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Marius

Scoring a Short Film Clip

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Marius    90

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PART 1

Overture

Hello YC!

So I've recently had a pretty great opportunity crop up for me, and I wanted to share the experience with you all so that I'm not the only one learning from what promises to be an educational, fun experience. To summarize in brief: I'm a member of the Guild of Canadian Film Composers, and they've set up a great partnership whereby they select a number of their emerging composers and match them up with an emerging film director from the Canadian Film Centre. The composers get to score a short promotional segment video made by the directors to show off to potential producers for funding to complete their feature-length films. The clips are basically poignant scenes from the full-length feature they've written that they feel can stand independently and show the potential of the full film. My job is to make sure the audio enhances that potential as much as possible without interfering.

Once the writing is completed, my score will be performed by members of the Royal Conservatory Orchestra up here in Canada, and recorded. After that, I will have a session with a professional mixing engineer to mix the score in 5.1 surround sound and lay it into the film clip, after which the clip — music included — will be screened to an audience of industry fellows and such. From then on, I'll have a cool piece to add to my demo reel and some new contacts for future networking and work opportunities.

In this thread, I will take you through the entire process of me scoring this clip, preparing it, recording it, mixing it, and presenting it. It will take me several posts between now and February 11th when the final screening occurs, and some may be quite long, but you need not read them if you're not interested. I will include pictures and other visual aids where I have them and will attach any files that I think people would be interested in seeing (my score template for this project, for example — see attachment). I will explain some of my thought processes, some of my techniques, and some of my perspectives on the craft. They are not rules, so please do not treat them as such. Certainly don't follow them. Do your own thing, always. But perhaps be inspired, be intrigued, be curious, or simply be...and read on!

Spotting & Stylistic Considerations

Yesterday, the first phase of the match-up began and I had my meeting with the director to spot the film. For those who are imagining a polka dotted television, the "spotting session" is where the composer meets with the director and sometimes also the producer or other folks to watch the film and discuss the role and placement of music within it. For a feature-length film, this can obviously take some time, but because the clip in this instance is 4 minutes long, the process was considerably shorter — I was in and out of the CFC headquarters within about 3 hours, during which time I also met with the program coordinator to discuss the technical details of what would need to be prepared for the recording session. Musically, the clip is going to be quite challenging; not because it lacks emotion or because it will require thick, spectacular writing, but because it's an extremely intense and gritty scene and it really only calls for the most minimalistic of musical accompaniments. I have a 26-piece orchestra to work with though, so making use of them and finding a way to do so while maintaining authenticity and not pushing the drama into the realm of melodrama will be an interesting challenge.

When it comes to film scoring, that's a primary concern: not overdoing it. Perhaps it's only a result of the more modern scoring idiom, but the tendency is for directors to want composers to highlight and express the emotional content of their films in a way that's far less flamboyant than in previous generations. In fact they tend to want you to just shut up a lot. Or be subtle — "just a hint of sound, just a faint instrumental presence". You're not likely to hear many sweeping orchestral fanfares and soaring love themes anymore simply because the style of the films and the tone that is desired is not that anymore. Take, for instance, Gabriel Yared's recent score for Amelia. That was a pretty old-fashioned score. Sure, it took some pointers from the modern styles, but at heart it was an old-fashioned dramatic score: sweeping themes, big orchestra and all.

What did the composers say? Wow, been a while.

What did the critics say? Lisa Schwarzbaum from Entertainment Weekly called his music “as distracting as sirens” and an “intrusive messenger”, while Peter Travers in Rolling Stone called it “sudsy”, and Justin Chang in Variety called it “hyperactive”.

So there you have it. Changing tastes for changing times.

In any event, this clip — as I've said — is pretty intense, and I instinctively don't want to tread on it too much simply because it's very powerful by virtue of the interaction between the characters. I'm being vague, right? What the hell is it about? I hear you — I'm not sure I can tell you anything about it yet, so bear with me while I find out. Hopefully by next post I can put up a screenshot or two and tell you something about the film so you'll get an idea of the context for my concerns. In the meantime, just take my word for it and use your imagination. Which brings me to my next point.

Brainstorming, Sketching, Chocolate, and the Nature of Film Scoring

The film is spotted, I have my notes, I've set up my template, and here I am. Sitting. Staring at the document you see in the header. Writing this post. More importantly, brainstorming.

This is actually my favourite part of the film scoring process (until the next part of course) because this is the part where I get to immerse myself in the moods and imagery of the film. I watch it a few times, then I go do something else. Like write informative posts on an internet forum. Then I watch it a few more times. I doodle. I play piano and listen to what my brain creates in response to the clip. I eat chocolate — generally in copious amounts. That isn't actually part of the film scoring process, I pretty much eat lots of chocolate all the time anyway. My blood is probably 84% chocolate by volume. Anyway, eventually I begin to get a concrete score in my head.

