Scoring a Hit for your Project

These days of DIY media, what can a professional music composer do for a project that a multi-hyphenate creative can’t? We posed this and other questions to two pros experienced with scoring indie projects: Scott Szabo and Lloyd Joseph Moss Szabo is an award-winning composer for film, television and multimedia.

In addition to corporate and commercial projects, he has created music for Fox TV and a variety of narrative projects, including the indie feature, Cook County, scheduled for US theatrical release this fall. While earning a degree in Film Scoring from UCLA, Lloyd Joseph Moss worked on music for commercials and narratives. He is currently scoring his third feature. Moss has also written for New York-based music mag, The Inside Connection.

Indie Slate: What does a music professional do for a film that a multitalented DIYer can’t? Scott Szabo: While the technology exists so that one person can write, Shoot, edit, compose music, and even act in one’s own film, it’s extremely rare that a single person can be so skilled in all the disciplines and produce a high quality project. Putting a score together takes a skill set that goes beyond writing songs. Composers must write about what’s on screen as it happens and as it relates to the entire arc of the story. Plus, there are other technical skills required for composers. Most importantly, a composer provides another best online casino viewpoint — another set of eyes.

Although filmmaking is frequently called a director’s medium, it’s a collaborative art form that’s “conducted” by the director. The director of photography, art director, actors, composer, etc. Each brings a unique and specialized voice to the project. When done well, it’s the collaboration that can yield a magic that’s truly greater than the sum of its parts.

Lloyd Joseph Moss: A music professional is usually well versed in all styles of music from classical to rock and from raga to reggae. I love collaborating with directors helping them realize their vision. No matter how much he or she knows about music, it’s much more effective for the director to have a collaboration going with a music professional.

IS: What have been your experiences — both positive and negative — with indie projects?

Szabo: Most of my experiences with indie projects have been positive, although with all projects big and small, the biggest danger I’ve run into is “Temp Love.” Often during the editing process, temporary music is added to a scene for timing, to be replaced later by the composer’s music.

The temp music is frequently grabbed from big Hollywood films, and after the director has been listening to the temp track for some time, the music becomes intrinsic to the scene(s). Nothing I write can beat it. Plus, they want “that sound,” and unfortunately, “that sound” probably cost the other film hundreds of thousands of dollars (sometimes millions) to create! It’s a herculean challenge to overcome. On the plus side, when I collaborate early with the director on the style and sound of the music, it can be a dream. That is where early theme writing can help.

In one instance, a director used some of my music from previous projects as temp tracks for his film. That worked well. It’s really about developing a relationship and a music language between the director and composer.

Moss: Positive experiences have been with directors who know nothing about music but know how to ask for what they need help with to tell their story. Any negative experiences have come about when the director thinks their movie is Gone With The Wind.

IS: What are some of the biggest mistakes you’ve observed that indie content creators make when it comes to providing their own music for their movies? Szabo: I find that they often think of the music as an afterthought; just something to fill up the sonic landscape. Music, when done well, is another character in the film. Music carries the film beyond the edge of the screen and drives the emotion of the story. It enhances what the audience feels about a specific character and/or the story as a whole. It’s the emotional glue.

Moss: Directors use temp tracks that can get in the way, because they’re sometimes in love with a composer or song that is not affordable or practical for their film.

IS: As a composer, what do you look for in a project?

Szabo: If I love the story, if I love the acting, I will fight hard for a chance to write for the project. Another big thing is the director. Do we hit it off? Do we have good rapport with each other? I’ll be spending a great deal of time with him or her, projecting their vision into music, so it’s always more fun if we like each other.

Moss: I look for someone who is passionate about the story they’re telling and the ability of a director to be “maniacally enthusiastic” about the film. Enthusiasm is always contagious.

IS: What tools, processes, equipment, and software do you prefer using and why? Szabo: I compose on Pro Tools, and my virtual orchestra is the Vienna Symphonic Library. All my sounds come from software synths and samplers inside my eight-core computer with a very small rack of hardware, a keyboard, and some monitors. Just as editing systems have evolved in recent years, everything I work with now is “in the box” with a very small physical footprint. I can fit my entire composing rig into my Toyota truck and literally write anywhere! I have worked both via the internet and in person, having brought my system to where the director is working.

Moss: I use Apple Logic with a Mac Pro and have orchestral samples galore. I also have a degree in film scoring from UCLA and have written for and worked with live musicians.

IS: What are some important things that indies should know about or plan for so they can achieve a great soundtrack for their movies? Moss: The most important thing is the ability of the director to communicate what s/he wants from the composer and what music needs to do for the film. Although not a requirement, it helps if the director is a music fan.

Szabo: The same care given to casting the lead roles should be given to the kind of music that should be in the film and the person hired to achieve it. Just as with other departments, money needs to be allocated for music ahead of time. Most often the money will get spent in production without regard to the costs of post production. I have seen ad after ad in the trades saying, “We spent all our money in production. We need music for free.” The quality of the music they end up with is usually very poor, and it hurts the film.

IS: What do you advise indies to do to better prepare themselves for working with a composer or music supervisor and save time, money, and headaches? Moss: Have a specific budget for music. Involve the composer in the preproduction process and invite him or her to any script readings.

Szabo: It’s important to spend time talking about what kind of music you want. The director needs to take time imagining how the music should sound. Watching other movies that are similar in style [or message] may help. For example, everyone thinks “techno music” when they think of The Matrix. But techno is only used during some of the fight sequences. The rest of the film has a somber, orchestral dramatic underscore that gives the world of the Matrix a sense of place. For one of the projects I was hired on prior to Shooting, I wrote a suite of music containing the main themes and gave it to the director to listen to while Shooting. He in turn gave it to the actors to listen to before certain scenes were shot.

IS: In terms of time and money, what do you suggest indies budget for music? Moss: At least five percent of the total budget.

Szabo: That’s a hard question since it depends on the amount of music required and the style wanted. I prefer to have as many live players as possible. Nothing beats a great live musician playing the music; it’s like having a great actor playing a role. They simply bring more to the performance. That said, I know budgets are always tight. My understanding is that typical Hollywood budgets are four to ten percent of the total. This means that if your total budget for production and post production (hard and soft costs) is $100,000, then plan a music budget of $4,000 to $10,000. That’s a good starting point.