From short to feature — Part 1: first ideas

One of the biggest struggles a composer meets when moving the first steps in this difficult but incredibly rewarding journey is to be entrusted with scoring her/his first long-form film. In a typical chicken-and-egg scenario until we have a feature film (or TV movie, or feature documentary) in our résumé no-one seems to take us seriously. If this seems all too familiar do not despair… With patience, perseverance, and a huge dose of networking you will eventually find yourself in the right place, at the right time. When this happens it would be good to be ready, so I’ve decided to start a new series to illustrate how we can use our experience in scoring short-films for our first long-form film. So, let’s start from the very beginning: organising our first ideas.

Reading the script

If you are reading this article chances are you have already gone through a few short-film scripts already. Then you know it generally doesn’t take very long to read one. With long-form it can be a drastically different story. You shouldn’t be intimidated by a 100+ pages and jump on them as soon as possible. Be prepared to organise your intuitions and to read the script multiple times if necessary.

Take notes

I recommend having a mean of taking notes at all time. You should write down any music-related feeling/idea that is triggered by specific characters or events. You should not outline a well-formed plan at this stage, think of it as crystallising half-formed ideas so that you can develop them later, once you have a clearer picture of the whole story.

Colour-coding

Another way to achieve the same is by using highlighters of different colours. By colour-coding your first impressions you can easily come back to them later and keep absorbing the story without excessive interruption. With each color you could record things like:

  • start (or end) of an underscore music cue
  • start (or end) of a diegetic music cue
  • a crescendo
  • a sync-point
  • anything else that comes to mind

Once you are through with your first read you should go back at the beginning and read the script again, this time developing a very rough plan. Using your notes as check-points try assessing how many themes you would like to create and to which characters/events you want to link these themes to. If you have specific ideas (such as what instrumentation to use in a specific point, or what kind of harmony, etc…) write them down as they might be great intuitions and help later on.

Completing this exercise has a dual benefit:

  1. It gives you a road-map that makes starting the work less terrifying.
  2. It allows you to form an idea of what shape the score will have (in terms of quantity and quality of the music).

If you have never read a script before this guide could be useful to identify and understand common conventions.

What if you don’t have a script?

There are times when you enter a projects that has very tight deadlines. In these cases you probably won’t have time to read a script. In fact, one might not be made available to you at all in these circumstances. This is true for short-films and features alike. In order to get to the next steps with a clear plan and a bunch of interesting ideas you have two options:

  1. Ask to get a copy of the film beforehand. Once in your hands do a similar exercise to what described in the previous section. Watch the film the first time and take quick notes (use the timecode as temporal reference). Don’t get too specific, remember, you want to crystallise half-formed ideas. Go through the movie a second time (or more if necessary) and expand your notes. You might find it useful to adopt the same colour-coding system described before.
  2. In case a copy of the film is not made available to you all is left is improvisation during the spotting session! As many other aspects of the film scoring process, this is a skill you can learn in time. The more you apply the aforementioned methods, the more you’ll be able to decode your instincts on the fly. After watching a scene for the first time you will have a good sense of what will work musically. With practice you won’t need more than one view to generate a mental scheme of the whole score.

Coming soon

Next week we are going to see how all this work will prove extremely useful when facing the next step: the spotting session. Be sure to check back this page for a link to that. We’d love to hear your stories on the topic. Please use the comment areas on our social pages or here, below the article!


Originally published at Film Scoring Tips.