Music First? Film Music at Raindance 2018, introduction by composer Edward Farmer - Raindance

Raindance aims to show the best in new cinema from the UK and around the world and specialises in first-time directors and discovery. So how are the new breed of film directors approaching working with music on their feature films? I attended Raindance for the first time this year and interviewed several Directors about their approach to music.

I was surprised to note the high percentage of music which was in place before the edit, or even before the shoot. Of the Directors I spoke to less than half asked a composer to work to a locked picture. I begun asking – is composing to picture going out of fashion? Although Music-First practices are nothing new, they seem to be becoming more common. In a recent interview at London Film Festival, Academy Award-Winning composer, Alexandre Desplat, railed against the music-first approach. “I need the visuals to compose” he exclaimed. How does the existence of music earlier in the process affect the relationship between music and picture? If music is firmly in the mind of the Director before the shoot, will it influence other decisions, bringing more synergy between music and visual? Or is a significant part of the screen composer’s potential being overlooked, leaving a loosely fitted musical score. Has the increased availability of Library music adversely affected the way we collaborate? These are questions each Director must have an opinion on.

My perspective as a composer would be to encourage Directors to consider three separate film narratives and how they interact over time:

1/ Story
2/ Visuals
3/ Music

Serving the story is usually the primary concern for any department. Most stories have a natural length which suits them. Some are suited to short films, some to feature films, some to multiple seasons on the television, but the Story governs a film’s structure. The Visuals then adhere to the Story’s structure, whilst maintaining their own coherent narrative. For example, in a visually stunning sequence of images, the story development may flex or pause, to give us time to process all of the visual information, and appreciate the aesthetic beauty of a scene. It’s usually once the Story and Visuals make sense, that we can craft the best music.

Some music slots seamlessly into the structure of these other narratives. A piece which remains consistent, without developing (think Philip Glass) can easily be used as underscore without altering the edit. Music which has an instant impact of energy or emotion can introduce a scene, or be placed in the space between dialogue, as it only needs a few seconds to tell us everything we need to know, before fading out to make way for the continuation of the plot. Some music, however, develops more slowly or precisely, through a statement of a melody, chord progression, or building in tension to a climax point. When a close synchronisation between music and picture is required one must either edit the film to the structure of pre-composed music, or invite a composer to craft a musical logic which works with structure of the Story and Visual which you’ve already created.

In rare occasions music takes precedence. The James Bond movies’ now famous Title Sequence for example. These moments are built into the film’s structure to allow for the exposition of a musical narrative. It’s rather like an Aria in the opera, which suspends plot development for the sake of musical indulgence (though given the diabolical nature of many opera plots you might argue that the arias, not the stories, are an opera’s raison d’être)

Music First, or Story First, unleashing the power of all three narratives in harmony is the goal of any Director / Composer collaboration. It takes a huge amount of trust on the part of a Director to allow music to play a role, and with so many films being made, it is the ideal time for Composers to develop the craft of composing to picture.

I chose to interview the following Directors because I really enjoyed their films. They have strong and clear concepts, and show a great use of different styles of music.

Gift – Director, Sunny Zhao

Eternal Winter – Director, Attila Szász

Comic Sans – Director, Nevio Marasović


Director: Sunny Zhao
Music: Classical Music recorded by pianist Clara Lee, & additional music from De Wolfe LIbrary Music

In this extraordinary tale of love, tragedy, and friendship, a mysterious piano connects two children from opposite sides of the world, leading to a journey of a lifetime in pursuit of truth and the love of music.