Depending on the film clip, this can take 2 minutes or 2 days. Some films really "speak" to me more clearly in terms of emotional content, and others take a bit more time for my ideas and responses to assemble themselves into a musical form. I think this part is where you're most likely to encounter a composer's most interesting quirks. The ways in which we respond to the film and create our musical responses tend to be very personal, and everyone seems to have their own funny little tricks and techniques...whatever works, basically. I won't tell you any of the more, er, odd methods that I employ, but suffice it to say that when you're in my position you will find yourself spontaneously trying interesting and totally unrelated-to-music things and having them unexpectedly trigger a vivid reaction to the project at hand. Maybe it's just me, I don't know. I don't care. It works, and it means that my scores are as authentic as I can possibly make them. I'm not crafting them based on stereotypes or principles, I'm simply transcribing my innate musical answer to the visuals. This answer will of course be coloured by stereotypes, by music I listen to, by any number of outside influences....but the crux of the issue is that those influences are not the foundational aspect of the music: my personal reaction is.

In this way, I find that scoring a film is a wholly personal thing and that it is actually not at all about submitting to the wills and whims of the director and thereby sapping all creative content from the work, as certain concert composers are happy to claim. There is, of course, an element of submission involved in that one must work within the framework of what the director describes and has given you to work with in terms of imagery, but how you respond to that imagery and how you work within those descriptions is a matter left up to you in any good director/composer relationship. And I think that it's important for composers to choose their partnerships carefully (when they can, naturally) so that they are allowed that freedom of expression and creativity. Having done concert work myself, I see the issue from both sides and look at it thus: if I'm writing only for myself, for the concert stage, I am writing to express my feelings about something, or I'm exploring a new technique, or I'm implementing a mathematical system to produce a work of absolute music. If I'm writing for a film, I'm still writing for myself, but not exclusively: I'm still expressing my feelings and exploring new techniques, but I'm doing so through a more interactive and less self-centred process. I'm writing music about the film, for the film, for its audience, for its characters and producers, and for the messages beneath and beyond the film.

Do I feel creatively unfulfilled as a result? Stifled? No, I do not. Do I sympathize and understand why some composers would and do see it that way? Of course, and we're all welcome to our opinions. Ultimately we need to do what we're passionate about, and in my case that is writing music for media.

Moving Forward

At this point, I've introduced you to my world and what's going on in it right at this moment. I've told you a tiny bit about the project and will hopefully share more as the weeks progress. So that you all have an idea of the timeline I'm working with (which is a VERY comfortable one, by the way, for this amount of work), here's a quick breakdown of the schedule, quoted from the outline:

January 22nd:

Composition should be done and mock-ups approved by director.

January 26th:

First draft orchestrations should be done

February 1st:

Pre-Session Prep.

February 2nd:

2 hour recording session with members of the Royal Conservatory Orchestra.

Wednesday, February 10th:

Mixing and editing.

Thursday, February 11th:

Screening

I will go over why some of those dates are ridiculous next time. I will update this thread with new posts whenever I've made progress, and I will do my best to attach any manner of files that I think you'd benefit from seeing. For now, I've attached my template for the score to this post and you are welcome to join me in staring at it and waiting for the ideas to assemble themselves into what I hope will be a compelling score for this short film clip. Thanks for reading — see you soon! :happy:

Quick Links:

PART 2

PART 3

Score Template A4.pdf

PDF

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John Axon    23

Marius, you amaze and inspire me. :) Congratulations on the great opportunity.

You're notating the music yourself, right? Can you take us through your notation process? Are you solely working in Sibelius? Do you start your project off in Logic where you can brainstorm with more sounds and effects? Is your set-up such that all the orchestral sounds you could make in Logic you can also do in Sibelius?

Is your compositional process truly insane and you do something else entirely? :hmmm: Chances are. :P

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Marius    90

Thanks, guys!

John, yes I will be doing all notation and score prep myself, and my setup is such that I can technically just do everything from within Sibelius, but it's much more flexible and comfortable if I play around in Logic, so that's where I start. In fact that's where I do just about everything, because I have to make a mock-up of the piece to show the director before I even bother notating it. Once I have my mock-up created within Logic and confirmed, then I switch over to Sibelius to notate, and depending on how the piece turns out, it may be easier for me to do so manually rather than importing any MIDI info from Logic. I'll be more thorough regarding how exactly I make the mock-up and play around in Logic, and how I notate when I actually get to that post, but good question! :happy:

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Daniel    59

Very nice post M. Looking forward to the updates. :)

not at all about submitting to the wills and whims of the director and thereby sapping all creative content from the work, as certain concert composers are happy to claim.

Eh, I've never actually heard that claim from concert composers. I've only heard film composers moaning about directors (though not saying sapping all creative content).

or I'm implementing a mathematical system to produce a work of absolute music.
:huh:

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Thanks, guys!

John, yes I will be doing all notation and score prep myself, and my setup is such that I can technically just do everything from within Sibelius, but it's much more flexible and comfortable if I play around in Logic, so that's where I start. In fact that's where I do just about everything, because I have to make a mock-up of the piece to show the director before I even bother notating it. Once I have my mock-up created within Logic and confirmed, then I switch over to Sibelius to notate, and depending on how the piece turns out, it may be easier for me to do so manually rather than importing any MIDI info from Logic. I'll be more thorough regarding how exactly I make the mock-up and play around in Logic, and how I notate when I actually get to that post, but good question! :happy:

Excellent, I'd love to hear more about this stuff. If you start in Logic why do you already have a score template? Is the template for the first cue? How did you decide upon the time signature and tempo? I hope these aren't silly questions, but I know little about underscoring and using Logic.

