5 tips to get (most of) your first cues approved

Someone very wise once said “well begun is half done”. When sending the first batch of cues to a director this is particularly true! A good start can ensure a smooth trip along the way. It will give everyone the impression you are the right person for the job and it will be difficult to change this perception. Alas, the opposite is also true! So how do you make sure that the first batch of cues is spot on, and get most of them approved? Here are 5 tips to help you make it happen:

1️⃣ Send multiple options per cue

A film maker is the captain of a movie. As such it would be wise to let her/him know you respect she/he has the final word on creative choices. At the same time as composer you should be able to bring your own ideas and expertise to the project. How do you make both happen?

When you work on your first batch of cues create two or more alternatives per cue. I am not talking about slightly different takes. You should try to give the director the choice between objectively different ideas. Make sure your options are all above your quality standards, this way you are in fact bringing your best art and vision(s) to the project while leaving the final choice to who is in charge.

If you are following the way of the Lean Composer you might think creating multiple options can make you waste too much time. Think again. You can still get a MVC (minimum viable cue) and present multiple options. As you’ll read below this strategy can even result in save time on the long run.

Added bonuses

  • Pushing yourself beyond your first intuition can sometimes result in amazing cues that you would have not created otherwise. It did happen to me with some of the most appreciated cues I have written.
  • Sometimes the options that are not selected still find their way to the heart of the director who might think of a different scene where those will work perfectly with little adjustments.
  • More than one option makes most humans more prone to approve than to reject. By shifting the focus from the question “does the submitted cue work?” to the question “which one of the submitted options works best” you will increase your chances of success.
  • You’ll gather more data. By assessing more than one option for a given scene, a director will explore in depth what the scene needs musically, this way you’ll get a sharper image of what needs to be fixed (if anything). I love when I get: “I’d like you to keep this from option A and that from option B”. Clear, easy and quick!

2️⃣ Mix

I do not advice to spend too much time perfecting the mix of the music in this stage. However, you should consider creating a good mix/balance between your music and the provided dialogues and sound effects. Aim for a result that can give the director a good idea of how everything will work together at the end of the process. You might nevertheless give the music 2 or 3 extra dBs to be sure it is easy to hear.

Automation

Keep the levels of dialogues and effects unchanged and only work on the music’s master fader. Don’t be afraid to automate fader movements. If you are sending files over for review export your music with the changes of volume. Remember this is only aimed at the submission process, you’ll get rid of this automation once the cue is approved and leave it to the mixing engineers to perform their magic.

Missing bits

Don’t forget to take into account eventual dialogue-lines/sound-effects that are still being produced and are not present in the current cut. While you compose the director might have received some of the missing sounds/dialogues and will play the music with those in. For example, there might be an explosion in the middle of a scene but no sound has yet been added. In such a situation keep in mind that the explosion sound will be rather loud and fill most of the frequency spectrum. Maybe you will want to raise the music level a bit. Or it might make more sense to leave more room and lower the level.

When the director will be reviewing the cues with you in your studio it could be a good idea to fill some of these empty areas yourself. It will help her/him to get a better sense of how the scene will flow once completed. Check FreeSound for an endless collection of great quality sound effects!

3️⃣ Send video clips

More and more often our cues undergo review without their composer being present in the room. On paper this can save time but it can also unleash a very dangerous enemy: wrongly synced music!

A second (or less) can turn the perfect cue into a train-wreck that will get your music rejected!

You can add as many fail-safes as you want (there is a timecode-related one in tip number 4) but the risk of wrongly synced tracks is always moderately high. So how do you make sure your music is put in the right place?

Send videoclips with the music, dialogues and sound effects burnt-in. The videoclips can be used as a reference to make sure the music has been synced correctly. In some cases they could be used as main platform to review your cues.

Therefore choose compression settings that allow you to contain the file-size while delivering a decent playback experience.

4️⃣ Adopt consistent naming conventions

With the constant evolution of editing software, today it is easier than ever making changes to a cut. The very concept of “locked picture” is in fact blurring away in the past. The modern composer must be able to adapt approved music to new cuts without too much effort and without being fussy about it. But with so many new cuts being generated it can be difficult to keep track what version of the film a particular music audio file was written for. Among other setbacks this can generate misunderstandings and frustration between departments…or get your music synced to the wrong cut when the director is ready to review it!

Getting a consistent and exhaustive naming convention for your files could save you from that. These are the bits of info I add on my file titles:

Cue number

There are a few standard conventions on how to name cues, learn more about it here.

Cue title

It is always good to give your cues a title as well as a number. When you approach the end of a project your can find yourself with 40+ cues. A title can help you quickly retrieve a particular cue.

Cue version

You should add version numbers to keep track of different options and revisions. In example if I send 3 options for a particular cue I’ll use the following version numbers: 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0. If then option 2 is selected but needs revisions I’ll call the first round of revision version 2.1 and so forth.

Timecode

You can add a file start timecode reference in your filename to be sure the music is synced correctly.

Cut name and date

You should add in your file names info about specific cuts of the movie. Usually cuts have version names, use those. Also check the cut’s date of creation and add that as well.

Project name and your initials

The last bit of info I usually include is an abbreviation of the project name and my initials. The former helps me keep track of files from old projects. The latter acts a bit as a watermark telling me at a glance whether or not I created a given file.

Let’s see what a file name would look like following this convention. Let’s pretend we are working on a TV show called The Wrong President (abbreviated TWP), the current cue number is 1M3 and its title is Election. This was the 3rd option you sent and has already gone through 3 rounds of revisions. The file starts at timecode 01:05:12:03 and it was conformed to the cut of the movie 32b dated december 12. This full paragraph of info nicely fits in the following compact file name: 1M3_Election_v.3.3_fs01051203_cut32b1212_TWP_GR.wav

5️⃣ Be patient

When you send cues to the director the wait for feedback can be nerve-racking to endure. There can be so many reasons for a director taking a long time before getting back to you. This means you should do your best in avoiding speculation. Just be patient.

Here is how to take failed deliveries and junk mail horror tales out from the equation:

  • Use WeTransfer. Once your files are downloaded you will receive an email to let you know and if sending up to 2GB the service is free!
  • Use email tracking technology. Quite a few mail-clients/web services just ask Google for “email tracking”.
  • Set a reminder after a sufficient number of days you sent the files (I rarely opt for less than a week). If you haven’t heard from the director it might be time for a super-polite, gentle reminder.

Be brave

There you have it. Now all it’s left is having faith in your skills. Be brave and hit that send button!


Originally published at Film Scoring Tips.