Many of the composers who sell music via libraries are incredibly talented and experienced, and could successfully write fantastic music for a Hollywood blockbuster. So don’t get me wrong – stock music is great! You can choose from thousands of tracks conveniently grouped into categories by mood, tempo, specific instruments used, and types of licenses. All you need to do is use the right keywords in a music library’s browser. But what seems to be the optimum solution for TV adverts, movie trailers, corporate videos and even opening titles of films, might not work that great in a film itself.
A soundtrack is one of those filmmaking tools that is often misunderstood and unappreciated, and treated merely as an addition to the visuals. The reality is, it’s so important it can make or break your film – there’s many examples of otherwise decent films that were ruined by an inadequate or badly-produced soundtrack. Music is an integral part of the story whose role is to provoke emotions alongside the actors’ performance. It has to be professionally made and not chosen on a case-by-case basis.This is why you should ponder music way before you start shooting and if you have any budget, secure a chunk for a composer.
Here are six reasons to think about when considering your soundtrack options.
Let’s start with the obvious. You’ve worked very hard for months to get this film done. Perhaps you even wrote the screenplay, so it feels like the story has been with you forever. You’ve managed to find a fantastic crew. You ran auditions and signed amazingly talented actors. You’ve gone through the time-consuming process of crowdfunding and put the budget together. You even convinced a local cafe to deliver coffee and scones to the set, all free of charge. The shoot and post-production went smoothly and your film is ready to be sent out to all major film festivals in the world.
Then one day you hear a familiar melody in a TV advert. You realise you licensed this melody for the most dramatic scene in your tear-jerker drama. The advert, on the other hand, is telling a story of a yoghurt that helps to get rid of a stubborn constipation. Now, the ad will typically be shown several times a day for several months. Chances are it has gone viral and the festival audience can’t help it but replay it in their thoughts when watching the crucial scene in your film.
It really happens, believe me. I’ve heard many stories from filmmakers who used a great tune in their films, say about space exploration, to later hear the same tune on various TV projects, not infrequently those with ridiculous agenda.
Leitmotif is a term coined by the composer Richard Wagner for a recurring motif in a musical piece that is significant to its meaning. In film, it is associated with a certain character, place or situation.
Often leitmotifs become iconic and are the most recognizable elements of a film – take the John Williams’ shark theme from Jaws.
Could you cut out a fragment of a melody of a library track and then use it every time your protagonist appears on screen? Certainly. Would it work? Most likely not. Just like a character or idea develops throughout the story, a leitmotif changes and modulates, too. A great example is the theme of the love between Ash and Sheila in Army of Darkness, a cult historical-horror-comedy, with fantastic soundtrack by Joseph LoDuca. Although the melody is the same, the theme changes from romantic to sentimental when the two have to say goodbye. And when Sheila is captured by the army of darkness and its zombie commander – evil Ash – is about to kiss her, the leitmotif is played by an out of tune accordion.
A leitmotif provides insight into characters’ inner world and gives the story a sense of continuity, and a skilled composer can help you achieve that.
Stock music can work considerably well in some documentaries, especially factual TV. There are thousands of epic tracks you can use for a journey through a galaxy or baroque-style pieces when you talk about historical furniture. The issue that arises here is that every composer has a different, unique style. The style concerns instrumentarium, configuration of instruments which determines the “colour”, and then mixing and mastering technique, as well as the composer’s own sensitivity.
You might think that the audience are not all music experts who would be able to recognise whether the soundtrack is uniform or not, but this is not entirely true. We are all sensitive to music to a smaller or greater degree, and we are all capable of – even if just subconsciously – noticing when something isn’t quite right. Don’t forget that, apart from those epic themes accompanying the main events in the story, there is also, just as important, background music that works as a sort of connective tissue. A lack of cohesion in a musical score can create a notion that there is something about your film that isn’t quite professional, and that your story is missing continuity.
A good way of making this work on a budget is to choose library tracks from one composer, and then hire them to fill in the gaps and polish up the edges.
Regardless of whether music is in the background, or helps to emphasise or provoke emotions, one of its main responsibility is to match the tone of the visuals. Techno wouldn’t be a match with the breathtaking panorama of the Alps, right?
Music must convey the atmosphere of the film, paint the character of individual scenes. When it is mismatched, it distorts the picture; when exaggerated, it’s obtrusive to the audience.
A well-written soundtrack will transport the audience to a time and place, push the story forward, and accompany the characters as they transform and develop.
Take Angelo Badalamenti whose music perfectly matches and highlights the uneasiness and anxious atmosphere of David Lynch’s films.
A skilled composer who is professional in his/her approach to working with a filmmaker, will watch your material carefully – and read your screenplay thoroughly, if you decide to share with them before the shoot – discuss it with you to get the feeling of the subtext, and make friends with your characters and your ideas. Music, that will create a unique mood of your film, will flow naturally from that.
If you think of the last film, video or TV programme you saw, you will agree that everything has a rhythm. Images have a rhythm: movements are governed by the same principles as music – beat and tempo. This regards movements of the characters, nature and anything that is part of a scene, as well as the movements of the camera. Sound effects have a rhythm too: think of a marching army, the flutter of wings, sea waves crashing against rocks. Even speech has a rhythm, and although the only music that accompanies dialogues is usually silence, they too, like everything else, determine the rhythm and tempo of a scene.
If you’re a maths geek like me, you might be interested in a fact that the easiest way to synchronise the musical rhythm with images is to make the shortest unit of the rhythm equal one frame or a consistent number of frames of the film. This doesn’t mean that music always has to match the movement precisely, like in the early Disney cartoons. The trick is to use rhythm in a way that it enhances the visuals and not disturb them. So generally, the scale moved towards macro units is used, because there is no use of an exactly same pulse in the image and music. Most composers do it instinctively, taking into account both the principles of beat and tempo, and emotions.
Sometimes not matching these elements on purpose is the way to go, and this is closely connected with our number 4 – mood.
One of the best examples is the Mina and the Count love scene towards the end of Dracula, directed by Francis Ford Coppola. For a few minutes, we hear beautiful love music even though in parallel to the love scene, vampire hunters are shown and Hopkins who is looking for Dracula in order to destroy him. What composer Wojciech Kilar did here is deciding not to jump back and forth from romance to thrill, but stick to the sounds of the doomed love. This choice magnified the tension making the scene far more dramatic. The effect is unforgettable.
6. It’s easier than you think
If you’ve got an amazing story that you believe in – and that’s the only way you should feel about your film! – don’t be afraid to share it with a composer (or an agent). You would be surprised how many composers will be interested in working with you. If there is a prospect the film might turn into something wonderful, even a renowned composer might be happy to be part of it.
One last piece of advice – trust your composer. S/he is a storyteller, just like you. Keep an open mind and rest reassured that a professional composer will always go arm in arm with you on this exciting journey.