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Marius    90

Hey Black,

The reason I have a score template is because they have very specific formatting rules for how they want me to submit my notation, so I wanted to get it set up and out of the way so that when I'm ready to transcribe from Logic, I can just pop straight into it. The tempo and signature is therefore arbitrary at this point. I'll give you guys the list of requirements in the next posting probably and you'll see what I mean. :)

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Andy1044    15

Fantastic idea Marius, it'll be great for a lot of the younger film composers on here to get a glimpse into the process that awaits them. No sugar coating! :)

Also, you might want to up the size of those time sigs a bit, as well as change from the Maestro font...might be hard to see on the stage, (are you conducting?)

This is the template I use for prep:

Four days for orchestration, and that's just a draft? You could drive a planet through that amount of space! Hehe.

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Marius    90

Hey Andy!

Yeah, that's the general idea...we'll see how it works out. I'm definitely not making the time signatures any bigger, it would be ridiculous to have them even larger than this. It'll be on an 11x17 sheet for the actual thing. :P Plus, my ensemble is far smaller than the one in your template so I have more leeway in terms of staff size.

Anyway, I may or may not be conducting...we're actually not sure yet. You're definitely right about the timeframes though — that's why I was saying that they're ridiculous. No complaints though since I'm working on two other films and a couple of game things too on top of school. Yay multi-tasking! xD

*returns to planet driving*

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newport    1

Really good post & a great insight into your working methods. How does the time pressure effect your writing or can you negotiate more time if needed (I expect probably not!)? I can't wait to hear more!

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Marius    90

Hi Newport, I'm glad you're finding it insightful!

Great question about the time — I'm going to discuss time pressures more extensively in the next post, which should be going up in a day or two so hang tight and I'll address schedules and time pressures at some length. :happy:

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Marius    90

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PART 2

A Week in Afghanistan

So that was a fun week. I am delighted and not a little bit relieved to report that I have finally finished this little 4-minute cue, and now that I've done so I'm back to bring you up to speed on what's been going on since my last post in terms of workflow and also to address some of the questions and comments that you've all been so kind to leave for me.

I hesitate to use the word "finished", in fact, since really all I've done is complete the mock-up of the score and deliver it to the director for approval. At any rate, I'm relieved to have gotten this far because the clip itself is so raw and gritty that I found myself struggling to address it without ruining the mood. It's very evocative and powerful footage and so a lot of the time, the score is just barely commenting. To fill you in a bit more (as promised) about the premise of this clip, it's essentially the final 4 minutes of what will one day be a feature-length film about a soldier taken prisoner in Afghanistan and guarded by a teenage boy, brought back from his life in Canada to serve the Taliban. The two form something of a strange and almost friendly relationship over the course of the soldier's captivity, because the boy was unaware that his captive had been the sniper who had killed members of his family. This final terribly vivid sequence is the boy's right of passage: the Taliban notice his kindness toward the soldier and order the boy to kill his prisoner as a display of loyalty and maturity. Where we pick up the thread is with the two of them out in the desert, playing out this final confrontation.

The editing is brilliantly sharp, and the performances are solid too, so the combined effect is about as dry and un-theatrical as you can get. Which makes it a challenge to score effectively.

Lucky for me, I enjoy challenges. In this case, I had several ideas for how to address the clip, and I began by running a few of them by the director to see which concept seemed to resonate most strongly with him. In the end, this ended up being something of a "word" score. I just made that up, so don't go jotting it down as an industry term. What I mean to say by it though is that it's a score that's very much rooted in or represented by a single word or concept. Something that it evokes and continues to revisit. In this case, the word that the director and I found ourselves throwing around a lot was "inevitability". Specifically, the inevitability of the soldier's fate and guilt for the murder of the boy's loved ones. There are some poignant exchanges of dialogue where the soldier attempts to reason with his captor, telling him that he's just a boy and should forget Afghanistan and just go back to Canada and live his life, but — inevitably — there's too much pain to forget and walk away from.

Nice and fluffy stuff, needless to say.

Back to the Drawing Board

In theory, that sounds fine and dandy, but in practise the challenge was actually quite something and I re-started this score no less than three times before I finally settled on what I feel is a sound that not only captures the emotional and dramatic content of the imagery, but also stays the hell out of its way so that I don't end up cheapening or parodying the experience of watching the film. Three times.

There is a specific scene where there's a brief scuffle between the two of them as the soldier attempts to wrestle the gun away from the boy, and it happens about a minute into the 4-minute clip. That part was actually the crux of the film, from a scoring perspective, because I found that once I finally found out how to address that combat without being too over-the-top or too out of the way, the rest came much more naturally. For me, I find that this is often the case for a score where I do not immediately have a solution. I end up struggling until I figure out one specific part that's particularly annoying, and once I figure that part out the rest seems to just come through from there.

This is a good place to discuss something that has a huge impact on the scoring process but that isn't always consciously recognized: the editing.

Cut and Dried

As a film student, I have a keen appreciation for the other aspects of film-making beyond my own musical niche. Editing is the process of cutting together the raw footage and arranging it into the experience we call a film. I find that in many cases, editing is the most similar of the other disciplines to music because it too relies heavily on rhythms and must take into account the emotional arcs of the drama and address the precise amounts of time necessary to produce a final scene. The editor is the guy/gal who decides which facial expressions we end up focusing on, and therefore which emotions are in the forefront and for how long. They are without a doubt the only other folks on the post-production team with quite as much direct emotional manipulating power as us composers.

