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Chapter 1 Contents

Anchor 3

Part 3: Process

Designing music for film, video or other means of digital transmission is a high-pressure endeavor that requires one to be creative on demand.  Music is typically the last thing that goes into the production of the film and requires an ‘as soon as possible’ approach since the producers want the work in the market quickly to monetize their product.  Financial investments have been made and investors would like to see return on their investment without delay. 

A standard feature film has a two to three-week window to compose, arrange, record, and mix the music.  For example, the three-hour epic Bridge over the River Kwai, directed by David Lean was completed in less than three weeks in post-production.  Consider that on well-budgeted films there are teams that work together to meet a stringent deadline.  There are separate orchestrators, arrangers, conductors, sound synthesis teams, copyists, librarians, research assistants and music editors that all contribute to the overall outcome of the collaboration.  There may even be several composers source for specific cues as well as ghost-writers hired for a specific ability, i.e. for adaptations or diegetic cues. 

Therefore, it is worthwhile for composers to maintain a journal of created sounds, motifs, as well as templates for their audio software.  Creativity on demand is stressful and having something in the pocket to bring the creative process to a quick and timely start is good planning. 

A career in this field requires perseverance, continuous study, research and most importantly, a networking plan. 


The budget drives the choices one makes regarding every aspect of the score including live and/or electronic realizations.  Budgets can range from five thousand, for a short, to millions of dollars for a feature film depending on the country and the financial backing of the production.  It is also important for early career composers to take on projects for free to begin establishing a film industry network.  However, there are some caveats for this approach.  Be sure that you get credit for your work on the film and be sure that the end product will be entered into an entry-level film competition so that your name may be recognized with an award or nomination for best score.  This will ensure that your pro bono efforts toward the film will assist you with establishing your career and in getting your name out there.  Also, sometimes one works pro bono until a film or game gets to market and generates revenue.  These types of situations can be negotiated. 

Vehicles for Realization of Score 

Large budget films are typically realized with a full-orchestra, while lower budget films may use electronics for realization of the soundtrack.  On occasion it may be required to use a combination of both to limit the overall costs.  For example, electronic traditional instruments may be combined with a string quartet to double material so that it gives the impression of a full string ensemble.  This could also be done with other instruments especially if the virtual instruments don’t have the sonic properties of a real one–the digital version does not contain the subtleties of harmonic, timbre or performance nuances of an acoustic instrument.  Or the scores required tradition instrumentation coupled with electronic extra-musical effects.  This is particularly true of organic and hybrid scores.  Also and notably many modern films employ fully electronic scores as well as experimental music. 


As mentioned earlier, the composer has about two to three weeks to produce a finished score.  Investors want to get the product to market generating returns on their investment and since the music is the last item to be placed into the film, it can be very stressful and demanding to meet the deadlines required.  Animation is the exception.  The music can be written or selected first, i.e., Disney’s use of Barber of Seville by Rossini in their Barber of Seville cartoon. 

The process of spotting typically involves the director, composer, music editor and on occasion the executive producer.  They make key decisions on when and where music should be used.  Silence can also play an important role with dramatic effect.  They address how the source sounds and underscore might relate.  They choose a meter and tempo that reflects the tempo of the editing.  They consider the psychology of the scene and how best to communicate this with possible instrumentation.  Temp tracks may be used as point of departure to assist in teasing out possible sonic or thematic approaches. 

Spotting is a collaborative and questioning process that assists in narrowing the musical possibilities and identifying the psychology of the film.   

Alten (2002) described spotting as, 


The most challenging decision of all.  There are no rules, only guidelines, in underscoring music, so decisions about when and where to incorporate it are as varied as the productions that use music and the creativity of the spotting teams.  (p. 215) 

Additionally he offered,  

Whether the score is original or taken from a music library, underscoring is so much a matter of intuition, taste, and biases that final decisions are better made in consultation than individually.  Even when one person has the final say, the ideas, reaction, and perspectives from the other spotters provide a far more wide-ranging basis for decision-making. (p. 215) 

Christian Henson, James Bellamy, and Paul Thomson describe some spotting considerations while communicating with the team. 

  • What do you see as the purpose of the score? 

  • Did you have an idea of what kind of instruments you’d like? 

  • Are there any instruments or sound you really like, and any you really hate? 

  • What kind of scale or size are you looking for? 

  • Do you have any scores that come to mind when thinking about what you’d like? 

  • What have you temped it with, and do you like the temp? 

  • Do you like melody, or are you after something more atmospheric? 

  • How much music do you think you’ll need, less than the temp, more than the temp? (in reality it will rarely end up as less) 

  • How do you see the music working with diegetic material and sound? (source or licensed tracks) 

  • Is there anything frustrating about creating a score that you have experienced in the past? And anything you really liked and thought was really cool? 

