Transcript of 'Video 5b – Composing for film 2 '


Hi, my name is Me-Lee Hay and I'm a composer for film, theatre, TV and dance.

Right, so my DAW of choice or Digital Audio Workstation is Pro Tools.

But certainly all the main ones do it now. And it just so happened that I've fell into using Pro Tools in my early days.

But there's Cubase, there's Logic. I even have colleagues using SONAR, which is a free based one, well used to be free anyway from what I remember on PC.

Basically, you want your DAW to be able to import video and then be able to use timecode along the timeline, match that timecode to the video, and away you go. You've got all you need to start composing music to film.

The second arsenal in my toolkit are soft synths.

So, soft synths basically is computerised instrumentation. If I want an oboe sound, I don't need to call up my oboe friend and say, "Hey, come and play oboe for me," I can actually just dial up an oboe library, press it on my midi keyboard, and voila I have an oboe sound.

And obviously the quality and the type of oboe sound depends on the quality of the programme in which you purchase. Although we always want to try and use real musicians, the way that budget and constraints work out, from short films, all the way to big productions on TV and film, you are probably going to come across soft synths, just for what you want to compose and to make the sound that you want.

It's really important to use soft synths, even when you do have a budget for a big orchestra.

So, I was lucky enough to be given a budget to record a full orchestra for 'Capturing the Cosmos,' which is by Museums Victoria, directed by Tanya Hill.

And so I wrote a mock up of an orchestra, using a fake orchestra, and then when it was approved, then we recorded with a real orchestra.

But I have written stuff for TV, which is commercially released all around the world using soft synths and only soft synths. So for 'Luke Nguyen's France,' which is a travel cooking show based in France, I wanted to use a piano accordion, because it's an instrument of choice historically, traditionally from France, so I bought a piano accordion synth and I incorporated that into the out of the box orchestra, 'out of box' meaning soft synths as sort of a colloquial term, and now it's the opening titles using computerised instruments for opening titles of 'Luke Nguyen's France'.

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But of course, you wouldn't be a composer without actually loving to play an instrument if you're an instrument player or a singer.

So for me, I have an acoustic cello at home. I have electric cello, and I'm constantly on the hunt for interesting instruments and sounds to make new and unique sounds.

So for example, I've got a radio harp, which I found in the deep south of America, and it's completely out of tune.

It's not commonly used in country music, but I left it out of tune and I bowed it and I use it in a score for a horror film, a horror short film called Gollum which is about,

which is about a character a mythological character that's saves Jewish people in need.

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And also, I've used my acoustic cello for really important scenes in deep sorrow film moments, which I use in a Second Chance Rivals which is a feature film, which you can see on Netflix.

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Girl 1:

I am so going to beat this time I've been practising and I'm actually getting really good. I can last like ages.

Girl 2:

- [Over Phone] Ha, dream on, I always beat you.


There are heaps of free soft synths as well.

You might get your programme such as Logic or Pro Tools.

There's all free versions of them, and within them there are free soft sense inside them and you can just literally start making music with that.

You don't need to be able to write musical notation. Although I'm from a classical background I actually rarely look at a score in Pro Tools.

I'm actually, a lot of the time just looking at the midi role, the piano role and using my ears and looking at the picture. Always looking at the picture.

Don't feel like you're constrained by reading some manuscript. Use your ears.

You can even just get out your phone and sample some sound. Like I actually sampled a Magpie the other day just with my phone, and then I dumped it into Pro Tools and then used the free filters and EQs and time stretched it and reversed it.

And I got this wacky new sound, and it's just sitting in my library ready to be used for my next project.

So don't feel like you have to be constrained to classical training, although it does help me but it doesn't necessarily help everyone.

And certainly in my practice, I'm actually trying to break out of the, the classical training and I'm venturing into Ableton music production beats.

So, and there are a lot of composers out there working in that sphere as well. And

Ableton is working has worked really well for film school production as well. And just remember, there's no bad idea in the world of music and sound, anything that you create if you think it sounds pretty good or okay or if you think it sounds good, it could sound good today but you think it sounds bad tomorrow, it doesn't matter.

Record it, bank it, and then put it in a file of ideas. I have an ideas folder and you'll never know when a project will come up and you'll be inspired by that project.

And then you're sifting through those sounds that or those motifs or, you've, you know you've recorded a piano motif or you've recorded some interesting found sound and you hear it and goes, Oh that could represent that character in that film that I've just been given and then spark a whole journey.

