short experimental film

Zero Budget Orchestral Score in 48 Hours

I was recently asked to compose the score for an experimental short film. This was great, except I only had 48 hours, I had zero budget to work with, and I wanted to use an orchestra. Not a problem! Read on to see how.

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By doing three things I was able to compose an orchestral score a short film in less than three days. First, I had a detailed conversation with the director about music. Second, I built my virtual orchestra out of high-quality freely available plugins. And third, I spent time just sketching out musical ideas while the film was being shot.

Check it out in more detail here:

The Project

Due to the COVID19 pandemic, a theater company in Washington, D.C. had to move their programming online. Part of that is a virtual performance of The Decameron, a collection of short stories written in response to the Black Plague in the 14th century.

Company members were tasked with taking a story and adapting it into a short film. One of the directors approached me to compose the music. It was four days before the deadline, and the script hadn’t been written yet. However, I was given a lot of creative freedom and had worked with the director before on tight-turnaround projects (48 Hour Film Project, anyone?) so I knew it would be fun.

Our project was to be an experimental adaptation of a story where a wife and husband die trying to protect themselves from the plague with herbs. Fairly dark and portentous. I said let’s do it!

the decameron book

Direction and Planning

The film was silent, so the “script” was more of a descriptive shotlist. But, the writer/director made some very specific comments as to what the music should be doing at various points.

Some of the notes were things like:

  • “Music starts when we pan to the ocean. The music is dark in tone, but still somewhat lighthearted, and not very intense… yet.”
  • “Each time it gets faster, and the music is really really intense on the third, fastest time through.”
  • “Then, silence. Screen is black. After 3-ish seconds a gong sound… Transitions into music – Light music comes back in.”

I had an in-depth discussion with the director as she walked me through the script, and we were able to discuss what each of these notes meant. (check out this post about collaborating with directors) That allowed me to build an attack plan and begin to wrap my head around what kind of music cues would be needed.

In the end, I settled on needing five unique cues, looking something like this:

  • Character intro
  • The game begins
  • Reality shifts
  • Wild repetitions
  • Delicate, ambiguous ending

Jump to the end to hear each of these finished cues.

channel strip in FL Studio DAW

Setup and Sketching

48 hours before the film was due, nothing had been shot yet. So, I didn’t have specific timings for any of the cues. But that doesn’t mean I couldn’t be writing music. I used this time to setup my project in my DAW and start sketching ideas.

DAW Setup & Voicing

I’ve wanted to do a fully orchestral score for a long time. But, I was never confident enough to go all in on the idea. With this experimental project, I had a lot of creative freedom. So, I thought it would be a good opportunity to play around with a virtual orchestra.

Now, orchestra sample libraries and virtual instrument plugins can run into the thousands of dollars. There are some incredibly high-quality, detailed, expressive libraries out there. But this film had no budget beyond a flat rate for my time. It couldn’t support purchasing something like the Spitfire Platinum Collection. But, as mentioned in a previous post, there are many FREE libraries available, and so it was these I decided to use.

I downloaded and installed ProjectSAM’s The Free Orchestra as well as Spitfire’s LABS. While it doesn’t give you everything a full orchestral sample library would, this combo gave me a large range and a TON of interesting voices.

free violin virtual instrument plugin

Setting up an orchestra and writing for individual parts is a whole topic in itself. A standard reference guide is Orchestration, by Walter Piston. It can help to set up your virtual orchestra to mirror a real-life ensemble for realistic sounding orchestral music. Or, throw out the rulebook and follow your heart!

