This has been a fascinating month of articles on the ins, outs, technicalities, principles and importance of music spotting. It’s fair to say that the spotting session is an essential part of the music composition process, without which it is virtually impossible to stay in line – in sync – with the director’s vision for the film.
There’s been lots of useful, insider’s info about how spotting sessions apply in the world of big-budget, LA Studio films – but the principles are equally applicable to micro-budget, small-scale, shorts, documentaries, commercials, multimedia and web applications, games… even wedding videos! Hey, you gotta get experience somewhere.
On, say, shorts and low-budget documentaries, or on projects where the schedule is ongoing, you may be tempted not to do a spotting session. You want to just dive in and play it by ear.
The director may ask you for your overall opinion on the style and tone of the film then just want to leave you to it.
The creative team may have even been with the film so long that they’re completely fed up with it, and just want it finished!
If you’ve been brought on to the production very late in the day, the director (and others like the producer, editor, executives) may have made all the creative decisions already and could be extremely specific about the musical quality of each scene, even presenting you with a cue plot of sorts.
You can see this as a good thing – they care about the film and the effect of the music on the story. Remember, however, your role as musical expert, your opinion is valid and your objective pair of eyes may be the breath of fresh air the project needs to take it to the next level.
Worst case scenario: they may send you the film with the temp score and tell you to follow it precisely for position, style and tone, relegating you, in effect, to the level of technician rather than the creative equal that you signed on to be.
But it is just as important to treat these lower-budget or short films with the same respect as their bigger-budget counterparts – not only for the experience you gain that will put you in good stead for more expensive projects – but to make the best possible music for this film.
Hopefully preliminary meetings will have meant that you and the director have developed a common vocabulary, an understanding of each others creative styles and an appreciation for the unique qualities that each will be bringing to the table.
In preparation you will have seen the film and already developed your ideas and questions about the overall piece and individual scenes, even moments.
The spotting session may indeed be the first time you’ve actually met in person, and if you’re in with a newbie or inexperienced director it’s important to spell out the plan of attack for this meeting, what you need from the director to proceed, to enable them to ask questions and really have a creative dialogue as equals. Outline the agenda to make sure that the meeting is both efficient, thorough and effective.
If you really can’t get the director in the room with you for whatever reason (or on Skype, so you can see his facial expressions and body language), do the spotting session yourself as a backup/contingency/plan of last resort and get approval for every cue from the director by sending your beautifully organised cue plot and asking for notes if necessary on each one.
Flag up any different options for each scene if they exist – and they will – and then schedule a phone call so that you can discuss and thrash out the specifics.
Once the meeting has been had and all parties have come to an agreement on how the music will enhance, elaborate, advance or even juxtapose every onscreen element, get those notes typed up as soon as possible and emailed to every interested party (could just be the director, but it is also worth adding in the editor(s) and the producer)
Keeping everyone in sync and in the loop allows all parties to relax in the knowledge that you’re organized, efficient and including all of their creative input in your musical creations. Nobody has to mind-read or worry that you’re going off in a bizarre direction. It’s all down on paper.
But it’s also so important for your peace of mind. The cue plot is a clear framework – your road map – to creating the best score you can. You don’t need to worry that you’re wandering down musical blind alleys or dead-ends.
It’s also a clear agreement between you and the director – if minds are changed later down the line as to the direction or purpose of a cue, you’re now in a solid position to think about renegotiating your schedule, fee, or whatever form of compensation you’re receiving.
Without it, you’re stuck with the original timeframe for delivery, you’re at the mercy of the director changing his mind on a whim, and you’re stealing time from composing other cues to correct these ‘mistakes’.
This will inevitably lead to a sub-par score, the creative disappointment and stress you’ll experience, the poor word-of-mouth that will inevitably transpire. A complete waste of time.
Don’t put yourself through this. Do a spotting session. And do it right.
Based in the North of England in the UK,HEATHER FENOUGHTY is an award-winning freelance composer and sound designer. She has scored several feature films and documentaries for the BBC and ITV, and her credits also include nearly 100 short films including a BAFTA-nominated drama (Nits, 2004). She has composed music and sound designed corporate advertisements for Nissan and other multi-national companies, with clients based all around the world. She also creates soundscapes for cutting-edge contemporary theatre, and her scores have played on the West End and off Broadway. You can find her SCOREcast bio (and links to her other sites) here.