EF: Sunny! I loved your movie. It is heartfelt, and visually stunning, with much great music. I felt very at ease watching it, like a child being read a story. Tell us about your music choices for the film.
SZ: Hey Ed! To me, in Gift, music serves three different purposes. First was the on-screen performances. Because we want to capture a childhood prodigy whose piano skills are beyond their age, the challenge was to make the character’s playing authentic. The second purpose music played in the film was to compliment the scenes using actual piano pieces throughout. Third, the underscore of orchestra music evokes emotion and augments the drama to make it more pronounced. It is unusual in a movie for the music to serve so many different purposes. The classical music in the film was recorded by pianist Clara Lee. We chose to record a smaller piano than the concert grand you may find in studios and concert halls, something more fragile to better suit the intimate visuals, and the older piano shown on screen. During the music selection stage, we recorded Clara as she was sight reading as the very first takes. A couple of these first takes made it into the final cut. For example, during post production for the rain scene with Chopin’s nocturne, we decided to go with Clara’s sight reading take because it was most authentic and real; her natural interpretation provided that raw authentic feeling that we wanted to convey in the film.
EF: Do you think you will work in this way on future films?
SZ: I will definitely do it again in the future if the opportunity is presented, but it is not going to be anytime soon. This project is so unique; it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do this kind of project, spending five years with so much love and effort being poured into it. The music and visuals working together at their best is the most powerful thing in cinema. The collaboration between Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone is a perfect example of how music and visuals can work together so well. I would love to collaborate with an experienced composer during early pre-production and play the music on set for my future films, just like Sergio Leone did with Ennio Morricone’s music in Once Upon a Time in America.
EF: Do you think your work as a Cinematographer / DP has impacted the way you use music?
SZ: Yes. Like I said before, I think visuals and music are one of the most powerful combinations in cinema. Of course I want the highest quality music to accompany the visuals. I wanted the music to be organic, something earthy, so in this case the sound of the real orchestra was important. There are some synthesized sounds in the film for the more tense scenes so it is a combination of the two sources. The music we licensed is not all library music. We selected the music all across the board from many different artists and composers and ultimately at the end, a large amount is coming from De Wolfe Music library and other well known artists.
EF: I gave a TED talk recently called The Power of Familiarity in which I talk about how we connect with music through familiarity. Many actors develop a screen history, which can help them connect with audiences. Do you think the same is true of well known music when it’s used in film?
SZ: Definitely. It would have been strange to have Abigail (the lead character) perform newly composed music which nobody had heard before. Not only that, it would be completely unrealistic because when children learn such an advanced level, they generally play these well known classical works. The music by Chopin has its own history and its own story. So many people have performed it or heard it. It is an irreplaceable part of history and it connects the film with real life. Very early on during the development of Gift, we had Clara Lee on board as both the pianist and executive producer. Part of the story is inspired by Clara’s early career; with such a strong music background from an early age, Clara was selected to study at the prestigious Central Conservatory of Music in China and by age 10/11 she was already able to play the pieces in the film.


Director : Attila Szász
Composer Gergely Parádi

Christmas 1944. Soviet soldiers invade Hungary and drag every young woman with German origins away from a small village and transport them to a Soviet labor camp where they are forced to work in the coal mines under inhuman conditions. This is where Irén, one of the Hungarian women, meets Rajmund who decides to teach her how to survive. While she is determined to return home to her little daughter and family, history and fate have a different plan: Irén and Rajmund fall in love.