I bring this up to help explain why the fight scene was a challenge to score. The combat scene was the stickler here for me because it wasn't at all a Hollywood-style action scene. There was no freaky Kung Fu going on, no spectacular effects....just two guys brawling awkwardly in the desert. That meant that I couldn't approach it as a standard action scene — indeed the level of tension is so high throughout the clip that it was almost as if I didn't even need to treat it differently at all. In the end, I had three primary approaches that I tried. The first was a percussion-only take on it that had a great sense of motion and energy but just felt too heavy-handed and overwrought. I experimented with many many different percussion instruments and combinations thereof to try and hit some sort of sweet spot, but to no avail.

Then I tried to leave it way quiet and just let the atmosphere and combat noises carry the sequence. That worked, but it also made that fight stick out from the whole sequence as a drop in energy. Had it been on its own, I'm fairly certain that I would have left that scene without any music. It seemply didn't need it. However, since it was part of a larger sequence, I had to be conscious of the full experience and ensure that I came up with a coherent score.

Therefore, what I ended up with was a sound-design based approach that really sounds nothing like a "combat" sequence in the traditional understanding of the term, but it fits the visuals quite well in my estimation. I wish I could show you, but I can't for now, so in the meantime...

The Four-Minute Fruit of My Labour

At this point, I'm going to show you exactly what I've showed the director: the mock-up of the whole score. Sadly I can't show it to you with the film clip, but you can at least hear the kind of sound that I'm going for and try to imagine what kinds of visuals it might apply to. The fight sequence though, for reference, occurs between 0:45 and 1:00, so you can keep that in mind when you get there:

Look Me In The Eyes (Mock-Up v.1)

It's interesting to hear how essentially unimpressive that 4 minutes sounds on its own. I can fully understand how someone would have trouble imagining me spending several hours throughout the week making that, but it's important to keep in mind that while it certainly isn't very complex musically, it takes time and consideration to come up with those sounds and arrange them in such a way as to complement and support such challenging footage. If I had been chosen to work with a different director, perhaps I would have something far more lush and musical to show you, but as it is I'm working on a much more challenging film and so the music is appropriately challenging as well.

Of course, don't take my word for it just like that — It's time to take a look at my Logic environment and take you through what it meant to actually produce this track from a technical perspective.

It's All Very Logical

My Logic template for this project was about 70 tracks in size, of which only 40 or so were actively used. The others were things I had experimented with or otherwise brought in "just in case". It's good to be prepared when you're working on something like this, a challenging project, because if you have a wide palette of sounds right at your fingertips, you can try and play around with seemingly random ideas and spark inspiration from there. If I had to search and load every time I had a crazy idea, it would slow me down and stifle the creative process. Rather than show you my entire Logic template, which would make for a fairly gigantic and unwieldy screenshot, I'm going to show you a shot of what my screen looks like at any given moment, with no scrolling or anything (this is a screenshot across two 23' monitors by the way, so it's still pretty hefty):

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What you're looking at is basically a few MIDI segments. The horizontal gray lines are the actual notes, with their height/length corresponding to relative pitch/duration, and the white veritcal lines are any and all other MIDI CC data (mostly MOD and Expression). There are also some vertical gray lines on the string harmonics track, and that's just pitch-bending. You'll notice that I chose to stick to one constant tempo rather than change things up all over the place. I did this for two reasons: first of all, it's easier to get an ensemble to perform everything accurately when you're not bombarding them with a schizophrenic click track, and more importantly I had the good fortune of being subject to a talented editor whose rhythm of cuts pretty precisely adhered to a tempo of 101BPM or so.

Once I had the template set up (it was basically a modified version of my full orchestral template, including some more eclectic instruments), I screwed around with the mix settings a bit to change up the space since I needed some more reverb on some elements than I would normally have. From that point forward, I played in all the MIDI data live via MIDI keyboard and occasionally went back for second and third takes if I'd made a mistake or if I had to add in more CC data than I could with a single hand at a time. So for example if I had a string line, I might have had to record the notes and MOD data on one pass and then Expression and pitch wheel on another.

Now let's take a look at the mixing deck:

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As you can see, most of the instruments are just loaded into Kontakt instances, one per general instrumental section. You'll have to forgive my poor labeling, but essentially the instances go Woodwind Long Articulations, Woodwind Shorts & FX, Brass Long Articulations, Brass Shorts & FX, etc etc. Within each Kontakt instance, I've loaded up to 16 individual patches. Here's a glimpse at the Brass Long Articulations:

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You'll notice that all the pan settings are done on a per-instrument-patch basis rather than by section. Just gives that extra bit of precision. Within each K4 instance, I've loaded up instruments that would be placed in the same general area on the soundstage. This is for reverb purposes. Back on the mixing deck, you'll notice that each instance of K4 has 2 SpaceDesigner modules loaded on it. SpaceDesigner is a convolution reverb plugin (the one built in to Logic, it's brilliant and efficient) so the first handles the early reflections, and the second one handles the tail of the reverb. Here are the reverb settings for that Brass instance (left side is the early reflections, right side is the tail, I've just stuck them side by side):

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The label above the waveform diagram is the name of the impulse response I'm using (in this case it's from a scoring stage called Todd-AO), and the only other significant element is the Dry/Rev sliders on the right side which control how much of the signal is the original "dry", or unprocessed, sound and how much is the "Rev" or wet processed sound. In other words, it's controlling the ratio of signal to reverb. More reverb and less signal makes things sound further back, the reverse obviously makes them sound closer up. In combination with some basic EQing, this is the basics of how one achieves the illusion of depth in a mix.

