Saturday, October 27, 2012

Composing for Picture Using Point of View

"Point of View” (POV) is one of the single most valuable elements music can add to a scene, and knowing exactly how to manipulate point of view is one of the film composer's most valuable tools.  Like a giant yellow highlighting pen, using POV, the music can lead the audience to empathize, despise, fear, love, laugh …  it’s all there at the composer’s direction.

Therefore, in this blog posting I will discuss the basic concept of  POV as it relates to music in film, it’s two basic “flavors,” and how as a composer, you can best utilize  “POV” to create authoritative underscore.

First, let’s introduce the two most basic flavors of musical POV.  They are:
  1. First Person:  The music reflects the actions and emotions of the characters in the story.
  2. Omniscient:  The music is written such that it foretells the future, or is leading the audience's emotions or perspective.
First Person

One of the most exercised and obvious musical POV is “First Person.” This is when the music takes the POV of the character that we are actually watching on the screen.  Let’s take, as example, this brilliant scene from David Raksin’s classic score for the film “Laura.”

Click here to view Scene from Laura

I was lucky enough to have David as a mentor and teacher.  I remember him saying in regards to this scene  (I am paraphrasing as the passage of time has modified his exact words).
“I look for that moment when it was no longer enough to just hear the actor’s words, or watch them act.  I look for that moment when the emotions and thoughts are so heightened that you can hear the music they create – the music that I need to write from that character’s heart.  
That’s how I scored this scene:  The music is mirroring the hardened detective’s emotional journey as he first fights his growing infatuation with his subject, but then slowly falls in love with the portrait of the suspected murder victim. That’s where the music comes from in the scene.”
With this in mind, watch the scene again.   Knowing Raksin's  intention, we can easily identify how the music follows the character's every emotional ebb and flow.  Notice how, for example, when the character examines Laura’s personal belongings and the portrait, the meandering theme in the bass clarinet evolves into the main love theme as the detective's heart softens.

In hindsight, this technique seems obvious – but as David explains in his book “The Bad and the Beautiful,” at the time that he composed the music, the producer did not understand the role music would play in the scene and he had to fight to keep this pivotal moment in the movie.


Any time the music leads the drama, foreshadows impending doom, or makes the hairs stand on the back of your neck, chances are, it’s because the music is coming from an omniscient POV – the music is evidencing that it knows something we don’t.  It's telling us how we should feel about what we are watching.

As it is during the main title to the classic horror film, "The Shining," this arrangement by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind of Hector Berlioz's Dies Irae music is letting us know that despite what we are watching, all is not well in the world - we need to be fearful.  The hairs are standing at complete attention on the back of the neck.  This type of execution of omniscient POV is very typical in a horror film.

OK - I am going to step outside the fourth wall for a moment.  I can do that - this is my blog.

While searching for the example of the main title from "The Shining," I came across the alternate version that follows:  "The Shining Opening Credits With Happier Music."  I found it to be yet another wonderful example of an omniscient POV in film music - and it made me crack up.

I now return you to our regular blog posting...

Here's an example of an omniscient POV, outside of the horror genre.  It's one of my favorite scenes from the classic Maurice Jarre score to the film, "Laurence of Arabia."

While you watch the scene, ask yourself, "Who's POV is this music?"  On the screen, we just see two guys riding camels across the desert.  Nothing is really happening; no epic dialog, nor an epic battle nor a great emotional reveal - but the music is absolutely as grand and stately as it could possibly be.  Why is it this way?

In this scene, using the POV of an omniscient force, the music is declaring the epic nature of the of the story, the vastness of the setting, and the grandeur of the character of Laurence.  Just as it was in the horror film, this omniscient force is saying, no matter what it is that you are watching, there are much greater forces at work.

Using POV to Create Effective Underscore

We have already discussed both first person and omniscient POV as its two most basic forms.  Now let's see how they can work together.

For me, creating truly effective underscore for a scene means sculpting every note to the picture as it is being written.  It’s that grand difference between taking your favorite CD and dropping it against the image because it forms a pretty backdrop, and really dictating how every phrase, chord change, and cadence molds the audience’s experience of the film.  

For this reason, the first question I always ask when approaching a scene is, “Who’s point of view should the music take in order to best present the plot and story?  And how and when should that perspective shift based on the action.

Here's a wonderful example from the film, "Life is Beautiful" (spoiler alert, if you have not seen the film, you should not read any further!).  

In this scene, Nicola Piovani's score first takes the point of view of the little boy (1:54).  In the little boys mind, after working so hard to play the game well, he has won.  True to the promises of his father, his tank has been delivered - first prize.  It's a joyous moment!

