Home > Regular Columns > Talking Heads: SCGNZ, 9 November 2015

Talking Heads: SCGNZ, 9 November 2015


Music in cinema at its best is a wonderful thing. A good score enhances the theme of a story; those relatable human experiences that linger in our memories after the intricacies of a plot are left behind at the theatre.

Because hearing is a secondary sense to vision for humans, when there are interesting things to look at (such as in a film) music and sound don’t get an audience’s primary attention and can sneak in under the radar. This lets a score enhance performances and imagery. Shots can actually look better with a good score because you feel differently about them.

Music in cinema at its worst can be completely unnecessary, clichéd and more of the same wallpaper sound. It can even distract and detract from the story.

So how do we create a score of the first kind? In many cases its success begins with effective communication between composer and director.

Earlier this year when I worked on the score for the Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War (a cinematic exhibition at Te Papa), Sir Richard Taylor began our conversation with “I’ve never directed music before, I’m not sure where to start.” It’s common for directors to feel like this because they have a limited understanding of harmony or synthesizers, or don’t know the Italian terms for moods and articulations. All these things are quite unnecessary for a director though as Richard proved by proceeding to deliver one of the most inspiring and poetically simple briefs I’ve ever had:

  • “I want you to write music that makes visitors feel as if they are no longer standing in Te Papa, but also neither are they transported through space and time to the shores of Gallipoli. We need to create an in-between space where visitors can look back through the mist and meet ghosts from our past”

This is brilliant on so many levels. Even before we spotted through the project we had a defined goal, and questions that drove the scoring process for the following six months. What does it feel like to meet ghosts? How do you create a mist with music? What does an in between space feel like?

More so than directing an editor or technician, Richard spoke as he would to an actor – setting a challenge for personal discovery. By discussing the project’s goals more abstractly and avoiding simplistic emotional briefs like ‘sad music/heroic music’ we were able to come up with some engaging questions that kept the project stimulating and pushing beyond the familiar.

This leads to three good questions to start a composer-director conversation:

What is the story about?
What is the theme, the underlying idea behind the plot that makes the story worth telling

What is the music for?
Does it need to carry a sense of time and place? Does it need to set tone, or to smooth a narrative progression without dictating emotion?

What should the audience feel?
There will be a whole journey of feelings that can be discussed in detail later, but what is the key one? What should people remember feeling after the story is finished?

As with most large-scale projects, my time with Richard for critique and discussion was limited. Spending an hour unpacking this initial brief and focusing on the end goal gave us a way to quickly assess the success of each piece of music as the project progressed. In this initial conversation we not only challenged ourselves to find something new, we saved time later.

The conversation that began the score for short film Judgment Tavern with director Dean Hewison, was different in that we had the luxury of time on our side. Dean lives around the corner from me and we enjoy drinking beer together, so this seemed like a good place to start our process.

Judgment Tavern is a dark fantasy film, a genre that has a strongly established musical identity at the moment (hi there, Game of Thrones). At the outset we decided that we wanted to create a score that fit the story, but that didn’t have the distracting quality of being too familiar and risk becoming badly dated.

We began our discussion with the same general questions: What is the story about? What is the music for? And, what should the audience feel?

The initial answers were easy; at its heart the story is about a coming of age, the music is for creating tension and enhancing the medieval setting, and the audience should feel tense. Tension seemed to be an important word, so we discussed that further and realized that it could actually mean a whole range of things. It could mean the feeling of having a weight in your stomach, knowing with certainty that something horrible is about to happen to a character that you love. It could mean the involuntary tightening of your limbs during a sequence that is particularly hard to watch. It could even mean the feeling of impending jubilation and racing heart as if you were on the verge of winning the lottery.

Each of these different ‘body feelings’ (more specific than emotions) became briefs, and from there I was able to experiment to come up with music that did this while sounding medieval. For an established genre, this was very liberating and we discovered some really surprising things that worked a treat, such as scraping saws, bowing springs, and getting orchestral musicians to abuse their instruments in all manner of ways.

A score can be a director’s secret weapon as it can glue together and enhance every other element of the production. There are as many ways of approaching the process of scoring a film as there are films, though the conversation between a director and a composer remains an important leaping off point for all of them. I encourage directors and composers to invest in ongoing relationships, to continue to build up a shared language together in order to discover new and exciting ways of approaching music in cinema.


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