That's a basic overview of the technical end of the process, so without delving into more potentially boring details, I'll flit over to the Q&A part of this post where I discuss the various questions or comments you've brought up!

Q & A

Actually the only major thing I have to address here that wasn't covered somewhere in the post was Andy's comment about the schedule and Newport's related question about the pressure. Remember in the first post I mentioned that these deadlines are ridiculous? That's because typically, in film work, one gets used to some...shall we say retarded expectations. I've had a couple of occasions now where I've been expected to churn out a half-hour's worth of fully produced score in less than two weeks. That's with me being a full-time student. Full-time composers often find themselves dragged into the process way late, sometimes to replace another composer, and they have totally impractical expectations placed on them. It's part of the job and it is a lot of pressure. Depending on the person, that's either extremely motivational or a total turn-off, and I'm sure there are many composers out there who have forfeited a career in film because they simply could not deal with the various things including time pressures that are part of the job. I won't bother citing more horror stories because you can find them all over the internet on composer blogs, forums, and other gathering places. The point I'm getting at is that me having so much time between milestones of this project is ridiculous in the opposite direction — it's a blessing that I have sooo much time to comfortably develop this score, rather than having to get it all done in a day and orchestrated the next for recording on the third day.

Newport, the time pressure in my case is a motivational thing. Sometimes it's truly ridiculous and I feel bad because it means that I may not have produced my best possible work, but the way I look at it is that the director is the one who's landed me in this position, and I make sure they're aware of what things look like from my perspective. It's only fair since some of them have very little concept of what film scoring entails. Thankfully, once they do, they're almost always much more lenient and understanding about making sure composers are given plenty of time and resources to get the job done. As for negotiating more time, I'm pretty much locked into the scheduled dates, but again, since they're so far apart I'm really not feeling the pressure too much. The only reason I even considered it was because I have two schools, another film, and two game projects going simultaneously.

Next Steps

Now we wait.

Until the director gets back to me with edit requests or an okay, the score is out of my hands and I get to relax a bit (read: work on other things). My hope is that I've realized his vision well enough that there won't be many edits, but it's entirely possible that he'll need the whole thing redone with a radically different approach. It happens, and I can only be thankful that there's enough time to handle that if it happens to be the case. Assuming I get the okay though, my next week will basically be a process of transcribing the Logic session into my Sibelius template and preparing the parts. Tedious, but necessary since I actually have a real ensemble to work with in this case. For reference, in many Hollywood studio settings, this is about the point where I, as the composer, would hand off my session to my team of MIDI transcriptionists, orchestrators, and copyists, and they would get to handle the comparatively dull tasks while I would go on to the next cue. In my case, there is no team, and there aren't any cues left for this project, so I get to do the fun part myself. Just as it should be, by the way. If one can't because of time constraints, I understand, but as far as I'm concerned, a composer should do his own work — even the dull stuff — whenever possible.

Thanks for reading through again, and I hope you've learned some new things. If you've got more questions, feel free to fire them off and I'll do my best to answer them either directly or in the next post, which will cover the transcription process and the preparation of the actual orchestral score.

Until then, take care! :happy:

Quick Links:

PART 1

PART 3

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newport    1

Thanks again for sharing this with us. As you say, it is difficult to listen to it without the pictures. I felt the build-up to the fight scene built the tension well (I shut my eyes & let my imagination fill it in). The subtle "pitch bend" on some of the parts added to the sense of something was going to happen! It's difficult to fully assess the piece after the initial combat sequence starts without really knowing what was happening in the film. I thought the effects sounded good - I assume they are bass heavy for the 'cinema' sound? It's interesting to see how you worked on the piece, I'm still working my way through it (I could sure do with a couple of 23" monitors for my setup!) Thanks for answering my question on time pressures. I suppose in a way, having a limited time focuses the mind on the job - the option of 'I'll do it when I feel like it' doesn't really exist! I hope the director likes what he hears - I look forward to the next installment. Good luck!

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impresario    17

This is one of the most amazing threads I've ever seen - thanks so much for sharing your journey Marius!

I have a few questions about the Guild of Canadian Film Composers. You said you were part of a program, is that a special program or did someone come up to you through the search and chose you for their film (I just searched action/drama/theatrical/video games/orchestral and you came up :P )

Also, that program that you use, Logic, is it what you compose on as well as edit, or just editing?

Finally, I was telling my mom about this, and she would like to know which school you go to for film composing, do you mind sharing?

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Marius    90

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PART 3

The Tedium of Transcriptions

Hi guys!