EF: Congratulations on a stunning film Atilla. I commented to a friend afterwards that it has some similarities to Schindler’s List – which is a huge compliment. What was your starting point for music?
AS: All I knew at the beginning that I didn’t want big themes, big harmonies, definitely didn’t want piano or violin, I just wanted very restrained sounds that express cold, distance, loneliness, darkness and fear. The composer kept sending us musical ideas throughout the editing so we could test what works and what doesn’t. By the time we finished the editing, 80% of the score was in place. We had an extremely hard time finding the right sound for the rest of the music though.
EF: Do you have a common concept when considering music for your pictures? Or do you have a different process for each picture?
AS: I did my first three pictures with the same composer including “Eternal Winter”. His name is Gergely Parádi, he’s one of the most talented composers in Hungary. We usually have very short time to create the score, so I use a lot of temp score at the editing to find the right mood, pace and sound for each film. On one hand it helps a lot, because we can skip the experimenting phase. The problem is that we usually fall in love with these temp score pieces which makes his job much harder. We wanted to avoid this with “Eternal Winter”, so we decided that he would send us a lot of ideas throughout the editing and we can decide what works and what doesn’t. We used his music as a temp score, basically. So whenever we found something that worked, he only needed to fine tune to the edited scenes, but it was already his music all the way.
EF: I was interested by the use of music and silence in Eternal Winter. In some scenes early in the film, the absence of music was quite noticeable. Was this a conscious decision, to save music for certain events or characters?
AS: Yes, it was a conscious decision based on the very delicate subject matter. We really didn’t want to manipulate the audience, we wanted them to really feel lost in the story without letting them know what to feel or how to feel. We wanted to avoid using tools to generate emotions wherever it was possible. This way we could enhance the very few scenes’ emotional impact where we felt it was needed. It’s not easy to find the right balance and takes a lot of experimenting during the editing process. We usually test each scene with different kinds of music to find out where it’s needed and where it worked without any score. Of course, once the composer joins the creative process, he usually have his own suggestions, but most of the times he finds our cues pretty much spot on.
EF: 30 years ago the majority of films with music featured a recording session with orchestra, and I know from working in Budapest that Hungary has some of the world’s finest musicians. The quality and availability of computer samples has changed the way composers are working. Is this something you consider artistically?
AS: On my first three pictures, I did’t have the chance to go full orchestral – party because of budget constraints, partly because of creative concepts. We always used one or two live instruments, but the majority of the score was created using computer samples. Today’s certain samples sound amazingly close to the real thing. It’s not the same of course, but close. On my next film, we have to use live orchestra, as we try to recreate the film scores of the 40s and the 50s, which really cannot be done without live instruments and musicians. I can’t wait for my first live recording session.


Director Nevio Marasović
Music: Songs by Alen and Nenad Sinkau (& Assorted Croatian Pop Artists)
Comic Sans is a comedy following young and successful copywriter Alan Despot who after trying in vain to renew a broken relationship with his girlfriend, goes to the island of Vis and finds himself torn between his eccentric father, another ex-girlfriend and her fiancé.

EF: Hello Nevio! Tell us about your experience of working with music in Comic Sans?
NM: Comic Sans has very little original music. In fact, originally I intended to have none, since I planned to use of couple songs by the late Italian singer Lucio Dalla instead. However, the deal with the label didn’t go through, so we called Alen and Nenad Sinkauz, extremely talented brothers who composed together, and with whom I worked on my previous film “Goran” for which they even won some awards. Since we had a great experience working together on “Goran”, they already knew my taste, so I immediately liked that one song they made for the film. Others songs in the films are from some older Croatian pop authors, always relevant to the characters and to the story.
EF: Your previous three films, Comic Sans, Goran, and Vis-a-Vis all feature songs rather than composed score. Is this now part of your artistic concept?
NM: Vis-A-Vis was originally inspired by the music of American indie musician Andrew Bird. So I first had music, then film. Fortunately, we managed to get the rights for 11 of his songs which became film’s score. Music is of utmost importance to my films. My uncle is an organ player and film/tv music composer, and I play guitar, piano and sing, so music is really a vital part of my person and it has a key place in my films.
EF: How do you choose music for your films?
NM: I choose music by intuition. Listening to different music, once in a while comes a song which inspired me for a scene, character or even the whole film.
EF: Is it important for the music in your films to come from the same country in which it is set?
NM: I think music is truly international language that all the people can understand. Music is the only medium where emotions and thoughts can be communicated to different people regardless of their language, culture or heritage. And that is exactly why and how I like to use that powerful tool in my films!



Edward Farmer is a London-based Composer, Conductor and Music Producer.