Monday, 18 April 2011

Tip #68: Get a score tailored to your film

By Dan Parkes (Director)

While there is some very good production library material to choose from, absolutely nothing beats having a composer write music that is tailored to your film. Here are some reasons why:

1. Emotion
A favourite expression of mine is that 'music is shorthand in emotion.' While you have likely spent considerable time developing emotional arcs for your actors to perform, along emotionally dramatic story lines, it can actually take only one or two well selected notes of music to impart just as powerful an emotional impact. This subtle power of music to engage an audience emotionally by adding layers of depth to a scene should never be underestimated.

2. Themes/Characters
A tailor-made score can provide a unique theme for your film that can be used later in trailers and DVD menus. An identifiable main theme and minor themes for characters or plot points can help guide an audience on a journey through your story. The selection of a certain type of music or particular instrumentation can give your film an entirely different feel.

3. Pace
A score can help set and change the pace of the film -slower music for scenes that are gradually unfolding, faster music to quicken the pace for an action scene. While it may be easier to cut to library music, a composer can score it to match how it was filmed.

4. Cues
It is quite difficult if not impossible to use production library music for cues -for example dramatic cues that introduce surprise elements or that build for a reveal. A good composer can create cues for exact moments in the film, timed to fit precisely with the on-screen narrative.

5. Continuity
An underscore can also help create continuity, linking elements in a scene together which may otherwise seem disjointed.

6. Soundtrack album
With a strong tailored-made score for your film by a talented composer, you have the opportunity of also releasing a standalone soundtrack album.

There are many composers out there wanting an opportunity to show what they can do. However, there are some important things to look out for when finding an ideal composer for you film:

1. Film experience
What experience do they have writing music for an actual film? Being able to write a good piece of music is not a prerequisite for film scoring. Film soundtrack music is quite a different genre in its own right and a novice can often fall into common traps if lacking experience.

2. Subtlety
Soundtrack music needs to accompany not dominate a film. There are times when there should be no music at all. Or the music should hint at rather than tell an audience what is happening.

3. Genre
Has the composer ever written the kind of music that you are wanting for your particular film? While a composer who has experience writing techno dance music may want to broaden their horizons with something orchestral, you are taking a great risk if this is going to be their first foray into the genre.

3. Reliability
A composer is often brought in during the final post-production stage and can often only begin work once a rough cut of the film is coming together. Make sure your composer is both available and reliable enough to ensure you hit your final deadlines.

4. Communication
If you do not understand musical terminology you will need to find an effective means of communication. It is most important that this communication is clear from the beginning, as there is nothing worse than having a composer spends hours creating a score that you then have the painful process of explaining is not at all what you were wanting....

In the next blog we will look at the process of writing music for screen and how it works within the film's overall workflow.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Tip #67: Get excellent music from solo artists and bands

(Interview with musicians Phil and Joe Gooch)

Rather than the tedious and expensive method of trying to licence a famous music track for your film, why not look at using the just as good (and sometimes better) music from the many relatively unknown solo artists and bands out there. All you need to do is find a great track (e.g. on MySpace), ask, and then make sure they sign a waiver if they say yes. We interviewed London musicians Phil and Joe Gooch, whose solo and band music (as MellowSun) was used in the feature film Ambleton Delight, about why they said yes.

1. What kind of musical background do you have?

Phil Gooch: I learnt the cello up to the age of 17, then decided to teach myself the guitar. I played in a few bands at University, and have been dabbling in writing guitar music ever since!

Joe Gooch: I have had no formal training in singing or composition but that hasn't stopped me from singing in a variety of bands and writing songs since 1990. Since the late 90's I have been writing songs with my brother Phil in our acoustic band MellowSun. In 2004ish I started writing instrumentals.

Phil Gooch

2. How do you write/record music together?

Phil: Usually one of us will already have a basic chord structure that we want the other to contribute to: in my case, it would need lyrics, a melody and vocal parts, in Joe's case, he might want a guitar part. We tend to use Reason and Logic, and record and mix directly on the laptop.

Joe: Phil will play me what he's been working on. While I'm listening, I will start to get vocal line ideas. Phil will then record what he has come up with and I will take it away and work on the lyrics and possible structure ideas. We'll then get together and work through the track and make any adjustments.

