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Commissioning Music for Short Films – 10 Questions a Director Might Ask

The following is a guest post written by composer Kim Halliday, a U.K.-based composer who has written music for shorts, features, documentary and fiction. You can find his work at www.kimhalliday.com, under “Kim Halliday – Music” on Facebook, and @hallidayk on Twitter.

Many film composers learn their trade by scoring short films. Many continue to score short films, and many never get an opportunity to score a full feature. The truth is that there are many challenges for a composer with a short – how do you get coherent themes into so few cues, for example, and how do you establish a style in a short piece. Equally, can you impress the audience and bring something to the film? And for a new director, how can you be confident that the composer you choose will overcome these challenges, and deliver you the music that is right for your film?

The following are the responses to the questions that a short filmmaker asks (or should be asking) during postproduction about the music for his movie.

Question 1: Shall I commission music?

I’m assuming that as the director you’ve already answered the question “Am I going to have a bespoke score for my film?” And to be honest, if you haven’t been through it, it is a valid question that you ought to ask. It’s quite easy to find license-free music, library music, or even already existing music and get permission to use it in a short (sometimes for a fee, of course), and the real question is about context. If the film requires a dramatic score, something to add to the mood, then you might find it difficult (although not impossible) to find some existing music that can work. You might also want to use music to fix the film in a particular era (as Scorsese did in Goodfellas). But using well-known hit songs will be expensive! My argument (and I have a vested interest, of course) is that it’s always better to have a piece of music written specifically for your scene – the music should bump when our hero goes bump, and the music can lead and direct the audience toward a mood or piece of action.

For a new filmmaker, the processes for using music that’s already published and out in the world might be complicated – record labels and publishing companies are not always easy to find, let alone deal with. There are lots of music libraries that will provide music for a fee and do the paperwork for you. But there are also lots of composers who will be keen to work on your film, happy to provide examples of their work and demo a few sketches to your brief. Many of them will have standard agreements they can show you that will give you permission to use the music, (and, to be honest, the chances of there being financial rewards from the profits of a short film are slim, so the money side of things will be less of a problem than otherwise). But hopefully you’ll get more from a composer than just the score – sketches and options for the actual cues, a musical view of the project, examples of and ideas from other work that might inspire or influence the directors thoughts around the film.

So we’ll assume that you’ve decided on a score written by a composer just for your film, and you and I are back on speaking terms!


Question 2: How do I choose a composer?

What are you looking for in a composer, Whatever you needs, you can audition composers almost in the same way as you do any cast or crew. A composer will have a body of work they can play you, they might write you something to a brief you give them – a demo, a showreel that you can look at (or links to websites with clips on), and you should talk to them about your film and what they feel they can bring to it. What other work have they done that is comparable to your film? Who else have they worked with, that you could talk to?

You should also talk about the practicality of recording the score. Many composers now have their own facilities to record music, as we use tools that will deliver a credible sounding score using sampled sounds. However, if you need to record real instruments, sounds or voices, then you will need to have a recording studio to do it in, and some musicians to do it, and these potentially cost money. So a composer who can play and record your score as well as write it might be a good thing for you.


Question 3: What can the composer do to help me?

As a film composer, I’ve met and worked with a lot of filmmakers, and there’s a great breadth of challenges faced by a director. The composer’s job is pretty straightforward in comparison – obviously there are creative and practical challenges for the composer, but the complexity of the filmmaking process is daunting. And I think part of the role of a film composer should be to try to make the music part of the project as easy for the director as possible.

The other parts of the composer’s role that we touched on earlier are to write a score that supports the director’s vision for the film, to write cues that hold and link together so the whole score is of a piece, and hopefully to get a bit of the composer’s voice into the music without detracting from the film.

In order to achieve any of these things, the composer needs to understand the director’s message, what the film is trying to say. If the director doesn’t have a wide musical vocabulary, then it’s up to the composer to help them. Of course, every director and every project is different, but there are some lessons I’ve learned that I pass on in the hope it might help!