Pardon my recent silence, but it's been a busy busy week. Let's recap: up to this point, I've taken you through the spotting and mock-up production steps of the process. Cool. When I last left you, I had completed my mock-up and was waiting for my director to get back to me with a yea or nay. Happily, I got both thumbs way up so a couple of days after my last post, I was working on the next stage in the process, which is arguably the least exciting. As I've mentioned, I do my writing and sequencing primarily in Logic (as I described in the last post) and my notation in Sibelius 6. I used Finale up until this year, and there's a thread elsewhere on this board where I explain why I ended up switching to Sibelius. It's not really relevant to this thread. This is a shorter segment, so let's jump right in and then I'll answer the questions that popped up!

The Trouble With Timecode

So with my mock-up done and my director's approval, the next step was to make it all friendly for the real players that would be performing it. That means a score and parts. There are several ways I could have gone about this, the most direct being importing my MIDI file from Logic into Sibelius and then cleaning it up. Call me masochistic, but I've never been able to get a notation program to import a MIDI file without first chewing it up and barfing it out in a barely-recognizable form, so instead I decided I would just transcribe it all manually.

You've already seen my template, so all that this process consisted of was flipping between Logic and Sibelius and getting all the music transcribed nicely into an actual score file. One of the joys of using a notation program instead of writing scores by hand or via LilyPond or similar is the concept of linked parts. Once I've transcribed the full score, all the parts are already automatically generated for me. Sure, they occasionally have some wonky dynamics placements and I have some spacing issues to fiddle with, but by and large it (and the wonder that is Sibelius' Magnetic Layout feature) saves metric scraggy-tones of time and nerves.

If there's one thing that's annoying as hell to set up in terms of score, it's the timecode markings. See, timecode is this odd and terrifying monster that causes problems in a subtle, cancerous sort of way. The timecode will vary depending on the framerate of the film clip you're given...whether it's 24fps (frames per second) or 29.98, etc....and sometimes the framerate of the quicktime you're given to score doesn't match the final. Not only that, but in order to make sure everything is comfortably synced on the scoring stage, the program director recommended actually starting the music on measure 3 of the score. Which means I have to convince Sibelius to have negative timecode for those first two measures. Of course, I then have to export a MIDI tempo map for the session, and the General MIDI standard doesn't support negative timecodes so you have to, in the session, shift things over to compensate and set up ProTools so that it starts the video at measure 3 and timecode 00:00:00:00 instead of measure one....

Confused yet? Yeah, welcome to my weekend. Long story short though, it's all settled and working properly, which is a bit of a relief. It's pretty easy to understand, having gone through this, why the big Hollywood guys hire other people to handle this crap for them. If only, if only. :P

Dots and Lines

Of course, before I could actually set up the parts, I first was required to submit my score to an "orchestration mentor" — basically a local working composer who provided some feedback and suggestions for not only making the best of the ensemble, but also presenting it on the page in such a way as to make it as clear, succinct, and direct as possible for the musicians. "They will play exactly what's on the page. Seriously, M, make sure what you write is precisely what you want to hear," he kept reminding me. Good call.

After I implemented and tweaked and otherwise polished the score according to the suggestions provided my my mentor, I was ready to prep the parts and get everything ready for printing. For the session, it's basically one single-sided A4 part per two players, plus an extra just in case. Then at least 3 double-sided A4 stapled booth scores, and a tabloid-size conductor's score on cardstock (so that it doesn't make a giant rustling noise when the conductor turns the page. It's the little things...) The lady at Kinko's was rather perplexed, so I made a separate page with instructions just to make sure I got what I wanted. Kudos to them for a perfect job though. Incidentally, tabloid-sized scores are larger than you think. They're terribly awkward to transport, I've discovered.

Session Preparation, and Preparation Session

This is not always done, but in the case of most people who want to have a successful recording session, it's important to have a prep session before the musicians are on the clock. Musicians are very expensive, so you don't want to have problems with your files causing you to eat into your recording time. Basically for a recording session, we were required to have the following items:

  • Score & Parts
  • Audio Click Track
  • MIDI Tempo Map
  • Audio Pre-Records (Pre-Lays, etc)

We've already covered the first item on that list, so let's move on and figure out what those others are. The Audio Click Track is fairly self-explanatory. When you're recording anything in a sequencer, you'll likely have a click track going...it's basically your digital metronome. In case of any problems on session day, you're generally required to provide your own click track exported as an audio file. The click track (whether it's generated by the session file or it's the one you bring in) is wired through the headphones that your musicians and conductor are wearing. Another one of those important "little detail" things is that you therefore have to make sure that your click track isn't too loud or high-pitched or it may bleed through the headphones and be audible in the final recording, which is a pain in the donkey to try and remove in the mix.

The MIDI Tempo Map is a format 0 MIDI file (as opposed to format 1...essentially it means all data is on one track instead of many). The point of this MIDI file is so that it can be imported into ProTools (in the case of this and most other recording studios) so that the program can automatically follow the precise tempo parameters of your sequence. So, for instance, if you change tempo 5 times in a cue, instead of having to manually screw with the tempo track in ProTools and set up each tempo change, you can just import the tempo map and — voila! — all done. Time saver.

