Making Music Magic – Composing for Film

Music can make or break a film. It can make your action-packed finale even more adrenaline pumping, or unbearably heartrending, make your downbeat moments melancholy as sin or turn them into a barrel of laughs. It’ll take on a life of its own, above and beyond the film it was made for, and can make its most powerful statements by not being there at all.

Today, we’re going to be diving back into the world of music for film with the help of Music Publishers Heartstopper Records. We’ve enlisted their assistance before to discuss the mechanics of using someone’s existing music in your film; now we’re going to talk about the opposite side of that coin – hiring a composer to have music specially made. This is a complicated topic, much more so than its licensing-side “little sibling”; when you create a soundtrack, you’re commissioning a composer to create what can sometimes add up to an hour or more of music. That’s a lot of work with a lot more considerations than the “pre-packaged” version of licensing existing music. But we’ve done our best to condense them down into the key points that you really need to know for your filmmaking endeavours – let’s get into it, shall we?

1.      Know What You Want

Yes, yes, we know – of course you’re not going to go looking for composers without knowing what sort of music you want them to compose. But, like many things that seem blindingly obvious, we’re taking the time to mention it because it’s very, very important to have an idea of what your soundtrack will sound like before you start looking for a composer to make it real, and not necessarily for the reasons you might think.

Different composers have different specialities in what sort of music they make – you wouldn’t go to John Williams or Alan Silvestri for something that sounds like Daft Punk; that much, everyone knows. But what’s not so obvious is that those different specialities can have vastly different levels of work needed to turn your soundtrack from notes on a sheet into fully-realised recordings. 40 years ago, the only way to make a soundtrack was to get a number of musicians – anywhere from a handful of players to a full orchestra on occasion – into a recording studio with a bunch of equipment and a whole lot of time; that’s not necessary any more. With the advent of digital synths and sound replication, it’s entirely possible for an entire movie’s worth of music to be created with only the minimum, or nothing at all, of “real” instruments being played. That can be a heck of a lot cheaper than paying an orchestra’s day fees plus recording expenses – a real boon if you’re an independent filmmaker without the backing of major studios.

On the flip side, though, some films don’t fit an electronic soundtrack and digital sampling; some films need that in-the-room sound to achieve their fullest potential, and that’ll need to be planned around when looking at the process of making your film. So before you even start considering who you’re looking for to make your sound real, consider what you want that sound to be.

2.      Know What You’re Buying

There’s a tendency among filmmakers to underestimate the scope of what exactly a composer does in the filmmaking process. A lot of people assume it’s somewhat like the role of a screenwriter – we give you money, you give us blueprints for your bit, now your job is done and off we directors and producers go to turn into reality – and think that it should be budgeted for along those lines. In reality, the modern composer, especially in independent filmmaking, does a lot more than just write the score, and they have to include that work in their side of the pricing process. So before you’re sitting with your mouth open going “How much?” at a quote, let’s go into what you should (roughly, because every composer’s different) expect to get from a composer’s services.

When you engage a composer, what they are promising to deliver is a composed, recorded product, fitted into your specific film. In earlier days of film, each of those three clauses would have been handled by a specific person or group of people. The composer would write the score for the film, working off a “cue list” to establish what and when music was needed in the film – they’d then hand it over to an orchestrator, who’d arrange that music for recording and often conduct the music in the studio, then a “Score Coordinator” or similar producer would come in to organise and oversee the recording sessions and delivery of the finished product. In larger films, these roles often still exist separately – John Williams has worked with H.W. Spencer, Conrad Pope and William Ross as orchestrators for his three Star Wars trilogies in three different decades, for example, and whilst Alan Silvestri wrote Avengers: Endgame’s music, the orchestration was put together by Mark Graham with David Bifano coordinating everything. But when the budgets get lower, roles get pushed together, and the modern independent film composer is often expected to do all three of those roles at once; they have to factor that in when they’re thinking about recompense. Similarly, if they’re going to be in charge of booking all the musicians and sessions, they have to factor those costs into the quote they’re giving you as well. So when you’re talking to the composer who might make your ideas into reality, be aware of what the numbers in front of you really mean; they might look big on the surface, but that’s because they represent a lot of work to be done.

3.      Know When You Want It

In terms of the practical work, music-making and recording is an entirely separate process from physical filming. Aside from the director’s input on both, rarely do the two elements meet; the camera’s work is sometimes done before the musician’s starts. However, composition is still a creative art, so it falls under the same two key rules as a film set does.

