Music can make all the difference when it comes to setting the tone for a documentary – or really any film. At a masterclass during Sheffield Doc/Fest, veteran composers Julian Hamlin and Edmund Jolliffe gave directors and producers a rundown of how to improve their films with a composer’s help. As Hamlin and Jolliffe, the two have composed music for countless features, TV series and commercials. Below are some of their tips:
1. How creative the composer gets is ultimately up to the director.
Jolliffe explained how the process of composing for a music can differ widely depending on the director. “You can wait for the composer to come up with the appropriate tracks or you can tell the composer what you want the sound to be or you can get a better result if you do a little bit of both,” he said. “We’ll always have things in mind for what we want projects to be and what we hope they will be… we need to know what style of instruments they have in mind as much as we need to know what feeling they want.”
Twenty years ago, by the time a composer was approached, more often than not they were presented with a picture-locked edit of films and asked to create a soundtrack around it. “The benefit of that is we know where the camera pans are, the cuts; it gives us the opportunity to foreshadow… if we know what’s happening at the end of the film, we can place a cue earlier that’s going to help us get there in the end. In that sense, we can more closely follow a narrative arc,” explained Jolliffe.
These days, however, directors seem to prefer creating an entire story and accompanied mood through sound before editing their footage with the help of a composer. Jolliffe explained that “pre-scoring has a problem though; it can tend to sound a bit like a library score… all music has feeling but you can have music that sounds like wallpaper, which may be even what you want at the end of the day.” Determining what kind of film you have is the first step when deciding if you should commission a musician for either pre- or post-composing.
2. Use live musicians if possible, not sounds from a music library.
While the costs may pose an issue, having a composer create music to suit a locked picture edit is incomparable to anything else. Hamlin and Jolliffe spoke about the unparalleled warmth and value that live-performed music brings to motion pictures. On top of the obvious perks of having a score cut especially to match the the peaks and pits of a film’s plot, composers are simply more human than any score constructed from a library of sounds. While synthetic sounds ar useful for “big beefy sounds like that of Hans Zimmer scores,” said Hamlin, there is nothing quite as natural and quick to change tempo, and subsequently, mood, as a composer’s hand. Joliffe noted that the emotions behind a scene may change within a “fraction of second” and synthetic scores cannot easily capture the subtle nuances of human reaction, interaction and understanding.
3. Technology can be your friend.
When Hamlin and Jolliffe were asked to “build a sonic template” for a documentary set in Africa, they were told that the director disliked the marimba, the instrument used most often to represent Africa. So they had to outsource sound work to a Columbian musician living in Canada “who owned a rare guitar that suited the sound we were looking for, and he was able to record it and send it our way within a day thanks to the click of a button… it is simply common now for musicians to send in recordings of sections of songs to a composer which eventually goes into and completes a multi-layered score,” Joliffe explained. Hamlin added that “it’s important to have a balanced team working on a score because you might get a result that you didn’t expect from different genres of music.” Hamlin was referring to the fact that he is pop and rock trained, while Joliffe is classically trained. Together, they have created soundtracks for documentaries and films for over a decade because of their unique overlap between their two sounds.
4. If you like what you hear, don’t change a thing. If you don’t like a composer’s work, tell them.
Jolliffe and Hamlin agreed emphatically that one of the most frustrating parts of being a composer for feature films is when a director is happy with a score, yet makes a criticism that influences a small change and has a negative trickle down effect on the entire tempo and mood of the song. Jolliffe said composers understand that their finished product may not make the final cut. In times like these, they welcome feedback and communication; they just cannot stand change for change’s sake when their craft is meticulously worked through, note by note.