The Zen of Film Scoring: Always Change Your Pants Before Recording


With my work on the film score nearing completion, I am focusing most of my creative energies on getting it finished. I have many ideas for general creativity-themed blog posts in the near future, but until I can spend the required time writing them, I give you this film score-centric post to tide you over.

It turns out scoring a film requires developing some creative philosophies (the importance of which I detailed here), using some extremely advanced techniques (and by advanced I mean not particularly advanced, you see what I did there?) and making some interesting discoveries and observations along the way. Here are seven examples from my recent experience.

1. Enhance, Don’t Dictate (AKA Don't You Dare Tell Me How To Feel)

If you watch an Indiana Jones movie, there’s score behind nearly every scene, consistently but gently reminding you of how you should be feeling at any given moment. This helps propel the story forward by letting you know if the hero is worried he’ll be killed by a Nazi or excited by the fact that a Nazi’s face is melting off. In movies like that, the music ramps up when the action starts getting exciting, it’s full of dissonant orchestral stabs when someone is about to get literally stabbed, it plays a sweet minor-key melody when a character is sad, possibly because she was recently stabbed. When done by a great composer, the score both enhances the feel of a scene and helps dictate on a subconscious level what the audience should be feeling.

But for films like the one I’m scoring, that level of musical involvement is inappropriate. I Hate You isn’t a movie with 90 minutes of score behind it. There aren’t any car chase scenes or Nazis (spoiler alert). In fact, the plot and overall effectiveness of the movie is almost entirely dependent on the actors' performances landing emotionally with the audience. The score should underline the emotion of the moment without being blatant and let the acting do the heavy lifting. For this reason, I needed to make sure my score enhanced what was being shown while not dictating to the viewer what he or she should be feeling. This directly leads to the next point...

2. Get The Hell Out Of The Film’s Way

It’s really tempting for any musician to latch onto something that sounds “cool” and insist on including it in a song or composition. This can be a bit distracting when recording an album, but it can be downright disastrous when scoring a film. Nothing should steal your attention from what you’re watching. I need to enhance the emotion of the scene, but I also need to blend into the background so you barely notice that the scene was enhanced in the first place. It needs to feel natural and, against most of my musician tendencies, almost unnoticeable.

Then again, I want the score to be good, and in that sense I do want people to notice it. So you can probably guess that this is an incredibly delicate balancing act to accomplish. Until people see the movie, I have no real way of determining if I was successful.

3. Write For Someone Else’s (Fictional) Vision

I’ve collaborated many times in the past, but this was my first experience writing only with the goal of achieving someone else’s vision. This is not my movie, and while I could make suggestions on the direction I took the music, in the end I was creating this stuff to fulfill an artistic vision that had nothing to do with me or my opinions. I was surprised to find how liberating that was, actually. No longer was I bogged down by my own arbitrary goals; now I had a clear goal that was completely external. It was a really fun challenge.

In addition, there was the added layer of writing music to correspond with what a fictional character was feeling in a scripted moment. This was also a new but equally rewarding process for me. Sometimes trying to translate your own feelings into art becomes a burden. Your personal viewpoint can become needlessly complex. The characters I was scoring to had complexity, but not the kind that is accompanied with my own constant internal push and pull, second-guessing or emotional baggage. Not that I have emotional baggage, though. I'm light as a goddamn feather, I swear!

4. Power Through in Bursts (And Prepare to Kill Your Babies)

A lot of artists think they need to wait for inspiration to strike before they start creating, but that doesn’t really work (especially when you have a deadline). There were many times when I didn’t feel like f#$%ing doing anything, but I knew I needed to get shit done. So first you have to force yourself to just start. Then you need to work in bursts—I prefer 20-30 minutes at a time—which help you get through manageable chunks without getting too frustrated, bored or mentally overtaxed. Sometimes one of those bursts turns into a 2-hour session of pure brilliance. Roll with those moments or you’re an idiot for wasting them.

Speaking of wasting time, there is a real danger of spending a lot of time creating something only to find that the director doesn’t think it fits at all. In fact, that’s guaranteed to happen several times. I got extremely lucky on this project because the vast majority of the time I got a cue in the ballpark of the director’s vision on my first try, but there were plenty of times when I had to throw part or all of a cue away because it just wasn’t right. For one part of the movie, I think I had to start over five or six times at least. I always started with a rough sketch and never spent too much time on something I didn't know was heading in the right direction. Even though I wanted to send nothing but polished products, I knew my time was too limited to waste polishing a turd. So I always got the general feel down for a cue, sent the rough idea to the director with a thousand disclaimers, then moved on to something else until I got feedback.

5. Don’t Get Attached (To Your Future Dead Babies)

Related to the last point, you really can’t get too attached to anything you create, because it might get rejected outright. Not because it isn’t good, but because it doesn’t fit the director’s vision. Well, I guess it could also be because it sucks. Sometimes when I was really hitting a creative wall I would work on pieces that I was sure would get rejected just so I would feel like I accomplished something that day. That could turn on the creative faucet and lead to other ideas that did work.

One time I had dedicated an entire day to writing music but found myself frustrated with everything I was making. I decided to embrace my bummed out mood and take on a part of the film that was a little more melancholy. I wrote a cue that I was convinced would be rejected, but the director thought it was great. Then I cranked out two more ideas that day (pretty sure I stopped and watched a movie in the middle, thanks Netflix) that I didn’t feel confident in, and they all were enthusiastically accepted. I surrendered to the mood and used the negative energy to my advantage.

You don’t want to spend too much time on something that won’t work, yet forcing yourself to do just that can sometimes be helpful. Yet another balancing act.

6. You Don’t Need No Satisfaction

Working within very specific (to less than a second) timeframes often means you can’t satisfy your musician instincts to make something symmetrical, musical or properly resolved. Even though you're helping to tell a story, you can’t tell your own story with every single cue, especially when it’s only seven seconds long. Music that works within the context of a film doesn't always work on its own. But the movie is the most important thing, so there are times when you have to let it go and write something that normally wouldn't satisfy you in order to help the big picture come to fruition, or as I like to say, "fruitify." (Note: I've never actually said that before.)

7. There’s No Way To Prepare For Everything (AKA Always Have a Spare Pair of Pants)

Unexpected things always happen, especially when you’re recording at home. For example: I did most of my acoustic guitar recordings during warm weather, and for most sessions I’d be sure to close my window and turn off my fan before I started. This led to some sweaty and uncomfortable moments, but it ensured I wouldn’t be picking up any unwanted background noise. That is, except for that time I got lazy and left my window open on a particularly hot but quiet night thinking it wouldn’t be a big deal. The result was having to EQ out the high-frequency sounds of crickets behind several guitar takes. Another time I had to stop mid-take because, even when your windows are closed, it’s damn near impossible to record while a police helicopter is hovering overhead. I hope they caught the bastard. Wait, were they looking for me?

Anyway, my favorite example of an unexpected surprise is when I realized I had to wear “guitar playing shorts.” You might think one’s attire doesn’t make much difference in a studio, but one particular pair of shorts that I wore made a subtle but noticeable creaking noise if the guitar on my lap shifted even a millimeter. These sounds make a difference when you’ve got a sensitive mic trying to pick up all the nuances of an acoustic instrument, so several times in the middle of recording sessions I’d have to change into my soft, light-fabric sleep shorts and try the take again. Lesson learned: those are my guitar playing shorts.