I recently talked about entering a scene when you are spotting a film; now let’s take some time to consider how to exit (gracefully… or maybe not so gracefully!). More on “getting out,” after the jump.
At first glance, getting out seems to be easier than getting in. When the scene ends, simply stop the music along with it. Usually you’ll be using a chord with a fermata, so that you can fade smoothly into the next scene.
Of course, when we dig deeper we can see it’s more nuanced than that. No surprise there. But it’s more than mere complexity: the issue of getting out intertwines the “how” and the “when” on an even more basic level than we observed in our last peek into spotting.
That’s only natural, of course, because now we’re considering a situation where the music is, by definition, already playing. So my approach to the subject this week has to be a little more contextual and anecdotal than last time out, when we were starting (literally and sonically) from zero.
Let’s look at some specific cases:
Melodramatic “outs.” If you build, build, build a cue, then simply stop, the result is rather like being thrown off a musical cliff. Leading, say, a crucial line of dialog in this way is painting with a Big Brush (and yes, I’m aware of the horrendous mixed metaphor). It’s a strong, overt move that brings with it a greater risk of music drawing attention to itself. These kind of cue endings are referred to as “hard outs.”
As a result, it’s often too overt an approach, causing the performances to feel hammy or over-acted. Compositional choices during the cue play into this as well, of course, but simply choosing to end the cue in this way, in and of itself, can destroy a carefully-paced and constructed scene.
One flavor of melodramatic out, in particular, deserves its own discussion. So let’s pause for…
A Moment of Silence (before the building explodes). Here the same technique comes across as less of a mismatch, because the action the “out” accompanies is truly consequential. It need not be an exploding building… it might be as simple as a character deciding whether or not to flip a light switch. But that better be one important light switch! The narrative stakes must be high enough, in short, to warrant the choice. The intrusiveness of the move requires the viewer to be fully invested in the dramatic moment. Anything less, and the music will seem too manipulative.
Note, too, that in this case you’re anticipating the consequential action by using a negative accent (i.e., that moment of silence). You’re doing the same thing that veteran schoolteachers do when they really want the attention of the class. They don’t shout; they whisper.
One last thing here, and it’s just my opinion (but I think I’m right!): Using this technique is something you can do once or maybe twice during a project without exceeding the boundaries of good taste. Too much trickery and your score will be the musical equivalent of a pimpmobile.
Then again, maybe you think all that chrome looks good. To me it threatens to undercut the underlying intent. And it destroys the rhythm of what might otherwise be a very well thought-out, (musically) attractive design.
Once again, we’re talking about context. Pick your moments. Don’t be afraid of bold choices or gestures, but remember that most of your cues aren’t going to require something quite so gimmicky to function well.
Don’t Give Away the Game. This one is the converse of the Moment of Silence: here you’re taking care not to exit the scene too early, because doing so would anticipate a payoff moment inappropriately. If a plot twist is coming up, for example, you want to do nothing to give away the game. If you’re in, stay in. If you’re out, stay out. The filmmakers have agonized over how to make this moment startling—and now they’re going to give you the power to ruin all that work with a clunker of a cue.
The Reel Change and the Act-Out. These are moments in the project where you have no choice: you must be out. In the case of a television act-out, you’re going to commercial, so there’s literally no program to score. With a reel change, it’s not as cut-and-dried—it’s only a technical, physical requirement that constricts you from continuing your cue. You can skirt the issue by pausing, then resuming the music nearly imperceptibly—or, if it’s mission-critical that the music continue, the reel can be “rebalanced” to accommodate your cue.
Either way, though, we’re generally talking about an inevitable out-point. Even if you’re working on a film that will almost certainly see the light of day (or the darkened room) of theatrical distribution, you should observe the reel change. The changing means of digital distribution may soon make the reel change obsolete, but for the time being it’s a consideration that you (and/or your music editor) will have to contend with.
The Contextual Out. I’m making up a term for this because I haven’t heard a better one (if you have, please let me know in the comments!). What I’m referring to here is coming out of a scene (or choosing not to spot a scene at all!) because of something that happens immediately afterwards. If you know a huge action scene is coming up, for example, you might choose to leave a significant amount of material unscored beforehand to avoid listener fatigue and/or heighten the auditory contrast.
This choice, of course, requires that you (ahem) know what’s coming up, and keep your decision-making contextual. And, of course, it also applies to entering a scene—I should have mentioned it last week as well. After a huge, thunderous scene, you’ll want to be careful about coming right back in.
Know When (and How Long) to Hold ‘Em. If you’re using a sustained chord or note to end your cue, keep in mind that you’ll want to hold it quite a bit longer than you think. It’s always better to have more of that last chord/note, rather than less. Music editors will thank you… actually, no, they probably won’t. You’re just expected to get this right. But they will be straight-up irate (and with good reason!) if you don’t give them a long enough “tail” at the end of a cue.
If you’re working with live players, be aware that they’re generally able to hold that final note longer than you’d think. They’re smart enough to see that fermata coming, and to take appropriate action beforehand (for wind players, this is more of an issue, of course).
This was probably the most glaring of the many rookie blunders I made my first time conducting the Family Guy orchestra at the Newman Stage at Fox (for composer Ron Jones). I was pretty excited and nervous, and somehow the thought got in my head that the final chord of the cue might ‘fall apart’ as the wind players ran out of breath. So I cut off the band waaay too early.
Big mistake. I had to be corrected from the booth… twice. Two blown takes; something like three minutes of wasted session time, total. Let me tell you, on the ten-minute break at the end of that session hour, pretty much everyone in the building was giving me the stink-eye. And I deserved it. So take the opportunity to pick up this particular tip the easy way.
Last one for now—although I’ll be watching the comments this weekend to answer questions on anything I’ve omitted:
The “Pause” vs. the “Separate Cue.” This is something that caught me off guard the first time I encountered it as a teacher of film scoring for UCLA. From time to time, a student would score a scene with a loooong pause in the middle. It occurred to me that I needed to explain that, while their decision to leave part of the scene un-scored was OK (or, at worst, something we could talk about), anything beyond a brief pause really would be treated as a separate cue in the Real World.
I just mention it here out of caution—I believe the issue arose in my classes as an artifact of the isolated nature of class scoring assignments (i.e., there’s no real ‘context’ in which to consider the ins and outs), but it’s something you should be aware of nonetheless. If there’s anything like a substantial pause in what you’re hearing, you’re generally better off structuring it as two cues.
There are a lot more things to talk about here, and you can get additional perspectives from film composing texts like On the Track, The Reel World, Berklee’s Complete Guide to Film Scoring and others. All are highly recommended… in fact, I’d consider them obligatory reading for every composer.
So far we’ve covered the ins and outs of spotting; next week we’ll wrap up the series by looking at the stuff in between. Can’t wait to read your comments… and don’t forget to “like up” any SCOREcaster comments you think are cool!