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Composer Michael Palmer on how to get the best out of your film score. 

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As a composer, I have become versed in a language that bewilders most and causes my fellow musicians to huddle excitedly around pub tables and talk endlessly. A language where “du, gah, du-d-du, gah!” is perfectly understood and endless terms like ‘flanger’, ‘modulation’ and ‘enharmonic’ are commonplace. So no wonder many filmmakers, who are versed in their own unique language, find it a challenge to brief a composer. Here’s my own perspective on how a filmmaker might approach this vital conversation.

Forget trying to talk in musical terms.

This can derail the conversation fast. For example, what a filmmaker may mean by saying ‘increase the tempo’ may actually translate to ‘more rhythmical intensity but at the same tempo’. A misunderstanding like that can send a composer off in a direction that will cost days of lost time and frustration. It’s much more helpful to simply tell the composer how you want the audience to feel at each moment. Talk primarily about emotions. A good composer will be able to realise the correct feeling in the music in ways that may surprise you. Also, the composer will feel that they are being allowed to express themselves, which is always the best way to get an impassioned result. Above all, don’t try and be the composer, no matter how encyclopedic your record collection may be.

Guide tracks.

It’s very common for guide music to be used in the edit as things start to evolve. In my own view as a composer I find this a helpful process. With guide music I can hear the mood the director favours. Listening is a stimulus far more clear and detailed than any verbal briefing. However, some composers may find it overly prescriptive and intimidating. Before your edit begins ask the composer how they like to work. 

The one big issue with guide tracks is attachment. When a director gets too used to the guide music and keeps pushing the composer for a soundalike, a composer’s enthusiasm can vanish fast. Not to mention that the composer is being forced to sail close to the treacherous waters of copyright infringement. No one likes being sued. So the big lesson for filmmakers is to choose your guides with a firm intention that they are truly temporary. Keep open and allow your composer to create something unique and surprising while using the guide as an emotional map. Tell the composer what you like about the guide and, just as important, what you don’t. And lastly, don’t expect the composer to reach the same production values of the guide music if your budget is tiny and the guide music was recorded in Abbey Road!

So…if you love your composer set them free!

The fusion of film with music is truly unique in the filmmaking process. The composer is creating art that could have the potential for a legitimate ongoing life, beyond its use in the film. We’ve all fallen in love with soundtracks.

It’s vital for any filmmaker not to feel threatened by the huge impact music will have on a project, both in picture and beyond. A great score will only ever shine a positive light on a film, and the best way to get a great score is to truly view the composer as a fellow artist and not simply a resource to manipulate. So let the composer create freely and trust that they are listening to your needs while also expressing themselves.

In these days, where it’s possible to create mockups fairly quickly, it’s tempting for filmmakers to try and develop each aspect of the creative process in small stages with constant review. Conversely, in the old days a filmmaker would only hear the proposed score on a piano, before signing off on a huge orchestral recording session where changes are too late to make.

The best modern approach is surely to strike a balance between the old world and the new. Let those magical chances happen. Spend less time reviewing and see the film through the eyes of your audience. After all, what is great art without taking a few chances?

Check out Michael Palmer’s music at michaelpalmercomposer.com (Film and TV work) and bornmusicians.com (commercial work). 

Michael Palmer

Michael Palmer is a London-based composer working across the board in film, television and commercials. Clients include the BBC, Disney, EMAP, BMW, Volkswagen, Mentorn Television, Granada and many more.

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Posted on May 4, 2016

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