3. What inspires you to write?

Phil: On my own, I might get inspired by an existing loop or drum pattern, and come up with a guitar part, or I might just be noodling on the guitar and develop it into an entire piece, or just a loop pattern.

Joe: When I write my instrumentals, I am fortunate enough to get a lot of song ideas, melodies and titles from dreams. When that happens, hopefully I will wake up soon enough after dreaming it to sing it into my phones voice recorder to work on it at a later date.

4. Why did you allow your music to be used in the film?

Phil: Mutual respect for each others' work really. Also, I was interested to see how the music I'd written might be used in a film: for example, how would someone else interpret it and decide which scenes a certain piece would be appropriate for?

Joe: I had a small part in Ambleton Delight as the London Head Chef. I also think it's a win-win situation for both the film and us, as they get to use our music for the film's soundtrack and we as musicians or composers get our music out there to an audience who probably haven't heard our music before. I was also promised that if I let Dan use our tracks in the film he would reprise the character of London Head Chef in a spin-off film where he works as a chef by night and solves crimes by day in The Ambleton Murders. I'm still waiting for that to materialise...

Joe (foreground) and
Phil Gooch

5. What do you recommend filmmakers do when they want to have indie or other music in their film?

Phil: Rather than just put out a general request for 'unsigned' music, I think it really helps if the film-makers directly approach bands and musicians whose work they like. For musicians just starting out, it's great to be approached and asked if your music can be used in another medium - it shows that it has some resonance in some way outside of the confines of the song or piece itself.

Joe: Just contact the band or individuals and be upfront in regards to payment, or lack there of! I would think most independent bands and artists would love to be asked for the use of their music as part of a film's soundtrack. Not only is it nice to know that a film maker likes your work enough to want it to play a part in his or her film, but every band or artist wants their music heard by as many people as possible and this is another great way to do just that.

MellowSun MySpace page:

Phil's solo work:

Joe's solo work:

Friday, 1 April 2011

Tip #66: Special effects... that aren't too special.

By Dan Parkes (Director)

'Less is more' as they say and this can very true when it comes to visual effects. If you don't notice the effect, then it has served it's purpose. Ambleton Delight surprisingly contains many visual effects, from town name replacements and logo removals, to day-for-night shots, image stabilisation (to correct shaky dolly shots) and adding atmospheric elements such as smoke and rain. But there is only one obvious visual effect which is when a static picture in a newspaper transforms into an actual moving image that itself then transforms from day-to-night.

All the visual effects were completed using basic tools in Adobe After Effects. However, effects is not primarily about the software. The key to an effective effects workflow is to work backwards; firstly establish the desired end product in as much detail as possible (even storyboarding it) and then work out what elements and particular shots (maybe angles or durations) are required to achieve it.

Take a look at three basic effect shots we did and how they were done (click on the images for an enlarged version):

1. Ambleton sign replacement
We shot a master plate ensuring even lighting and no camera movement. The original letters from the Alfriston sign were then recreated to read Ambleton using primarily the clone tool in Photoshop. The new letters were then added to the shot in After Effects by motion tracking the image (as there is very subtle movement). Then the final shot is colour corrected -an important ingredient to 'selling' any shot that has elements from different sources. The village signs were so effective that many did not notice the difference...even the camera operator who shot it!

2. Logo/graffiti removal
There are dozens of shots in the film that had logos removed for one reason or another. In this example, a very obvious 'Christmas '08' is written on the fence behind the action in a scene which is supposed to take place in the late 80s or early 90s. So it clearly had to go! In After Effects it was removed frame-by-frame by masking out areas and replacing the graffiti with a cloned part of the fence.

3. Moving newspaper image
In this effect the lead actor opens a newspaper to an article and we then zoom in on the main picture of the restaurant which transforms into live action footage of a day-to-night time-lapse. This was accomplished by firstly filming a shot of the actor opening a real newspaper, inside of which we placed some green motion tracking markers. In After Effects we then tracked and replaced these with a digital article about the restaurant, complete with a headline, story and photographs. The main photograph is in a fact a freeze frame of time-lapse footage which in itself is a day for night effect shot.

For more information on the day-for-night technique, please refer to this earlier blog.

There are some great places where you can find tutorials on using After Effects. Here are some of my favourites: