Stuart, how do you prefer to be briefed before you start a project?
I always ask to see the full bible because I’m usually coming in quite late to the process unlike the producer and director who’ll know the story, the characters backwards. To write the music you need to really understand as much as you can about the project to get into the flow. The bible is a good way of getting up to speed very quickly.
It’s always good to be given references to other shows – for example “it’s like Scoobydoo but edgier”! That tells me a lot right away. But if you do mention a show do tell me what it is you like about it.
Musical references are important too but you have to be careful as often a pop song will be cited and songs are completely different to incidental music – their emotional tone is very driven by lyrics which you obviously don’t have with underscore. The musical reference should be there to indicate the tone or the texture needed in the music. And of course citing a current pop song can be useless because by the time your project is done that song will be old news.
Another thing producers have to understand is what the music actually is there for. It mustn’t be bland wallpaper covering the bits without dialogue or too heavy-handed squashing story points and missing the subtle changes in emotional direction. The incidental music should move the story along without being too noticeable. As a composer, especially in children’s shows, I feel like I’m standing behind the youngsters, helping them to understand the emotion of a scene – nudging them along, providing clues to how they should be feeling.
How useful are spotting sessions?
Spotting sessions with a producer/director are great – when you can look at the animation and go though it scene by scene. For example I am doing a second spotting session today via Skype. This is the second episode, prior to delivery on the first, and we are discussing conventions that will exist series-wide, and the placement of the music. I’m now getting a really good feel for what the show runners want as far as density of scoring overall: where they like me to stand back and let the dialog drive, how out-front they want the music, how hard to hit the comedy etc. I scored a couple of scenes for them so they have a sense of what I’m going to try and do on this series. A picture is worth a thousand words, so this has informed them, and their reaction, tells me what direction the music will be taking.
Actually writing to an animatic is actually NOT very helpful. Basically they’re storyboards. The timing of the scenes will be all wrong and there’s not enough action so the composer will end up getting it wrong. I usually only get them for pitching, or if there is a scene where the timing will be critical. For instance a song or a rap or a chant or a march where the music and action needs to stay in time. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received a finished animation where a character is singing and it was recorded wild without reference to any tempo and I’m expected to put music behind it. If the animation is done you are sunk if it is seriously out of time, and most people can’t tell just by listening to the solo voice. Either the music will be drunkenly out of time, unacceptable to our ears, or the lip flap will be off, – equally unacceptable, and unfixable short of reanimating.
I’ve spoken to Holly Gregory about this ( voice director for Dora the Explorer) and she told me, yes these singing chanting rapping moments are sometimes scripted, but often come up improvisationally in the voice record. She encourages it, but is also armed with a click track and a pitch pipe, for pitch and time. I beg the producers when there’s something that needs to be in time, like a march, to animate it against music. Any music! It’ll stay in time that way.
How much guidance/notes do you like getting as you go along?
Early on as much as possible, because in series work, your producer will probably be too busy once the show is on track.
Once I get past the first two or three episodes you need far less direction from the producer. By then the tone should be set and anyway you’re usually rushing so fast there’s no time. Notes are very useful but too many can be very difficult to handle. I’ve had situations where I’ve been given 56 notes for one 11 minute episode. Too much micromanaging without regard for the overall musical flow will create musical chop suey. In that particular case the episode stunk to high heaven and the producer was grasping at the last straw to fix it – which was me! The composer is the last writer on the show, and music can help cover shortcomings in the action, create the illusion of drama to a degree, but it can’t change awful into good. One producer uses the phrase “bolster”, e.g.” bolster the hit when the dog runs into the fence”. You can bolster but you cannot create.
The worst notes are those that say “I don’t like this. I want something else” but don’t give you any idea. Notes should be about the story telling “this is what I want to happen next with the story, at this point we want the characters too feel this….this is the emotion we need etc.” The director is in a key position as they know the story, they know what’s happening and so of course they’re going to spot things that aren’t working.
What advice would you give producers?
The problem that producers have is that talking about music is actually very difficult. You can steer actors, the designers, the writers relatively easily but getting across what music you’re looking for is difficult because there’s no real language for it. Therefore the best way I believe is for creatives to talk about the emotions they want. And if there is a problem with a scene, tell me clearly what you didn’t achieve with the action or storyline and I’ll attempt to “bolster” it.
Oh yes, and if I’ve written something you really, really like go ahead and let me know! My ego needs it, and I will try to repeat the “goodness”. You know revisions can be crushing drudgery so sprinkling a little sunshine on your creatives will yield positive results.
Stuarts Do’s and Don’ts of note-giving (these are real notes, only the names have been changed to protect the animated!)
01:04:51:03 Revisit cue. High energy chase that then peaks at/marks the Bill/Bob collision. You should be following them, not Phil and Lily. You can then do a little something as a follow up when Phil and Lily land and turn.
01:05:44:06 Please revisit cue. Not so frenetic. More “suspicious”. Follow Ed’s skepticism.
01:06:10:10 Not sure why you went with something so minor for this chase cue. Phil the squirrel is excited and elated to be in pursuit of the giant nut. Can you maintain energy but change tone? If you could make it happier, everything else about it is perfect…the way it builds, Tolly’s reaction, circling the tree and the final impact. (That one is great! Perfectly explains the issue and this producer can see that the structure of the cue is correct through the emotional mismatch.)
01:08:13:03 I’d go into a sustain here, clearing Yurgo’s threat. Then come back in with the danger cue, kicking it up a notch at Yurgo’s surge – 01:08:16:13.
And not so helpful: all real!
“Don’t like this, try something else”
“Needs to be more chocolatey, know what I mean?” (nope)
“We need the impression of silence here, but you know, not with actual silence”. (I actually sort of get that one, but it always amused me : )
“Can you make it sound like bending glass?” Producer pushes his hand hard into my studio glass door to demonstrate, it makes exactly the (non) sound you’d expect. But he still stuck with it, God bless ’em.