Independently produced films
often arrive at my mix room with a completed sound edit. Most of the
dialogue, effects and music have already been chosen by the picture or
sound editor and prepared for the final mix; I am given an OMF and Iím
ready to go. In such a case, I would not be inclined to offer
criticisms or suggestions regarding the music in the film as my job at
that point is to realize the directorís vision by getting the final
mix right with the elements Iím given. However, as a musician and a
person who is obsessed with how sound works with picture I sometimes
wish I could chime in.
Iím not referring to the
aesthetics of a particular style or use of music. I donít believe that
music is a universal language but is subjective, and what is brilliant
for one person may be objectionable to another. Instead, Iíd like to
throw out some rules of craft that I think apply broadly to the use of
music in film, be it documentary, narrative, short or industrial.
As is always the case with things like these, these rules are 100%
valid unless you violate them in your project and get away with it.
Here we go!
Try things. Since musical score
is not motivated by the actuality of a scene (in school we say it is
ďnon-diegeticĒ), you have huge latitude in what music can be used. Try
a variety of styles of music under a given scene to see how it plays,
even if itís a style you may not be particularly attracted to. Music
can make a scene seem to move faster or slower, and it can add (or
subtract) dynamics from a scene. If youíre making a documentary, try
humor. While music can add drama, it can also subtract seriousness.
Music should fit the world of the film. The amount and style of music
used in a film or documentary may depend upon the audience for which
it is intended. Some cable workplace docs may have wall-to-wall music
intended to ramp up the pulse of the show. The documentaries of Fred
Wiseman tend to use no music at all, and this gives them a quality of
truth, as if the filmmaker were trying not to manipulate you.
Be careful with lyrics. Donít use songs with lyrics under scenes with
Donít go too high and donít go
too low. When mixing music into your film along with dialogue and
effects, there is a window of acceptable level that the music should
play at relative to the other sound elements. Dialogue should be
intelligible and the music should not overwhelm. If the scene is in a
physical environment, sneak in at least a little ambience as it
directs the viewer to the screen. If the music is driving a scene with
no critical dialogue, knock yourself out and turn up the music. If you
donít like the music youíve chosen, (I swear this really happens)
donít compensate by turning it down really low. A very low sound that
might possibly be music it will take viewers out of the film.
License the music you use. Locate the publisher of the music and
arrange to pay for synchronization rights. Itís good to pay for things
you use that were created by another artist. Imagine how you would
feel if somebody took a scene from your film and used it in his or her
project without asking you or paying for it. Plus, they can sue the
living daylights out of you.
Be careful about using existing popular recordings in your project.
There are two reasons for this:
1- They are expensive to license, possibly more so after the project
has been completed and picked up by a distributor. If you spend your
budget doing a full mix and then on lining and/or making a print of
the film, it can be quite costly in post just to remove a piece of
music you canít afford to license.
2- Music that youíve heard thousands of times on the radio acquires a
power that can overwhelm the scene and mask other problems your film
may have. If you decide to drop ďSatisfactionĒ by the Rolling Stones
under a scene, a good portion of your audience would settle in for the
familiar, enjoyable experience of that song. In fact, they may be
relieved that this moment has come and you may mistake that for a
response to skilled filmmaking. Now, Iím not saying that if you use
popular music in your film that youíre a bad person or a hack
filmmaker. Many great films have been made with oft-heard tunes. Iím
also not saying that a familiar tune may not be the best element to
serve your film. But if you later find out that you canít afford to
license the piece, then you may have a not gratifying and expensive
time replacing it with music that you must get for nearly free because
youíre spending your remaining budget patching it onto the master
tape. In short, you wonít get no satisfaction because...
You canít assume that the
distributor will pay for an expensive piece of music placed in your
project. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they donít.
Using library or existing music will make a scene conform to that
musicís rhythm and tempo. This can be good if you cut the scene to the
music. Youíll want a large selection of music to choose from, try the
Internet or a large post-house. If you canít find what youíre
listening for then...
Working with composer is an excellent idea. To me music in film begins
with function. Armed with a locked picture, a composer can build a
music cue that interacts tightly with a scene in tempo, pacing and
tone to make it much more effective than it would otherwise be.
Sometimes the composer will have a perfect musical style for your
film, but not be as adept at the functional part, so consider both
aspects; some projects need more style and some need more function.
If you work with a composer, here are a few tips. Different composers
have different strengths. Someone who can knock out a fabulous piece
of electronica in a few hours may not be so swift with a string
quartet, so it helps to have a fair idea of what youíre looking for
before hiring a composer. This is the main reason one uses temp music
in the picture edit. Musicians speak a specific language that makes
crucial distinctions between issues of rhythm, melody, harmony,
timbre, feel, pitch and timing. If you donít know what these things
specifically refer to, be up front with your composer and theyíll work
with you. I promise.
Lock your picture completely before giving it to the composer. They
will be able to make the music to order to fit the scene exactly. All
of the sound in your film should work together to form a seamless
whole, and since the dialogue must be in absolute sync with the image,
it is the music that must adjust. A good composer will make it all
flow. If you recut, it is proper etiquette to pay the composer for any
adjustments that he or she must make to the music. The composer is
probably dealing with lots of sound elements in whatever system in use
and will know best how to make adjustments. Finished mixes should be
delivered to the picture editor as stereo .aif or .wav files and to
the mixer in six-channel format if they are working in 5.1.
Although I may get some grief for this, Iíll say it anyway: Donít let
your composer mix your film. They may favor music over other elements
in the film when what is best is a blending of all of the sound
elements for the best overall effect. If I may say so myself, an
experienced film mixer is the best choice for getting the balances
right, making it the right overall level and keeping your film in
Carmen Borgia is the head of audio services for DuArt Film & Video
in New York City. He oversees a post production sound department that
provides mixing, sound design, restoration, transfer and printmastering.
His department caters to independent projects in all formats from mono
optical up to digital 5.1.
Editorís note: If anyone has any
questions, please submit them to
firstname.lastname@example.org. Carmen will do his best to answer your queries.