How important is the role of the music soundtrack in telling a story on film and TV? Two quotes from creators with 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)
On this page we’ll look at some of the work that goes into composing award-winning film & TV music and the experience of the The Futz Butler team in working on high-profile original scores. We’ll talk about the principles behind creating a distinctive and successful soundtrack and explain our own approach to writing a score - whether that’s for a film, a TV drama, a documentary or a prime time title sequence.
Here at The Futz Butler we’ve worked on a wide range 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 there is 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 multiple TV channels and movies showing in re-opened cinemas and on streaming services at home and on devices. Impact and cut-through require original ideas in storytelling, production, writing and casting: and that applies equally to the music 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 effective and frequently award-winning.
Here are some recent examples of some of our favourite TV & film soundtracks that achieved cut-through from creating a distinctive voice:
- Cristobal Tapia De Veer: ‘The Third Day’ - haunting synergy with the folk-horror feel of the piece (and the unique presentation of the story in Autumn 2020)
- David Holmes & Keefus Ciancia: ‘Killing Eve’ - sliced-up jittery impact perfectly capturing the brittle cool of lead character
- Hildur Gudnadottir: ‘Chernobyl’ - broken sounds become the voice of the broken city…and also her score for ‘Joker’, where the cello is Arthur’s tormented internal voice
- Jóhann Jóhannsson: ’Arrival’ - morphed part-voice and part-synthesised sounds to herald the arrival of the visitors, who have more humanity than much of mankind
- Colin Stetson: ‘Hereditary’ - mutated wind and brass sounds to create a score described by one critic as the ‘sound of a sunrise in hell’
- Daniel Lopatin - ‘Uncut Gems’ - cosmically synthesized’ score influenced by 70s & 80s synth sounds that takes the viewer on Adam Sandler’s nerve-shredding narrative
We’ll take a look later at how the composer of a bespoke soundtrack must also work closely to align their music with original artist tracks that can be so vital in a project’s score: e.g ’Mad Men’, ‘Bridgerton’, ‘I May Destroy You’, and ‘Big Little Lies’ are examples of original soundtracks and licensed tracks working side by side to drive the story.
Our Approach to Composing Film & TV Soundtracks
It’s always an exciting moment when we get a call about a new soundtrack for film and TV. Our process can be broken down into three stages:
- Taking the Brief - Listening & Understanding
- Creation - Composition & Production
- Delivery & Execution
1) Taking the Brief
This is where we seek to get inside the project and 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? We’ll discuss other pieces of work for inspiration and use reference tracks to get a rough feel for what might work: but our main aim is always to create a unique palette of sounds and themes to make the soundtrack distinctive, ownable and memorable.
Having asked the questions and started to get a clear idea of the film-maker’s vision this is where we can start to drive inspiration and add value by bringing our own experience and ideas to the table. One of our most important tasks is to distill all the information we’ve learned about the story and razor it into key ideas that can become the foundation of the soundtrack. In doing this, we’re always looking to push the boundaries of what the music can do; and go beyond the expectations of both the film-maker and the audience.
We’ll interrogate potential drivers for the creation of a sound palette: e.g is there a key character, whose personality and mental state could influence sounds and themes (‘Joker’, ‘Uncut Gems’, ‘The Watcher Self’)? Does location play a key part, and if so are there indigenous instruments we can use? (This is a strategy that needs to be executed with expert knowledge and authenticity - no dodgy samples.) The same question can be asked about a time period: are we using instruments specific to the time of the story or are we looking for juxtaposition - e.g between a medieval setting and an electronic score?
At the end of these discussions we’ll be in a position to get to work on the composition of the soundtrack.
We’ll start exploring and developing a sound palette and a range of themes rooted in the ethos of all our work: anti-obvious, authentic, with painstaking attention to detail. No presets, off-the-shelf libraries or hooks plundered from sample packs. A common approach is to build our own instruments from scratch, based on the sounds and mood we’re looking to evoke - e.g a guitar made from a plank of wood, some screws and and three bass strings, or a room-size vibraphone from a wood frame and metal plates - or use found objects to make sound sources that are unique and ownable. If it’s an electronic or hybrid score we’ll delve deep into synthesis and sound design tech to push it way past presets…
We’ll compose, re-write, iterate and develop - always in close contact with the film makers. As the sound palette and themes are refined and the edit develops we’ll have regular spotting sessions to nail down the specific requirements for individual scenes.
