How Do You Work with a Director or Filmmaker?

What Do You Mean? - Justin Bieber


I've been asked several times by filmmakers, about how I come up with sonic concepts and keep things in line with their artistic vision. I'm focusing on composing to picture here, although the same ideas could be applied to any audio job. My answer is usually the same, so I thought I'd write them down since this is something that comes up quite a bit.

I usually go through several steps in preparation for scoring to picture, and the composing part is actually the easiest part of the process. What needs a lot of attention to make that happen is the pre-production or preparation for the scoring, and then the preparation for any live recordings. I'll elaborate below. 


When people kid around asking what one superpower they'd like to have, I usually say teleportation. Because really, who likes driving in LA, anyway? I've heard "mind reading" quite a bit from these conversations. Frankly, I'd rather not know what people are thinking all the time, thank you very much. However, it would really come in handy when I'm working for a client. Since I have no superpowers (that I know of), I supplement with simply asking a ton of questions, and hone in on what the client is looking for, or at least help them with figuring it out if they're not so sure. 

It's imperative for a film composer to figure out what the filmmaker is thinking in terms of what they want for their score. As a film scorer, the goal is to enhance the film's message and the audience's filmgoing experience, and most importantly, work to keep the client happy by helping him/her achieve his/her goals.  

The main question I would ask is, what kind of score are you looking for (stylistically)? Let's call this client JF (Johnny Filmmaker). Maybe JF really likes an orchestral sound. Or something off the recent Justin Bieber album perhaps. And JF will give me examples of films or soundtracks that he would like for his film. Great, that helps me a ton! Then I can also throw in any ideas that I may have, so that we can create something that's influenced by others but also with our own unique flavor. I would write these things down or compile mp3's or videos and such somewhere, so that we can refer back to them in the future (aka. a style guide). 

Alternatively, if JF has a temp score that he wants me to follow closely, that's fine, too. Nice and straightforward.

Or maybe, JF doesn't have a clue or wants something brand new, and needs your help in putting together ideas for a style guide. 

This last one is a bit tricky. It requires me to delve fairly deeply, by asking more questions as well as to delve into what I think personally would work best for the picture.

A question I would ask in this situation is, what kind of films were you influenced by when creating this film? Maybe JF watched and/or liked Sergio Leone's films. In this situation, it's important for me to know that, because JF may be particularly attracted to those films' scores (PS. I <3 You, Ennio Morricone). This gives me an indication that perhaps that is the direction that I should strive for musically, or at the very least, draw influences from.

I would further research into similar films or styles, or watch JF's footage for situations and get a feel for what's going on. Or even read the script, and think about things like, what would the character like to listen to? What is the time period or geographic location of the story? Etc.

Once I've compiled these ideas and concepts, I would have to organize them somehow to help JF understand them as clearly as possible, and use this resulting style guide as a basis for what I would do musically. Perhaps I'd create a demo or 2 for a theme song, to get these ideas across further. 

By asking a ton of questions and helping to shape this musical vision with the client, we are minimizing the possibility of my creating a score that the client does not care for. This saves everybody time, money, energy, and unnecessary emotions. On my first pass with the score, I work to get as close as I can to the "goal," and then fine tune according to notes from JF from there on out. 


As a recap:

1. I ask a ton of questions.

2. Then create some kind of style guide, which helps both the client and me in keeping things musically in line.

Hope that helps!