Making Music for a Film in 5 Days

A producer from a Denver-based film company reached out to me at the beginning of January showing interest in hiring me to be the composer of an original soundtrack for his new short documentary film. He was still at the stage of shopping around for composers and fairly asked me to develop a one-minute sample based off a portion of the rough-cut footage. My deadline for this was 3 days, which wasn’t ideal, but better than anything less. Recently I had voiced my need for tough deadlines to the world, and here was the answer to match.

3 days later I submitted my sample and was successful in being hired. Our production deadline was by the end of the month, but I had to wait until there was a fair edit of the film before I could get started on completing the rest of the score. That didn’t land in my inbox until 5 days before the editor had requested all of the material to make any final changes. Yikes! Fortunately, the director/producer had given me free reign to decide on what I thought would work best musically.

Day 1

First, I had to break the film into sections (duh) to see how each piece of music would flow into the next thematically. I began by choosing my instrumentation for each arrangement and cataloging what mood I wanted to capture for each scene. Most of the film took place in the backcountry of Wyoming and inspired awe with a sense of adventure. This made me think of a warm acoustic guitar and long but powerful string arrangements. There are also recurring characters, I had to decide if each character would have their own theme or if the themes would be based on setting. I ended up doing a little of both.

Day 3

The second stage of this process was to actually record each of the instruments and their themes. As much as I’d like to not admit it, I’m terrible at this stage. I get fixated on every little detail (a fret buzzing, a certain note coming in late, the ambience of the room sounds off) and end up recording the same part a million times. I know that there is something to say for human error and that some of the best pieces have blatant or subtle mistakes that make that piece all the more rich, but when I’m in the thick of it, I can never let that go. That is, unless I have 2 days left and absolutely need to finish before my deadline.

Another obstacle that I faced during this stage was testing out how each key would flow into the next. I wanted to be intentional about all of my key and modulation choices. If I jump to the subdominant in the next piece, do I modulate completely to that new key or do I play in that original tonic’s respective mode? Is that a powerful or seamless transition? Am I building or releasing tension by doing this? Making each of these choices required a ton of testing and listening-back to see the fluidity over the span of the entire film. I had to work for 2 days straight with no rest before finally having a version that I was happy with.

Day 5

All of the parts were recorded and arranged exactly the way that I had intended and now it came time for mixing and mastering. I had done something days prior that would have been received by a great deal of finger-wagging by other musicians, which was that I did some mixing (EQing, effects, and automation) along the recording process. The reason this is seen as a faux pas is that you want to enter the mixing stages of your production process with a clean set of ears so that you can see your arrangement as a whole. Being pressed for time, I didn’t have much of a choice.

With only an hour before everything was due, I submitted my score! Now of course everything wasn’t set in stone. Edits needed to be made to match the simultaneous flux of visual and audio content, but the difficult portion of the work had been done. 

Fin

As of January 30th, this film has been submitted to an array of film festivals around the country to be paired with other works, who no doubt, consisted of teams who put in their blood, sweat, and tears with days leading up to their deadlines. I can’t reveal anything about the film other than it’s a documentary that takes place in Wyoming, but am incredibly excited to share more once I have the all clear. Thanks for reading!

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