Demystifying the Music

Creating a unique sound for your doc is only as complicated - or expensive - as you care to make it, with options ranging from a simple synthesizer score to a full orchestral arrangement
June 1, 2001

Music sets the mood of a film even before the story is revealed, and resonates long after the picture fades to black. It’s the part viewers are seldom conscious of, yet instantly recognize. In fact, many filmmakers consider music as integral to the production process as editing and writing. Says filmmaker Jim McQuillan, of Hollywood production company Film Oasis, ‘If you have created a show, developed, labored over and edited it, the music should reflect that same effort.’

The quest to find music that perfectly compliments a film’s visual imagery frequently leads producers to commission an original score. ‘Working with a composer, you’re able to bring out the nuances, the emotion, the drama and the energy [of a film],’ McQuillan observes. Producer Kenichiro Takiguchi, of Japanese public broadcaster NHK, agrees: ‘With original music, you can ensure the music fits the program concept and [that it] gives viewers a new sensation.’

Two factors that deter producers from the original music route are lack of familiarity with the process and concern about the price. Neither is necessarily as great a challenge as might be assumed.

Cue the music

Finding a composer, like finding a good cameraman or editor, is often based on research (listening to film and TV program scores) and recommendations. Takiguchi says he located the composer for Space Millennium (two 4 x 1-hour series about the history of space) ‘the basic way – we listened to many, many, many CDs.’ He notes that the team decided from the start that they wanted the sound of acoustic instruments (versus electric), and were drawn early on to a style called Gagaku, the court music of ancient Japan. Based on this interest, they approached a well-known Gagaku composer and performer, Hideki Togi, who agreed to write the music for the series.

When McQuillan was looking for a composer for K2 (a 3 x 1-hour series for Nat Geo), he contacted Geoff Levin based on a recommendation, but it wasn’t a given that the California-based composer would get the gig. Says Levin, ‘I had to sell him. He liked what I did, but even after he was sold, we had to sell National Geographic.’ Convincing the broadcaster required making a new, more dramatic demo, as McQuillan sensed the composer’s original sample recording would be considered too commercial by Nat Geo standards. Their collaboration worked and Levin won the commission. ‘You have the network or the cable channel to deal with in terms of tastes,’ comments Levin. ‘You have to be aware of that.’ Ideally, the producer makes contact with the composer before the project begins, to offer verbal direction about the program and set up an approximate schedule. Too often, the first meeting happens mid-way through production.

Bristol-based composer Barnaby Taylor was brought on board for Yeti: Hunt for the Wildman (a 50-minute special produced by Bristol’s Icon Films for Channel 4 in the U.K. and TLC in the U.S.) six weeks before the offline editing began. ‘I find that’s usual,’ he says, but agrees the earlier contact is made, the better. ‘If a project has a sense of place, you need to do your research to get an authentic flavor. You need to figure out what that sounds like, which can take some time.’

Taylor’s next consultation occurred about two weeks into offline, when title sequences were beginning to take shape. ‘It’s nice to write the music to the title sequence [before it's locked] because it’s so rhythmical,’ he says. ‘If you’re trying to hit all the [film] cuts with a beat, it’s just impossible if it hasn’t been cut to a click track or some kind of rough rhythm.’

When the program is close to picture lock, the composer and filmmaker ‘spot’ – sit down together to decide what parts of the program should be accompanied by music. In Levin’s experience, the process generally takes one afternoon if everything is organized. ‘I digitize the film before the director comes, so it’s lined up in my music sequencer. As we go along, I’ll pull sounds up and I may even write things right in front of him. Then, he gets to respond to the direction.’

Keeping the beat

Taylor’s rule of thumb for composing is to allow himself a day per minute of music. He adds another day per minute for recording and mastering. ‘For 10 minutes of music, you could spend two days mastering it, no problem,’ he says. For a half-hour program in which Taylor composes 10 to 15 minutes of music, he generally asks for 20 days to a month. For Yeti, however, he created the entire score, totaling about 25 minutes, in three weeks (from picture lock to delivery).

London-based composer Jennie Muskett once came up with a score that included six pieces of music in four days. To be fair to the filmmaker, she says, he made certain to provide her with context for his half-hour flamingo doc. ‘He sent me and my daughter to Botswana for a week to look at the flamingos. We spent the whole time watching them drift past. It was heaven.’ Once filming ended, Muskett was called upon to act fast. ‘I was sitting around on location for a longer period of time than I had to compose,’ she says.

While this experience was exceptional, Muskett says her average time frame is still shorter than Taylor’s. ‘I would say [I compose] two minutes per day, but I would want time at the end for orchestrating, if that were required.’

Playing the score on a synthesizer is faster (and cheaper) than employing musicians, though in Taylor’s opinion producers shouldn’t underestimate an audience’s ability to distinguish between computer generated and ‘real’ sound. ‘It’s important to have a layer of something that sounds real. If you look back on a film that was done even six or seven years ago, the first thing that dates is the music . . . humans are very sensitive to synthetic sounds.’

Taylor also advises filmmakers to take the time to sit with the composer and review the musical sketches, rather than waiting for a tape to arrive. ‘I guess a parallel would be the idea of a producer editing down the phone and then turning up at the end of the week. Most producers like to sit in with the edit and see it progress. That’s where the excitement and the great ideas come up. I’ve had producers sit next to me and say, ‘why don’t you drop this here and bring it in there,’ and sometimes they’re right. I would never get that if I sent it off blind.’

Paying the players

Before any of the work begins, rates and terms should be negotiated with the composer. The standard method of conducting business is to establish a flat fee. Of course, what that fee is depends on a number of variables, including the production budget, the relationship with the composer, the number of musicians to be employed, and how much music is required.

McQuillan estimates spending 3% to 4% of the production budget on music, regardless of the scale of the show. Paris-based producer Guillaume Hecht, of Alpha Line Production, says he spent only 0.1% of the budget (US$5,400) on music for his 13 x 26-minute series Living Stones. ‘Our composer used only synthesizers. It was my choice because I wanted several instrumental interpretations of the theme. The cost of using musicians to record different variations of our original theme would have been prohibitive.’

Using live musicians means upping the costs with each individual employed. Composer Angelo Oddi, of Sequence Productions in Toronto, says a lead musician in Canada commands around CDN$600 (US$400) for three hours, while the rate for back-up players is half that. The minimum rate in the U.K. is around £150 (US$215) for three hours, Taylor says, adding he usually needs a musician for eight hours in the studio to record the score for a half-hour program.

One way to keep expenses down without sacrificing quality is to offer the composer the rights to the music. Says Levin, ‘If I’m not getting paid a lot, [keeping the music rights] is one incentive for me to do an excellent job. Once I take a project on, there’s a level I won’t go below. But, if the incentive is that I get to keep the music, what I put into it is more like what I get paid for a bigger budget. It’s now music that I know has a long life, as I can utilize it or sell it to other people. So, it’s a way of paying me a higher fee.’

However, producers should be sure of what’s up for negotiation before making promises. Cautions McQuillan, ‘You can kill your deal by not being properly informed. There are a variety of ways to negotiate, you just need to be aware what the parameters are, what you can and have to ask for – based on your broadcaster, based on your deal, based on your contract. Then you can see if there are ways to make it work for everybody and still get what you want.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.