There is a famous anectdote about film composer David Raksin, who challenged Alfred Hitchcock on his decision not to have music in his 1944 film, Lifeboat. Hitchcock’s thesis was “Out in the middle of the ocean, where’s the orchestra?” Raksin, famous for his quick wit, replied “Out in the middle of the ocean, where’s the camera?”. Where indeed.
They both had a point. Music in film is a tricky thing, because it’s a highly artificial element. It usually works on an emotional level, and care has to be taken so that it doesn’t take the viewer out of the experience.
This Magic Moment…
Determining where to enter a scene is one of the more delicate challenges in film scoring. The more subtle the moment, the easier it is to ruin with a bad, stumbling, or overwrought entrance.
The ‘moment’ is hard to pin down. Beyond what you get in terms of ins and outs in the spotting session with the filmmaker, it’s a gut thing. Sometimes, a few frames one way or the other can make all the difference, and I’ve seen cues nudged even on the dubbing stage. There are different ways to enter, depending on the scene. Sometimes it’s slow and building – the cue will edge in, perhaps with a single note, building from almost inaudible to it’s full statement. On the opposite end of the spectrum, it might be a jarring entrance, shocking the viewer purposely – that one is much easier to deal with – no subtlety required! Getting out also warrants attention, and might be the same in reverse. The trick is to follow the emotional shifts in a scene – which doesn’t mean hitting the nail on the head – you might come in just in advance or just behind that moment. At those times, you are doing a delicate dance with the onscreen action, carefully taking turns steering the audience reaction without giving away too much or feeling like a late starter.
Massage in a Bottle
One of the reasons it’s important to make these considerations is to not let the device of music and it’s function be noticed by the viewer, taking them out of the experience. This is not to say the music should not be noticed! There is a difference between the music being noticed, and the music being noticed as a device, just as you don’t want to see the grip step into frame, or the shadow of the boom mic in the background.
Imagine you are getting a massage. One technique masseurs use is that once they make contact with you, they always maintain it throughout the session – one hand will always be touching your skin. This prevents the sudden unwanted surprise of the touch leaving or returning, as you are somewhat visually impaired by having your head in that toilet seat cushion thing! Music in film should work the same, except your head should not be in the toilet, your head should be in the story! Once music is established in a scene, the audience should not be aware of the music departing (without reason of course), and music should normally depart only when the scene dictates that it’s requirements have been met (the massage session is over). This might character driven – something will change in the motivation or apprehension of a character, and the music follows suit. If the music suddenly disappears without clear motivation, the audience will try and rationalize it, which messes up the story-telling, or worse, they’ll just think it’s poor film-making (which it is).
Up next – Fades fades fades fades