Thursday, 17 November 2011

How To Brief A Composer: Part One

My blog is entitled Writing and Developing Animation, and this subject has little to do with either writing or development.  Apart from a few comments, mainly in the second part of this blog, little of what is here relates specifically to animation either. Most of it applies to all forms of film and television.
Since the SuperTed days, I have been responsible for looking after the music in our shows, not because I am an expert in any sense, but because I have always been passionate about music. I have always played or sung in bands, and know how to surround myself with people who are a lot more skilful than I am.  I currently play the saxophone in a jazz-funk band, Miles Behind. Two of the other members of the band are composers of music for television.  One of them, exasperated by a director whose instructions consisted of Write me something and I’ll tell you if I like it, urged me to write this blog.  I hope it might be of use to directors and producers, and anyone with an interest in music

How To Brief A Composer

Part One: Style

We all think we know a bit about music.  After all, we listen to it, don’t we?  When producers or directors first think about what sort of music they want, they almost invariably think in terms of genre, style, or possibly orchestration.  We understand this from our listening habits.  We know the difference between classical music, jazz or rock. Some of us even know the difference between hard bop and bebop, between drum and bass and garage, between Schütz and Schein.
Choosing a musical style is a way of defining the show, of branding it, of giving a clear idea to the viewer of what to expect.  We recently developed a science fiction comedy in animated photo-montage, which had a design style that had elements of gothic and steam punk.  We wanted a style that was retro, that made it clear from the start that this was science fiction, but also that had a comic edge.  Having grown up with tv shows like “The Outer Limits” and low budget science fiction movies, it seemed obvious that we should go for the theramin inspired sound that features in films such as “The Day The Earth Stood Still”. Our brief to the composer was to come up with a style that combined the eerie sound of the theramin with the cheesy sounds of a film like “Barbarella”.
Our composer fulfilled the brief brilliantly, and gave the show a real sense of identity, but this kind of brief is not always helpful.  It is true that by specifying a style, or playing music you think is in the same vein, you might be giving the composer a direction, but you might also be severely limiting his or her ability to be expressive.  Musical styles come with their own set of conventions.  In reggae you always hit the third beat in the bar; African music tends to use a pentatonic scale; classical minimalism tends to repeat the same arpeggio with slight rhythmic variations. These musical conventions also bring with them expressive limitations.  Can you make reggae sound nail-bitingly suspenseful?  Is a minimalist soundtrack the best background to something sexy and earthy?
A musical style can give your show a sense of identity, and, also, some sort of cohesion.  A recognisable style and the repetition of different themes in a long-running series is one way of making sure the last episode feels as if it belongs to the first.
Music styles can also give you a sense of place.  When we made SuperTed, we used music to reflect where he was at any one time.  If he was in the Wild West, we parodied Copland.  A Russian snowscape was accompanied by a pastiche of Lieutenant Kije, music composed by Prokofiev for a film of the same name.  A unity of style was created by the orchestration.  We had a terrific 30 piece band, and the orchestrator’s brief was to make everything sound as if it came from a Boy's Own adventure series.
In animated series for children, it is also common to use musical themes for certain characters.  We made a series once, where every character had its own song.  I am still not sure of the point of this.  Maybe it was because children like songs, and the resulting songs could be later marketed as an album.  I have always thought, though, that this Peter and The Wolf approach lacked imagination.  Surely the viewers can tell one character from another?
When choosing a musical style, it is important to think about your target audience.  Music is a very personal thing. We tend to associate particular pieces of music with emotional moments (usually romantic or embarrassing) in our early lives. I know I cannot hear certain Bob Dylan songs without feeling a sad, nostalgic rush.  We need to realise that other people will not respond in the same way.
This is particularly true of shows for young children, who obviously have no concept of nostalgia.  They also have no prejudices about style. Those who say that children do not like jazz, or classical music, are missing the point.  Children respond to the expressive qualities of melody, harmony and rhythm in a very direct way. 
Some years ago, we made an animated sit-com about one of Santa’s reindeer, Romuald. The show was written by Roger Planer, whose brother Nigel voiced the main character. Roger also wrote the music.  We did not want to go for any style that was currently fashionable.  Animation has a long shelf life, and by adding a contemporary style to the soundtrack, it can soon seem dated.  We wanted something “classic”, i.e. that would not sound dated in ten years time, but that was funny.  We settled on doo-wop, with Nigel voicing some silly, but funny nonsense.  At the time, Michael Carrington, the executive at the BBC responsible for the show, was not keen.  Children won’t get the nostalgic appeal, he argued.  I agreed, but argued that children would still find it funny.  When he heard the music, he was won over, and the series went on to achieve a minor cult status.
The fact that most producers think about musical style, genre, etc, is because these are things that we can control.  Within most producers there lies a control freak.  We cannot control what melodies the composer will write, but we can at least tie him down to something we recognise.  Of course, it is asking a lot to ask our composers to write like Rachmaninov, Bob Marley, or Philip Glass, and not only are we shackling their creativity, but we’re missing the point. We’re skirting around the edges of what the music is really for.
Look out for Part 2: What is the music for?
and check out Miles Behind

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