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Scoring independent film music

Ever wondered what goes into scoring film music? Is the music written during filming? Or is it all added after the film is finished? Regular OUPblog contributor Scott Huntington recently spoke with film composer Joe Kraemer about his compositional process, providing an inside look at what it’s like to score music for an independent film.

Scott Huntington: What’s your process of creation like?

Joe Kraemer: Ideally, I see the movie without any temp score, but these days, that is rare. [Director] Chris McQuarrie doesn’t like temp scores, so the two films I’ve done with him (The Way of the Gun, Jack Reacher) we skipped the temp process and I was able to work with a clean slate, so to speak.

I look at a scene, and based either on the cutting, the dialogue, or the rhythm of the scene, I find the spot where I believe music should come in. Then I roll on down until I think music should go out. I don’t use any hard and fast rules. A lot of it is based on feel.

Once I’ve decided where the music will start, I try and find the right tempo for the music, fast or slow. Next I consider the color of the music, light or dark, major or minor, brassy or strings, and so on. I continue on this path of binary decision-making until I reach a solution. If that solution doesn’t work, I work my way back and try something else, such as a faster tempo, a different color or a different instrumentation. Sometimes, I make decisions that don’t really have a logical explanation, but they just feel right. I like to refer to the scene in “Star Wars” where Ben Kenobi is cut down by Darth Vader, and John Williams scores the sequence with a sweeping version of Princess Leia’s Theme, because that theme has great sweep and scope, and Ben’s theme was more somber. His decision seems nonsensical from a logical point of view, but it’s right-on from an emotional point of view.

Scott Huntington: Have you seen changes in technology impact the way you score movies?

Joe Kraemer: Well, the AVID editing system has opened up the audio side of things for film editors completely. As a result, films are built with really well-edited temp scores right from the get-go. In the old days, a Moviola or a flat-bed had one or two tracks of sound, so the temp score was something that was laid in very bluntly, just to create a feeling or atmosphere, without it needing to be a definitive presentation. Now, the ability to edit the temp score to match the picture in minute detail has resulted in everyone accepting it as the baseline standard for the film. The editor cuts the scene to the temp, the director looks at the cut with the temp, right away the temp is now the point of comparison for the rest of the process. Even if the composer never sees the temp, he or she is competing with it. The composer’s music is evaluated as much for whether it matches the temp as whether it works for the scene in the first place.

What you end up with is the picture-editor making a lot of the decisions about the music before the composer even has a shot at bringing something of himself (or herself) to the table. That isn’t inherently bad, picture editors usually have great taste in music, but as a composer it can feel restrictive. Also, you end up with a lot of films sounding the same, because all the editors fall in love with the same piece of music at the same time. Case in point, for about 10 years after “American Beauty” came out, all I heard in temp scores was Tom Newman’s score for that movie. There are only so many ways one can reinvent piano chords over sustained string beds.

As far as the composing work itself, for me the computer-based paradigm has been a life-saver. From adjusting tempos to catch cuts, to mixing electronic sounds with acoustic sounds, computer-based composing has made it possible for me to make a living as a composer, even when films have had skimpy music budgets, because I can do all of the work myself. I don’t use an assistant; I don’t have a team of ghost-writers. I put all my time and effort into making the score as good as possible myself, within the means at my disposal. Technology makes that possible.

Favor-Poster (2)Scott Huntington: Describe the process of writing the music for Favor.

Joe Kraemer: The process starts as soon as the movie is over the first time I see it. I immediately begin thinking about different aspects of the score: what will the instrumentation be? What will the mood be? The tone?

Next comes a period of living with the film. If possible, I get a copy and watch it on repeat for a day or two in my studio while I update my software and do busy work, etc. Once I’ve seen the film a dozen times or so, it’s time to start composing in earnest.

At some point between seeing Favor the first time and getting my own copy to work from, I was swimming in the pool and doodling melodies in my head and I came up with a nice little tune I though would sound pretty on the cello. I made a mental note of it and filed it away in my noggin for some later use.

Some time later, as I sat down to begin writing the cues for Favor, I remembered that melody and found that on a piano, it had a cold sound that contrasted nicely with the beauty of the tune. This seemed to be appropriate for my needs, as I was writing a theme for a character that, rarely seen, hangs over the film like a specter. This contrast of cold and beauty felt right.

Next, I decided I needed some kind of musical “sound effect” to help with certain story elements I wanted the score to reinforce. This was the impetus behind what [director] Paul [Osborne] and I began to call the “Abby Stab”. It’s a sound of a hammer hitting an anvil that has been tweaked with a bunch of plugins. I used it whenever I wanted to audience to think of Abby, to be reminded of her fate, to keep her present in a scene even when she wasn’t there.

After that, it was mostly a task of assembling the music to match what Paul laid out in his temp score. Paul cuts his own films and I know from working with him the past that he is very particular about the way his temp interacts with the editing of the film, so I worked very hard to stay faithful to the way he would crescendo to a cut. That being said, there were major sequences where Paul had no temp score, but I added music because I thought it was an effective spot.

 is a percussionist specializing in marimba. He’s also a writer, reporter and blogger. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and son and does Internet marketing for WebpageFX in Harrisburg. Scott strives to play music whenever and wherever possible. Read his previous blog posts and follow him on Twitter at @SMHuntington.

Oxford Music Online is the gateway offering users the ability to access and cross-search multiple music reference resources in one location. With Grove Music Online as its cornerstone, Oxford Music Online also contains The Oxford Companion to Music, The Oxford Dictionary of Music, and The Encyclopedia of Popular Music.

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