Filmmaking: The Partnership Between Composer And Director


Nothing quite compares to a successful creative partnership between a composer and filmmaker/director or producer. When the composer and director are on the same page, trust begins to build and when there is trust there can be osmosis between the visual and musical minds. This article will be taking a brief look at the history of composition for film and a deeper look into what makes the unbeatable composer/director relationship work and how you can successfully partner up with a composer to get the best possible score for your production. 

A Brief History of Film Scoring

Film scoring, like we know it today, wasn’t a reality until the 1930s. The advent of recording technologies in the 1920s paved the way for the possibilities of film scoring. Before the 30s we had the silent film era, though we still needed music to be accompanied to picture in order to give the audience context to what they were seeing. This was accomplished by having an orchestra or pianist play live to the showing of a film. The orchestra would play a piece of sheet music to the film and that would simply deliver a broad mood to the overall picture. Many films came with a “suggestions list” of the music to be accompanied with each scene. Though nothing in the composition would be written to synchronize with the picture. It probably goes without saying, but the colour by numbers approach to matching music to film was either hit or miss (and probably confusing to the audience when not done right).

The 1930s ushered in the talking pictures (talkies). This is when film scoring became a critical part of the film industry. Recording technology had come far enough to the point where we could have an orchestra record specific moods to each scene and those recordings could be played back for each showing of the film. This was a disruption among theatre musicians as they were being replaced by playback systems. Max Steiner (student of Brahmans) was the first composer to write a modern score (King Kong circa; 1933). Steiner revolutionized film music by using symphonic techniques to create reoccurring themes throughout the film. This gave emotional depth to the characters. 

During the 1940s film scoring evolved into a very creative and exploratory aspect of a film, thanks in large part to influential composer, Bernard Herrmann! Herrmann was able to get creative with scoring because of the trust given to him by filmmaker, Alfred Hitchcock. The collaborative trust and respect between Hitchcock and Herrmann allowed for boundaries to be pushed to new heights and it’s partly their working relationship that has helped to influence and drive film scoring to where it is today.  

Why Building A Relationship With A Composer Is Beneficial To A Filmmaker. 

"Hitchcock only finishes a picture 60 per cent," the composer Bernard Herrmann liked to say. "I have to finish it for him."

I like this quote. I believe it accurately captures the essence of collaboration and authorship of a film. It’s near impossible to have a finished film that is one sole person’s creative efforts. In most cases the scale of a production is too large to leave it all to one person. There can be hundreds of collaborators leaving their footprint on your finished work. From pre-production: script writing and casting to production: set dressing, painting, wardrobe, make up to post-production: editing, colour correction, post-audio and of course, composing the music.

Historically, it has been quite common for directors and composers to work together on projects consistently, especially after success from past projects. The value of building such a relationship is within the trust. Once a director knows that a composer can work to deadline and churn out a great finished product the more willing they are to let that composer stretch out creatively on his/hers next film.

When working with the same composer the lines of communication are open, the process is understood and there is a trust/understanding of where the composer is coming from, musically.  

Bernard Herrmann and John Williams shared an interesting view on this relationship. They both felt that it is not the length of the relationship, but it is the quality. Again, the trust and freedom that’s granted to a composer will allow the art to blossom!

The stronger the composer/director partnership the further the director can push the composer on the score. Perhaps, farther than they thought they would go. Making not only the score better, but the composer better as well. The more work completed together the less the filmmaker will hold back criticism for the creative decisions of the composer. Elevating both the film and the score.

Herrmann and Williams put a burning question out there: Does it take a long-term friendship to arrive at a trusted, productive and ultra creative level of collaboration?

We believe that not all cases require a filmmaker to have a strong composer friendship for the entirety of his/her career in order to achieve a top-quality score that enhances their work. Does that partnership help? Absolutely! But, the experience we’ve gained over the years from being a team of composers and music supervisors has taught us the many ways to not only write to picture, but how to communicate with composers from all over the world in the effort of extracting the perfect piece of music for a production.

Working With A Composer To Achieve The Best Possible Score.

