Some Useful Tips For Working With Composers

The film score is another very important aspect of the filmmaking process. Whether you are about to produce a short or a feature film, you would need to collaborate with the best composer you can find and afford.

It is always better to work with a composer, rather than just picking a bunch of tracks from the first music library you stumble upon on the Internet. Usually, many indie filmmakers leave this as the last step of the post-production which probably is not always a very wise idea.

LA composer Nathaniel Smith, who’s work in film (47 Ronin – music production assistant) and television (The Tudors – assistant to composer) along with numerous indie features/shorts, has some tips for directors that often make mistakes when choosing the music for their films.

You need to decide early on how you want to handle music and prepare accordingly. If you’re going to use bands, then get contracts ready. If you’re going to use library do your research and budget appropriately. If you’re going to use a composer, find him/her as early in the process as you can.

If you need a rule-of-thumb figure then you can ballpark 10% – 15% of your total budget to music. For something that can carry 50% of the emotional weight of your film that’s some good value – don’t cheapen it.

If you temp your film before sending it to your composer you should temp it with some average tracks that still carries the emotional quality that you’re looking for. It is always frustrating to use tracks from Academy Award Wining composers as temp tracks and then replace them with the music your composer have written for you. Unless you work with Hans Zimmer or Cliff Martinez, of course.

Another great point from Nathaniel Smith is on how to talk with your composer. Talk him/her in emotional terms. Use emotion words. Don’t try and talk music. Odds are you’re going to use a term wrong and confuse your composer. Unless you have some kind of degree in music avoid musical terms. Speak to your composer like you would to your actors. Emotions, elements of story, dramatic intent… stuff like that.

Your composer is telling a story though a different medium. Give them the tools to tell that story.

When it comes down to revisions, try to limit yourself to two revisions, no more than three.  If they’re not giving you what you want by the 2nd revision you might have to examine your communication skills or expectations. Here, the good communication with your composer is crucial. It is always better to develop a professional relationship with your composer as you would normally do with any member of your crew.

Usually, those relationships last for many years in time so be prepared to be patient with your composer and discuss in detail with them everything that you need to. Leave them comprehensive notes and positive feedback every time your are asked to.

Tell your composer exactly what you want as deliverable. Tell them specifically file format, bit depth, sample rate. The DCI requirements usually are uncompressed .wav files, 24 bit 48kHz.

At last, but not least, always ask as early as possible how your composer wants to be credited. Make sure to ask if they have any “additional music by…” credits or musicians to credit. Since the vast majority of you are small indie types you should tell your composer to create and submit their own cue sheets.

But if you’re amazingly awesome you will get a cue sheet from them and submit it to ASCAP and BMI for them. This is so that if your film gets any play on TV or in theaters or whatever then your composer will get some performance royalties. 

Again, building a professional long-term relationship with your co-workers is essential. Find the right crew whom you can trust and rely on. And, always remember that you are only as good as the the people you work with.

Guys, what is your experience when working with composers? Do you have any other tips on the subject that you would like to share with us?


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