I set up my DAW with my favorite patches, settling on:

Strings: LongLegato string ensembleLabs
Strings: ShortStaccato string ensembleLabs
Short StringsStaccato string ensemble, alternateTFO
Scary Strings: CoolString ensemble with bleak feelLabs
Bombastic BassesBass strings layered with brassTFO
Ominous LowsLayered piano, brass, stringsTFO
Amplified Cello Quartet: TensionLegato Cello with effectsLabs
Amplified Cello Quartet: TremmyTremelo Cello with effectsLabs
Amplified Cello Quartet: ChatterDiscordant bow strikesLabs
Frozen Strings: Super Sul Tasto CelloExtremely delicate celloLabs
Frozen Strings: Harmonic ViolinLight violin with harmonicsLabs
Sordino ViolinsLegato violin sectionTFO
Tundra Atmos: SevastopolStrings layered with synthLabs
Ghostly ClustersBrass & string combo effectsTFO
Pandora PanicDiscordant brass effectsTFO
Wild WindsDiscordant woodwind effectsTFO
Power StrikeOrchestral percussionTFO
The disquieting virtual orchestra I built for free in my DAW, FL Studio

Sketching Ideas

I began writing down some melodic material that fit the feel of the story. Mostly, I was just experimenting here, improvising with the new plugins and seeing where the sounds took me. There’s something about playing a keyboard and hearing an entire string section that inspires me.

I had been thinking about the project a lot, and there were some melodies bouncing around in the back of my head since talking to the director that I laid down as well.

None of these sketches would be used as-is in the final film, so I focused more on getting ideas out than taking time to finesse anything.

I created a master project file and wrote all of these things out as a kind of sketchpad of my ideas. This project also became a template for the orchestra I would use. So, by the time the film had been shot, I had a large project full of more ideas than I would need for this five-minute project.

Here’s an example of an early sketch I wrote (but never used):

Unused orchestral sketch

Writing to Picture

Once I had an edit of the film (about 24 hours before it was due) I was able to start timing out the cues. I also was able to play my sketches against picture to see how they worked.

There were some issues early on, because I felt some sketches didn’t fit the tone of the film after seeing an edit. Other sketches took too long to build up intensity, or were just too slow. I ended up throwing out about half of my sketched ideas within the first few minutes of watching the cut.

BUT, that didn’t mean they were useless. I was able to take certain melodies or ideas from them and create new music. I wasn’t starting from scratch at that point because I had a strong foundation of existing ideas.

Two sketches fit the tone and tempo of the edit perfectly; all I needed to do was shorten them to fit the exact timing and create transitions into and out of them.

The final cue of the film ended up being much longer than I expected – roughly 1:45 instead of the :30 sketch I had written. In a rare moment of inspiration, I selected a cello plugin, watched the edit, and just improvised a melody line while the film played. One take and I was happy with the basic structure of the music – sometimes inspiration does strike!

I cleaned it all up, adjusted some timing details, and expanded on the instrumentation for all the cues before exporting and sending to the director for approval.

Arrangement of cues in FL Studio

Revisions and Approval

It’s always nail-biting sending music to a director for their first listen. Will they like it? Was I totally off-base? Did they change their mind after our initial conversation? Did they use temp music in the edit that they fell in love with?

It’s especially unnerving when you know there is very little time to make any necessary revisions – at this point we were within 12 hours of the film being due!

Luckily, the director loved the music. Her main comment was on that final lengthy cue – she thought it sounded too heroic, and needed to be more ambiguous. That was an easy fix, just shifting some of the harmonies into a minor key. I should have known I couldn’t get away with one take improvisation!

The revision that had me in a panic was one thing I had completely overlooked – the end credits.

I had totally forgotten to write any music for the roughly :30 seconds of credits!

Just one more reason I’m glad to have spent time sketching out ideas. I pulled an unused idea from the initial sketchbook project, timed it out, and had finished end credits music in less than an hour.

Final Score and Premiere

In the end, the director and I were very happy with the finished score. Because of the detailed conversations we had – and the time spent sketching out ideas – I didn’t feel rushed when it came to writing music to picture. Even though this was on an extremely short timeline, I don’t think the music suffered. And, although there was no budget, I think the 100% free virtual orchestra sounds just amazing.

I often find that creative constraints make a project more rewarding.

Listen below and let me know what you think!

Click here to stream the album when it goes live.

“Regeneration” is just one of many short films that will premiere on June 10, 2020 through Synetic Theater.

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