diy hands-on film scoring part 1 the project

It’s Mermaid Time: DIY Short Film Scoring, Part 1: The Project

This is the first 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 first part will introduce the project specifics and lay out the details I considered before deciding to tackling it.

It’s Mermaid Time?

Yes, it is mermaid time. Or at least, it’s time to start work on a short film bearing that title. Let me introduce you to the factors that ultimately led me to take on this project. These are things you should consider carefully as an indie film composer.

The Story

Story is everything. It is the hook that gets people to want to watch the film, it is the purpose of the emotions you take away from a film, and it is the reason for film to exist as an art form. And, as the film composer, it is what you are trying to reinforce with your score. Therefore, it has to be good.

This project began as a 20-page script that follows a young girl on a quest to find a mermaid in her quirky beach town. Various townspeople give her advice that she takes to heart. Ultimately, she doesn’t find the mermaid, but does re-connect with her older brother.

This is a subjective thing, but the story and characters grabbed me. It’s a heartwarming story that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and felt like something I’d be interested in watching. You have to decide this for yourself when reading a script.

screenshot of short film script
Read the script here

The Director Relationship

A director makes or breaks a project. They are the ultimate creative force behind a film, and there are many more bad directors than there are good directors. As a composer, the relationship between you and the director is crucial to creating the best music (and keeping your sanity). A lot of factors go into working with a director, and every collaboration is unique.

Read more about working with film directors here

The director of this short was someone who I had worked with in the past. We had collaborated on several 48-hour film projects in various capacities, and I enjoyed working with her. I had scored her recent 48-hour film and we were both happy with the results – the process was smooth, and that project had been nominated for several awards.

So, when “It’s Mermaid Time” came up, I already felt good about the working relationship. This film would be much more ambitious than that previous short projects we had done together, but we had a firm foundation in place.

Film Festival Guarantee

A lot of films aspire to be shown at film festivals. For indie filmmakers, this is pretty much the only way to get your film in front of a live audience. A good film in a good festival can generate interest in the film or filmmaker. The dream is to sell the film to a distributor who saw it at a festival, or meet a producer interested in backing the next project. Many filmmakers (especially indie filmmakers) will start a project saying it’s sure to get into film festivals, and this can attract a lot of creative collaborators (composers included!) However, unless they have some agreement in place, don’t take the filmmakers’ word for it. No matter how great they think their script is, nothing is guaranteed. Unless…

This film was being produced in partnership with an Arts Council, who also happen run an annual film festival that was entering its third year. The Arts Council was helping fund the project, secure locations, and promote local screenings to generate buzz.

Therefore, the project has a guaranteed festival premiere and a built-in audience before a single frame was even shot.

This is rare for short film, and made the project very appealing.

The Budget

Ah, now here we come to one of the most important factors: money. This film had virtually no budget. Yes, the Art League was pitching in some money, but most of the support was in-kind donations of locations, food, and promotion. The crew was working for free. The cast was getting a small stipend. The directors were paying for everything out of pocket. There was no money for the film score.

Check out this post for more on what film composers can (should?) earn

This might kill a project for you, and that’s fine. But, given all the other factors, I still wanted to pursue it. The guaranteed premiere, the quirky story, the chance to collaborate with a friend – these all were positives.

Given these circumstances, what would you do in this situation? A project you believe in, but doesn’t pay. What about a well-paying job that has a terrible script? The decision is never easy, but I thought the positives outweighed the negatives.

I’d worked with no budget before. It was time to embrace the DIY spirit.

Recording music with a midi controller keyboard

Next Steps

I had signed on to compose the project. A script exists, and was going into production soon. With such a daunting challenge ahead, where to begin? In the next post, we’ll look at the first step hands-on: gathering inspiration.

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