Over the past few years I’ve had the opportunity to work with many talented filmmakers from across the country and around the world. Like in so many other fields, today’s technology has made it possible to score a project with just about anyone no matter where they’re located. Although I’m grateful that all I need is a cell phone and an internet connection to collaborate with such a diverse group of filmmakers, long distance scoring does come with plenty of challenges.
Ryan Leach: Long Distance Scoring
Today’s technology has made it possible to score a project with anyone no matter where they’re located. However, long distance scoring does come with plenty of challenges.
One of the most frightening aspects of long distance scoring is that once you send off a demo, it’s out of your hands. You relinquish all control over what type of system they are listening on, how loud they are listening, whether or not they’ve lined your cue up to the video in the right place, and so on. This is scary stuff, enough to make some composers not want to work with anyone they can’t demo for in the same room. It can be heartbreaking to have your cue thrown out, only to find out later that they thought it fought with the dialogue simply because they had it up too loud.
Although ultimately the client is going to listen to your music however they want to, there are some steps you can take to steer the situation towards a positive outcome.
Listen in Different Contexts
Chances are you’ve invested some decent money into a good set of studio monitors, maybe even installed some acoustic treatment, and now when you play your cue back in your studio at 11 it sounds bitchin. You send off your epic masterpiece to the client and eagerly await praise and admiration. At last the phone rings and the client has notes for you, but rather than “powerful” and “awesome” they’re concerned your cue is “thin” and “weak”. What they heck is going on? Are they even listening to the same piece of music? And then the mystery is revealed when they say the dreaded phrase “Well, it was kind of hard to hear because I listened on my laptop”.
Besides throwing your phone through the wall, you can take some steps to keep this from happening. The first is to have a conversation at the beginning of the scoring process about what kind of speakers they’re going to be listening to your demos on. Explain to them why it’s so important that they listen on something better than laptop speakers, even if it takes a lot of convincing.
If you’re still concerned that they’re listening on something like a laptop, you’re going to have to play by their rules. That means that after you mix and bounce, you find a laptop of your own to listen to the cue on. Imagine that this is exactly how your client is going to hear the cue. There’s a good chance you’ll need to make some adjustments after hearing it in this new context. Listening through a variety of sound sources is a good mixing idea, generally. Occasionally I’ll even burn a CD and go listen in my car for a whole new perspective on a mix.
Don’t allow your music to be destroyed by a bad listening environment. The most important thing you can do is make sure your client hears your music how it is intended to be heard.
Be Clear and Concise
Because you won’t be in the room with them to discuss the process, it’s critical that you provide any information that could be necessary in your absence. This means that your filenames and notes leave no question about what the cue is, which version it is, where it should be lined up, etc. This might mean you need to include timecode numbers on the filename if they don’t know how to use timestamps.
If you’re not able to talk to them directly and are simply sending the demo over e-mail it can also be a good idea to remind them what you’ve done with the scene. If it’s a first version perhaps explain your approach and why you wrote the way you did. If it’s a fix, remind them of what they asked for and explain how you accommodated the change. You don’t want to send them an essay analyzing the motives of the main characters, but a few lines about your line of thinking can be a helpful introduction to a cue.
Remember that you wont be in the room to defend your music, so you need to make your case right away.
To ensure a good mix between music and dialogue I’ve found it exceptionally useful to create my own Quicktimes and send those for demos rather than audio files. This way your intentions of how the music fits in the mix are perfectly clear and they can’t get it wrong.
Stay in Sync
Depending on how long-distance the project is, another difficulty can be aligning your schedules. The main thing to keep in mind is that you work for them, not the other way around. They’re paying you, and because of this they’ll expect you to be responsive. Although you should expect your client to be reasonable, in general you need to be the one accommodating to their waking hours. This is a very important conversation to have at the beginning of the project. You don’t want to wake up one day to find your inbox full of angry and annoyed e-mails because you weren’t responding to their notes at 4:30am. Establish early on what kind of availability your client expect from you.
All of these tips are just as useful for local gigs, but they are crucial for success when working with someone on the other side of the world. The key to a successful long distance collaboration is frequent and open communication.
Have you had success (or even failure) scoring a project over long distance? Share your experiences and tips in the COMMENTS!