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At the November 16, 2005 meeting...
Film/Video Scoring
Making Music for the Movies

The Berklee College of Music Film Scoring Department hosted our November meeting in a session entitled, "Film/Video Scoring: Music for the Movies." About forty of us filled a packed classroom to hear Professor Eric Reasoner and Assistant Professor Richard Davis explain the process of taking a film with nothing more than raw dialogue and sound effects and enhancing it with an appropriate score. Can you imagine a major motion picture these days with anything less than several rousing themes? The process is both fascinating, yet somewhat arcane. As is the case in many fields these days, the latest digital technology has changed the way this industry works forever.

Reasoner and Davis cut their teeth in the 70's in Hollywood, working on major feature films and Television. They both go back to the days of the Moviola, when click tracks and 'temp' music were cobbled together on mag track film. The Moviola sitting in our classroom seemed a bit 'quaint' next to all of the computer equipment occupying the same end of the room.

Many of us were surprised to learn how late in the filmmaking process music is added-- as well as how little time is often allowed for composition, recording and post-production; even on films that have been in the picture editing stage for up to a year. Sometimes the entire job must be completed in just several weeks.

For the music folks, it all starts out with a video work print of the edited film with time code burn-in as well as other relevant data. Hopefully, the film is 'locked' at this point, meaning that nothing is supposed to change. This, however, is often only wishful thinking, Reasoner and Davis explained. There have even been instances where changes have been made while an orchestra is recording the score! When you consider that the orchestra has to play to a timing accuracy of three frames, you can just imagine the havoc wreaked by any changes at this critical and expensive stage!

Most films will need 'underscore', source music, and songs. Underscore is the more generic backround music that helps define a mood, aids transitions or moves a story along. Source music is any music that seems to be coming from the scene itself. This could include a radio playing, a scene with a jazz band, an actor humming a tune, and so on. Songs are often included for many reasons, some just plain financial. Richard Davis says a hit song from a successful motion picture can in some cases even cover the entire cost of producing the film! In Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves (1991), a film both Reasoner and Davis worked on, the Bryan Adams song, Everything I Do I Do For You, composed by Michael Kamen, a tune derived from one of the film's main themes, was somewhat gratuitously thrown into the credits at the end of the film. It ultimately netted its producers some 40-million dollars on its own!

Initially, all of the music requirements are filled with 'temp' music. This is drawn from every conceivable source known to the film editor: commercial CD's, previous scores for earlier films, just about anything the editor can get his or her hands on that seems appropriate. This musical proxy is edited and timed with just as much exacting precision and attention to detail as will ultimately the final original score. The editor must go through the long and tedious process of determining exactly where music is needed in the film. This is process is called 'spotting'. Cues and timings within cues are worked out to an accuracy of one-hundreth of a second. This is long and difficult work, even with the aid of computers.

This temp music affixed to a work print is seen and heard by the film's director, the composer and oftentimes, test audiences whose job it is to provide valuable feedback at a stage when changes in the film can still be made. There have been a few rare cases when even finished scores have been rejected. Alex North's completed score for Stanley Kubrick's 60's classic, 2001, A Space Odyssey, was tossed in favor of the 'temp' music. Not a single note of North's efforts were ever used in the finished film!

Finally, the film composer gets to write the final score. The composer does a detailed sketch of maybe 8 to 10 lines deep, representing the various instruments or sections of the orchestra. An orchestrator takes over from here and fleshes out the sketch into a completed score. At this point it is often initially recorded as electronic music using synthesizers that employ digitally sampled instruments, so that it may be heard in a simulation of its finished form. Once everything is approved it goes on to be recorded by a studio orchestra of some 60 to 104 skilled musicians who are so exceptional at sight reading a score--they can typically turn out a completed recording in just five or six takes with no rehearsal. Orchestra members hear a click track through headphones that helps to synchronize their playing. The orchestra is led by another highly skilled individual; a film conductor, who must watch the film being projected while directing the orchestra.

Finally, comes a long dubbing session, where all music, dialogue, and sound effects must join together to work as a whole. This is a stop and start process that can last some 15 hours or more. Assigning the channels for surround sound is worked out in this stage, also.. Groups of engineers and technicians sitting at a master audio console longer than many people's driveways all work in perfect synchrony to make it all happen.

For the sake of brevity, a few steps in the process have been left out or abridged, but by now you probably have a better appreciation for those whose names quickly roll by in the credits!

Our special thanks go to Professors Eric Reasoner, Assistant Professor Richard Davis and, of course, the Berklee College of Music.

Martin Feldman, Section Manager
SMPTE, NE Section

Posted: 27 November 2005
Bob Lamm, SMPTE/New England Newsletter/Web Page Editor