A Letter From Our CEO – Now, Community Matters More Than Ever (COVID – 19)

Read Here

Composing : Composer vs Director during the spotting session. by Cesar Suarez

Cesar Suarez

Composer vs Director during the spotting session.

I've been thinking about this topic for a while. And as many film composers before me mention to up and coming musicians and composers, to "learn to speak the language of filmmakers!" So my question to some of you is, if you were to give a seminar to a room of filmmakers about how a director/producer should talk to a composer, how would you approach it? Why not turn the tables on the directors and if you had the chance to teach them how to handle spotting sessions and how they can learn and communicate their thoughts in a way that composers can interpret easier, what would you say? I will have this chance early next year and I would like some ideas of how to structure that topic of discussion during my presentation. I can draw from my experiences but I would like to hear some of yours! Thanks in advance!

Joel Irwin

Let's start by keeping the following in mind - in the world of many composers - especially in CA or LA, the directors/filmmakers understand the music creation process. In my last 5 IMDB credits, not a single filmmaker has ever heard of spotting nor gone through any formal process of creating and placing cues. Two had never worked with a composer before and a majority just gave me the whole film done and my instructions were to write music for it with absolutely no guidance or input. That is the norm here - not the exception. There's lot of business talking here on Stage32 and some pretty good seminars on the topic of the processes including composing from spotting sessions to the mix. Excellent books on the topics as well. So what else can be discussed? First there is no such thing as a 'generic' director/producer/filmmaker. Geography, experience, budget, and other things all impact the way we need to interact. First thing to remember is that the composer is not 'special'. They are a member of the post production team - no better or worse than say the sound editor, the foley, the special effects person/group, the colorist, etc. Everyone of the team makes a major contribution to the outcome. If both sides keep that concept in mind and check our egos at the door, we can communicate. Now how? Well I am no expert on Hollywood filmmakers, but I have been to LA and intermingled with 'the crowd' and being submersed as full time paying job in a business that is both artistic and out to make a profit is rather different than someone who does directing and filmmaking on top of a primary day job which may not have anything to do with the film industry. Also one can not assume that an LA filmmaker will interact the same way as a NY filmmaker or a Texas filmmaker - and even the Austin ones could have different perspectives than the Houston ones. Same thing holds true for interacting on end with a filmmaker responsible for 6 or 7 figure budgets with a films that can likely be distributed theatrically or to the networks versus a filmmaker that isn't even sure if the film they are making will even make it into a film festival. And of course, communicating for a feature has some commonality with a short but can be rather more formal/structured. I have yet to interact with a filmmaker here who knows anything about spotting or cue sheets, for example. In fact, if you want to score a short here - odds are high you will not get paid - ever. And a 50 - 50 chance the short will end up in a competition like 48 hour film project or splatterfest where the interaction is under severe time crunch. So the point is - there is no cookie cutter IMHO to how to interact - there are so many variables and both parties need to be willing to tailor the interaction for the exact situation in question. Now comes the part I like and what I have already given two seminars on here to filmmakers - one for a full day. Suppose you have a successful communication going on. Now what? Filmmakers are artists and managers but are not likely musicians or composers. They may know something about needing music but what type of music? And how does it get put into the scene and should it end at the end of the scene or span scenes? How do they know exactly what type of music works best for the scene? We know, for example, a good piece of music may not work for a scene if it does not support that scene. So what works for a love scene, a dramatic scene, a horror scene, a chase scene? When do you use anticipation cues and when should that anticipation be false (i.e., viewers think something suggested by the music will happen and it doesn't)? Who conveys that - composer to filmmaker, filmmaker to composer, some combination? This is the stuff you don't read very much about and is lacking most when I interact with filmmakers - hence the seminar. Normally the best I get are 'temp tracks' - i.e., the filmmaker likes some music for a scene that they have heard somewhere else so that they lay it in as a temp track. So do you create something that 'sounds like' the temp track? Joel

