Top ten soundtrack, score and music mistakes made by filmmakers

Over the past days, a few people have asked for various things from my first movie and ‘baptism of fire’, ‘The Runner’ – photos, DVDs and the soundtrack. I shared the soundtrack on SoundCloud (above) and it got me thinking about what I learned about music on that first feature film. Here are my thoughts…. Why not listen to the score as you read?

    And so it follows that the composer is a key crew member – I would say their contribution ranks alongside the screenwriter, editor, DP, designer. In some instances, even greater. And yet so many filmmakers leave this key relationship to the very end, sometimes even sending off their film for ‘some music’ and having little or no relationship with the composer. This blows my mind! Work as hard with your composer as you would your casting director to get the best actors for your film.
  • The music gets mixed too high
    In the final edit of many films I see from new filmmakers, the music is mixed to loud, or it’s too ‘bright’ in the soundtrack. This can often drown out the dialogue and sound effects, dominating the film. There will be moments where the music should soar and take center stage, but this choose theses moment carefully. As a general rule, take the level of the music down a bit in the entire soundtrack.
  • There’s too much music
    It’s a sign of an insecure filmmaker when there is wall to wall music (aside from action movies or where the story calls for it). The way it usually works on a low budget film is this – you do a cut of a scene, it’s not great because of script, acting, sound, editing problems, but adding music seems to add a lovely sheen. You move onto the next scene and you do the same. By the end you have a 90 minute film with 88 minutes of music! If there is too much music, the brain starts to filter it out and it quickly just becomes a noise, like wallpaper. Choose your music cues carefully.
  • Don’t fight with sound effects
    I learned this very important lesson on The Runner when we had a crescendo of music at the same time as an explosion. In the final dub, the mixer turned to me and said ‘which do you want?’ as mixing the two sounded mushy. In the end we had to do just that, but it made for an underwhelming moment. On the flipside, there is a spectacular highfall in the film, performed by the late great Terry Forrestal – in the mix Mark, the editor had asked us to leave that moment silent – all we would hear is the gun shots and wind – and it was extremely effective too. Taking the score out in a moment that on many levels cried out for music, only emphasised the drama of the sequence and avoided pushing it over into melodrama (listen to track 8, ‘Highfall’).
  • Use Sound Effects instead
    Does the scene need music? The combination of sound effects, foley and atmospheres can be extremely effective and often, is more effective than music. Allow your sound designer these calms before the musical storm. Consider… the first half of the attack on the Death Star in Star Wars has no music, nor does the scene with Ripley fighting the Queen alien in the climax to Aliens – what we have respectively is just Ben Burtts excellent sound design in Star Wars and in Aliens, motors whirring, hissing aliens and a screaming Ripley. These are creative choices to reign in the music so that when it’s needed, it can come in strong and take the drama up another notch.
  • Have a theme and use it
    Even in major movies I am often amazed how I can come away and have no memory of the score. When I leave the theatre, I should be humming a theme, or it should be haunting my subconscious. Think almost anything by John Williams, or John Carpenters ‘Halloween’, or Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard on ‘Gladiator’… All are memorable and immediately recognisable scores. I tried to do this with The Runner – you can hear the main theme most clearly, the one that repeats throughout the score, in the track ‘The Island’ (3) where in the story, the team get choppered onto the mysterious Survival Island.
  • Don’t let the composer go crazy
    Often a simple drone is enough for a scene, or no music at all – without input, some composers want to compose an opus EVERY sequence. And who can blame them? They are often under appreciated, under resourced, under paid and up against stiff competition. New composers especially find it hard to reign in their creativity. The score should always underscore and support the drama – on rare occasions it can dominate, but even then it’s really supporting the emotion of what’s going on in the mind of the audience. If your Spidey senses start tingling that you may be getting too much music, or music that is too complicated or ‘big’, step in and have a word.
  • Don’t fall in love with your temp music
    When you add some Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, James Newton Howard, to your movie, it can transform the experience. But… you know and I know that neither of us can use that temp music as we can’t afford it, nor can we afford the London Philharmonic! We are setting up ourselves up to fail. What usually happens is that the filmmakers fall in love with the multi million dollar score and when the composer gets onboard, there is nothing for them to add creatively – the film makers just say ‘copy this’. This happens on even the biggest movies – I saw ‘The Wolfman’ last night which had clearly been temp scored with the cracking  music for Coppolas ‘Dracula’ by Wojciech Kilar – even Danny Elfman who scored ‘The Wolfman’ seemed unable to escape the temp score the editors laid in during post production.
  • Don’t get music rights to use in festivals only
    This is a classic cock up – you temp score with a track from a band, who then allow you to buy (very cheaply) the rights to use it in your film but at festivals on;y. You screen at a festival, win some awards, and then sales agents, distributors and broadcasters start sniffing around – they have fallen in love with the soundtrack too by now. Then you drop the clanger. You only have festival rights for the music– you offer to change the music, but like you, they want the original soundtrack. And they won’t pay for it and you cant afford it. You are screwed.
  • Don’t leave it until the last minute
    You are just asking for long, painful nights of creative compromise. Music is probably the last major creative stage your film will enter – yes there is picture grading and sound mixing going on at the same time (which are both creative), but the music is a chance to really take your film to the next level and alter it’s character dramatically. It’s ironic then that most of the time, composers are given a pittance of budget (as the film went over budget), and very little time (as everyone said, ‘we will deal with this tomorrow’). Try and ring-fence your music budget and start working on the score as early as you can.

