This is the third part in a series following my process of composing music for a short film. I’ll take you along on the creative journey with a specific real-world example, from conception through festival premiere. At the end of the series, see the finished product and listen to the full score!
This third part will go through the initial script breakdown, and we’ll build an initial attack plan for the cues needed.
Initial Script Read-Through
Often you may sign onto a project without being able to read the script. Sometimes the production may not be able to share the script, or it may not even be written yet. In this case I had the luxury of being able to read a nearly finished revision of the full script. That led to my decision to sign on as composer, but it also immediately sent my musical mind heading in creative directions.
That first read-through of the script is super important. If you can, get a printed copy of the script so you can jot down notes in the margin or highlight key words as you read it through. But, don’t do that on the first read!
Keep the first read-through simple – read it like you are an audience member experiencing it for the first time.
Be aware of your emotional reactions, but don’t take yourself out of the story to analyze them in any great detail. Once you get through it the first time, then go back to write your notes or highlight key phrases.
Your notes at this point should just be your emotional response. Your ideas about the script may evolve over time, but often these initial responses are closest to what an audience will be experiencing when they watch the film.
Okay, once I read the script through a few times (it’s under 20 pages, so not too bad), I was ready to read it with the music cues in mind. For me, I don’t necessarily hear music in my head when I’m reading a script. That’s pretty rare, personally, but you may be different. If you do start to hear themes or melodies while you’re reading a script, that’s awesome! Write them down in the margins of the screenplay, or record a voice memo of yourself humming them.
Instead, what I did is picture the scene as if it were already a movie and I’m in the theater watching it. What scenes or moments are screaming out for underscore? Many times it will be an instinct or feeling that I get while ‘watching’ the film in my head. This probably comes from watching many films and television shows over the years and unconsciously learning when to expect music in a scene.
Here’s a list of common moments in a film that often call for a music cue:
- Character introduction
- Romantic plot point
- Action-packed sequences
- Emotional climax
- Plot or character reveal
- Character realization
- The showdown
- Plot resolution
This is not an exhaustive list, and should really just be a starting point. Every story is different, and the intent of the composer and director is different. You may not want to underscore an action scene with music, just let the sound effects do the heavy lifting. Or, you may feel that some slow scenes would be helped along by music. I like to follow my gut instinct on this at the beginning of the process.
All that being said, I identified 14 potential music cues in the script. Over a dozen music cues in just 18 pages (?!). At first glance, that’s a lot. Was I crazy? Would it end up being wall-to-wall music? Was I not being discerning enough? Did every plot point need to be emphasized? The next step in my process began to spell it out a little more clearly.
A list of cues in the margins of a script is great, but not immediately actionable. In order to drill down on the scope of the music needed, I had to start building my Attack Plan.
Cue Sheets & Spotting
Basically, an attack plan is an enhanced cue sheet. A normal cue sheet lists what music should be written, where it goes in the film, how long it needs to be, and occasionally a line or two for some notes. These come out of the standard form used to report music usage to publishers and royalty organizations. My Attack Plan takes the cue sheet a step further by adding useful metadata like characters, emotions, subplots, and links to any inspiration. I also color code various elements to make it easy to reference quickly. I touched on it here (with demo videos to come!).
Most cue sheets being their life during a spotting session, where the composer watches an edit of the film, usually with the director and/or producer. In this session you talk about where music should go, and build a list with specific timings. This is great – and should still be done – but I like to start building my Attack Plan immediately after my initial script read-throughs.
I like the ideas, emotions, and reactions to be fresh in my mind. Whether I stick with these initial plans or not, it’s a good reference point. It also gives me a solid foundation to have a conversation with the director when we get to a formal spotting session.
Timing Music without Picture
My initial spreadsheet won’t have exact timings, but it’s not too hard to estimate screen time based solely on a script. Here’s a trick: screenplays are formatted so that one page of dialogue is equal to one minute of screen time. So, you can look at the script and determine how long a scene will be. For example, if a scene is one and a half pages, that’s roughly 90 seconds of screen time. If I think music should be underneath it, I can write “:90” into my initial Attack Plan.
If you check out my initial Attack Plan, you’ll see it’s fairly extensive even though nothing has even been shot yet. Let’s break it down.
Status, Cue, Start time, Duration
These are pretty self-explanatory, and at this point not that important to me. I like to update “Status” when a cue is actively being worked on, pending approval, delivered, etc. And “Cue” is just to name or number each piece of music.
