diy hands-on short film scoring part 2 inspiration

It’s Mermaid Time: DIY Short Film Scoring, Part 2: Inspiration

This is the second 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 second part will take you through my process for collecting and cultivating inspiration specific to this project.

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Starting an inspiration collection

As a creative person, you draw influences from everything you’ve ever experienced. Every time you make something – whether that’s music or art or food – everything in your life up to that point has some bearing on how you make that something.

It’s worth taking a step back to examine what experiences have been influencing your music. Only with some self-reflection can you begin to recognize and later cultivate some awesome inspiration. There will always be things in your subconscious mind acting on your creative process, but with this process you can focus it to draw inspiration from.

I started doing this myself with music and visual art – saving images, making playlists, or taking notes about unique things that spoke to me in some way. Later, when I am starting the creative process on a film score (like this short film), I can reference these sources of inspiration to help guide my aesthetic.

Music

The most obvious piece of inspiration in my collection is music. Everything from classical to avant-garde to gangster rap. I used to save mp3’s to a folder on my hard drive, but now I’ll just add tracks to themed playlists on Spotify. These playlists are often just designed around a mood or a style, and when I need some inspiration I can shuffle through them easily.

I try to choose tracks that do something different, or do something really well. I’m not saving them in order to copy them later on, it’s more to open my mind to other possibilities. It could be the way vocals are handled in a mix, or the unique orchestration. I keep playlists that I just like to listen to casually separate.

Images

The next part of my inspiration collection is visual art. How do images inform film scoring? Well, when composing music for a film, the imagery should inform the music – so it’s not too far of a stretch to find an image that evokes a certain emotional response, and therefore a musical idea. I file away these evocative images, and if I need to nail down a feeling that I can’t put into words, these images are good ways to define or express what I am going for.

This is a little less organized than the playlists, but still important. If you wanted to keep things tidy, you could file the images into themed photo albums, or relegate them to Pinterest boards.

I think imagery can be a richer source of inspiration than other music because there is no direct correlation between the two mediums.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many musical notes is it worth?

Text notes

Finally, keeping a written notebook or journal lets me jot down ideas for future reference that might just come out of thin air. Sometimes just walking down the street I’ll have an interesting idea for something musically, and there is no readily available musical or visual source, so I write down my idea. These notes tend toward the technical or formalist side of music. It might be, for example, an idea to use samples car mechanic sounds instead of drums as the percussion in a track. Or, what happens when you slow down the speed of a cymbal sample without changing the pitch? These kinds of notes are not immediately useful, but could spark creative ideas later on.

For ease of use, a physical notebook is great, but so it the Notes app on your phone. That way it’s always with you. I also tend to write a lot of ideas as draft emails to myself. But I’m weird like that.


Narrowing my focus

Having an inspiration collection is great, but I’m not going to draw upon everything in there for this project. I need to narrow my focus to a handful of things that will give me ideas that are useful specifically to this short film. I’ll do that by starting to define a musical aesthetic for the score.

Start with the script

In this case, I don’t have any footage to watch yet, but I do have the final script. Reading it through gives me a sense of the time, place, characters, and themes.

Screenplay snippet

All these things immediately narrow down how I approach the score:

  • In this case, the time is indeterminate – though it seems to be circa 1990’s, because there are no cell phones.
  • The place is a small beach town that has a lot of local characters and kitschy locations.
  • The main character is an 11-year-old girl, who is full of energy and imagination.
  • And finally, the theme is definitely a magical realism with its heart in family relationships.

Talk with the director

Now, that may just be, like, my opinion, man. The director may have a completely different take on the script. This step is crucial to make sure you’re on the same page.

For more on working with directors, check out this post.

In this case, the director sent out a couple links that were inspiration for the main character, including these:

There was also these images, serving as a representation of the small beach town in the off-season:

Takeaways

From these deeper dives into the material, I was starting to narrow my focus. What I was looking for was a score that was playful, quirky, a little kitschy, but ultimately wholesome. This guided my thinking moving forward with all potential sources of inspiration.