Last item on the list refers to my audio prelays. A Pre-Lay, or Pre-Record is essentially an audio file of anything that's in my sequence that will not be played by the instrumentalists live. In my case, it's about 4 tracks of synthetic ambience and heavily processed percussion and other instruments. Each prelay is typically a stem; in other words, it only contains one or a few instruments rather than having all the extra sounds on one track. This is to give you and the mixing engineer ultimate control of adjusting the levels of each individual element of a cue in the mix. All these prelays, and actually the click track as well, must be rendered in fully uncompressed BWAV at 24bits (48kHz). Big files, maximum quality product.

The Recording Session

About 3 hours ago, I finished up the prep session at the studio (it's the Glenn Gould Studio in the CBC Headquarters in downtown Toronto if anyone's interested) so now my ProTools session is all set up with the prelays and click track, and is all properly synced to the video file so that when the baton falls, everything is in place and there's no wasted time. That magical time is actually just about an two hours and a bit from right now, but I decided to take this break time in between to have lunch and update this thread a bit. I'm taking pictures, as are some of the others, so hopefully I can share those in the next post as we approach the final mixing session on the 11th of February.

Just to remind you, the orchestra is a selection of 26 musicians from the Royal Conservatory of Music's orchestra here in Toronto (it's basically a prestigious music-focused teaching institution), and we were recently told that about 20 emerging local film-makers as well as the president of the GCFC and some other members will be attending the session. There is also a collective networking outing at a nearby pub scheduled for after the recording, so it's going to be a long night! For now though, let me wrap this installment up by addressing the feedback. :)

Q & A

Newport, yes the mix is fairly bass-heavy but it's actually not so much because I was going for the "cinema" sound. I decided to have the bass frequencies fairly prominent because there's a great deal of tension that can be elicited using nothing but a very very low frequency drone. It's unsettling because you feel it more than you hear it, and it's a brilliant effect — used judiciously, of course — for a score with requirements like this one. The monitors are actually a lot more useful than you might think...somehow, having all that extra screen real-estate to work with seems to have a huge effect on the efficiency of one's workflow. It allows you to keep everything you need to see on screen at once and be able to avoid the clutter of trying to fit everything on a single screen. Having splurged for the multi-monitor setup, I can easily say that I'd never want to go back to one. Even a big one.

Impresario, I'm pleased you found the thread informative! The GCFC is a guild, so essentially it's like a proto-union that represents and tries to protect the rights of composers of film and media music working in Canada. You pay a nominal yearly fee for membership, and it gets you access to a bunch of events, discounts, and special programs — like this one. The way this particular program works is like a competition in that the GCFC sends out an email asking for submissions. The submission was basically a one-page letter of introduction/intent, a 3-minute example of your best work, and any random score (notation) that you'd produced. Basically a demonstration of the fundamental skills required to make the best of the program. It's geared toward serious emerging professional composers who just haven't had much experiece working with live orchestras before. It's so that we can learn the ins and outs of the process for when we actually have the budgets from a project to afford this. Anyway, so I was not eligible for the program since I was too young and still in school, but I sent an email to the coordinator and he liked my work enough that he said I was welcome to submit my application and that the jury would decide. And here we are, so thank you, jury. Just goes to show though: don't let anything stand in your way. Perseverance, initiative, and enthusiasm really go a long way.

Yes, Logic is what I compose in. I basically do everything except notation in Logic, including writing, sequencing, and mixing/mastering. It's my one-stop shop. You can tell your mother that I have absolutely no formal training in film scoring whatsoever. In fact, the extent of my formal musical education is piano lessons since I was younger. Everything I know about composing I taught myself through doing, reading, and — most importantly — listening. Actually listening is second most important...really, the most important thing is to just keep practising and writing and writing more and more. Feedback from people was also helpful. My degree is (will be in 2 years) in Film and New Media, and just this year I decided that one school wasn't enough so I'm also pursuing some formal musical education to toss onto my resumé in the form of an online Specialist Certification from Berklee College of Music in Boston. Great program, and by the end of the year I will be a "Specialist in Orchestrating and Producing Music for Film and Games". Bit of a lengthy title, but it'll help pad my resumé. To be perfectly frank with you though, I have never had a client in my entire history of doing this who has ever given a scraggy about my education. They care about the music: if it's good, you're in. If you have a fancy degree from the best school but the music's not what they're after? Too bad.

Ultimately I think it depends how you learn. Some people just need a formal education to be able to properly absorb and integrate the knowledge. I find that kind of path unnecessary and restrictive, so I teach myself as I go. It's not as solid or predictable a process, but I find it far more intrinsically satisfying and it seems as though it's bearing fruit in terms of work and networking opportunities, so I figure I can't be too far wrong. :P I guess that's not as simple an answer as "I go to Julliard and that's awesome", but it's probably more helpful since the path to success in the composing world — as with anything else to a certain extent — is really a personal process. Unless you're aiming for a really straight-forward and predictable career path, everyone's journey will be different. Many will be discouraged, many will do everything right and still fail, and some people who really suck will get your dream job instead of you.

That's life, and it's tough, but if you can live with that, continue learning every day, and still find that composing brings you joy, then keep at it and hope for the best. There's a lot of luck involved here, and to be at all competitive (there are a LOT of composers who want the same things) you have to start early. Really early. You're already too late. I'm already too late. It's impossible to start too early. :P My point being: never think that you can put off learning something relevant until later — you can, but by then you should already know it and have moved on to the next thing. Speaking of which...

