An Introduction To Film Scoring Part 2

Posted by Aaron Davison on Wednesday, August 15, 2012 Under: August 2012

Today’s post is another guest post from the composer Dave Merson Hess.  In case you missed Dave’s first post about film scoring, go back and read it here.   Dave has over ten years of experience scoring both indie and feature films and in this post Dave discusses some of the common misconceptions that deter artists from entering the world of film scoring.

Dave and I recently created a course together called “An Indie Musician’s Guide To Film Scoring” which I’ll have more details about later this week. 

In the meantime, here’s Dave’s post….

I thought I would spend my follow-up post on indie film scoring refuting some common complaints/justifications I hear from people I've met who are interested in jumping into film scoring but have decided that it's something they'll have to postpone until some vague and undefined point in the future because they've convinved themselves that it isn't logistically possible for them to begin right now.


1. "I don't have the right gear."

This is a big one. If you think not having the right gear is keeping you from scoring films, think again. I scored my first feature gig (the Drifter Pictures sci-fi/thriller PRESENCE) using a borrowed 6-year-old Windows XP-based desktop computer alongside a half-broken Line 6 POD 2.0 ($80 on Ebay), a Hondo Les Paul copy with a loose neck bolt that wouldn't intonate properly ($100 on Ebay), a basic copy of FL Studio Fruity Edition ($99), a seriously outdated version of Sony Acid Style ($30), earbud headphones from Walgreen's ($10), a plastic computer boom mic from Radio Shack ($10), Audacity (free) and a slew of freeware VST plugins and SF2s. At that point, I had been involved in DIY/budget home recording for nine years, so I had a ton of tricks up my sleeve. But even so, the gear I used and the monetary investment required to get it together was minimal relative to what you might imagine. To hear some of the music from that project, see Is this a little rough around the edges? Yes. But it made an affective score nonetheless.


The lesson? Never underestimate what you can accomplish with your current recording setup. In a 2010 interview with Gearwire, Broken Social Scene's Andrew Whiteman pushed back against the idea that his enviable guitar sound is about the gear he uses: "I like to use a cheap guitar if possible, and then run it through a bunch of cheap effects... Not to offend any gearheads or anything, but you know it's's in your fingers, isn't it??" The most important question you can ask yourself about your gear before starting work on a gig is "am I capable of making the types of sounds I want to make?" If the answer is yes, you probably don't need to change anything. If the answer is "no", then begin to research the ways you could upgrade parts of your recording setup, or instruments, effects or plugins you could purchase to fill in gaps.


2. "My music doesn't sound like 'film music'."

A lot of film composers with formal composition training get into this field because it's one of the only ways that contemporary composers can write Romantic classical music and get to hear it played by an orchestra (or at the very least a large ensemble of classical musicians). And the Hollywood mainstream continues to employ a classical palette for its scores. But not all filmmakers are looking for a lush orchestral score -- especially not indie filmmakers. Embrace the fact that your music doesn't sound like other film music you've heard and go with that. The field is very, very crowded and you're not going to get gigs by sounding like everybody else. Rather than attempting to change what you do to match some vague idea you have about what film music "should" be, spend time developing your own voice. In the end, finding that voice is your best way to differentiate yourself. And any genre of music could potentially make an effective palette for scoring a film. Just understand that your customer pool may be self-selecting. For example, if you want to score sweeping historical epics, the producers behind those projects will most likely want orchestral scores because of genre conventions and audience expectations. If you want to score more experimental indie projects, or science fiction or horror films, then both the producers and the audiences will be open to a wider range of sonic possibilities and much more unconventional, non-traditional sounds. The history of sci-fi, horror and thriller films is full of unusual film scores. For two quick examples, check out self-taught composer John Murphy's score for Danny Boyle's "28 Days Later" or Clint Mansell's first score, for the Darren Aronofsky film "Pi". One of my favorite examples of an indie drama that successfully uses a completely atypical score is "Half Nelson", which uses music by Broken Social Scene as the soundtrack for most of the film. Does it sound like traditional "film music"? No. But it's extremely moving, and ultimately that is the goal of film music: to move audiences.


3. "I'm a songwriter, not a composer."

Though I have taken private lessons in composition, I'm not classically trained in the traditional "conservatory" sense and when I first started scoring films I had very little formal music training. To start, you should be capable of writing music that expresses specific emotions (ideally, isn't that what all songwriters do?). This may be offend some people, but I do *not* think you need to have formal composition training to start scoring films. I didn't compose on paper at all until I began working through Ron Gorow's "Hearing and Writing Music" a few years ago, and at that point I had already been scoring films on for a while (to be clear, I learned to read music when I was eight and had put scores to paper *after* writing using a software sequencer, but traditional composers write on paper to begin with and that is *not* a skill I started out with). Toward the beginning of Gorow's book, he asks you to take an inventory of your musical skills -- those you have down pat, those you don't have but want to have, and those you have but want to improve. The idea is that you exploit the skills you have now while building new ones and honing your overall craft. Making mistakes along the way is inevitable. It's a process, and if you want to make a career out of scoring films, you have to begin somewhere -- "all green things must grow."

In : August 2012 

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