3 Keys To Productive Director-Composer Collaborations
So it's your first time working with a composer and you're probably wondering, "How do I get what I need from them? What if I don't know how to articulate the way I want the music to sound? How do I communicate that to them?" When working with a composer, you'll develop many wonderful ideas that will eventually form the final edit of your film. However, along the way, you may find it difficult to express those ideas to the composer, especially if you aren't familiar with all the music lingo at first. Fear not though, for this article we'll talk about some basic approaches for good communication that will help you express your needs and maintain a healthy relationship with your composer.
#1 - ESTABLISHING CLEAR EXPECTATIONS ON BOTH SIDES
Every composer will have their strengths and weaknesses. It may be hard to assess in the beginning. Some may excel at orchestral music while others excel in electronic, minimalist music. Some may do well in comedy while others may do better in drama. In rare cases, some composers seem to be able to do it all! If you're not sure, take some time to listen to their reel and ask them if they have written the particular style of music that you're going for. They may not have practical experience on it but that doesn't mean they won't be good at it (and every composer needs their start somewhere). However, this will give you an idea on how to communicate with them. Now unless they bring it up first, it wouldn't be fair to ask them to write a synthy, Tron style cue if they mostly write things that sound like Lord of the Rings. Licensing a stock music track for a particular scene isn't uncommon and sometimes the composer won't mind if it saves them loads of time on something they aren't good at writing in the first place. However, make sure to communicate those decisions together and keep them in the loop throughout the post-production period.
#2 - CREATING A DEADLINE & SHARING SCHEDULES
Another important aspect is turnaround time. Meeting deadlines are stressful but it can be especially stressful for the composer when they are given mind-blowingly, quick deadlines. Some composers can work very fast, writing 10 minutes of music in a day, where as others may be only able to do 2-3 minutes. Of course this depends on the style of music. If you want quality work from your composer, be sure to ask them upfront how quickly they can write music so you can plan ahead how much time they need to finish the score.
While planning, work out a clear schedule between you and the composer and coordinate between the film editor or if you have one, the post-production supervisor. For example: Let's say you need the music delivered over to the re-recording (dubbing) mixer by June 1st. So, you'll need to review the first pass of music on May 23rd. Any revisions must be sent by May 27th, for a second pass and any final revisions requests. By that point, the composer will have the approved music ready by the final deadline. Having those clear deadline dates will help both the director and composer to communicate in well-thought out points that minimize any misunderstandings and reduce the amount of nitpicking that can go back and forth.
#3 - PROVIDING FEEDBACK & REVISIONS
It can be intimidating to give constructive criticism to your composer if you don't know how to describe the music. Not knowing music terminology (i.e. minor/major chords) isn't as important as knowing how to tell the composer the emotional needs of the music. A good example of this is saying, “this current track seems to be a little too happy for the scene, it should sound more frantic.”
Sometimes, it's more about telling them what works for you and what doesn't work in the music. When giving feedback to the composer, try to be specific and point out a moment in the music that is bugging you. If you say “this could use more bass,” then it could trigger in the mind of the composer, “does the bass line need to be louder in the mix or does it need more bass tones added in?” So be clear in what you want. Saying “I don't like this particular sound” isn't as helpful as saying “I don't like how bright and harsh that particular oboe sounds under the dialogue, can we replace that with something more discrete?”
What about showing examples to composers? It helps to use a reference track from a movie if you can't find words to describe what you're looking for. However, one side note... be careful with placeholder music (temp tracks) as you might get married to that particular track and can create a bit of tension when you're comparing the composer's track with the placeholder. At the very least, if you can't put your finger on what is bothering you, then try to bring that up to the composer and hopefully you will be able to pinpoint it together.
When it comes time for the composer to deliver the score, you will be close to the finish line. Music is one of the most powerful elements that can take your film to the next level. So in the end, it's all worth it to establish clear expectations, create deadlines, share schedules and provide constructive feedback during your revisions. Take these steps towards clear and effective communication between each other, and you'll soon find you have something that everyone can all be proud of.