Features Music

A Behind-the-Scenes Window into Composing for the Big Screen

In an age where most popular music is available at the tips of our fingers, film and television synchronization soars to an all-time high, with studios frequently choosing to license record labels’ hit songs instead of hiring in-house or freelance composers. However, the synchronization process can be quite tedious, complex, and often significantly pricier than crafting original scores. Thus, the demand for composing remains great. In fact, many directors and producers prefer non-diegetic instrumental music instead when advancing their plotlines.

From building a climax’s suspense to crafting the scene’s overall atmosphere, film & TV scores hold the utmost responsibility in making or breaking the visual content’s storytelling experience. Requiring exceptional ingenuity, time management, sweat, and sleepless nights, composing an original score to a major motion picture or frequently streamed television series manifests into a lifestyle. Currently supporting an established composer while hustling on the weekends as a freelance audio engineer, my friend and colleague Harry Risoleo walked me through a film/TV composition’s step-by-step procedure.

Upon signing a contract with the studio, the composer watches the visual project for the first time, immersing oneself into the story. Subsequently meeting with the director, they both discuss their vision for the score and how it might support the content’s plot line. After introduced to the music supervisor, music editor and the rest of the music team, the composer starts writing, ideally working with a final cut of the film/television episode. From constructing diverse themes to establishing the characters’ personas, the composer and director ultimately develop a closely-knit relationship as they consistently converse and review each piece.

Within the indisputably fast-paced environment almost void of pen and paper, the composer provides piano sketches of each theme before crafting mock-ups in Logic or Cue Base, for example. Writing with the assumption that everything will be included with the film/TV series’ final mix, the composer communicates his/her intentions with the score through exceptional production and precise spotting. Maintaining a healthy balance between the composer and post production side of things, the music editor contributes heavily towards the final mix of the visual content while helping them stay on schedule.

Consisting of fifteen to fifty cues that range in length and style, the finalized score then enters the orchestration stage, a career in and of itself. A niche sector of the composing industry, big-screen orchestrators function as the cherries on top, translating the compositions into instrumentally dynamic symphonies. However, not all scores require grandiose orchestration. For crews with smaller budgets, experimenting with sound when recording instruments along the way plays a significant role in the creative process while simultaneously cutting costs. Once the director approves everything, the audio engineer repeatedly mixes the score before delivering the final film/TV mix.

And there you have it, folks: a detailed outline of the film/TV composition process. Despite its tedious nature, composing defines the audience members’ overall experience. In a day and age with 4D technology and HD sound, vast visual content contains little room for error, relying heavily on the score’s influence to strengthen their storylines, increase Rotten Tomatoes ratings, and impress high-maintenance viewers. From John Williams’ suspenseful two-note Jaws buildup to Hans Zimmer’s iconic Pirates of the Caribbean anthem, film and television composing will forever remain the glue that keeps everyone in their seats while capturing their undivided attention.

Featured image provided by Shutterstock

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