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How To Write Music for Moving Pictures

Sci-Fi RomanceLook, right from the jump I’m going to own the fact that I’m not the guy with all the answers when it comes to scoring films, videos, and television. But as somebody who’s done it on a number of projects, and as a filmmaker who has hired composers, there’s some stuff I can talk about pretty confidently. So here are some thoughts on how to get into scoring films (of all lengths and means of distribution), and how to think about crafting that score when you do get the gig.

First, getting in:

Be Legitimate: There’s getting in, and then there’s, well, kinda sliding in sideways. When I was in college, I was visiting a friend who sings opera, and met another guy she was in school with, named Bear McCreary. He was studying at USC under Elmer Bernstein, who was the legendary film composer for movies like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Escape and Ghostbusters. A legend. I was totally amazed, and didn’t even know such a thing was possible. You can study with guys like that? In college? You’ve probably seen the name Bear McCreary on television since then – he’s one of the best that’s out there. So there’s that route. If you know that your greatest passion lies in film composition (or video game composition) and you can manage, there’s nothing like going after it in a formal setting, and in Los Angeles, at that.

But that’s not for everybody – and it wasn’t for me. So here’s the by-yer-bootstraps version. 

Be Industrious: Film work is rewarding, and something millions of people aspire to, in some form or another, so it’s crowded. Believe that anything you want to do, even carry lights around, there are dozens to hundreds to thousands of other people who want to do that as much or more than you do. So the advice they give to actors and writers and directors is the same I’ll give to composers: make your own stuff. If you can’t convince somebody to let you score their movie, make your own. Or mash up your own video like people do these days, and put your own music under it to somehow subvert the original meaning or intent. Make it, and put it out there. This is actually how I started writing music for film. I had directed a short film about Surrealism, and I’d literally found a harpsichord abandoned in a dark hallway, and I thought “These two things need to go together.” So I wrote a harpsichord piece for a short film, and that led to more stuff.

Be Friendly: I don’t blame anybody for not wanting to take the advice above. I have nothing but love for actor friends who aren’t getting the parts they want and so they create those parts for a web series, short film, or something else. But that takes somebody who’s at least a little bit of a polymath, and even then, balls will sometimes drop in ways that don’t best serve the end. So the easier route for some people is to seek out filmmakers, and make friends. If you’ve never scored anything before, it’s unlikely that somebody who is already making films at a high level is going to invite you onto a project (unless you’re already a high-profile musician people want to work with). So make friends with people that are at your own level, and grow your careers together. There are Meetups, and theater events, and underground film festivals chock full of filmmakers who are probably dying to tell their friends that they’ve lined up “a real composer” on their next project.

Congratulations! Now you have a project, and the piano is staring at you, making you feel small and out of your depth. What do you do?

Focus on Character: In film, everything comes down to character. This is true of every aspect from writing to editing to lighting design to costuming to camera moves to sound design. And it’s sure true of music. This can manifest in a leitmotif, which is the by-the-book traditional approach to scoring where a character actually has a piece of music that plays when they arrive onscreen, or are talked about, or what-have-you. How does the character change over the course of the story? Can that change be reflected in that leitmotif, or the character’s theme? Or is there an emotional current running through the scene, in how the characters are feeling or interacting with one another, that you can highlight? Is one of the characters being dishonest and so the music can highlight the subtext, rather than what’s being said on the surface? Ground the work in the character, and don’t be afraid to let the music have a point of view. Michael Giacchino, who composed the music for the reboot of Star Trek spoke about the importance of using an erhu for the Vulcan themes in that film, because the unique, unfamiliar sound of that instrument helped underscore that Spock was “other,” everywhere he went. That’s a bold, smart choice made in the music, in service of character.

Be Subversive: This is just my own two-cents. We’ve got a hundred+ years of movie music under our belt now, and people have pretty much heard it, unless you make the conscious choice to give them something new. Two of the most groundbreaking scores of the 2000s were Amelie and Requiem for a Dream. Accordions are more popular in France than in the States, sure, but when Amelie hit, the unique sound was one of the big reasons for that. Similarly, Requiem for a Dream told a story of addiction, poisoned ambitions, and disintegration, so Clint Mansell’s indelible score married the string work of the Kronos Quartet with electronic music, creating a hybrid that was both traditional and contemporary, and kept the audience off-balance and uneasy – in the best, most appropriate possible way. 

The feature film I just scored – a comedy about an over-confident, misguided superhero — was done entirely with a rock and roll score. Not songs, but an actual score (with leitmotifs, thematic evolution, all that), played with distorted guitars and basses, and big, boomy drums. It was the director’s ambition, and I thought it was a great choice I’d never heard before. I was happy to give it a shot, and the character and emotional moments and arcs discussed above, that’s what I was looking at the whole time to bring the work home.

Led by Vance Kotrla, Los Angeles indie-folk rockers Sci-Fi Romance blend elements of  The Honorary TitleNick Cave & The Bad Seeds, and Johnny Cash. Aside from his music endeavors in Sci-Fi Romance, Vance Kotrla is also a published author and cult film critic, which helped inspire the music video below. “I love 1950s ephemera, and found footage, and retro-futurism — what people of the past thought the future would look like — and this video was just a lucky opportunity to mix all those things,” Kotrla notes. “Now I can’t hear or play the song without thinking of the video. A happy accident, but I’ll take it.” Keep up with the band HERE.


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Angela Mastrogiacomo

Founder of Infectious Magazine & Muddy Paw Public Relations. Lover of passion, ice cream, and books.

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