Question 4: What can I do to help the composer?

Some things that have worked for me are:

Early, early, early!
Get the composer on board early. I’ve been lucky enough to work with directors who did just that, and I was able to visit the set, think about what I was going to do, feel involved with the film, read the script – I’ve even recorded sounds on location to use for a percussion track. But mostly, the longer the composer has to think about it, the more choices the director will get. And the composer will understand if the director doesn’t have time to respond to questions, listen to sketches, comment and reassure. Or at least you’d hope they would, if they’d been on set and watched the director at work juggling all those calls on their time.

Spotting sessions
When I first learned to write to picture, there was always a spotting session, with a finished edit, and a group of people would look at the cut and decide where it might need music, sort out roughly how the cues would be, talk about the mood, and so on.

Now, that kind of doesn’t happen in the same way, because scenes come to me over the Internet and off I go. But there was another thing that happened at spotting sessions, and that was that the director, editor, producer and composer sat down in a room (often uncomfortably crouched around a Steenbeck!) and talked about the film. So my first tip is try to find time to talk to your composer about the film, the story arc, and the message of your film.

Guide tracks
Sometimes the editor will edit to an existing piece of music. This sometimes works for the composer and other times against. If the director likes the guide music, then on one hand, it’s a clear indication of what the director wants for the scene. On the other hand, the director might want exactly that piece of music, and the composer ends up writing a pastiche, which is not much fun, and will also make it more difficult to hold all the cues together.

Reference tracks
The director might have some music that they feel gives the composer an indication of the mood or the feel of the music for the scene. And some directors have less clarity and perhaps less musical vocabulary. If there are reference tracks, then you will be able to discuss the music with the composer.


Question 5: What if I don’t feel confident talking about music?

There is a further challenge, which is that sometimes it’s difficult to pinpoint the reason a piece of music works for the listener. Beauty in music is in the ear of the listener! Here are some basic musical terms that you might know, but might help. Some of the basic building blocks of pieces of music are:

Tempo: the speed of the music. Tempo can be expressed in (mostly) Italian terms, like lento, allegro, presto. It can also be expressed in English, like slow, lively, fast, or in beats per minute.

Melody: the tune. Some are happy, some are sad. Some film cues need to be neutral in mood, to avoid preempting the action. There’s a technique in film scoring called “Mickey Mousing” which comes from early animation films where the music exactly followed the action (the clue is in the name!). Most film scores don’t do that, but the music will be useful to direct the audience a little when required.

Harmony: the chords that surround the melody. The harmony can completely change the feel of the melody – a neutral melody can be transformed by the harmonic treatment, so a cheerful chord is often a Major, while a moodier one is often a Minor. A change from Major chords to Minor chords can change the mood of a piece, (as perfectly demonstrated by Cole Porter in “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” where the chords change from Major to Minor when those words are sung in the chorus). I’m not suggesting that you need to understand how this works, rather that you know that it can be done.

Rhythm: the beat that the music moves to. In pop music, this will be drums or drum loops, but in music that doesn’t have such a percussion- or drum-based arrangement, the rhythm that the melody follows gives a feel to the music. At its most simple, it’s about the number of beats in each phrase or bar. 3 beats is a waltz time (like “The Blue Danube” which is used for the Space Station Docking scene in 2001: a Space Odyssey); 4 beats is typical of most pop music. 5 beats skips a bit (like “Take 5” by Dave Brubeck for jazz or “Four Sticks” by Led Zeppelin for rock, both examples of how a rhythm using 5 beats in a bar sounds). Again, this is about knowing how the rhythm can change the feel of a piece.

Arrangement: the instruments used to play the tune. A simple arrangement with very few instruments can often be very powerful, while a full orchestra is powerful in a completely different way. (A good example of a small ensemble would be Ry Cooder’s score for Paris, Texas. Any score by John Williams will be a full orchestra, while Thomas Newman’s work exploits both). The choice of instruments can be key too – think about Anton Karas’ zither score for The Third Man, or Cliff Martinez’s score for Solaris (which used obscure instruments like a custom built tubular bell-like metallophone, and a Cristal Baschet – Google them, they’re amazing!)


