Composing : Scoring to Film Process by Richi Carter

Richi Carter

Scoring to Film Process

Guys, I have a question, which is something I'm really interested for your view on.

With the introduction of top-quality VSTs in the past 5 years or so, what is the most accepted process for scoring for Feature Films these days, once the Composer/Director have watched rough cuts and decided the route they are going to pursue.

This is what I have in my head currently...

If a Director is happy to feature VST instruments in his film then I'm guessing the process is fairly simple. That you are able to compose temp tracks to various scenes, and then polish them out yourself once the Director is happy with them. Composers may prefer to have them professionally mixed but essentially most of the work is done in your studio through your keyboards.

Now, here's the bit I'm interested about.

With Directors who have it in their budget to hire a real life orchestra, how does that then work with your process..

1) Would you do some rough temp tracks on VST, and once approved, orchestrate those cues for whatever instrumentation you required before submitting them to the ensemble/orchestra with timings etc.

2) If you are using an orchestrator, what material do they require from you. Can they fully write up an orchestral score just from piano temp tracks with notation? Or would they need more?

3) When recording with a real life orchestra, is it yourself and the Conductor's responsibility to ensure that it matches up to the footage? How can you manage this, and what happens if scenes are altered by the production team?

I know that this is a lot of information, and I understand I am at the risk of sounding like a complete and utter n00b. But I am really interested to hear your thoughts on this. As I'm sure that at least some of you have worked on large film projects, and with the quality of VSTs now, I'm hearing of more and more composers using these in films, often coupled with elements of live orchestras.

Cheers for your time, and feel free to throw in any other points you think may be useful.


Brian Alan DeLaney

I have never had the privilege of working with a live orchestra on a project so my addition to this conversation will be limited. But everything I write, I write in standard notation so if they decide to use actual musicians it will be ready. I've never done a temp track with just piano unless the actual track is just piano, so I guess I would be doing the orchestrator's job as well.

Usually the conductor (and the players) in this sort of position will be playing to something like a click track. So while they are still in charge of interpretation and such, most of the time the tempo information is controlled for them.

Allen Lynch

You are asking some insightful questions. Most of the answers to your questions are determined by the score design/style, budgetary limitations, and by one's own skill set and creative process.

Jonathan Price

1) I wouldn't call them "rough" temp tracks because you'll need to sell the cue with everything you have at your disposal. Your mockups need to sound as polished as your setup can deliver, even though they'll be replaced later.

2) An orchestrator will want either your mockup MIDI file or an XML file of the mockup (as well as audio of the mockup). If you're able to sell your cue based on a piano sketch, good for you. But most directors these days want to hear something close to what the final orchestration will be. So you essentially become a first-pass orchestrator when you sketch out your mockup. That mockup becomes the basis for the orchestrator's pass. The orchestrator needs a file, though, so that the bulk of the input work is already done for them.

3) You'll need a music editor who can pull up video, sync the ProTools rig to video, ride the click (so it's not too loud in the musician's cans during the soft spots), etc. You'll deliver PT files that have the correct timecodes, a click track (printed to audio to avoid mistakes), your mockups, and any synth tracks you want mixed in the final score. The music editor will also program streamers for important hits or cues that are conducted free (without click). Picture changes are handled differently by different composers. Some simply have a music editor cut the cues to fit, while others book another session if the budget allows. If the changes are right before a session (after the cue has been orchestrated and copied), it's not uncommon to do stand changes, if you can figure out a cut that will work to picture. You just go out and tell the players to pull out their pencils and say something like, "cut bars 112-118 then repeat bars 124-132..."

That's the gist of it, but you'll want to nail down the specifics for your particular team. As soon as a budget is approved, get the orchestrator and the studio on the phone and ask them exactly what they need. If you need to submit a budget for consideration, call a studio and ask them to walk you through the process with quotes from people they know.

Good luck!

