Bridging the Gap Between Film & Music

Every filmmaker knows the value of what a soundscape adds to their film. Achieving that perfect balance is often the challenging part. As a film composer who has seen both sides of the creative process, it makes for an interesting point of view.

The Composer/Music Should Serve the Film

Music and film are really different animals if you think about it. Even the most experimental music is bound by some sort of meter, a fluid tempo that must keep beating for the music to continue. Film, on the other hand, can be both abrupt and fluid, a tempo unique to each edit.

This can cause problems when the two have to work seamlessly together.

As a film composer, I often have to be willing to serve the vision of the director. The music serves the story. This compromise is a double-edged sword. The director doesn’t need a “yes” man, he needs someone that cares about the story as much as he does. Someone who cares enough about the story to point out ways to make it better. But also someone willing to scrap a piece of great music for an even greater story.

There’s no doubt that the director should have the final say on the creative decisions. But a good director knows when he’s wrong and is willing to listen when he is. It is a composer’s job to serve the final product and choose their battles for the greater good.

Make the Composer Part of the Story-Telling Team

For years I’ve worked closely with my brother, a director/writer. When we’re working together on a project, my work begins long before production. That’s the beauty of being a part of the story itself. That means that musical motifs are coming up during the script-writing process itself.

Now, fast-forward to post-production. When I see the story playing out before me, the music is just an extension of it. It’s not easy to make cuts or tempo changes but if the end result is better, that’s my goal. That’s because I see myself as a story-teller foremost.

It’s a director’s job to make their composer feel like a story-teller. The director needs to realize there are others telling this story with him. If the vision of the story isn’t clearly communicated, the music will be self-serving at best. This weakens the story both are trying to tell.

What This Looks Like

Recently I worked on a project for TV with a director I’ve worked with before. I know every time I work with him he will push me to things I wouldn’t naturally do as a composer. This time was no different.

He wanted multiple builds at very specific times that required a changing tempo. I knew I’d be working with live instruments as well, so I knew it would be a challenge. But he showed me the footage with timecode, he gave me context. The story behind it.

Instead of just sending me specific sections that needed scoring, he would send extra footage just to give me context. I was part of his story-telling team.

Because of this I was able to create a recurring theme that I could weave throughout various scenes. I could create a soundscape that told one cohesive story instead of scattered musical cues.

We finally came to the finale of the project, the last cue I would work on. The timing on the edit kept changing and because of it the main crescendo kept changing.

After some frustrating phone conversations I became more honest with him.

“What if you let me write this music and wherever that finale hits we can move the edit. I’ll try to hit as close to the current finale as possible. Just give me a little leeway.”

I wouldn’t have been confident enough to say this if I hadn’t understood the story he was telling.

He thought about it a bit, talked to the editor.

“Ok. Just try to get close and we can move our edit to match.”

Both of us were happy with the result, including the producers who had the final say. But this compromise would never have happened if he wasn’t willing to share his story with me and let me be part of the story-telling team. Empower your team to tell the story with you.

Story First.

The goal of a film composer should never be to draw attention to their music but rather to the story being told. This doesn’t mean that music won’t be beautiful, it just means you use that beauty in different ways. Story first.

What if the director lived by this same principle when working with their creative team? Story first.

This would mean everyone is on the same page with the story you are telling. Whether it’s an ad or a feature film, this story needs to be clear. If you look at it that way, everyone is serving the story. The composer is telling it with sound.

Matthew Morgan writes music for films, tv and ads. Keep up with his projects and listen to his music here.