Samuel Estes

1) Know your audience - young, mid or established film makers... That will determine what you need to talk about. Usually these are the Young and Mid-level filmmakers, this is usually the list I go through: 2) As a director, if you use "musicy" terms without knowing what they mean, that can be more confusing, unless you know the lingo of a musician, saying "crescendo" when you mean thicker will really mess things, just say "thicker here." In otherwords, speak common language in adjectives, composer's won't think you are stupid for not knowing our stupid italian terms. 3) Be clear with your deliverables - what format, framerate, timecode, etc. Always give a burn-in TC to your composer! Communication is much cleaner when you can place the music cues properly. SPOTTING: 4) Music cannot save a bad cut, it's still a bad cut or scene 5) Silence is as powerful as music 6) Learn the difference between music and FX/Ambient track, mostly to try to give your composer the heads up on what's happening with the FX/Ambient track. That can help determine if music does need to go at a spot. 7) Keep in mind that most composers take about 8-10 hours to write 3-5 min of fully composed music (not just beds and pads). Any re-writes will take almost as long - be mindful of the time constraints of what you are asking for a composer. 8) Composers often build in time for re-writes and updates, but be consistent with what you are looking for, let your score have a sound 9) BUDGET for composers AND musicians, even just two or three live players will make your film sound much more expensive. Its a start - hope it helps. -Sam

Cesar Suarez

Joel and Samuel, thank you so much for your comments and suggestions. this will be very useful for my presentation. and to be honest, i haven't worked with a Director/Filmmaker from hollywood and i do agree with you Joel, that its not common to find a director that will be able to have our "lingo" per say. but Samuel makes a great point by pointing out what composers expect and/or what can make our jobs easier. even knowing when you wants to make certain hits and accentuations in a particular scene can be very helpful, i believe. some director's i have worked with would use words like Shift or transition and fluctuation to express mode changes or increase tempo or speed or even modulate. maybe sometimes its not even that complex but most of the time i wouldn't expect them to use those words. Also, i would like to second what Samuel said about time. understanding the process can also help the directors anxiety if he things music is not being done fast enough. understanding or having your composer express the complexity of a scene musically will make him/her understand work loads. So, thanks again guys for adding your two cents. quite helpfully! cheers!

Georgia Hilton

the composer should be hired by the producers and the director. When a director/production team hire a composer they should already know the type of music and feel they are looking for and that the composer can deliver the music the way they want. The composer has to understand that its NOT their project, they are creating the emotional push, pacing and feel that each scene and the overall project requires. The person who makes the final decision on the score is the director not the composer. The flip side of this is a good director needs to understand music and how it effects emotion though tempo, timbre, timing & tempo, and hoe music can be manipulated to fix a scene and how a scene can be modified with various score or songs. A composer should be chosen with the same or more concern than the lead actors. A bad composer or even a good composer with the wrong style or feel can damage a good film, while a good composer with the right touch , feel, and style can seriously raise the overall quality of a film... so if I were talking to filmmakers (pointed to the directors) I would talk about the need to pick the right composer and for the selection of composer to be done with serious consideration and to assure that the director and the composer are on board with the overall style and feel before signing the composer on board. Before I hire a composer, I spend a lot of time listening to music I feel is "right" for the film. Then I listen to a large number of composers and they material prior to getting into discussions. Then I present the music demo material I have selected that "fits" the film to the composer. If we are in agreement, I'll have the composer do a couple of quick test score moments or provide me with material they have created that they feel will work. IF we are still on the same page. I hire them. When working on the film I assure the composer, editor, and sound designer are kept in the loop and work closely together so assure that by the time we hit the Dubstage all the elements are working well together and the timing and pacing of the film and scenes are what they should be. This is another teaching moment as I assure that the composer provide 3 to 5 minute loops of rough score for various moments up front... IE: a quick action cue, a quick sad, happy, chase, dramatic, etc, etc moments... These are provided to the editor before we start editing. Once we get into a rough cut, we send the rough to the sound designer and the composer, so they can do roughs and send back predubs for the editor who with my help ( as director ) recuts and adjust where needed and we repeat the process once again. When we have a Lock edit.. we repeat again... this time for the finals. As I get the final score we send tie score to the sound designer to help them with their work and we send the sound design pre-dubs as we get them to the composer.. When we hit the dub stage we've already verified everything will work well together and there won't be any surprises, since the Director, Editor, Composer and sound designer have been working together for a good 3 to 6 months by now. FWIW...

Other topics in Composing:

register for stage 32 Register / Log In