So, no idea is a bad idea. An idea is an idea. You put it in a basket and it'll, you never know it'll inspire you for something else. In an ideal world, the director and composer should feel like it's a collaboration and a two-way street with mutual respect.

Hopefully you, as a composer comes up with new and exciting ideas or creative ideas in which your director necessarily didn't come up with and you can bring that to the table and they'll get equally as excited.

But at the same time I do appreciate a director who has a very clear intent and clear focus of what they're trying to say in their film.

So, you might come to a scene and go I don't really get what that actor is trying to say. Are they being deeply sorrowful or are they being regretful, or are they just indifferent? I don't really get it.

And so it's up to the director to be able to know what the intent of, you know, maybe that scene or maybe from a macro point of view, what they think the, the film's about.

And it's up to you to support that vision.

Composing for film starts in very, in various stages. Typically, it starts from when I get a fine cut.

Ideally in a really, in a wonderful idealistic world I will get a locked edit and the edit will never change and I'll be able to compose music and there'll be no changes.

And the only things that might change is the colour grading and, you know, the credits or titles and things like that.

That's in an ideal world. But more commonly, I get it when I have a fine cut which is so, which is when you get a cut but it's still prone to a little bit of change.

Sometimes I'll, even start at rough cut stage but when you start getting a cut, which isn't close to locked, it starts getting a little bit time intensive because you might have written music to start the scene starts here and finishes here, oh but suddenly the scene has shortened.

And so now I've got to cut some music either side or in the middle or in the end I've got to reconfigure or re conform it is the word or it could be longer or that scene could have been completely cut and I've just wasted all my time writing that music.

So that's why I prefer a locked edit.

But you know, you're there for a collaborative process and there's a reason why the director or editor wanted to make those changes.

So you've got to go with the flow in that scenario. I do start from script stage sometimes. It's usually with a relationship with a director where I've worked with in the past so they know they want to work with me already.

So, in that scenario it's more about exchanging of musical palettes, or ideas. In that scenario, we might be exchanging Spotify playlists or talking about referencing this film.

It kind of reminds me maybe in the world of this film so we're talking more atmospheres and moods and if I have time and if they have time, I'll, I might give them a short 30 to 40 second sample of moods or tones that could work.

However, when it comes to animations it's slightly different.

I don't get a finished animation and then I write music.

Usually, the animator and the composer are working in parallel. So, what I'm often given is a script or they might be words on a screen and at the same time they have a animatics as well.

So, it's like sketches of the main scenes of the animations and then overtime they get filled out.

So in Starlight, which was produced by Museums Victoria which is an astronomy documentary they gave me a animatics to work to, I was given a script and then I composed music to it.

And then by the time the animation was finished the music was finished, then it all came together.

When I've been asked to make changes or when I've been given feedback on a queue that I've done no matter how big or small, it's always about the director asking me to improve the film. That's what a good director should do.

It's not about, I don't take it as it's in affront to my skill as a musician or the way I performed that piece or the way I asked someone to perform that piece or my musical taste.

It's all about trying to improve the film. And a good director will give you feedback based on what they're trying to achieve in that scene.

And if that director feels that that scene is not being achieved musically they have to talk in terms of the emotion of the scene rather than what you are doing as a musician.

And that's how I like to frame it as well in my own mind. When you are making your first short film as a composer always think about the emotional intent. So, and, particularly when you're talking to director for the first time, it should be really exciting for one.

And you should be talking more about what the mood or the atmosphere or what that character's emotions are. And try not to talk about musical terminology.

Try not to talk about, Oh I'm going to use this chord progression here, or, Oh I'm going to use like 3:4 instead of 4:4.

Or it can talk, I often do talk about instruments because directors or non-musical people generally have a sense of, you know, what instruments sound like. That's okay.

But always I talk about emotional intent and finally you just got to have fun. So, and you know, you've come into making music for a film because probably you were a musician or you've played music in the past or you liked the idea of music.

And what was that idea? What was that musical moment that that made you think Oh, I really like music.

It could have been jamming on Ableton it could have been playing in a rock band with friends or it could have been practising your classical instrument whatever that moment was.

I hope that you can bring that feeling of enjoyment to when you see the music and the footage sink together and hopefully that moment comes back to you and now you've made it.

You've made music and sound to footage and that should give you a sense of enjoyment and fun.

And that's really all it's about is just exploring your creativity and discovering what it's like to create something together in a team.

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Last updated: 29 November 2022