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PatrickAThompson

On Hiring a Film Composer-- Why Bother Anyway?

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First - let's answer this question: Why is film music so important? It's not like people go to see movies for the film scores... right? True. One of the many things that make a film great is the seamless integration and collaboration between artists from many fields. Any notable director or producer will tell you that a great film is more than its screenplay and its actors. Each crew role is vital.

Say you have a $5,000,000 camera and a wonderful director of photography... You've also got an all-star cast with a pro makeup crew. The script is elegant and vibrant. The set, however, looks like it was thrown together in thirty minutes with duct tape and thumb tacks with the contents of a local landfill, Ikea rejects, and the $.99 bin at Walmart. One weak link can kill the entire film.

Now, imagine the gorgeous film you've always dreamed of making. It's stunning and marvelously acted and directed. The lighting is moody and stylish. The sets are meticulously designed and decorated to perfection. As the hero leans in for his victory kiss in his epic moment of glory, we suddenly hear "Old McDonald" start playing via an off-camera kazoo.

Given, this is an extreme example of a poor music choice... but you must admit that it crashed the mood of the scene you were seeing in your head. Music is powerful - and when used correctly, it will absolutely lift your film to deeper intensities and emotional resonance than you could have imagined.

Your film's music needs to be a production requirement - not an afterthought.


"But Patrick!", you say... "I can license canned music from stock sites." This is true. You can. Be careful though.

I happen to license a great deal of stock music. It serves me and my clients very well. I say this because I'm not opposed to use of stock music within a very small usage window. Short films, for example, are a great place to use stock music - and I'll get to my reasoning momentarily. Commercials are another good use. Reality TV shows - yet another.

Features, however, need a composer. A potential investor is more likely to show favor to your project if you are projecting confidence enough in your film to bring a composer to the table. Same thing goes for professional lighting, editing, etc.. Build a professional team, and you're more likely to be viewed as a serious professional.

In working on a feature, you want the music to be unique. For example, I have a particular composition that is available for licensing which has been licensed nearly 200 times for various projects. It's been on TV a handful of times on various shows and networks. For shorter projects, it's not the end of the world.... but if you were to license that same track and use it in your feature as the opening title sequence - it's very likely that someone has heard it before. That's not how you want to start your film - by taking an audience member's mind to another show, is it? Typically, when a composer is hired to score a film, it is required to be entirely new music - creating a sonic identity for your film.

The most important reason to hire a trained\educated\experienced composer is this:

Thematic Development

Thematic Development is the idea of generally assigning musical ideas to people, places, or other entities. To better illustrate my proposal, let's talk Star Wars. Specifically, let's look at master-composer John Williams' "Imperial March" (aka Darth Vader's theme). Changes are, you can already hum it to yourself... If you can't, here's a refresher from Star Wars: A New Hope (Ep 4):



Suffice it to say, we hear that ominous theme many times throughout the Star Wars saga. It pops up when Mr. Vader is present, or when Williams wanted to suggest Vader's handiwork.

I was taken aback (and giddy with the brilliance of the musical choice) when I saw this next sequence in theaters. This is from Star Wars: Attack Of The Clones (ep 2). It marks the exact moment when former good-guy, Anakin Skywalker, figuratively flips to the 'dark side' because of his hate.. (around 3:10)



That's right, ladies and gentlemen -- John Williams referenced Darth Vader -- before Darth Vader even existed within the films' timeline... I'll give you a moment to wrap your head about that.

My point is this: Without a composer and proprietary music, this thematic moment wouldn't have been possible.

Sure, you can use a stock track and replay it every time you need that theme - but it will begin to sound like you got lazy because you keep playing the same song over and over... A composer, however, can take the same musical idea, and craft it into many different arrangements, orchestrations, tempos, and styles. Think of it like this -- same theme, with different flavors.

Short films can get away without theme music (unless it's a series) because there is rarely time within the short to establish (and repeat) a theme enough for it to be understood as a theme. The right stock music will enhance the moods, and you're good to go.

While we're on the subject of short films, here's a quick tip if you're using stock music. Give the composer a credit. I recently went to a 48 Hour Film Project showing in Dallas. Only three of roughly twenty films gave credit to their composers. Showing a lack of appreciation for anyone who contributed your film is not only tacky - but potential investors will see that you simply don't care much for collaboration. This shows a disturbing trend that modern film makers don't view film scores to be essential to their films. You wouldn't snub your grip or DP, would you?

Features need composers. Every single note and orchestration for the cues are completely custom and tailored to suit the needs of your film. No need to edit music because the composer will write in timing and mood-appropriate starts and endings to each cue... all of which will serve no other purpose than to enhance and intensify the emotional contour of the director's vision for the film.

Can a feature film survive on stock music? I'm sure it could -- but I doubt that simply surviving is a respectable goal. Surely you want it to be the best that it can be. Having a composer onboard who works well with thematic music is a definite way to increase production value, continuity of sounds, and overall audience engagement.

So, the next time you're wondering why your film just doesn't seem to 'work'... Maybe it's the music??
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  1. Nick Soares's Avatar
    Great write up!
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