There are a lot of people out there who write music for films and games. But there is a reason for it – it’s fun! Short of giving away trade secrets, I’ll give you a few pointers on what to look out for when writing your next cue for that amazing feature film you’re working on…
When writing for film, it can sometimes come down to a few simple questions. So you gotta ask yourself… does your cue:
- create a suitable atmosphere and mood?
- support character development?
- evoke an appropriate feeling of time and place?
Creating Atmosphere & Mood
Don’t underestimate it; music is an incredibly powerful tool for creating an atmosphere for a scene. But sadly, music can also completely ruin an atmosphere if used incorrectly – which frankly is the one of the worst things a composer could ever do to a film.
Firstly, you should analyse the scene you are writing for, and identify the scene’s motivation – is it sad? Romantic? Sexy? Dark? Solemn? Be sure to get it right, because writing inappropriate music – say, romantic music for a frightening rape scene – can completely ruin a scene’s intention.
Instrumentation can also go a long way to setting a scene – for example; big action scenes, especially those leading to a dramatic climax, might require big instrumentation; full orchestra, choir, synths, the kitchen sink etc. This choice of instrumentation tends to tell the viewer that this is a BIG moment – pay attention; or at least enjoy the explosions.
Dramatic death scenes – especially those involving pivotal characters often require the exact opposite; very simple instrumentation, even solemn solo instruments (if any music at all!). If the movie has done it’s job right, these scenes are already emotionally charged – too much music will often make the scene soppy & melodramatic.
Film music should also follow any on-screen action appropriately – whether that means acknowledging every actor’s physical movements (called ‘mickey-mousing’, as it comes across cartoon-like), or completely ignoring them – sometimes called ‘Juxtaposition’.
One of my favourite uses of juxtaposition can be seen in the opening battle scene of ‘Gladiator’, scored by Hans Zimmer & Lisa Gerrard. The scene starts in typical epic style – big orchestra to match the big action on-screen. Then, towards the end of the scene, the burly music gives way to very beautiful, flowing vocal music. The new music completely changes the atmosphere from that of a gory movie bloodfest into a moving statement that war is far from glorious. Such is the power of music. [I scoured the web for a video of this scene, but sadly I came up with nuthin’. Sorry, you’ll just have to hire or buy the film yourself!].
Supporting Character Development
The idea of supporting a character’s growth through a film can be very powerful, and quite subliminal when done right. A typical example is the use of ‘leitmotif’, which simply means a recurring theme used to represent a character or idea.
When developing a theme, it’s always good to leave a little something for the end – leaving the best ’til last so to speak. At a film’s beginning, we are still learning about characters and ideas, and at such a time a theme becomes a useful tool for helping the viewers understand our character (eg. good guy, bad guy) – but generally snippets of a theme might suffice. Leave the entire theme for the climactic moments – points in the film that are pivotal in their storytelling. A powerful full statement of a theme helps our audience understand that this is a big moment for our character.
An excellent example of this use of themes is the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, scored by Howard Shore. This film features amazing theme development from the opening scenes right through to the final scenes of ‘Return of the King’. There are a few websites out there that analyse the score in depth, but this website suitably comprehensive: http://www.woodzie.org/lotr/
Not every film needs extensive theme development, but it’s always something to keep in mind; it can even help the process along when you already have an idea on which to develop.
Evoking a feeling of Time & Place
So we all understand that film music can not only set the mood for a film, but can also help tell it’s story. Music can also play with an audience’s conception of time and place. How, you ask?
Music can help with portraying the time or place the film is set in – eg. Electro-pop music for a 1980’s romantic comedy, or arabic percussion & winds for a Middle-eastern action film.
Music can simply make time pass quickly. The classic example is from the film ‘Rocky’, with boxer Rocky Balboa managing to fit months of grueling training into a few minutes, all set to the song ‘Eye of the Tiger’ by Survivor. This idea is called a ‘montage’, and is prolifically used in filmmaking.
Music can also evoke images of a distant time or place in more of a storytelling capacity; for example, Big Band music as an old man talks about the ‘good ol’ days’.
It should be known that there are occasions when some of these rules can be completely flipped – especially the idea of writing appropriate music to set a mood or atmosphere. For example, comedy writing often requires ‘hamming up’ certain dramatic moods to make light of what’s happening on-screen – otherwise the actors will just look like they are terrible at their job!
There are lots of other things to do with film scoring that should be known, but frankly a lot of it is learnt from just doing. But, I’ll be writing more tutorials in the future, focusing on the guts of scoring; the technicalities and logistics, which composers have to juggle alongside all the creative stuff. Fun fun.