’ve been assisting. From these great composers, I’ve gleaned many secrets, tricks, templates, skills, and techniques – some that I use in my own work, and others that I don’t, but might someday. The thing that I’ve always noticed about each composer though, no matter who they were or what they were working on, is that these tricks and secrets were really “habitual” in their work flows. These are things that they do EVERY time they sit down to conceptualize or write through a film score. And I believe that is the key to the whole thing. You need to develop “habits” that will invite the Muse to the right time and place for a creative collision.
Since these are from different composers, I will present some here in no particular order. Hopefully, you’ll find one or two of these habits (or all of them if you are just getting going) useful.
The Overture Blueprint
Several composers I’ve worked for use this principle as an overarching guide to how they score a film. They’ll watch the film many times (and I mean MANY times; sometimes in upwards of thirty of forty viewings), and then they’ll sit down at the piano or guitar and write an “overture”.
In traditional terms, an overture is a piece of music that “comes before” or “precedes” something else. A typical example would be the music the symphony plays before the opera starts. But inherent in almost every overture are the main themes of the opera or of the piece that follows the overture. The overture is sort of a large format rendering of every main theme within the whole work and addresses each theme with as much fullness and bravado that can be pulled from it – a fully fleshed out thematic linear string. Each theme and motif is represented in the overture. Upon completing the overture, the composer then has a veritable blueprint from which he or she can create the score and work the cues around in order to not stray far from the original thoughts behind the music.
Research and Ethnomusicology
When I was at Media Ventures, I watched Hans and crew research the hell out of most films they were charged with scoring. In fact, much of the first weeks were consumed with me and my fellow interns fetching books and Web clippings about certain instruments, even to the point of sussing out the foremost experts in the fields of these instruments and asking them questions, or sometimes inviting them to play on scores. These exercises in research gave me an awareness of the breadth of our musical vocabulary that I never learned in school or in private study. Once you really dive into the process of researching, from an ethnomusicological standpoint, you will understand just how much you have to learn about global musics. Talking to those who play these instruments will also teach you how to better write for that sound, and as a composer who most likely doesn’t play that particular instrument, this is vital to the quality of your music.
Templates and Maps
One of the things I never can stomach in certain scores is when you are watching along and are really into the film, and then POW! Out of nowhere, a sound so AGAINST anything else in the film score whomps you upside your head, taking you out of the film completely. More often that not, you hear this on smaller, lower-budget films. And I’ll tell you why.
Not always, but typically, the lower the budget the less experienced the composer and director. The above problem is usually two-fold. First, the director let that choice go unchallenged, or in some cases came up with the idea himself! Secondly, the composer was working without a “template”.
A template can be defined here as a “DAW instrumentation map for the duration of a film score”. Essentially, you take your arrange window in your DAW and load up every articulation of every instrument that you deem necessary for the film’s score… and you DON’T DEVIATE from that template as you write your cues. This way, the entire score, from beginning to end, is cohesive and complimentary of its parts.
As I mentioned before, nine times out of ten, this is a rookie mistake. Most seasoned pros have already learned from the consequences of this error. When a score travels outside the lines of its own conceptualization, it causes severe cinematic problems. Take some time and be thorough in setting up your templates. If you practice the method of the “Overture Blueprint”, as outlined above, you might already have the makings of your full template by the time you are finished with the overture.
Sound Mining, the “Favorite Bank”, and Go-To Sounds
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve seen composers sit at their desk and scroll through plugin presets with one hand while eating a carton of Chinese food with the other, I’d be a very rich man. The best composers I’ve worked with are those who know their rigs inside and out, and the only way to know what you have sitting on those precious drives is to “mine for sounds” as much as possible. One of my duties as an assistant has been to set up a “favorite bank” for my composer so that when he or she finds a killer sound that catches the ear, we can throw it into the bank and recall it later when we are looking for something interesting in a particular situation.
Time is precious. There is often no time on a film score schedule to sit and try to “find” the right synth patch or MIDI drum sound. You have to have it at your fingertips, or your creative flow will eventually slow to a stop. Make sure to have all of your “favorite” sounds readily accessible so that you can recall them at will when you need them the most.
This also goes for “go-to sounds” — those sounds that you use all of the time. These may already be in your template, but if they aren’t, you should have them in their own sampler bank so that you can get at them instantly. These days, with Kontakt 4 and Machfive being as powerful as they have become, you can pull virtually any sound into your sampler in most formats. There is no reason to not have everything loaded into your sampler in a “favorite bank” or “go-to bank”. Just do it. Trust me.
As elementary as some of these things might seem, they are the habits of some of the best composers working today, and those composers are adamant that these habits be as easy to maintain as possible.
But what about you? Log into the COMMENTS below and tell me what you think your Top 3 best habits are in the conceptualization phase of scoring a film. Tell me why these habits work in your particular case and why you think they are most important to you.