Question 6: How will I know the music will be what I want, and on time?

It’s worthwhile keeping in regular contact, if only to ensure that progress is being made on your score. One of the concerns I’ve heard from directors and producers is, “How do I know the music will be what I want and will it be delivered on time?” An answer is to agree a timetable with the composer – get them to give you a plan, and then keep checking that everything is on time. And regular conversations can only help while the music is being developed and recorded. I guess the important thing is to agree with your composer how much input you want, so you set their expectations as to how often you’ll want to check in. The composer probably won’t be expecting to deliver you a finished score without any input from you, and they’ll welcome your thoughts and ideas around the score as it evolves.

In terms of the content, don’t be afraid to get involved. In almost every project I’ve worked on, outside input is valuable and been helpful, as long as not too many people are involved – that gets confusing! But getting exactly what you want (if you’re clear on that) will require some time on your part to make sure the composer understands what you need.


Question 7: What about if I change the edit?

Hey, this stuff happens. I wouldn’t wait until the edit is finally locked to brief the composer, and, particularly if it’s a short, there won’t be too many cues, so changes won’t be too much work – an experienced composer won’t be surprised by this kind of change, and a less experienced composer had better get used to it! The edit changes, so the only alternative would be to wait to begin writing the music until the edit is locked, and, while that’s OK, I would prefer to make changes to the cues rather than wait that long. But you can have a conversation around that beforehand if you think there might be late changes to the edit.


Question 8: What will the composer deliver?

First there are the actual music cues. There are several audio file formats that you might receive, but you should ensure that the music is mastered in the highest quality possible, and delivered to you uncompressed. This means the files will be large. The file formats commonly used are WAV, AIFF, AU or PCM. An AIFF format file is about 10 times the size of an MP3 file.

The paperwork should include a cue list, some release forms and the license to use the music. The cue list is a list of all the pieces of music that have been delivered, typically containing the following details:

Production details: the name of the project, the name of the director along with contact details, the company making it (if there is one), the composer’s name and contact details.

Cue details: for each cue, there should be a name, indication as to use (so Main Title, Background, Theme, End Title), the length of the cue, and the instrumentation used.

The cue list is also a good way to check you have all the right release forms – this is a document that all the musicians who have played on the cues have given you permission to use their performance in the music.

Finally, there’s the license forms from the composer, allowing you to use the work the composer has created.

Examples of all these three documents, the cue list, release forms and music licenses can be found on the web.


Question 9: What will I do if it’s all going wrong?

I think if you’ve got the right person and agreed on how the score will be, along with a clear plan, everything should be fine, and this won’t even come up. It’s also quite exciting seeing the music develop and hopefully add a new dimension to your picture. However, despite everyone’s best efforts, you might encounter problems. My advice is to talk to the composer about this, to explain what your concerns are, and to set out a plan to fix it, but reminding them that time will be running out at this stage. Ultimately, this is your film, and you have to be as happy as possible with the outcome, so you’re absolutely entitled to get as close to what you want as possible, and you’re within your rights to find and use other music, and we talked about those other sources of music earlier. But my experience is that by investing time earlier in the process you will avoid a lot of potential trouble.


Question 10: Any last words?

I think one of things that gets lost in the pressure of producing a film is the fact that we are enormously lucky to be doing this, to have the opportunity to work creatively and collaboratively, so it’s worth reminding yourself that this is meant to be fun, and if it wasn’t sometimes difficult, it wouldn’t be as rewarding. To quote Dr. Seuss: “If you never have, you should. These things are fun, and fun is good!”


Kim Halliday is a composer and musician working in London, UK. He has written and played scores for feature films (Credo, Pink Pumpkins at Dawn), documentaries (Freedom for Birth, Doulah!, Real Birth Stories), commercial video and theatre. His music is designed to comfort and disturb in equal measure, and his latest release, Birdsong In Mist, is available on Ravello Records.

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