Written in first person, the music, reminiscent of a triumphant circus march, is a heartbreaking juxtaposition to what we know as the audience;  The boy's father died saving his son from the horror of the concentration camp by creating the game.  This is a moment of supreme sadness worthy of Barber's "Adagio."

Then, at 2:53, just before the narration begins, the music shifts to the omniscient POV.  It's now reflecting the bitter sweet nature of our knowledge of how the child's experience has been colored by the passage of time.

One final note: 

The choice of silence as, "No Point of View."

Watch the scene once again.  Notice that almost two full minutes pass before the music begins.  Why is this so important?  The genius behind this silence is that for these two minutes, the music takes no point of view.   The audience, for that time, is left holding it's breath, not knowing how to feel;  Not knowing what is really going to happen.  If a note of music were played there, it would inform the audience too early.

And just at the moment that the tension could be pushed no further, the music releases it with the first hits of the snare drum.  And by that time, as the tension is released, the joy we hear in the music has become that much more tragic.

Yeah, I cried too...

It's now 2015 and I just added this additional example of point of view to the blog.  Check it out:

Composing using point of view, Part 2

Like this post?  Check out my other music tech posts!


Four Must Have Books for the Aspiring Composer.


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Video Synchronization, Logic Pro and the "Tempo Change Trick"

Years ago, trying to synchronize your audio workstation to video required video-tape machines, a SMPTE reader, midi machine control, and the patience of Job when everything inevitably went horribly wrong.

Today, all you need is your sequencer and a QuickTime movie - but that still doesn't mean there aren't some technical issues to address and overcome - especially in Logic Pro.

In this posting I am going to outline the most basic ways to deal with Logic Pro and synchronization to a feature film, specifically by using tempo changes as anchors.

First: Determine the video frame rates, sample rates, and movie start.

To do this you will need QuickTime Pro.  QuickTime Pro is the best investment ever and for many of the things I will say in this blog, you will need to have that upgrade.  You can get it here:

Once you have purchased QuickTime Pro, open the video to be scored and go to the inspector window ("Command I" key command).  You should see something like this: 

This is the inspector window from a movie I scored recently entitled The Occupants (aka "Blood Relative").

The important characteristics to note are the sample rate (48.000 KHZ) and the FPS (23.98 "Frames Per Second").

Now that we know this, open your logic session and goto: File / Project Settings / Synchronization:

The following window will open (Keep note of how you got here as you will need this window again soon).

In the window above, I have already selected the correct frame rate of 23.976 FPS (as close as we get to 23.98).

Next, we goto:  Project Settings / Audio, by clicking on the button that says "Audio."  In this case, I have selected the sample rate of 48.000, to match the movie.

Finally, click on the Project Settings / Video button on the right.

We need to edit the movie start time (currently set to 00:00:00:00) in this window to match the movie's actual start time.  To determine the movie starting frame number, open the move and goto the first frame.  In this case, the first frame of the movie is 00:59:58:00 - exactly two seconds before the beginning of picture (If there is no SMPTE number, just use 1:00:00:00:00).

We edit the video project setting to match.

Pitfall number one to avoid:  Logic does not like negative measure numbers and as a matter of fact, can not "think" earlier than measure negative 9 !  If you have too much pre-role before the start of the music, you will have synchronization problems, specifically when importing audio from the movie (I will create a specific blog entry just to address this later).

This start time of two seconds before picture is not chosen at random.  Given the option, you should choose this number as it helps you avoid a few this inherent problem of synchronizing in Logic.  In this case, I personally used QuickTime Pro's editing feature to trim the beginning of the video to match this frame number - the original start was 30 seconds earlier.

Once these settings are all correct, we are ready to open the movie and add it to the session.  In Logic 9, you find this command here:  File / Open Movie.  In earlier versions, this window is found under "Options."

Open the movie.  The movie should scroll properly with your Logic session counter and stay in sync - within the statistical rounding error of one frame - wherever you locate to.

Next we have to determine where the music will actually start, and how we want to organize our cues within the score.  There are two main ways of doing this, both of which have their positive and negative aspects.

Method 1:  Multiple cues in one session

Method 2:  One session per cue

I will adress both of these methods in a future blog, but for now, let's assume for the sake of instruction, that you are only creating one cue, and that cue starts at 01:05:00:31:20.  This is where we want measure one to occur.  There are two ways to do this.  

First is to go back to our synchronization window and tell Logic that "Bar Position plays at 01:05:31:20.00, as I have done below.

Once this number is selected, as you can see in the window below, all the counters should match up; Measure 1 occurs as dictated.

The Tempo Change Trick:

As an alternative, I recommend using the tempo window to synchronize your video, which opens up a whole host of synchronization features that I have not seen cataloged anywhere.

Here's the secret:  Tempo changes in Logic are really "anchors in time" relative to the movie.  You can use them to move the sequence around.

