Composing productions

No one will ever truly appreciate how much work goes into making a film except the actual filmmaker. A simple but rather depressing fact which filmmaker’s need to accept early on. You spend ages honing the script, storyboarding, working with actors, making creative decisions about the locations, costumes, shots, editing – half of which is only on-screen for a second, or in some cases not at all. Once the shoot is done – a handful of people think the final film is done and it just magically sprouts out of thin air (all snappily edited, colour corrected and sound mixed). If only!

This blog is a form of therapy for me, hopefully I’ll sit down in years to come and remind myself how I spent hours agonising over the smallest details. These are details which most people will never notice or appreciate. They are vital for the story, but will cost an unbelievable amount of time, effort and energy to work through. To add insult to injury the audience will highlight a completely new range of issues (usually even larger) which have been over-looked. It can drive you insane thinking about it!

Well, it appears I’m about to step through this whole cycle again with Etiquette, albeit thankfully on a much smaller scale than with Gardening and other crimes. This is really just an exercise in sharpening up and expanding my film-making skills which I haven’t really been using to great effect recently.

I’ve just taken Dan Collier’s original script and adapted it. What I found interesting is how the original script differed from the final production. I actually happen to think some of the creative choices made during the shoot greatly benefited it. Therefore I’ve made the decision to keep things closer to the filmed version for now. I’ve also added a couple of small tweaks, I always like to have some additional input into the script no matter how small. Whether or not these changes work remain to be seen.

Sherilee (producer) has seen the script and we are both preparing ourselves to go off on the pre-production hamster wheel. We have planned a production meeting next week where the agenda will cover the usual pre-production topics (eg. who, when, how and where) including:

  1. Script thoughts/changes. The goal of this will be to remove anything which doesn’t work or isn’t needed and keep the production as simplistic as possible.
  2. Casting (there are seven characters in the script). We will need to fill these somehow.
  3. Crew members. Part of this is deciding how we will film the project and therefore what skills we need. Hopefully being a smaller production, the crew size will also be small but flexible. We need to find people to do these roles (eg. DoP, camera operators, lighting, sound recording, make-up, continuity, runners, catering etc).
  4. A list of equipment needed to make the film.
  5. Scheduling when we are planning to shoot (still in flux, part of this comes down to the availability of cast, crew. It might also come down to locations or equipment availability too).
  6. Locations. Most of the film can hopefully be handled in one location, moving a film-team around can eat up a surprising amount of time. I found this out the hard way on Gardening. The opening scene was set one house, but we ended up using four different locations for the various parts of the house (one for the front door/stairs, one for the bathroom (a scene we ultimately cut), one for the kitchen/bedroom and another for a kitchen scene). Logistically I’m very keen to avoid that this time around.
  7. Props list and where we plan to source them. This is also likely to cover the costumes which are required for the characters. Actor input will no doubt affect some of these decisions further down the line.

For the meeting I’m also in the process of creating some rough storyboards from Dan’s version to give Sherilee a visual idea of what we need to achieve. I suspect the final storyboards will end up being quite different, but this is a great starting point for now.

Etiquette storyboard example

Etiquette storyboarding

To be honest making a film can be a lot like writing music: there are many elements which need to come together, in the correct tone, in some semblance of order at the right time with many potential creative paths which lead to completion.

For the next part of this blog entry I am going to share the basic musical process travelled to create the recent Etiquette tune. As quoted in an earlier post. the track took 30 minutes or so to assemble and features only a handful of instruments (making it one of my less complex tunes). Because it isn’t a complex piece it is easier to show how things fit together. I found using a small number of instruments liberating, a throwback to my early days using a 4 channel Soundtracker sequencer on the Amiga – which is how I originally started to compose tracks, one or two of which I’d rather forget 🙂

So what did I use to create the track? Firstly there is the sequencing/recording software itself  for which I am using an older version of Cakewalk Sonar. I’ll be honest and say I don’t find this version the most intuitive package ever – but it does the job. The keyboard is a M-Audio keystation 88ES, for the price you can’t argue but it’s not exactly what you could call a compact (it takes out most of my room). For the sound library I’m using the East West Quantum Leap Complete Composers Collection set (in particular the Symphonic Orchestra Gold instruments, which is because I love orchestral scores). This library (which is to be fair awesome) is a complete monster and takes up over half my hard-drive. I now see it’s sold on a dedicated hard-drive which makes sense, it took me a whole day to install it from DVDs!).

Now that I have my tools, all I need to do is write the tune!

The first thing I try to do is establish the tone and character of the piece. This initially is in terms of the instruments I plan to use and it turns out to be one of the most time consuming/difficult parts of the process. I tend to have a lot of instruments at this stage whilst I experiment, but always add a piano for identifying melodies and chords. Once I have identified my orchestral palette, I start to colour in (which is the fun bit). Click on the links to hear how things build up to the final track!

01. Setting the tone – Pizzicato Strings
For Etiquette, I started with Pizzicato (plucked) strings, which had a snappy but almost comical urgency about them. The first thing composed was the low backing for the track which set a nice tone which I could form a melody over.  I play everything in live on keyboard. This does tend to mean that the timing isn’t going to be 100% perfect, but it lends a human element which I really like.

02. Adding some awkwardness – Tuba
Pizzicato strings were a good start, but it didn’t feel like we were fully there yet. To finish the backing off I wanted to compliment these with the backing of a Tuba. For some reason I was always going to use a Tuba as I envisaged the Etiquette tune to have some oompa-loompa elements. I also wanted to experiment with the timings so that there was some sense of awkwardness timing-wise against the Pizzicato backing – which is in keeping with the main character.

03. Pizzicato and Tuba combo
On its own the Tuba sounds rather awkward, but with the Pizzicato’s added in it, the tune still flows musically. So we now have our backing.

04. The catchy part – Marimba
So now comes the difficult part, coming up with a catchy melody. For this I used a Marimba. This kept melody playful, light and also seemed to give the piece a Thomas Newman American Beauty feel.

05. Pizzicato, Tuba and Marimba
When added together you can hear that the tune is more or less there now.

06. Adding bounce – Harp
Despite this fact something is missing, for this I added a harp. This is to give the tune an extra flutter of energy which it was otherwise lacking.

07. Pizzicato, Tuba, Marimba and Harp
The tune is now slightly more dynamic and the harp compliments the Pizzicato strings in particular.

08. Adding the finishing touch – Alto Flute
This is merely some cosmetic sprinkling on top. The alto-flute isn’t strictly necessary, but it gave the tune an extra human touch when doubled up with the marimba. Unlike the other instruments I had to get the emotion of the flute just right (if played flat it lacks depth and therefore feels artificial and lifeless).

09. Et voilĂ 
The final piece all together! Again, like post-production – this isn’t exactly where the process ends (even if my blog entry does). The piece will then need to mixing correctly into the final track.I won’t go through this process here, as it’s mostly a case of experimenting.

I think that is enough from me for this time, but I’ll aim to keep you posted on how the production meeting goes next week.


2 responses to “Composing productions

  1. Wowza, those storyboard sketches look legit! I always wondered how I’d manage to get nicely done storyboard sketch thingies. I wanna be a film maker, and after reading this blog… I think I absorbed some of that stress you may be dealing with x.x.. However, as stressful as film may be I still get so inspired everytime I see a new trailer or a blog like this and for that I thank you.

  2. Pingback: Finishing touches | Ferny films

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