Finding inspiration in music

With these takeaways, I narrowed down my musical inspiration. There were a couple artists, composers, and specific tracks that surfaced when I started thinking about the aesthetic of the film.

John Swihart

John Swihart is a composer for film and television, most notably for the show How I Met Your Mother and the film that I recognized him from – Napoleon Dynamite.

While the script and characters don’t evoke the kind of Napoleon Dynamite weirdness, there is something about the imagery, color palette, and interesting location that on some wavelength seemed similar in tone. The score for Napoleon is integral to that film, helping to set the mood. There are many great cues, but the one I saved as inspiration was “Bus Rider”:

This is a distinctive cue that comes out strong in the score. I’d like to take that as inspiration to do something that bold on It’s Mermaid Time.

Siriusmo

This is a strange one – I had binge-listened to Siriusmo several years ago, having heard him on a Modeselektor album. He’s a German producer known more for electronic/techno tracks, but he also plays around a lot with classic synths and organs.

His music is often playful as well, with humorous samples and melodic jokes. He throws in interesting harmonies and chord changes into what would otherwise be pretty standard electronic fare.

Most of his prolific output falls more into the dance camp, but a couple tracks came to mind when thinking of this short film. Most notably, Geilomant, from his album Comic:

I really felt like this track hit some of the key musical themes I was hoping to hit as well. It’s light-hearted, quirky (bordering on cheesy), but has a solid melody and chord progression. I also really liked the instrumentation, which felt lo-fi in an endearing sort of way.


Finding inspiration in instruments

There’s a common thread between these two musical inspirations: an analog organ. There’s something about a vintage electronic organ that seems to dial in a certain amount of cheesiness while still retaining warmth. That’s actually a pretty good mission statement for the score I ultimately want to compose.

Getting my hands on an analog organ may prove to be a challenge, but there are also plenty of virtual instruments out there, or emulated synth patches that can get me close. Either way, embracing the sound of a 70’s era electronic organ seems to be the way my mind is heading.

vintage electronic organ from the 1970's

That becomes a source of inspiration in itself. These organs are big, glowing, wooden pieces of furniture. They hum and breath and are pretty ugly. They are from before the time of miniaturized electronics, so the cabinets are filled with large pc boards and possibly even vacuum tubes.

In addition, many of them had rudimentary drum loops and samples that were extremely bad quality. This only contributes to the charm (or revulsion, depending on your point of view).

Creative constraints

The point is that if I embrace these organs – even if I don’t have one – it becomes a creative constraint. And constraints can be the best source of inspiration. It gives you a limited toolkit that you have to think outside of the box in order to use.

If you had to compose with only these organs, you’d be stuck using their drum samples, for instance. You’d also have to record everything live rather than programming them, so there’d be quite a bit of human performance in the score.


Inspiration informs composing

These are a few examples of the inspiration that I was collecting as I prepared to compose the score for this short film. I was zeroing in on an aesthetic, or at least a direction, for the score.

Once I get into the actual composing, I’m sure things will change (they always do). Things that made sense at this inspiration-gathering stage will evolve or be discarded, and that’s okay.

In the end, inspiration should inform your music, but not dictate it.

The plan isn’t to copy John Swihart’s work, or to match Siriusmo’s instrumentation. It’s not even to find the perfect electronic organ of my dreams. These are creative jumping-off points.

While inspiration is important, let it remain just inspiration – not a blueprint. Creative constraints are great, but don’t be so rigid that you don’t explore new avenues as the writing process begins. I often will find that once I get into writing music, I don’t go back to my inspirational material for a long time. I took what I needed at the early stages and made it my own.

It’s fun to go back at the end of a project and revisit that original inspiration. Often where you ended up is far from where you started, but I usually find ideas in the finished score that I can trace right back to that inspiration collection.


Next Steps

I’ve gathered my inspiration, so the next step is to break down the script and start to develop an Attack Plan. In the next post we’ll start to sketch out what cues we’ll need to compose.

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