As in this instance, instead of using the synchronization settings window, once we have properly imported the movie, we can set the cue start by opening the tempo window and typing in our desired starting point into the tempo change at measure 1.  This anchors the entire sequence to that frame number, relative to the stationary movie.

Here is where this process of using the tempo window for synchronization really shows it's value - when you are trying to hit a specific moment in the action on a specific beat.   

As in the picture below, we see the cut to the front gate of the mansion occurs at 01:05:40:12.  Looking at the counter in Logic, we see at our tempo of 120 BPM, this moment occurs just before the downbeat of measure 6, i.e.,

Musically, we really want the cut to occur at exactly measure 6.  Using this concept of tempo changes as anchors, here is how we make this happen.

First, in the tempo window, we create a tempo change at the downbeat of measure 6.

We then change the location of measure 6 by manually entering our desired frame 01:05:40:19.

After the desired frame number is entered, you will notice that Logic has automatically changed the tempo in measure one from 120 to 120.2315, to place measure 6 at the exact desired moment.

Yes, I know there is another, much more complicated window you can use to do the same thing, "The Tempo Operations" window (below), but in my experience I have found it cumbersome and not as accurate as using tempo changes.  I avoid this window whenever possible.

I will be getting much deeper into video synchronization using tempo changes in a future blog, in the meantime, I trust what I have shared here will get you started.

Like this post?  Check out some of my other music tech posts:

Buy Logic Pro X at they Apple Store:

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Composing Under Dialogue - The Unwritten Rules

In my UCLA and other film composition classes, I have a set group of rules that I present for composing music to accompany dialogue (At some point I will update this blog with more examples - check back for that later).

1.  Your musical phrases and accents should "tile" the dialogue like a brick wall, not be coincidental.

As in the picture above, notice how the beginning and ending of each brick occurs in the middle of the surrounding bricks - not at the same time.  This creates the most cohesive structure.  Music and dialogue react the same way.

If one imagines that the dialogue is the equivalent of a lead vocal on a pop arrangement, this makes perfect sense.  The musical accents go in the spaces and answer the lead vocal.  The flourishes leave space for the words to be heard.

As an example, I always reference this Nelson Riddle arrangement of the Cole Porter tune, "Night and Day."

From beginning to end, the arranger finds all the spaces in the vocal and uses those spaces to comment on, and answer the lyric.  A composition created to support a dialogue scene should be constructed the same way.

2.  While the dialogue is being spoken, do not make any drastic changes to the music.  Make your changes in the spaces.

To understand this concept, you have to first imagine how the brain listens to dialogue and music together.  

Consider:  The brain has a wonderful way of compartmentalizing what it hears so you can sit in a noisy environment and understand the person standing in front of you, even though there may be countless other distractions.  As long as the background noise is somewhat homogenous, the conversation goes uninterrupted.  It's only the occasional boom or jackhammer that can disrupt the flow.

It's the same with music under dialogue.  Once the brain understands what the music is doing, and how it is functioning in the acoustical environment, you have no trouble understanding the actors in the middle of the action.  But the second that boom or jackhammer starts (or the musical equivalent),  all attention is drawn away from the dialogue.  So what would these boom or jackhammers be?  Here's a partial list of things to avoid:
  •  Percussive accents (this seems obvious).
  •  Drastic changes in instrumentation.
  •  Changes of tessitura, i.e. the range the instruments are playing in, relative to their overall range.
  •  Changes of tonal root or key center.
  •  Drastic changes of tempo.
  • Anything that obviously calls attention to itself.
3.  Melodies should not be avoided, but should be treated with extreme care.

Going back to the concept of the brain and how it compartmentalizes sound, one can imagine how a melody will best interact with dialogue.  As long as the brain understands the melody, and that it doesn't draw undue attention to itself while the dialogue is spoken, it can enhance the audience experience.  That said, here are a few things to avoid in your melodies (you should begin to see a pattern here).
  • Melodies should not begin or end while the dialogue is being spoken.  
  • If the melody has any large skips in range, try to place those in the silences.
  • If the melody has any distinctive appoggiatures or accents, look to put those in the spaces.
  • Basically, anything that causes the focus to shift to the melody, while the dialog is being spoken, should be avoided.
4.  Always monitor the dialogue while you are writing the music and treat it as a dub mixer would treat it!

My first step when scoring a dialogue scene is importing and treating the dialogue as a dub mixer would treat the dialogue - with appropriate noise reduction, EQ, compression and a serious mix pass.  This is done before the first note of music is written.

Then, as I compose, I am always checking to make certain every line is completely understood - that nothing I am creating is conflicting.  This is truly the best way to know for certain that you are not stepping on the words.