Spotting is the art of putting the music in the right place in the film and it an intrinsic part of being a good film composer. Spotting is about many things, such as mood and tone and musical style, but an often overlooked aspect is… form.
The music you put and don’t put in a film will affect the pacing of the film, its architecture. For you to do this well demands a solid understanding of story, screen writing, film’s unique visual language and the brains and experience to apply that knowledge to the unique film you are working on.
The spotting session is where you discuss the film with the director and make the initial decisions about placement and function of music in the film.
But spotting should begin before that meeting. Do your homework, watch the film and come to the spotting session prepared.
Spotting also continues after the official spotting session, because new ideas will come to you as your musical material develops and you spend more time with the film (and edits keep coming.)
“A wise man changes his mind, a fool never does.” ~ Spanish proverb
Following are some thoughts about finding form during spotting.
A Bird’s Eye View
No scene exists in isolation; they are all affected by what comes before and what comes after. So to properly place music in a film you should first have a bird’s eye view of the entire story.
I suggest you do this on your own as part of your prep for the spotting session.
Some things to think about:
- What is the central idea of the film, the metaphor (define in as few words as possible)
- What is the tone/mood of the film (again, just a few descriptive terms.)
- Define the three acts, where the plot points are and what they do.
- Durations of introduction and conclusion
- How the character arc(s) fits in.
- And anything else that is important for your particular film.
- What is the genre?
I like to graph out the form of the film. I jot down timings and descriptions as I watch the film, I then draw horizontal lines to clearly delineate the form; acts, scenes etc.
I think of it like a painter doing a sketch on his canvas to get the shapes right. If you go right to the details, these smaller parts will be all out of proportion. I am a visual guy and doing this really helps me.
This overview is a good first subject of discussion at the spotting session to make sure you and the director are on the same page.
With a view of the whole in place, you can now move in to the details: the individual cues.
Obviously, the most important thing is the story. The start and end of a cue should be chosen to support the story. That being said, here are some visual devices that directors often use to highlight important story and structural elements in a film:
- Zoom in – Zoom out
- Dolly shot – tracking shot
- Crane shot
- Close ups (especially close ups that then zoom out. Often used to start a new section.)
- Wide shots – long shots (such as in establishing shots, often at the starts of a new section.)
- Fade in, fade out, cross fades, wipes etc…
Some story driving elements which may not be accompanied by a fancy camera move:
- Something in the acting
- A line of dialogue
- An action
- A prop
- A plot point
And remember, always consider:
- Where you are in the film
- What comes before and after musically and in the story
Now let us see some of these things through some examples.
The introduction sets the tone for the film and must usually be approached differently than music in other parts of the film.
Here is a great example, from “The Rocketeer” by James Horner. (Say what you will about Horner, he knows how to spot a film.)
In this very cinematic introduction, Horner helps to create that introductory feeling by playing his melody right through the cuts, the dialogue and the various actions. But he still expertly follows structural points such as wide shots, close ups and important actions. And he does it while making a cohesive musical statement.
As you watch this scene, here are some things to watch out for as you watch this scene.
- 00:00 – Film opens with credits on black. Melody in piano. Notice how the melody fits perfectly within the duration of the credits.
- 00:36 – hangar doors open. Melody is taken over by the strings.
- 02:06 – cockpit comes down signaling the start of the flight. The melody starts again here. Everything makes musical sense and follows the on-screen action. They talk and start the plane, the melody plays right through all that.
- 02:36 – Static wide shot as the plane rolls through the screen. Change of mood, B section? The music is bustling and creates anticipation. This static wide shot differs from the other shots so far, making it stand out. A good choice for a change in the music.
- 03:16 – extreme close up of eyes as Cliff puts on his goggles. The extreme close up is structural, signaling the start of the takeoff. Music changes, getting more intense.
- 03:52 – take off! This important action doesn’t need any special camera angle! The music soars. But through the flight, the dialogue and the acrobatics, the melody just plays right through.
- 04:37 – plane flying towards frame left. The music cadences just before and stops before the next cut.
- 04:42 – cut: guy shooting a Tommy gun at towards audience and moving away from camera. This is a textbook structural shot that signals the start of a new section. Horner stops the music there, but what is most important is that the music doesn’t resume once we see the plane again. This would have negated the feeling of introduction he created in the first 6 minutes, which that musical form in film is just as much about where you put music as where you don’t.
Good spotting is as much about where you put your music as where you don’t!
Individual scenes can also have introductions and conclusions. Not all scenes have sections of course; some are shorter, transitory scenes, but longer set-pieces often do.
As an example, I have chosen the Boat Chase from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” by John Williams. This is a great example of an introduction within a scene.
- 36:32 -Indy and Elsa come out of the sewer. There is no music. There was tons of music in the previous scene(s) so it’s good to have a break here, and it makes room for the humor.
- 36:48 – “Ah Venice” and Kazim comes out. Music starts here, being only an introduction which leads to the melody that starts when we…
- 37:19 – Cut to boat with guy hanging behind. This is the start of the boat chase proper and the melody begins here! All the running before was leading to this, so it made sense for the music to lead up to the melody!
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Unfortunately, this clip is not available at YouTube.com, so you’ll have to pop in the DVD.)
JW is a master at structuring scenes using logical musical form. So it is always a good idea to listen to the music of the masters in the context of the film.
What’s It About?
More important than the cut and fancy camera angles is knowing what the scene is about, and sometimes that means playing the music over cuts that seem like a start or an ending. A great example is the meeting of Daryl Van Horne in “The Witches of Eastwick.”
The scene starts where everyone is trying to remember Van Horne’s name but no one can. But most importantly, this scene is about Van Horne’s first contact with these ladies. Always know what your scene is about.
- 22:00 – close up of card and roses, and pull back. Music in.
- 22:24 – low angle shot as pearls fall and everyone starts to remember his name. Music follows.
- 22:38 – crazy lady breaks her leg. Music follows.
- 23:06 – establishing shot of exterior of Cher’s house, a cross fade AND a close up! Now this would look like a place to have the music out with all these visual signals of form, but Cher is still thinking about Daryl Van Horne and, do you remember what is going on in this part of the story? So JW plays through and leads straight to…
- 23:54 – “Looking for me?” This is the first contact with Van Horne and the music comes out here.
Now that is smart spotting, which totally helps the form, flow and the direction of the story.
The bottom line is spotting is about knowing what the important structural elements are, then using that to guide the form of your music, both on the cue level and on the level of the entire film.
There is of course a lot more we could discuss about structure and spotting. Zemickis and Silvestri are also brilliant at this. I suggest you look at “Back to the Future’ and how the music changes at an important plot point at the end of the first act. Or the way “Cast Away” was spotted.
… are open below. Can you point to any other examples of great spotting? Let’s hear them!