Thinking back in time, I remember when I first had a short movie clip in front of me...
I had no idea where and how to start composing. I mean, let's be honest. I bet that every beginning of a new project feels the same...a blank paper, an empty arrangement window in our DAW. I hate that feeling...honestly!
Even though I do it professionally, it is driving me nuts every single time because (1) I know that the road will be LONG and HARD and (2) I have no idea where and how I will finish. If you feel the same, WELCOME TO THE CLUB, MY FRIEND!
However, that's okay! I mean even seasoned Hollywood composers feel the same as we do. But we need to start somewhere, right? Right! And now let's talk about the very first steps we need to master, so we can quickly forget that ugly feeling sitting behind our desks and not knowing how to proceed. If you follow these steps in this article, you have already done 50% of your work! Ready? Let's go!
Step #1: Before touching any note, I make sure that the movie file is loaded into my project and the file is running smoothly. That is actually something that isn't always the case. Why? Because I remember when I have worked on my older MacBook Pro (2011), I had difficulties playing back an HD video file while running the session simultaneously.
Sometimes the frames were not played back smoothly, thus I had no idea where the right sync-points and cuts were. If your computer can handle it, it's all fine – but if not, then you need to reduce the quality of the movie file. Really, you don't need to look at an HD video all the time. 360p always worked for me.
When I have finished my project, I could resync my music with the original file in a film making software like Davinci Resolve, Premiere, Final Cut, iMovie...whatever you are using when cutting and exporting film clips. When I work with a director, I often ask for a reduced quality in advance, like 360p or 480p, so I don't need to do it myself, as I don't want to waste my time doing that. Plus, if your internet speed is slow, do you really want to sit there for extra 20 minutes waiting for that Ultra 4K High Resolution Special XR File? I am not! No one will bite you if you ask kindly for a low resolution file. You are not working with dogs, you work with people – so just ask! ;)
Step #2: After importing and setting up the video file, I get familiar with the clip. In my last emails (for my subscribers), I have talked about the Westworld Chase Scene Cue, because it is a great reference for learning about composing for films. My next step is watching the clip only once. In most cases, the very first impression counts, as it gives me ideas about the possible genre and style, resulting in the tempo and orchestration.
So before I do anything else, I take a pencil and a notebook to write down my ideas: What is the cue about? Are there specific moments that need to be highlighted? What genre could work out best (if I need to decide without a director)? Fast editing or longer cuts? Possible instruments that I think would fit perfectly? Basically, everything that comes to my head after watching the cue – just simple brainstorming.
Step #3: Now it's time to split the cue into different parts. That's really important when composing original and custom music for a project because you need to make sure to hit the right sync-points of that clip. Think of it as you do your arrangement of a "song". You don't need to make thousands of them (parts & sync-points), but logical cuts that make sense to you.
When you finish doing it, you will have a great and solid overview of the whole project, as you know exactly what scene you are working on at that moment. Otherwise, if you don't do it, you can easily get lost, thus wasting unnecessary time – time you could invest in working more productive, efficient, and with the right focus! In the picture below, you see how I have set the cuts for that scene. Every DAW is capable of doing that, so use it to your advantage!
Step #4: After you have set your cuts, now it's time to think about the possible tempo. Tempo, in general, is one of the most important aspects of music, and film music even more. Why? Because with the tempo you set the mood (speed), the direction, and oftentimes already the genre and style too. So let's make an example for a chase scene like the Westworld Series. Would the tempo of 45 bpm (beats per minute) be a good choice when you see a pursuit?
Well, obviously you decide, however, I think that in most scenarios this wouldn't be a good fit. You see fast-moving cars, shooting weapons, and scenes that have fast cuts and jumps. If you hear a beautiful ballade over that scene, it's most likely done on purpose, but I believe that in most cases this just wouldn't work well. So if we see these chaotic pictures, we need to underscore them with a more logical music sequence. As you see in the picture above, I have used 140 bpm for most of my cue. However, I need to mention too, that this is not always the case that you can use the same tempo over a longer period of time. Here and there, you need to adapt it, so you hit the right sync-points.
Tip: If you realize that for example, a 4/4 bar doesn't work to hit a certain point in the picture, (even after adjusting the tempo to hit an important moment of a scene), make a 2/4, a 7/8 or another bar out it, so your music doesn't feel like you jump from 100 bpm to 180 bpm because there was no other solution. Film music is still music that has to make sense musically, so keep that in mind!
Step #5: The last step is crucial too – picking the right instruments, sounds, and the right orchestration. Imagine that you see a love-scene that is accompanied by a drum and bass beat. Well, that might work if that scene is wild and dirty. But let's be honest again. How many times have you experienced that in movies so far? Yeah, exactly, I need to think about it as well. Probably never. Most likely we will expect an orchestration that makes more sense: romantic adagio strings, heavenly played piano, or a calm atmosphere synth pad combined with a slow tempo. Or in other words: You compose music, choose instruments and sounds that serve the movie (the story of the film) in the best way possible.
That's actually a very significant fact for being a film composer. Your job is NOT to compose something out of this world, to impress everyone around you how great you are etc. You are paid to help and serve the film's story and the director's vision. That's really the only job you are being asked for. Being a film composer is something completely different than being a trailer music composer for a music production library.
As a film composer, you need to make sure to put your EGO to the side and start working objective – look at the project as a whole. Remember that you don't work on YOUR film, it's a dream of many other people that will hire you not because you implemented every single genre possible in it, NO! You are being hired because your music supports the story and creates the right amount of emotional content, so it makes sense for every scene.
There is a phase: Your music doesn't work well with the film if the average listener is being annoyed by it, thus the best film music is kind of inconspicuous. It's not about the music, it's always about the story.
I believe that if you start to implement those steps into your music writing process, you will have more relaxed hours behind your lovely desk! :)
To your success,
Creator of Make Better Music Now
Hi, I’m Alexey aka JLX,
it’s nice to meet you!
I am a Germany based composer,
sound designer, mixing engineer and coach.
Feel free to check out my website,
connect and subscribe to my blog!