  1. It’s never that simple.
  2. It’s never that quick.

That means you need to plan for the time needed to compose, and work that into your production timeframe. By its nature, adding music is often one of the last things done before a film is “finished” – that gives it a bit of luxury of time compared to the tightly-controlled concerto that is a shooting schedule, but luxury doesn’t mean anything when you’ve got a release date set and you still haven’t finished recording. When you’re engaging a composer, make sure they provide you with an estimation of how long the whole process might take (and make sure you provide them with enough information that they can accurately make that estimate), and see if you can make that work with your timeplan. Scheduling is the eternal killer in filmmaking, even on the music side – there’s no shame in choosing a different composer because they’ll be able to do the work in the time you need.

4.      Know Your Rights

This is an absolutely terrible pun, but we had to make it. Don’t worry, you’re not going to be arrested if you go looking for composers; this heading refers to the rights for the music that comes out of the process.

Music has rights, like any piece of creative work; usage rights, performance rights, reproduction rights, Intellectual Property rights distinguishing the recording of the music itself from the score as a blueprint to make further copies of the music by other musicians, and many more. So many more. There’s enough rights in music to power two whole industries, and right in the middle of that big ball of rights is a great big grey area named “film compositions”. See, there’s precedents in the music industry for most rights-related situations. When a record label agrees to foot the bill for a band’s LP, they’re doing so in exchange for the ownership of the rights to those recordings, either for a period of time or forever; when a publisher agrees to manage a songwriter’s catalogue, they take a share of the rights to the songs said writer has written, regardless of who’s recorded them. Film music has to obey the strictures of these systems, but the customised nature of film, where music is a product that’s simultaneously independent from and part of a bigger product in the film as a whole, means that there’s no real precedent as to who owns the rights to the soundtrack, especially on the recording side of things. The writing side is relatively clear-cut – the director might have had some input on, well, the direction of the score, but the composer actually put that into music, and they’re entitled to the credit. Recordings, though? That’s more up-in-the-air; there’s a strong argument to say that the people paying for the music to exist should own it, and therefore rights should belong to the production company, but there’s an equally strong one to say that as the people actually making it, the rights should sit with the composer and orchestrators. Add in the fact that the production company may have multiple investors providing the funds for each individual film, and that a film might never use the entirety of a track in full that the composer records, and you have a potentially messy situation. To attempt to simplify it for our purposes, though, there are two general options when it comes to the ongoing rights of film soundtrack recordings, and you can split them fairly cleanly (as much as that word can ever apply to rights conflicts) along budgetary lines.

Option 1 – The composer keeps the rights, and grants the filmmakers a perpetual licence to use the tracks. This is usually the option used in budget-conscious filmmaking; it allows the composer to provide a cheaper up-front cost for their services, relying on backend royalties from the usage of the recordings to make up a greater windfall over time, whilst the filmmaker can use the tracks without having to pay extra money for licensing. However, it’s also the more limited option for the filmmaker; unless you’ve negotiated otherwise, the licence you’re given will usually only cover usage in the specific film the tracks were created for. You’ll have no right to modify, edit or use the tracks in any other capacity than in that one film. And if your film does pull a Star Wars and has the soundtrack take on a life of its own? Tough luck, you’ve not got rights to any of that revenue.

Option 2 – The production company acquires the rights, and compensates the composer accordingly. This option is normally only available if you’ve got big-budget bucks to play with, as you’re asking the composer to sacrifice income in the future for income now. When you buy out the rights from the composer, you’re acquiring ownership of the recordings; you can decide where they’re played, how they’re used, if they’re uploaded to streaming platforms or not. They’re yours to keep, and yours to earn money from, and the composer has to sacrifice those opportunities – so in order to make such a deal worth their while, you’ll have to compensate them more up-front than they think the tracks might earn over the long-term. It’s a bit of a risky proposition for the filmmaker, hence why it’s usually an option only taken by the big film companies who’ve got the cash to burn and longevity to ensure they’ll be able to exploit tracks for the full duration of their copyright, but if you’ve got a particular penchant for ensuring you’ve got full control over what you’re paying for, it’s there for you!

Now, these aren’t hard-and-fast, unmodifiable options; like we said, there’s no real precedent when it comes to score rights, and you’ll find filmmakers and composers mixing-and-matching shares of recording rights in various different ways. But as long as you’re aware of the two extremes, you’ll find it a lot easier to establish your comfortable middle ground when you’re in negotiations to make your film sound like it’s meant to.

Et voila! Some key points you should really be aware of when it comes to engaging, negotiating and working with composers and film soundtrack creators. We’re not going to pretend that this is by any means an exhaustive list of elements; just like every other part of filmmaking, making the soundtrack is a custom process that’ll vary substantially from film to film, and you’ll learn far more from getting out there and getting one made than you ever will from a single blog article. But, with the knowledge we’ve given you here, we hope you’ll have a much steadier footing to put your best foot forward when you do!

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