Joel Irwin

Great question. I too am waiting to work on a film with a budget for live musicians. One of the reasons I score in Sibelius rather than a DAW/sequencer is to make the transition to live performance easier. Now some of the work will remain since there still are things I do that are required by the samples (which for example, currently prevents me from using slurs for legato) and much of the percussion notation (except for perhaps the standard drumset mappings), will probably need to be reworked. As we know, some samples require velocity (which we sometimes call 'dynamics' - i.e., p, mp, mf, f etc.), some samples require a midi value on a controller for loudness, and some use keyswitches which are notes out of the playable range which often govern articulations. So much of that needs to be remapped to standard notation such as "Mutted", etc.

One of the things assumed here so far is that it is either done with samples or with a full orchestra. Perhaps if you are in Hollywood. But outside of there, a whole spectrum exists. Perhaps the budget calls for a single instrument - perhaps a cello or perhaps a guitar. Maybe even a small ensemble like a string quartet or a jazz quartet. Or perhaps something as large as a big band. And the budget may call for live instrumentation but not enough for an orchestrator.

And of course, the type of music or genre may have something to do with how to approach moving from samples to live or even whether it makes sense for a mockup at all.

For example, my first scored film of 2018 required a jazz based (or at least inspired) score. Suppose the filmmaker wanted it done live. Sometimes you can even get performers (such as those at colleges) to do it for just imdb credit. Now what should be handed out from the sampled score - an exact set of charts? That sort of defeats the purpose of jazz quite often. I would consider handing out some structured material but also consider handing out 'lead sheets' (just melody and chords). Sometimes, by the way, that is what guitarists prefer also (especially if they are playing 'on top'/with a sampled score).

And let's talk about the percussionist - especially if they are playing on a rock/pop or jazz piece. Sure it is possible to lay out the drum part especially in a big band chart (watch the film "Whiplash" - great example). But I have written for live big band performances (and have played in a big band). This similar to but not quite the same as writing for full orchestra. The drummers don't like to be tied down to a fixed chart. They ask for another instrument chart and you often get really well played drumming parts if you let them play what they think will work.

So I have always suggested to my peers, to learn how to score for live musicians. Not just for classical ensembles but for all genres - even for voices (yes, the ol SATB stuff). Films come in many budgets and wants and its not always all samples or full orchestra with one or more orchestrators and copyists. We know, people on crews often wear multiple hats - us composers may also need to be mixers, audio engineers, and yes orchestrators. We may even need to work on hybrids which use a combination of live musicians and samples.

10 years ago when I was first learning how to write for large ensembles - especially big bands (with four or five staffs for each of the saxes, trumpets, and trombones), I wrote a piece which featured a fully electronically sampled big band but also featured a live piano and guitar. The production is where I was 10 years ago, but it is a good example of a fully scored chart in Sibelius that used two live performers and a VST for all the other instruments. You can get a copy of the chart if you are interested. Here is what it sounds like:

Jonathan Price

Aye, when I said, "synths tracks you want mixed into the score" I meant virtual instruments as well. Even among Hollywood's best you'll find composers who mix samples with live players. It's a topic unto itself. As for big band/jazz, it still helps to create a polished mockup. I generally improvise on my own (often using a WX5 for saxes/brass) even if I'll have better players replace it later. You still need to sell the cue to the director before it can get to the player. For some insights about scoring for big band with orchestra, check out this video of Walter Murphy scoring FAMILY GUY:

Rods Bobavich

I'm gonna come at this from a different perspective as a music producer instead of a composer. "If it sounds good it is good. If it doesn't sound good it's crap." This has been and still is the motto of the music industry. I have to remind musicians in the studio to stop looking at what an instrument looks like and start listening to what it sounds like.

Same thing holds true for film composers. If you're adding a showcase of emotion and the emotion comes through then do they need to fix-it-in-post? But if you have elements that you can't get without musical performance from real musicians then you need to fold that into your production workflow from the beginning.

My composers friends don't think of it as writing something to be touched up later. Rather, they realize that they are performing alongside the actors and it is their performance that will be featured on the final cut. You may get lucky and get an orchestra. But the VSTs are getting better and better and budgets are adjusting accordingly. I wouldn't hold my breath expecting an orchestra gig these days...

Matt Milne

never, ever ask anyone what the accepted practise is. Develop your own skills and techniques. Don't allow somebody else's limitations to become your own. I've used digital instruments in feature films and games for 13 years.

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