Sean Staples

Scoring a film: This is how I do it

Posted on 2016-08-04

So I thought I would just share a little bit about how I typically address a new scoring project and what my process is. Honestly, I don’t really know how all of the other composers do it, but for me I have a process and I feel like it’s almost cathartic to share how that works for me and how I approach templates and creativity within the construct of motifing and general film composition when working on a film project. I want to preface this by saying, is that what works for me, might not work for you and likewise, not every film scoring experience is the same. You have to use the method that works best for you…this is just my standard process.

Pre-Screening Discussion (if possible)

It is very common to have an upfront discussion about the film or project with the director and or the visionary for the film. I normally like to understand the general idea and get some initial feedback from the director about the overall vision, before stepping into a first screening. Obviously sometimes the film has a temp track of music where the director has great (and sometimes not-so great) ideas musically for the film. The important thing for me is to make sure I hear the director’s input and make sure I’m delivering the type of score they are looking for. In my case, I’m an artist through and through, but I’m being hired and paid to fulfill the vision of someone who is paying me to do just that…so I like to take some creative freedoms, but I’m a hired gun and I try to keep that in front of mind at all times.

First Watch Notes and/or Spotting

Most of the time the director will want to sit and screen the film together. I look at this time as invaluable insight into the success of the project. Directors typically have a good eye for where music can and should start and stop, be loud and aggressive, or light and romantic etc. I typically will take notes for each scene and for me I’ll list them like “Scene 1: Meeting main character Susie”, “Scene 2: Flashback to Susie in the army”, etc. and so forth. If I’ve screened the film before the spotting session, I’ll make general notes and break the scene listing into “chapters” detailing what I feel is the first, second and third acts etc. just as general map markers for keeping track of the entire project as a whole. Believe me, when you get knee deep into a film musically, its nice to be able to go back to your notes and catch a glimpse of just where you are in the overall film. Once I’ve mapped out the scenes and had the director’s input, I screen he film again alone and put the film down for a bit and go into writing mode.

Project Template Prep

After I have all the information about the director’s vision musically, I like to go into that oh-so-enjoyable mode of simply writing what comes to me on the project. I’ll typically play with instruments and ambiances and try to find the sound I’ve envisioned and what the director is looking for. For me, I like the element of discovery musically. Sometimes this comes really fast and is super easy, and other times it’s like finding the only needle in a thousand haystacks. Not every one is the same. I don’t always go to a template when starting out, in fact most times I don’t use a template. If the director wants big orchestra, I have the template where I can go and start. If the director wants a very dark TV style feel, I have a temple for that…but often times I create a new template for each project using the unique instruments and sounds desired for that particular project. I will go through instruments and software for hours and hours playing and creating an entire “musical feel” for the project. Sometimes I’ll put down some basic ideas during this time in the way of melody etc, but mostly I try to find the overall “sound and feel” for the film during this exploratory stage. I don’t want to put anyone down out there who believes that templates are the solution to everything, because templates are extremely helpful tools, but I have a few that I use for complex orchestral stuff that I’ve built to help save me time when I know I need a really clean, fully spilled out and panned orchestra, but I like to start from scratch whenever I can. I feel like building a custom tailored temple for each project helps me personally find the project’s sound and keeps my inspiration as fresh as possible. I will spend a few hours playing with ambiences, sounds, instruments and ideas until I’ve found a pretty good starting point to begin actually scoring to film.

Write The Most Emotional & Pivotal Scene First

Once I’ve put together a template and I have the general feel musically, I will always go directly to the film’s most poignant or emotionally important scene and start there instead of at the beginning. I heard Mark Isham one time discuss this as how he used to do things. I always ask the director what that scene or pivotal point is in the film in their opinion to ensure we are both on the same page. I will then take and score this scene first and submit it back to the director for a first look. Some composers like to disappear with the film and come back with it all done. I don’t do that unless that is how the director wants it. Doing it that way is a big risk because if the director or the powers at be don’t like it, you’ve spent weeks or months working on your masterpiece only to learn that they don’t like what you wrote…that sucks and nobody wants that. So I will go back after that first very import scene is scored and get some director feedback. After some notes, I’ll go back and pretty much do this first scene back and forth with the director till everyone’s pretty happy. Now obviously I might not have a fully locked version at this point, and there still might be other things to uncover in the rest of the process that I might want to incorporate in that first scene, but by doing it this way I put the director and team at ease and I can then move into writing a suite of music for other characters and scenes that all have a cohesive feel that the director already has buy-in with.