  “You can’t save a bad movie with a good score.” – Ennio Morricone 

But a good score can make a great movie timeless. This relates to any form of video production. In this section, we would like to highlight the very best ways to make sure that you and your composer are off to a good start right from the very beginning. 

Get the composer involved as early as possible.

The sooner the composer can learn about the arc of the story and personalities of the characters the better. This early involvement will maximize the potential for matching your wishes and creating a natural integration of the music into the film. The music will flow with the cuts and seamlessly breathe with the storyline.

How early is early? A composer can get involved before anything has even been shot! Have the composer read the script. By doing this you will be giving lots of insight into the characters and story arc. The Composer can then begin sketching thematic motifs for different characters.

For instance, Hans Zimmer scored Terrence Malick’s 1998 movie ‘The Thin Red Line’. He had sketches for that movie already written during production. Malick would play Zimmer’s sketches on set to get the actors in the right mood before filming specific scenes.

All too often does this point get over looked. The music is scrambled together at the last moment and therefore the overall production will suffer because of it. Do not let this happen to your project! 

The sooner the composer can learn about the arc of the story and personalities of the characters the better. This early involvement will maximize the potential for matching your wishes and creating a natural integration of the music into the film. The music will flow with the cuts and seamlessly breathe with the storyline.

How early is early? A composer can get involved before anything has even been shot! Have the composer read the script. By doing this you will be giving lots of insight into the characters and story arc. The Composer can then begin sketching thematic motifs for different characters.

For instance, Hans Zimmer scored Terrence Malick’s 1998 movie ‘The Thin Red Line’. He had sketches for that movie already written during production. Malick would play Zimmer’s sketches on set to get the actors in the right mood before filming specific scenes.

All too often does this point get over looked. The music is scrambled together at the last moment and therefore the overall production will suffer because of it. Do not let this happen to your project! 

Composer & Director must be on the same page. 

It’s of critical importance that the composer and director understand each other before a single note of score is written. A lack of communication can result in the direction of the production going in unwanted directions. 

Depending on the stage of production the composer and director will meet to discuss music. If in pre-production the meeting can be about the script and its characters and story arc. General concepts and ideas about music can be discussed here. The composer can take his notes and go away to start sketching out ideas for the Director’s feedback.

Most commonly, composers get involved late in the production process. The director will usually have rough cuts to show the composer. These meetings are called ‘spotting sessions’. During a spotting session the composer and director will sit down and watch a cut of the film. The director will explain his/her ideas for music and mood in different scenes. 

 “While the composer and filmmaker theoretically agree on the end product of their work - a good film score - their definitions of that may vary and, when that is the case, the filmmakers’ terms will predominate [sic]. Composers cannot forget that once the score is completed, the filmmaker has the final say in how to use It.” – Anonymous

  Be careful about the use of temp music. 

Temp (short for temporary) music is a composer’s worst fear. Temp music is placeholder score for the video editor to cut to while the real score is being composed. This usually results in the editor and director watching the same scene over and over to the same music. Naturally, after repetitiously watching the same sequences the temporary music “placeholder” becomes married to the picture.

When the time comes to put the composers score to the picture it’s almost never received with full positivity and excitement. Why is this? It’s because the composer’s score is battling a perfectly timed and flowing edit that is set to another piece of music that the composer has zero attachment to. When the director and editor are in ‘temp love’ any alternative to the temp score will seem “not right” and will clash with the pacing of the edit.

In this case, the notes that come back to the composer are typically to make his/her score more like the reference, squashing the freedom of creativity and uniqueness out of the production’s score.

The best way to avoid the temp love debacle is by bringing the composer in early. Have the composer write sketches as temp music. That way when the final score is placed to picture it won’t feel jarring. This is a big time saver for both the composer and filmmaker and it will result in an overall productive and positive working situation.

Though…perhaps, the budget doesn’t allow the composer to get started early on sketches for temp music. If this is the case, consider making sure that the composer understands the reasons for why the temp music was chosen. Communicate what you like most about the temp. Another helpful tip when using temp music is not to use popular music or scores from major Hollywood movies. Use pre-cleared music from stock music libraries as temp. Sometimes the temp fits perfectly and when using stock libraries the option is there to license. Not so much with latest Radiohead single or cue from the Dark Knight. Royalty-free music libraries like Bedtracks offer temp music for free!