  • How would you like to work together on this? 

  • What is your favoured way of exchanging and viewing files?

Furthermore, “After spotting the film, the music editor prepares as (spotting notes) listing the music cues and numbering them in a coding system…this way there is another record of the length of the cues and their function.”  (Karlin, 2004, p. 37) 


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Illustration 1.2  Spotting Notes (Karlin, 2004, p. 38) 


Karlin, F. and Wright, R. (1994) p.42 


Furthermore, Cues vary in length and are generally between one to three minutes in length.  Anything longer is considered difficult to execute in one take and unusual considering the tempo of the story line.  There will always be exceptions to the rule. However, on occasion they may be very long in which case several shorter cues are often linked together.  Consider the intro to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Directed by Steven Spielberg where the intro cue is about ten minutes.  It is rare that filmmakers will re-cut the film to the music because of the additional costs to production.  That is why working with rough cuts to get an impression of the scenes and experiment with ideas developing a sonic draft before is perhaps the best approach before the locked cut is used for final recording of the music. 


Film Cue 1.9: 

Raiders of the Lost Ark, directed by Steven Spielberg with music by John Williams.  Listen for the pieced together sections as well the numerous stings. 


Raiders of the Lost Ark | Directed by Steven Spielberg |1981 

Composer: John Williams 


Click Tracks 

A click track or metronome should be used during the initial spotting to determine the possible tempo of the music for each cue.  A click track will also be used for the director conducting a live ensemble when placing the music to the film.  Time codes are also used in software to assist with the synchronization of the music.  The Society of Motion Pictures and Television Engineers (SMPTE) is a 24-hour clock, that was originally developed by NASA for tracking of the Apollo missions, is now industry standard for the music and film industries.  This synchronization clock indicates, starting form the left, the reel number (historical when film reels were used), the hour, minutes and seconds.  The following illustration indicates reel one, 19 minutes, and 5.44 seconds.  The advantage of SMPTE is that it allows for the very accurate placement of the musical score in addition to being able to control the length of the cue. 

Illustration 1.3   SMPTE Time Code on Software Transport 


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Furthermore, SMPTE is divided into 24 frames per second (US film standard), 25 (European standard), 30 (black and white standard), or 29.97 FPS (NTSC color television standard format).  Currently, we use a 30-drop frame to digitize and synchronize at 30 frames per second dropping frames periodically to achieve the rate of 29.97 frames per second. 

Cue Sheets 

During the course of production, cue sheets are created to indicate the number of total cues and length of each in the film.  This is done for royalty purposes.  The following is an example of a cue sheet.  It includes specifics of the production, cue titles, composer (can be more than one), performing rights organization, percentage of royalty share, publisher, the publishers share and percentage, duration of the cue and how it is used–background (underscore), theme, or title.  It is not unusual to have three or more composers that only work on the title while the principle composer(s) create the individual cues.  Cue sheet forms are available from SOCAN and the registration of the work is required to collect royalties. 

Illustration 1.4  Royalty Cue Sheet 

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Canadian Academy of Recording Arts And Sciences


Exercise 3.1 

Spot the following student film cue in class following the guides and ideas previously presented: 

Film Cue 1.10.1-2  Example Student Cue

Navigate to Chapter 1/Student Cues in the media folder to view the examples.  Watch completely through example one without the score, at least twice, making notes on the style and tone of music you would choose for each sequence, and exactly which areas of the film deserve music, and which areas don’t.  Compare your imagined score concepts with example two which includes the original score for this film. 

Courtesy of the producer 

Antonio Boccanfuso 


Partners in Crime | Directed by Allistair Metcalfe | 2018 

Student Composer: Duncan Metcalfe 


Roles of the Team 

It is unlikely that a person starting out in the industry will be working on a film that has a budget to hire a full compliment of individuals for the music production team that are often used in major feature films.  More than likely you will be working with the director only.  However, it is worth noting some of the specific roles often found in larger productions for background information and to identify others vocational possibilities that someone may be interested in pursuing.   

The director is where the buck usually stops.  It is their ‘baby’ and everyone else is in support of their vision and expectations.  The music producer is responsible for overseeing all aspects of music production including financial matters, recording, and the hiring of the composer and other members of the team as required.  The composer is responsible for engaging in thoughtful dialogue with the director and producer regarding all aspects of the score as well as its creation and recording.  The music editor is responsible for taking notes on cues and placing the final music within the film.  This includes how the music is to be treated texturally against source sound and dialogue.  The copyist is responsible for creating an electronic score and parts using music notation software.  The arranger or orchestrator is responsible for creating the appropriate sonic realization of the music created by the composer.  The conductor is responsible for working with the musicians and bringing the score to life.  Last, a librarian may be hired to keep records of all aspects of the production including scores, parts, communications, and notes from others. 

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