Writing the music for the scenes and theme

For me, after I have that first pivotal scene scored, I then like to try and write a suite of music that carries that pivotal scene’s DNA. By using that main scene’s music that I scored (and most times without writing directly to picture), I write a suite of music that will work for different characters and emotional pivot points in the film previous discussed and understood. Sometimes its difficult to do this, but if you are trying to motif and use interleaving melodic strategy, I find its helpful to do it this way because it gives you an anchor construct upon which you can “hang” your other melodies and cues. After these are written, I’ll go back into the film and start placing them and writing supporting cues in and around these cues. I’ll adjust as needed, move things around and ultimately use things here and there to keep the overall “feel” musically throughout the film consistent. I personally love finding little things here and there and adding to the template the entire way through the process. Some composers are very methodical and structured, but by nature I am not that way. I am in love with romance of discovering things during the writing process and letting myself follow where the score takes me…this is the best part IMO!

The quick technical stuff

From a technical standpoint, I ask for the film in pieces (or reels). I typically ask for them to be cut in sections where no music will be present and I will drag those directly into my DAW and I’ll typically put them all into one session and score the entire film in within one Logic session. I’ve done it in multiple sessions before, but I’ve found it’s easiest for me to have them all in one session so that I can maintain all of the films master channel settings and keep instrument consistency through the project. Always, always, always, confirm what the framerate is for the project before you begin. If your framerate is off in your DAW from what the film is, you will have a huge timing problem…so check your session settings at the beginning before you begin writing and arnging to picture and make sure your director or whoever is giving you the video that you are scoring to the actual framerate of the project.

Notes and changes

You are going to get notes and requested changes…this is just a plain and simple reality as a film composer. It is very uncommon that you are working with a fully locked cut of the project. I always try to be ready, receptive and accommodating to making those changes…but I also try to sell my score to the director if I feel strongly. It’s honestly a reality of being a composer that your vision will be different than others at times…its finding that compromise that is critical and being open to collaborative creativity with your director, that will hopefully help get the best results (and paid if you are lucky).

This is just how I do it. I love to hear how others get the same results. I’m no expert, I’m no James Horner, Clint Mansell, or John Barry, but I’m very appreciative of this site and the forum to help share how I do things. I have spent an unbelievable amount of time trying to understand the details of this craft (and I’ve still got plenty to go), but if this in any way helps anyone here, it was worth the 2 hours I spent writing this! Thanks and I hope this post has been helpful to you!

7 thoughts on “Scoring a film: This is how I do it

  1. what I meant was ” precious time” not sweet time. Sorry

  2. Wow…this was a very great read. I, and I am most likely not the only one, really appreciate the time you`ve invested in writing this. That put a smile in my face. Obviously we all have a deep passion for this, but you took your sweet time to share your way of scoring with us. Thank you very much for taking the time. This helped me a lot, I need to really work on becoming more patient. I always want to jump right in, this opened my eyes..every now and then an eye opener at the right time….awesome. Thanks Sean

  3. Sean, thank you for writing this! It is really nice to get a peek into someone’s workflow and, more importantly to me, how they conceptualize their workflow. I’m still wrestling with the template thing, but I haven’t yet had to do a true orchestral mockup yet.

  4. Great blog post Sean! Very cool to learn about your process. Thanks for spending the two hours to write it!

  5. I am yet to start composing for movies, as I come from an Electronic Dance music background. My work in the past 8-9 years was strictly related to electronic music for parties and festivals and I am amazed that there are many similarities between our workflows, from having different templates for each project, to “discovering” new things with each new project. I am very grateful for this blog entry, it gave me a much needed insight into writing for picture, thank you very much!

  6. Thanks Sean for giving great insight into your process. I love how you wrote about creating a new template for the project. I love to do that too because it opens up so many possibilities for discovery. This is where I find you can begin to craft “the sound” of the project. Awesome post! Thanks again for writing this, it was very helpful for my creative process.

  7. This is very in depth. Thank you for making and sharing this!

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