Purse Strings

I am not ashamed to admit that I am a big fan of film-teaching guru Chris Jones. Not only is he willing to share his wealth of film-making experience, he has a rare candid honesty making him extremely affable. Recently he posted two blog entries about film music, which as you may know is a subject close to my own heart.

I found the latest one about hiring an orchestra an absolutely fascinating tale. I applaud both Chris for promoting it and Josephine Halbert for getting out there, doing it, sharing the experience and listing the steps. Perhaps I am also experiencing a bit of Macedonian fever after watching The Third Half.

The second post was Chris’ notes to composers. This one I found interesting and I agree with the majority of his advice, but some of this is also down to the personal taste of the director. I would agree that small is often more beautiful. It can be argued too many people are overloading their music and trying to make everything sound like over-dramatic trailer music/Hans Zimmer.  Even I have recently fallen foul of this (albeit intentionally).

But the problem is that music tends to be one of the most subjective things on the planet, along with humour. If I asked everyone reading this post who their favourite band or composer was, would we all pick the same?

In terms of music, I don’t claim to be an expert. The majority of music I compose, I do out of love and it’s usually tailored to my own musical tastes. I play by ear, I have no musical training – but I love composing. I tend to approach film-composing slightly differently. I try hard to raise the bar with this work. It has to fit, be thematic, a character in its own right. This is important to me.

This passion all stems from my very first film. I had an excellent score written for it, one which worked fine. Yet something was niggling away at me. It was technically extremely accomplished, but it was synthetic, cold and clinical – which it could be argued DID suit the visuals accompanying the film. But I really wanted to give the film more heart. By this point the composer (who was an established games composer) had run out of time to change things with other projects piling up in the background. He composed the score as a favour. It was at this point I decided to buy a Midi keyboard, a DAW, research, acquire some virtual instrument libraries and get to work. To be honest I’ve never looked back.


The score was composed within a week. I probably didn’t sleep much that week, I was probably completely unbearable to be around – but hey – I was ecstatic with the result. Sure, it was lacking some of the technical finesse which the original score had, but mixing synthetic sounds with traditional orchestral ones  gave the film the heart I was seeking. Next came the important part – testing both scores on people. I didn’t tell people anything about them, so it was an amazing feeling when the majority went with the more traditional score over the synthetic one. Of course, some did like the other score, which is also absolutely fine also. Subjective! It’s interesting how both scores work in different ways – such is the power of music in film. There is a blu-ray with both scores on and it which makes for an interesting “extra” on the disc.

The other score I feel particularly proud of is Legacy. As the film is about an abused childhood, I wanted to invoke certain tones. It had to cover a range of different character emotions. I sourced instruments that I felt supported the piece. For internalising I’d use weird electronic ambiences. I used a music box instrument and whirly tubes (which gave things a really nice eerie atmosphere) to symbolise a childhood crumbling away. There are some singing glasses which are used to bring out the brittle and fragile nature of the main character. There are some tender flutes, soft pianos, strings and a basic “ahhh” choir to add a little more warm backing. This isn’t the entire picture – but here are some end credits to give you a bit of a taster:

Anyway, enough about me banging on about this. Essentially I believe there are no rules between traditional and synthetic. I don’t see any reason of using one over the other, or both – so long as it is true to the tone of the film. Here are a few comments (also arguable subjective) which I’d like to add being as I have seen both side of the equation:

1. As a director if you are able to compose yourself,  why not go for it? Not only is it great fun – you can also make sure you get the results required and hit the moments you wanted. Need convincing? Well John Carpenter, Robert Rodriguez, Clint Eastwood, Alejandro Amenábar, Dario Argento and David Lynch all have done this! Composing and editing can also go extremely well together also, such as John Ottman (Usual Suspects, X-men 2).

2. Make sure the musical tone fits the work in question. This is fundamental! I would say that I spend more time finding the correct tone and spotting than I do composing. The mock-ups happen generally quite quickly. I then spend quite a bit of time tweaking things to make sure they sound right after this.

3. Composers should keep it clean, there is a tendency to over-complicate. Experiment by all means, but a bit of nicely placed subtly and restraint will go a lot further than over-orchestrating or trying to be clever with the “whistles and bells”. Don’t try *too* hard! It should be organic and natural. You know when it happens.

4. Make sure everyone is aware of rights. One of the good things about getting a solo composer who uses sound libraries and a keyboard to compose is that the rights are likely to be significantly less tiresome, expensive and time-consuming.

5. As already said, music can be extremely subjective. Ask me how you think one scene should be scored, I will give you one answer. If you ask another director, you will probably get an entirely different view.

6. Obviously every film-maker/composer wants to work with an orchestra, just like every director/DOP wants to work with the best equipment they can obtain. This is only natural. If you can afford to get an orchestra, fine – go off get an orchestra.  The costs will vary depending on how much music you have and where you are recording it (most probably in the £4K-20K bracket). It will sound better with greater nuance. And yes, you will get the buzz of seeing the orchestra perform music live to your film in a recording studio. But also consider these simple realities:

i) Chances are your film will struggle to be profitable. If it is, that’s brilliant, thanks for reading my blog, hire me next time and I’ll happily do the orchestra thing for you! 🙂 Most indie film-makers can’t really afford this luxury. You can definitely get a professional sounding midi soundtrack for significantly less. And I mean significantly! There is an overwhelming amount of talent out there, people willing to prove themselves. This will save you money which you can spend on other areas of the production (eg. promotion).

ii) Seasoned professionals might be able to tell the difference between a live orchestra and a midi keyboard. But the gap is closing and things are becoming more convincing as time progresses. The bottom line is that this music will likely be mixed down anyway and when done well – the audience can’t tell the difference, plus they won’t care either! Simply put, a good score is a good score. And a bad score is far more likely to be noticeable than a good one, unless your name is John Williams! 🙂

iii) You could still use a handful of live performances to add more depth to a midi track. This is almost certainly going to work out cheaper than organising an entire orchestral ensemble. Some virtual instruments work better synthetically than others. Strings tend to work well, brass can be trickier.

iv) Time is money. Composing on a keyboard is a lot quicker. You have less people to deal with. The scoring part has probably been left to the last moment. Any last-minute changes are far more likely to be accommodated!

Right – I now feel the need to tickle the ivories (okay – it’s a synth), so watch this space! And if you need a composer for your production for a reasonable rate send me an email… 🙂

Meanwhile if there are any potential film-makers out there who might be sitting on the fence as to whether to attend Chris’ next Masterclass – just do it! It will be some of the most worthwhile  money you’ll ever spend. You will meet fantastic people. You will learn lots. You will come away shattered. You will be inspired.

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