Be open to ideas/stay humble. 

 Consider viewing the composer as a co-author by putting them in charge of the sonic story telling of the film. Some filmmakers give 100% creative freedom to the composer. The director won’t analyze what the composer does and the composer doesn’t analyze what the director does. You might have a fully formed concept for how the music should be and that’s a great, but we suggest keeping your mind open to new ideas or variations to your concepts. Try to keep thinking of what will make the story better rather than

Stay humble and open to learning about the composing process. Chances are that a great composer will have a lot of interesting ideas that may take your production to the next level. Consider leaving the lines of communication open to these new ideas. The composer will appreciate their input falling on attentive ears. Giving the room to stretch out creatively will not only be artistically motivating but the results of the final score may grow legs to stand on its own. 

Famous Composer/Director Partnerships.

Steven Spielberg - John Williams

Steven Spielberg – John Williams

This is probably the most famous and best example of a composer/director partnership. Spielberg has hired Williams for almost every movie he has ever made. They have helped each other to carve out their careers and amazing reputations in Hollywood.

“Johnny Williams I have very little control over, except we listen to music together and I’ll show him my film and try to talk it through and give him a sense of my taste in musical atmosphere. But once Johnny sits down at the piano, it’s his movie, it’s his score. It’s his original overdraft, a super-imposition.” – Steven Spielberg

Movies completed together: 32

 
Tim Burton - Danny Elfman

Tim Burton – Danny Elfman

The two creative heavyweights kicked off their long-standing working relationship in the simplest of ways. Tim Burton had seen Danny Elfman’s band and thought he would be a good fit for the whimsical score of Peewee’s Playhouse. Both were huge fans of horror films and Elfman thinks this helped to define the partnership they development over the next 30 years.


“Evil mastermind tortured doomed souls, both misunderstood [laughs].” – Danny Elfman. 

Movies completed together: 18

 
Howard Shore - David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg – Howard Shore

Shore and Cronenberg lived in Toronto at the same time and knew each other through mutual friends. Shore had scored one film before beginning his long scoring partnership with Cronenberg. Shore has scored all but one David Cronenberg film since 1979. Cronenberg feels that it’s essential for the composer and director to have a rapport before working together and for the composer to have a rapport with the film. 

“It’s very difficult to be articulate about music. It’s very emotional, of course and has many associations for people that are very hard to control so, you need to have a real rapport with the person who’s composing the music.” – David Cronenberg. 

“Because we’ve [Cronenberg’s team] all continued to work together, it drives everybody harder. Of course, quite often I’ll be asked to do a movie because they’ve seen Dead Ringers, and they like that sound … But that’s somewhat deceptive, because they don’t want you to go further, they like Dead Ringers! With David, in each movie you must go further.” – Howard Shore.

Movies completed together: 17

 
Alfred Hitcock - Bernard Herrmann

Alfred Hitchcock - Bernard Herrmann

Herrmann’s composing career is most commonly associated with Alfred Hitchcock. Herrmann made history for his music in the famous shower scene of Hitchcock’s 1960 classic ‘Psycho’. Originally, Hitchcock didn’t want music in this scene, but Herrmann’s demand for creative freedom won and film history was made. This led to Hitchcock giving Herrmann have full creative control of the score, until their relationship came to an abrupt end over a disagreement on music for the film ‘Tom Curtain’ (1966). 

“And Hitchcock, you know, is very sensitive; he leaves me alone. It depends on the person. But if I have to take what a director says, I’d rather not do the film. I find it’s impossible to work that way.” – Bernard Herrman

Movies completed together: 7

Thanks for reading! I hope this writing has given you lots of useful pieces of advice to working with composers on your next production. Don’t have that Johnny Williams money? Bedtracks has cost effective custom scoring/music library solutions to make the pixels of your next production pop. We blend custom score and sound design with our pre-cleared, royalty-free music library to give you a soundtrack that feels custom, yet doesn’t break the bank. Drop us a line today and we will be thrilled to talk about your next project.  

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