“Start Timecode” will be filled in with an exact timestamp once the film has been edited, so it can be ignored for now. “Duration” is where I estimated the length of each cue based on the pages of script. You’ll see here that, although there are numerous cues, each one is pretty short. For example, Cue #12 is basically just a musical stab to signify the appearance of a mermaid.
Scene Description, Notes/References
Here is where I gave myself ample space to describe the scene. Once I get into composing mode, I want to be able to glance at these two columns and know exactly where I am in the film and what I am going for.
The “Scene Description” is a few words summing up the scene just enough that I remember what it is. If a cue is going to bridge two scenes, I’ll make sure to note that here too, such as “Clem and Donny patch things up, thru end credits.”
“Notes/References” is specifically for the music, and should be the guiding principle(s) for that cue. For instance, “magical, childlike wonder, mermaid theme” tells me the mood or tone of the cue, and some direction for what (yet unwritten) theme to feature in Cue #2.
If I had any direct references to other pieces of music or inspiration (see this post for my inspiration), I would link to it here. In this case, I didn’t have plans to mimic or reference anything specific for a cue, so I didn’t add that in.
These notes can be as specific as you want. If you have ideas for instrumentation or tempo, put it in there. If there are certain moments in the scene that you know you are going to want to accent with music, note those moments here too. That way you’re writing with them in mind (even though you don’t have specific timings yet).
Here’s a major departure from the normal film scoring cue sheet: I like to add a custom color key and several different columns to easily keep track of some of the important details and intangibles that will influence each cue.
I decided to add specific color categories for characters and the emotions I wanted to evoke. There are just three characters based on the script: “Clem” (lead), “Mermaid” (duh), and “Town” (I felt the setting played a role in the story and I wanted to make sure it felt quirky).
The “Emotion” column is where a lot of my notes scribbled in the margins of my script came in handy. I chose just a few: “Happy,” “Sad,” “Magical,” and “Determined.” For me, those are good words to clue me in to the feel of each cue at this point.
I could have gotten more specific, but then the color coding system becomes harder to read. Also, after consulting with the director, the emotional goal of each cue might change, so I went with my gut instinct on these.
Note: I left the “Plot” column empty, as you might have noticed. That’s because the script is very straightforward, and there aren’t really any developed subplots or competing storylines. The main character is in every scene, so I didn’t feel the need to try to distinguish any differences here. I could have turned this into a key to identify Act I, Act II, and Act III in the story, but I didn’t think it would particularly help the composing process.
Initial Attack Plan: A Good Start
Having read the script a few times, I made a few notes, identified possible cues, and did the homework to build an initial Attack Plan. This document would prove to be invaluable moving forward in the project. It essentially became my bible for tracking and guiding my composing work. I really can’t recommend it enough.
The Best Laid Plans
Actually, my initial Attack Plan held up pretty well though production of the score. The best laid plans for an indie film inevitably change, and this was no exception. However, the work I did early in the process was invaluable later on.
Mostly, the document evolved to add more specific timings, accent points to hit within a cue, and a further segmenting of the cues. All normal stuff. My color coding for characters and emotions made it through largely unchanged.
The biggest thing that changed in the Attack Plan was the timings. The final version has frame-accurate start timecode. I also added “End Timecode” so I was composing to exactly the right length. All of this data came from the editor, who sent video files to me with on-screen timecode.
Most professional music software can read timecode from video files. You absolutely have to be frame accurate with your film music. Check out my survey of software packages here.
The “Duration” column was for my own purposes – just to get a ballpark of how much music I needed to complete. Using the spreadsheet functions, I added up the durations to calculate the 9:25 of finished music. It turns out, for a 20-minute film, about half of it had music underneath it.
I also added specific accent timings in the “Notes” section. I was composing to picture to get the exact timings, but these rough notes were a useful shorthand to know when certain things had to happen in the music. More about these in later posts.
A couple spots on the final Attack Plan have alternate timecodes, and there are notes at the bottom outlining time shifts. What is that about? It’s due to versioning in the edit after I thought we had “Picture Lock.“
On any project, the best-case scenario is that the film is completely edited before writing music to picture. In this case, I was assured we had Picture Lock. However, as is often the case, the director wanted some last-minute changes to the edit. This changed the timings for some cues.
Since I was coming up against the deadline, I figured out the time offset for the cues that were affected. I put those notes in the Attack Plan.
In these situations, an app like Rob’s Timecode Calculator is your best friend! It’s free, runs in your browser, and saves you many, many headaches.
With my initial Attack Plan in place, it was time to have some fun with finding the score’s voices. In the next post we’ll look at identifying the instruments that will define the sound of the score.