Secrets of Storytelling Session 8: Working with a Composer - William Goodchild
A workshop on music in film aimed at young natural history filmmakers in the early part of their careers.
"BBC Studios Natural History Unit invests in training staff – it’s critical for developing talent for the future.
Designed by Series Producers Tuppence Stone and Mark Flowers, the NHU is running a course on the 'Secrets of Storytelling' which walks students through every step of making a natural history film: from finding stories in the first place, right through to editing, scripting and working with composers.
The primary focus is to give practical steps to filmmakers in the early part of their careers, so they have the very best tools for success and professional development".
Mark Flowers, BBC NHU Series Producer, June 2023
Here are illustrated excerpts from composer William Goodchild's talk:
The comments which follow refer to: Surviving Paradise: A Family Tale - the opening sequence (timing reference 0:00 to 5:24), which is available to view on Netflix.
There are three musical pieces or ‘cues’ here: M01 Family is Everything – M02 Pride and Change – M03 King Demise
Visual and musical scale: portrait vs landscape; opening programme theme; leitmotif (young male lion intruders); phrase structure supports key moments in story and picture; use of silence.
Helpful at the outset for Composer to have a general overview of your film/ series plus a few keywords.
As Producer/ Director (PD), you will have been living the film for a long time. Composer is coming on to the project relatively late, so needs bringing up to speed on the overall vision/ aspirations, narrative and character themes of the film.
Eg. For Chimp Empire (Netflix), James Reed gave me:
“Drama score with a consistent tone; avoid anthropomorphism; allow space to run seqs on fx; less music will be more potent.”
Don’t worry too much as a PD talking about music: focus on story and emotional voices within the film: some written notes to the composer at this early stage can be very helpful. A detailed briefing spreadsheet will be helpful later in the process.
The challenge is for the score to have a distinct identity around which variety is created:
Distinct identity relates to the chosen instrumental/ vocal palette for the score (electronic, sampling, acoustic, orchestral); also an overarching theme, distinct character themes/ leitmotifs which develop through the film or series. A commissioned composed score can create a unifying musical quality in the sound world, and in the thematic material.
Jackson’s theme from Chimp Empire episode 1 (timing ref. 7:22 - 12:42), available to view on Netflix, originates from the pitches of a chimp begging call; the palette uses chimp samples, electronics (analogue synths), orchestral strings and low winds, percussion + choral vocals.
If you have any cinematic models in mind, share these.
When I was working on the score for Rise of the Warrior Apes (Discovery International) with Director James Reed, we spent a few hours studying Jed Kurzel’s score to Justin Kurzel’s movie, Macbeth (2015). This was really helpful as it pointed to a vibe without becoming too specific.
Guide/ Temp/ Scratch music
A useful way for the edit to steer things in terms of ‘spotting’ (where and when music is placed against the picture sequence) and also to convey ideas about pace, tone and style.
It’s very helpful to Composer once things are underway for the PD to give Composer a detailed spreadsheet that engages with the scratch music lay, with headings such as: SCENE, DESCRIPTION, CUE NAME, TC IN, TC OUT, DURATION, WHAT THE SCRATCH IS DOING, WHAT THE SCRATCH ISN’T DOING, EXTRA REMARKS
Whether simply breathing spaces or a sustained lack of music, musical silence can be very powerful. Silence allows the audience to feel as if they are in the place – a sense of actuality: it can bring focus to the story and also an opportunity to reflect on the dramatic/ emotional experience. Silence also serves to strengthen the musical score. Where cues are preceded by silence, they carry more impact. Always ask yourself, do we need music here? Why? What’s it doing?
Issues with guide music
If guide cues remain on the edit for a while, it’s easy for everyone (including Execs) to get married to certain cues – eg. it can be hard to imagine the scene without this specific piece. This can be tricky for Composer as anything new – simply because it is new! - doesn’t quite match or seem to hit the mark. Solution: PD to give Composer leeway here and be ready to try something new – there are a myriad number of ways to tell the same story – don’t get too hooked up on a single guide cue. In extreme cases, of course, production can license the guide, (although this is very rare!).