The soundtrack for The Runner was performed and recorded in our living room by Gary Pinder, using his synths and recorded to DAT. Both Genevieve and myself sat with him every minute of every day of every week while editor Mark Talbot Butler oversaw the sound track laying with Chris Dickens. I trusted Mark and Chris to sculpt and incredible acoustic world for the film and felt it was prudent to oversee the music score.

In the score you can hear heavy influences from Black Rain, Scarface, Blade Runner, Outland, even Rambo 3 – all of which were used in temp scoring the film. I was already a movie soundtrack nut and knew instinctively what each scene needed, after which I would whip out a cassette and we would watch a scene while also listening to a bit of Hans Zimmer or Jerry Goldsmith. Back then there was no way to sync temp music so it could only ever be used as inspiration (unlike today where you can lock that music to picture and fall in love with your temp score).

Good luck with your scores, and remember, start work early and keep it reigned in.

Onwards and upwards!

Chris Jones
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10 Responses to Top ten soundtrack, score and music mistakes made by filmmakers

  1. Mark Davies November 25, 2012 at 3:42 pm #

    Hi Chris,

    You’re bang on, there. I think, certainly for those starting out, there can be a tendency to over-concentrate on the visuals. What is cinema if not a huge visual feast? But, as you’ve said many times before, you will pay a price by losing focus on sound; ALL sound, not just the recorded dialogue on set, but all the magic that you layer on afterwards.

    It is, as you say, crazy not to place an equal measure of creative talent into the music you use than the other major parts. Unless, you’re not using any music at all.

    I love the use of a well-placed original song in a film. Just the other day I was watching Butch Cassidy on TV again and just love the bicycle scene over “Raindrops..” and the wordless ditty for the montage as they head South. That song completely popped out of the screen and left the film with an iconic moment that – let’s be honest – could have been inserted into ANY film! Bob Dylan’s Knocking On Heaven’s Door (though more a piece of music in the film) from Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid was just so RIGHT for the film. Of course, we can’t all get Burt Bacharach and Bob Dylan!

    Music can also date a film to death. Some so-so movies from the 80’s are practically unwatchable now because their soundtracks are SO 80’s you can’t get the image of leotards and headbands out of your head – and the film might be about a bank robbery! I think that’s an overlooked problem. On the other hand, if you are making a film that is NOT set in the present, then you can absolutely 100% nail your period by composing (though more importantly recording) music that reflects its time.

    But who on earth would have chanced their arm with a monotonous, hyper-synthesised tune for a film set in the early 20s? Chariots of Fire, anyone? WHAT an iconic cinema moment. Lifetime Achievement Award for Appreciation of Slow Motion.

    Best wishes

  2. Chris November 25, 2012 at 4:28 pm #

    The 80’s thing is interesting and I suspect the BAD movie scores are really just lazy scores. I hate 80’s music but my fave score of all time is still Blade Runner – Vangelis – it doesnt get more synthesisted than that. But when pop music of the era, and worse, the pop music style of producing, engineering and mixing entered the game, it went way down hill. Still, Beverly Hills Cop is still a classic!

  3. Mark Davies November 25, 2012 at 5:45 pm #

    Vangelis had a BIG hit there with those two films. I never saw “1492” but I was completely overawed with the theme. I heard it on the radio in some foreign corner and in my head all I could see was hordes of Soviet soldiers dying in slow motion! So, I suppose I fantasied correctly that it was film-related but could hardly have been more out with the setting!

