How important is the role of the music soundtrack in telling a story on film and TV and how does a film score come together? Two quotes from creators with half-decent pedigrees suggest an answer:
If I wasn’t a director, I would want to be a film composer.” (Steven Spielberg)
“How to write a movie soundtrack? One word - STORY.” (Hans Zimmer)
Our extensive experience here at The Futz Butler means we’ve worked on all manner of TV & film soundtrack projects, including:
- feature films
- prime time TV shows
- documentary series for international networks
- title sequences
- TV dramas
The briefs may all be different, but the principles behind creating a memorable and successful soundtrack can usually be distilled into one key principle that drives the work:
you must find a unique voice for the soundtrack
These days the viewing audience is overloaded with choice, with TV channels and movies showing in re-opened cinemas and on streaming services at home and on devices. Impact and cut-through require fresh approaches in storytelling, production, writing and casting: and that applies equally to the original soundtrack.
It’s easy to be homogenous and indistinct, whether that’s the use of bland characterless beds in reality shows or generic orchestral flourishes in feature films. Go the extra mile to create a distinctive and original soundtrack and the results are so much more memorable and frequently award-winning.
Our Approach to Composing Film & TV Soundtracks
It’s always an exciting moment when we get a call about a new soundtrack for a film or a package for a TV series. Our experienced process can be broken down into 3 central stages:
- Formulating the Brief
- Nuts and Bolts - Timeline, Budget, Deliverables
- The Creative - Listening, understanding then adding creative insight to key themes
- Spotting - What, Where and Why?
- Bringing Ideas to Life
- The Sonic Palette - creating 'ownable' musical building blocks to form an identity in the soundtrack as a whole
- Creating the Score - Composition and Development
- Final Mix and Files
Formulating the Brief
Whilst we're usually chomping at the bit to dive into the creative side of the project, it's usually pertinent to first ascertain the nuts and bolts of the production - delivery requirements, timeline and budget for example. Before the creative flow of composition and production can really get going, nailing down the logistical and technical side of the project helps steer the project moving forward, keep things headache-free and align everyone involved. Depending on experience, we understand this can feel overwhelming, so we work exceptionally hard to be transparent and ease our clients through what can seem something of a minefield, without jargon or ego, using our depth of experience and technial expertise to make sure the project will be delivered on time and ultimately sounds stunning whether it's played back in a theatre, at home on headphones.
Next, we seek to get inside the project and deeply understand the film maker’s vision for it. We’ll go through treatments with the director and look for answers to a range of questions: what is the tone, feel, genre? Who is the audience? What story are we trying to tell? Where will the final product be seen - daytime, late night, cinema, online? Clients often find drawing from other projects and use 'scratch' reference tracks to get a rough feel for what might work can be useful and we encourage this. But we find the best results are always when these 'temp tracks' are understood as jumping off points to be bettered in the context of the project, as opposed to a goal to recreate (which feels derivative and unfulfilling).
Our main aim through these key early exchanges (usually between us, directors, producers and any sound supervisor), is to establish core ideas together we might want to reflect in the score. Is there a key character, whose personality or mental state could influence choice of instrument or hamronic tonality (Joker, Uncut Gems, The Watcher Self) for example? Does location or period play a key part, and if so are there indigenous or era-sepcific instruments we might employ (a strategy that needs to be handled with sensitivity, deep knowledge and authenticity - no dodgy samples). Or are we intentionally looking for juxtaposition e.g a medieval setting and a modular electronic score?
Next we'll focus on what music needs writing and where it should (and shouldn't) go. Our understanding of audio post production also affords us a unique perspective on the production holistically and argue the case for where original score may not be the best tool to achieve the director's outcome - maybe sound design or simply leaving the dialogue exposed has a more power.
Spotting sessions are vital stage of the film music process. They can happen as part of the initial brief and may re-occur and evolve as the film develops through the edit stage. We're flexible as to how different directors like to undertake this essential part of the process, but we've found having the team over to our studios, where we can have sounds loaded ready to jump on an idea; or in the edit suite, where there may be ‘temp’ tracks loaded up as reference for themes we need to compose or early versions of our music cues that may need refining against the edit.
This process may vary between project scale, resources and budget: a feature film soundtrack or major TV title sequence may require very tight spotting and sync; a factual TV series may use use a piece of music more like a library and sync different edits against different scenes; we’ll tailor our music soundtrack work to the requirements of the film-maker.
Following a detailed spotting session (or two), we'll be in a position to get into the nitty gritty of how we're going to execute the wider approach.
Composition & Development
The Sonic Palette
The combination of a deep understanding of central themes and a grasp on where and how much music needs creating provides a clear, collaborative framework moving forward from which we're able to to hone our choice of tools (melody, sound design, arrangement and instrumentation, rhythm to name a small handful) and craft an initial 'sonic palette' to begin musically exploring these thematic ideas in the storytelling. No presets, off-the-shelf libraries or hooks plundered from sample packs - all of our work is tailored uncompromisingly to the needs of the film and nothing else.
We've built all sorts of our own instruments from scratch, based on the sounds and mood we’re looking to evoke - a guitar made from a plank of scaffolding, a planter trough and some bass strings; or a room-size 'vibraphone' from a wood frame and metal air conditioning plates. Or using inocuous found objects to make sound sources that are unique and ownable. Or we’ll delve deep into synthesis and sound design to build something interesting in software and electronics.
Our clients love this all-important initial sonic exploration as it yields exciting unexpected sounds, unusual instrumentation combinations or even bespoke, custom-built instruments that bring the project to life through sound. Developing and refining the naunce of this palette with the team ensure the soundtrack is distinctive, ownable and memorable whilst instilling a confidence the project's core ideas are woven into the very fabric of the music itself.
Using the palette as the basis we're in great shape to begin scoring individual cues noted in the spotting session.
We’ll compose, re-write, iterate and develop - always in close contact with the film makers. We'll take a project from MIDI mockup through to final recording of the score with live musicians (if need be) with locked timings.
Once we've mixed the final cues, this exciting final phase is purely about making sure the assets we provide (broadcast / theatre spec mixes or stems to the dub stage for example) facilitate a seamless exchange of files between all parties involved. Editors, dubbing stages, post houses, directors, producers and VFX companies may all need access at this point and it's crucial for us we oversee the handover with an eagle eye to detail. Foolproof file naming, correct technical attributes to the audio in terms of sample and bit rates etc. Reliability is everything.
we'd love to discuss your next project with you - drop us a line here