13. How to communicate with a film composer

Posted on Nov 26, 2011 in The Directors/Producers Guide to Working with a Film Composer


Communication is essential between the director/producer and the film composer and bad communication often leads to misunderstandings and conflicts.

As a director/producer, you should have a rather clear vision about what you want the music to do. It is NOT the most comfortable situation for a composer when he/she’s been told “Well, I don’t know, just do your thing.” and getting complete artistic freedom over the music. This puts one rather in the situation of sitting in front of a white blank canvas, wondering about what to put there. On the other hand, it feels very uncomfortable as well for a composer to constantly feeling pushed by an overly picky director/producer who request for things that they not neccessarily have a full understanding of.

Usually, the best working conditions for a composer is to have a certain guide and a certain idea that comes from the director/producer and at the same time having enough freedom to bring in own ideas and solutions for filmic and musical problems. These kind of working relationships usually are the most effective ones that also create the best results.

When communicating with your composer, unless you really know a lot about music, you should avoid musical terms. The problems here are obviously that you might not neccessarily give the right direction with that. If you say something like “I’d love to have a very sad piece of music here, like this music piece X I know, in minor, you know!” your composer might go ahead and write something in minor but when actually, what you loved about piece X was the fact that it incorporated a very melancholical solo cello and the fact that it was in minor was just a secondary reason why you liked it.” you might derail the discussion about these things and one draft of the cue might be written and time unneccessarily spent until you realize that what you asked for was not exactly what you wanted. And these things happen very often. If you don’t know 100% what you are talking about when using musical terms, avoid them.

The most ideal way to talk to composers is to give them a detailed description of what you want to feel. Speaking of that example above, if you go ahead and illustrate your intentions like: “I want the music to feel really sad here, like the main character, who has been pushed down to the ground by his girlfriend who left him and he doesn’t know how to get up again. With a hint of melancholical memories and this heavy lonely feeling. I’d love to have the audience feel in that way as well.” this would give your composer a very clear hint of where to go and he/she might maybe even automatically go for a minor cue with a solo cello. Communicating on this level can be incredibly creative as there will often be situations where you explain what you want to feel and your composer comes up with an idea and might actually surprise you as he/she might have seen the scene from another angle with that emotion.

A bit more tricky are situations where you need to bring along to your composer that you do not like a certain cue or a certain element in that cue. In this case, avoid being bossy and saying something like “I don’t like instrument x, take it out completely!” etc. but say “I don’t like instrument X, it sounds a bit too cheesy for me, could you try coming up with something else?”. Also, always be motivating. Even though film composers are used to having certain cues rejected it’s a huge difference between “I hate this cue, it’s awful, write something new!” and “Yeah, that cue is really cool! Good work, however, I don’t really like the approach that you’re taking with the emotions there, it feels a bit too dark and I would rather like to have it a bit lighter. You know what I mean? Maybe you can try to write something that does more of that?”. When you don’t like a certain cue or a certain element, try to find out what’s bothering you and unless you are 100% sure that it might be the cheesy sounding pan flute, also avoid musical terminology. Again, rather speak about what you want to feel but don’t feel yet etc. In tricky situations, it might also help to bring up a certain cue that you know and see fit for that scene to mention it for reference.

Generally speaking, communication is everything in such a working relationship. Rather see the composer almost like an actor that you’re guiding on the set. You would also not tell an actor to raise his eyebrow but rather to play it with more curiosity. On the other hand, even though you might be overly excited or scpetical, avoid “overcommunicating”. Don’t call up your composer several times a day asking how it’s going and when to expect the next cue. First of all, it might create unneccessary pressure for your composer as he/she might feel to deliver something even though it might be better to take a few more days for ideas to grow in the head (which usually is a very internal process and can’t be presented) but it will also slow down the working process as every phone call while you’re composing throws your composer out of what he/she was just doing and it again takes a while after the phone call to pick up this read thread again.

If there might ever occur an argument (which is not rare even in the best working relationships), NEVER EVER get down on a personal level. Remain professional and rational. Things that are once said sometimes can’t be taken back and might spoil the remaining working process or even a friendship.

When you keep these things in mind you will most likely have a very inspired and creative collaboration with your composer on a friendly and motivating basis. However, on a side note it is to be mentioned that some personalities just don’t go together, which can happen in every working relationship. When you discover something like this, there are two ways out: either cancel the relationship when it is still possible in a decent way or just push it through somehow. This might be a struggle for both parties but when both are professional enough, it will work out eventually.

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