    Power-vocaled rock on the one side, and those stabbing synthesizer power chords on the other, did for me re the 80s! Apart from the complete flight from reality that was the fight finale, I loved Rocky when it came out. I thought the theme was bang on, and the street acapella song they sued was bang on. I think I’m the only person I know who cannot stand either “Living in America” or “Eye of the Tiger” – both tunes that are now dredged up as Rocky “themes” when parodying or celebrating “Rockyhood” (pick yourself up, dust yourself down, and rise to the too-oop!).

    I think one of the very major issues that has had a negative impact on the use of songs properly IN a film or as an actual THEME (what about Ray Charles’ great In The Heat Of The Night and The Cincinatti Kid?) is that the ‘Soundtrack Album’ is a travesty. Top pop or diva bands selling tracks that are not in the film AT ALL – unless you DO actually sit through all seven minutes of the end credits where you can here these songs one after another in forty second bursts. When the mega corporations who own the major record labels start buying up the film studios though…

  4. Chris November 25, 2012 at 6:02 pm #

    We are in the whole art v commerce territory here. If someone can raise more production funds by having a boy band on the end credits, while I’d rather not, I would take that money. There are wheels within wheels where when studios and record labels are owned by the same company. As for Eye Of The Tiger, well… it’s still awesome on Guitar Hero on my X-Box!

    Right now though I think we are in a good place as production is decentralising and music makers and filmmakers are more collaborative that ever.

  5. Yashar Tavakoli November 26, 2012 at 1:49 am #

    Enjoyed your article very much. I am absolutely with you. When a movie is over-populated with music, no matter how good its score is, brain filters it out. That being said, I think perhaps there are a few exceptions. What comes to my mind right away is certain scores by Ennio Morricone.

    I am also with you about Blade Runner. Probably after that I place Chinatown by Jerry Goldsmith.

  6. Mark Davies November 26, 2012 at 9:24 am #

    Chris, I don’t know if I misread it somewhere or other, but I have it in my mind that you might have dabbled in playing in a band in the past? I have, so actual songs do often become more memorable for me, personally, when used in film. But how has your own personal taste (for want of a better word) in popular or melodic tunes, ie A Song, interfere with what you – as a Director clearly very much on top of what was being composed and produced – actually commission?
    I know that we are dealing with issues of affordability and that a couple of decades ago a keyboard-playing friend with a top-end model would have been a big asset. But, once you have the script (or, of course, maybe even before your idea has even had words put to paper) do YOU, personally, have a “sound” in your head ever? And, if so, does YOUR own personal favourite styles of music to listen to/dance to, affect your choice?
    By this I mean do you kind of still go with the genre? Certain styles of orchestral use tend to naturally fit in with certain films and scenes. Or do you ever listen/hear something in the car radio and immediately think WOW I like that sound the maracas/old Gretsch guitar/tom toms are doing?
    Is it all to do with money? I’ve been in a recording studio when it’s just a bunch of lads recording their instruments and I’ve been in a studio when there’s some top of the tree personnel producing exactly what they want. I must say it’s eye-opening when the latter can just say “We need ‘x’ in this track” and, whallop! they get an ‘x’ on the track.
    If you were making the equivalent of The Runner today, and you had exactly the budget you asked for – what would you have chosen to do music-wise?
    Maybe it’s not a fair question because it implies that I’m suggesting that your music choices were a compromise, and I’m not, but I AM interested in when you decide on the actual STYLE of the music type you use in your films. I mean, John Williams, or Jerry Goldsmith or Henry Mancini might not be the RIGHT choice for you every time, right?!

  7. Chris November 26, 2012 at 11:22 pm #

    Yes I was in a band. And I also write scripts to particular soundtracks. So White Angel was written to the score for ‘Silence Of The Lambs’. ‘Transplant’ to ‘Exorcism of Emily Rose’ and ‘Rocketboy’ to ‘Braveheart’. Just hearing that music now puts me into a Pavlovian state of writing.

  8. Gloo November 27, 2012 at 10:46 am #

    excellent piece, mr. jones.

    “[…] alter it’s character […]” — it’s “its”, not “it’s”.
    (damon lindelof’s early draft of his “prometheus” script is full of wrong “it’s”…)

  9. Mark Davies November 27, 2012 at 11:58 am #

    Thanks for that. Interesting.

    Well, I have to ask…guitar or bass? 🙂 Only the four strings for me! And lead vocals of course (we are talking about the need to perform, after all.)

  10. Michael November 27, 2012 at 1:30 pm #

    Thanks, great tips!!

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