Music is working at its best when it tells us something we can’t ascertain from the picture sequence alone, (or even pics and comm together). It is less good when it simply amplifies what is already apparent visually.
A good example of this is the grooming sequence from Chimp Empire episode 1 (timing ref. 12:40 - 14:44). Grooming is political – the cue alludes to a sense of intrigue, cunning, strategy and hierarchical game-playing/ posturing that is not explicit from the scene alone…
‘Film scoring’ refers to the skill of composing to a picture sequence/ narrative. Composer’s work is conditioned by the precise timescales of the sequence and the events within it. This implies the ability to turn corners within a sequence. In natural history, because we don’t have dialogue and because we want to minimise the amount of commentary, music plays a huge part in the story-telling process, as well as being emotional/ dramatic. The following example clip moves from light/ playful to dominance/ aggression/ action to light/ humorous:
Reference Christine and Baby from Chimp Empire, episode 1 (timing ref. 16:47 - 21:18).
Ethnic vocals and instrumentation
Better used sparingly: subtle touches. Also, not all instruments from a region sound like they come from that region; conversely, instruments from another region can sound perfectly at home in this region. Eg. Duduk is Armenian but can sound great in a South African setting.
PD: don’t fight shy of requesting changes! Composer expects this. If possible, spend some time with Composer in their studio to listen and study the inner structure of the cues. Cues are made up of numerous layers. It’s vital that PD can play with the material in conjunction with Composer: it makes the conversation more detailed and strengthens the feeling of collaboration. For example…
PD: “what’s that high pulsy sound?”
C: “this one?” (solos a synth pad)
PD: “Yes. Can we try removing it?”
C: “Of course. Now listen…” (Plays cue with synth muted)
PD: “That’s better!”
Choosing a composer
Bear in mind, it’s not only a question of whether Composer writes good music; consider their personality – how they will be to work with for several months in the edit; are they happy to take notes from PD and rescore (multiple times if necessary), and perhaps abandon material that isn’t working from PD’s perspective, (however much Composer feels it is!)? Sympatico between PD and Composer is really important (consider the long creative relationships between Steven Spielberg & John Williams, Alfred Hitchcock & Bernard Herrmann, Serge Leone & Ennio Morricone). Vitally, PD needs to feel that Composer simply ‘gets’ their film.
Delivery of sketches during the edit – what to ask for
Draft sketches. PD asks, for each scene: a QT with a rough mix of music to guide comm and fx; plus a music-only BWAV cue with timecode reference – this allows PD an opportunity to review the scene quickly (QT), and Editor to lay cue into picture edit (WAV).
Composer process summarised
· Compose maybe free or to treatment/ and to pics (the musical idea – melody, harmony, tempo, rhythm, sound world)
· Electronic/ sample arrangement (draft sketch, rough mixed)
· Apply notes from PD (v2, v3, v4); rewrites, edits, adjustments until sign-off
· Orchestration (prepping electronic scores for live acoustic performance)
· Music preparation for recording (layout and copying of scores and parts), plus associated admin in booking studio, engineer, fixing musicians etc.
· Score mixdown (another creative stage) leading to deliverables: stem delivery for eg. dolby atmos – where final cues are presented in layers: eg. acoustic longs, acoustic shorts, synth longs, synth shorts, solos, percussion etc. A process which allows for some flexibility/ further creative decisions in the dub.
On landmark productions a music team is required, usually consisting of the following:
· Additional Music Composer(s)
· Composer’s Assistant(s)
· Music Editor
· Copyist (Music Prep)
· Orchestra/ Conductor
· Recording Engineer(s)
· Score/ Music Mixer
When to engage Composer on the project
Early on allowing time for discussions and Composer to become familiar with the project and possibly begin initial sketching (not necessarily to picture). Composer can provide materials (musical toolkit) in the early stages. Composing to picture typically begins around fine cut.
Composer and Conductor