Next Steps

The session starts in two hours or so, which means I have to head out to the studio soon (I actually have to pick up my payment from another project that was going on simultaneously on my way there...) After tonight though, there's a bit of a break until the 10th of February, at which point I'm back in the studio with the director and a mixing engineer to put the various takes together, mix all the levels properly, and lay it in with the film for the final product, which will then be screened to an audience of industry folks the evening after, on the 11th.

That being said, I'm off for now, and I will check in again at some point later this week with a quick post-recording session report — hopefully including a bunch of dorky photos! Thanks for the feedback, folks, feel free to chime in some more and I'll address all your thoughts at the end of the next post, as with this one. :)

Quick Links:

PART 1

PART 2

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bryla    16

Pretty interesting read! I have yet to go through it all, but I'm reading. I'm doing a similar thing right now :)

btw: Ouch... the Todd-AO is only for Altiverb. How did you get that for SpaceDesigner?

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John Axon    23

A response to the second part of your journal, .

Very cool work, Marius. I thought your track was extremely edgy and tense. I also really appreciated seeing the shots of your logical environment. Especially the shots of Kontakt; it's a lot pretter than imagined. I thought it was gonna be something like NotePad or TextEdit where it's just long strings of code. I was thinking too much of the scripting part of it.

That's all for now. Hopefully for the 3rd part I'll read later, the director will have liked your cues, given you a pat on the back and said, "Mathazzar, you've done it again!"

Until then,

-John

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newport    1

Thanks for this 3rd part - a fascinating journey indeed! I'm probably showing my age, but the last time I seriously worked with timecodes was in the days of having to stripe a track on the reel to reel with the SMPTE code. Those were the days.<_< Seriously though, they can be a pain in the whatsit to setup - you have my sympathies! Thanks for answering my question - I can see fully the rationale behind it. Another tip to store away in my old brain. Good luck with the session!

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impresario    17
Yes, Logic is what I compose in. I basically do everything except notation in Logic, including writing, sequencing, and mixing/mastering. It's my one-stop shop. You can tell your mother that I have absolutely no formal training in film scoring whatsoever. In fact, the extent of my formal musical education is piano lessons since I was younger. Everything I know about composing I taught myself through doing, reading, and — most importantly — listening. Actually listening is second most important...really, the most important thing is to just keep practising and writing and writing more and more. Feedback from people was also helpful. My degree is (will be in 2 years) in Film and New Media, and just this year I decided that one school wasn't enough so I'm also pursuing some formal musical education to toss onto my resumé in the form of an online Specialist Certification from Berklee College of Music in Boston. Great program, and by the end of the year I will be a "Specialist in Orchestrating and Producing Music for Film and Games". Bit of a lengthy title, but it'll help pad my resumé. To be perfectly frank with you though, I have never had a client in my entire history of doing this who has ever given a scraggy about my education. They care about the music: if it's good, you're in. If you have a fancy degree from the best school but the music's not what they're after? Too bad.

Thanks for your response, it was extremely helpful and inspiring - especially the quoted paragraph. I'm deciding how to go further (or if I should) with my music and this helps me a lot in the fact that I don't need to switch to a great school or anything, and the listening part as well inspired me, because that's what I'm good at - the 'does it sound good' as oppose to the 'does the major fifth clash with the augmented second in the dissonant chord' part.

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newport    1

Impresario - that tends to be the way I work. I had formal training years ago, but over time the theory slowly gave way to the 'does it sound good?' approach. I still dip into it once in a while, but I've forgotten a lot of it, so it means digging out my old books for a refresh (if I can be bothered). Thank goodness I'm not the only one!

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Marius    90

Hey all!

Keep an eye out for the formal after-recording session write-up, but in the meantime I'll just say that it was a totally unforgettable experience and that it went smoothly!

Bryla: I'm actually not supposed to have it but someone on a forum a while back posted that they'd figured out a way to decode Altiverb's impulses into basic WAV ones useable in any plugin, and they put up Todd-AO as their demonstration. It was, of course, promptly removed and so on, but I was lucky enough to catch it while it was up...so I guess that was lucky! :P

John: Kontakt is actually quite pretty. Even the script part of the interface isn't really too terrifying, it just takes some getting used to, as with everything else.

Impresario: happy to inspire. Ultimately, as long as you're following the path you want to follow and you believe in yourself enough to stick with it, then you can't go too far wrong. And having a more balanced education helps prevent you being locked into this niche if it turns out that music just isn't going to work out after all, despite you doing everything right. It happens, and being prepared for it is a better idea than pretending you can't possibly fail.

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Andy1044    15

Bryla: I'm actually not supposed to have it but someone on a forum a while back posted that they'd figured out a way to decode Altiverb's impulses into basic WAV ones useable in any plugin, and they put up Todd-AO as their demonstration. It was, of course, promptly removed and so on, but I was lucky enough to catch it while it was up...so I guess that was lucky! :P

That little WAV file is worth quite a bit...Todd-AO RIP.

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Zimr Music    7

Combine art with music.

When I score films (mostly horror or scifi), I look into the mood of the scene and carefully choose the instruments and audio samples I will use.

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