Spotting sessions are vital stages of the process - they can happen as part of the initial brief and as the film develops in the edit stage. They may take place at our own studio, were 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 our composed themes more like a library and sync different tracks against different scenes; we’ll tailor our music soundtrack work to the requirements of the film-maker.
This stage embraces the final delivery requirements of the project. After the creative flow of composition and production, this is where we must rigorously nail down the technical spec of the final deliverables; a lack of knowledge in this area can be severely detrimental to the final broadcast (and a reason some other soundtracks can sound less than world-class on air). We’ll bring our depth of experience and studio resources to understand and deliver exactly what’s needed: are we mixing the music score for cinema, TV, or online? What are the broadcast specs for the different media channels and territories?
We’ll also confirm the menu of cues. For example, a 90 minute Nat Geo worldwide documentary will most likely require a full-length soundtrack, opening title and end themes, and an extensive package of break-bumpers. We’ll nail this down at the start of the project and build time into our production workflow to ensure everything is mixed and mastered by delivery.
The Futz Butler: Soundtrack Case Histories
Head composer Paul Sumpter composed the score for (ex-BBC director) Matt Cruse’s film ‘The Watcher Self’; and much like the examples above, his approach to the score focussed on driving the story and the creation of a unique sound world. Matt’s vision for the film set out the foundation for the original soundtrack: a distinctive and ownable sound to the film, fusing sound design and music made of custom instruments: sparse dialogue and quiet internal locations, giving extra weight to the job of the soundtrack; and the narrative, based on a character with a tormented internal monologue and psychological instability. A guiding principle here at The Futz Butler is always to make and use our own sounds: no presets, no off-the-shelf libraries; and this ethos was at the heart of Paul’s soundtrack. Cues were written on sounds made on the following sources: e.g. a World War II bomb shell; a rusty oven grill manipulated with hair clippers; a bowed lamp shade; a vintage American road sign aTibetan Hang Drum; and a cutlery jar (tuned to Eb).
The music reflected the character’s arc: unsettled, unstable, disorientated. In one cue a rhythm on a towel rail plays in 5/4 time; two time signatures are superimposed on top of each other to create a groundless disorientated feel. As viewers, we feel the character’s instability and intense confusion.
The result is a unique-sounding score rooted in originality and driven by character and narrative.
Our roster also features composers with extensive film soundtrack experience; for example Dave Buckley, who has written original scores for a range of directors including both Scott brothers Ridley and Tony, Joel Schumacher, Pierre Morel, Rob Minkoff, Taylor Hackford and Paul Greengrass. Dave is an expert in location-driven scores, understanding and crafting the authentic instrumentation of a film’s setting and using geography as a character in its own right (much as Hans Zimmer famously did with soundtracks for Gladiator and Black Hawk Down).
Senior composer Keith Bayley has collaborated with Dave on a number of his soundtracks, frequently using guitar textures to add to the unique sound world of the original score. For Rob Minkoff’s ‘Forbidden Kingdom’, Keith’s guitar conjured up the sound of a spaghetti western duel somewhere in ancient China; in Schumacher’s ‘Blood Creek’ a simple nylon-string guitar is morphed into a nightmarish demonic presence.
Keith also has extensive experience in composing and producing soundtracks for a wide range of factual and documentary projects, including series for Nat Geo, Discovery, Maverick, Wildfire, MTV, Talkback and more4.
Film Soundtracks - Original Songs and Recorded Music
Film soundtracks frequently feature a combination of originally composed score and original artist recordings; a song or a piece of classical music. In the case of a song, this may be an existing recording or a track written especially for the film. Quentin Tarantino movies are frequently great examples of soundtracks made up of well -known recordings: e.g Deep Purple, Harry Nilsson, Simon Garfunkel and (unforgettably) Stealers Wheel; whilst in the case of soundtracks for both Ridley Scott’s ‘Hannibal’ and Anthony Minghella’s ‘The English Patient’, both the original scores were inspired by Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’, which provided a foundation for the work of the composers (Hans Zimmer and Gabriel Yared respectively.)
What’s easily overlooked is that these Spotify favourites were all written explicitly for films:
- Moon River (Breakfast at Tiffany’s)
- My Heart Will Go On (Titanic)
- Gangsta’s Paradise (Dangerous Minds)
- Exit Music (Romeo & Juliet)
- Stayin' Alive (Saturday Night Fever)
- Superfly (Super Fly)
- Mrs Robinson (The Graduate)
- When She Loved Me (Toy Story 2)
The film composer may be called upon (like James Horner or Radiohead) to write a song sympathetic to their main soundtrack; or sculpt their original score to fit a central musical piece that lies at the core of the narrative.