As teams are wrapping up and preparing to submit their 48 Hour Film Project shorts here in Portland, I thought I would take a moment to reflect and share my process as a "48 Hour composer". So grab your two-liter mug of coffee+Rockstar energy cocktail and let's begin!
Meet Your Director
As soon as you're on a team, get to know your director. Google their name, look at their website, watch their previous films, familiarize yourself with their style of filmmaking and research composers they've worked with before - this will hopefully give you an idea of what their musical expectations will be. After your research, grab some coffee or lunch with the director and get to know them on a personal level - you don't have to become best friends, but establishing a healthy and professional relationship will make those 48 hours much less exhausting - you might even have some fun!
Prepare Your Workspace
Unwanted technical surprises are always frustrating, but when you're on a tight deadline (this applies to "real-life" projects too) having to make an emergency trip to the store or hiring a technician might be out of the question. Take a moment to go through all of your gear and make sure everything is in working order - this includes anything from hard drives to headphones or sample libraries to guitar strings.
Next, decide on an ensemble and create a template in your DAW. As tempting as it might be to write an epic orchestral score, I recommend using as few instruments as possible to cut down on recording and mixing time.
Make a Schedule
Make a list of things that need to be done (writing, mixing, editing, etc) and give yourself plenty of extra time for unexpected events or the dreaded "writer's block". Estimate time for everything and think about time of day as well - are you going to be able to mix with monitors at 2:00am? Will anyone mind if you're playing piano or guitar at 6:00am?
Stock the Fridge
You may not have time to make a run to the grocery store, or even make a decent meal for that matter, so make sure that you are stocked up on food that is both easy to prepare and satisfying. I don't recommend eating Cheetos and Mountain Dew for every meal for two days.
Meet the Teammates
Chances are you may have had a few team meetings already, so hopefully you already know everyone, but if your team didn't have time to meet before the kickoff (as was the case for my team this year), now is the time to get to know everyone.
Pay close attention (take notes if necessary) to who your producer, director and editors are as they will be who you are working with the most. Get to know the personalities of the actors so that you can roughly anticipate their performance style.
Receiving the Prompt
At about 6:30 or 7:00pm, one or more of your team members will be given the prompt on location - the prompt will consist of a character (name and occupation), a piece of dialogue and your team's genre. As soon as you know the genre, it's time for brainstorming. Stick around as long as you can while the writers and teammates are coming up with a story so that you have an idea of what kind of soundtrack will be needed. As everybody is going back and forth, take that time to take notes and create a playlist in iTunes of possible temp tracks.
The temp score is important to establish early on, because it will help when it comes time to start writing the score. It's also important to know if there's going to be any source music needed, and if so, what are possible genres and what can you accomplish. This year, my team had the idea of two characters dancing to music that wasn't necessarily source or score, and we decided on a jazz ballad. During post production, we realized we need source music for a restaurant scene, so I made the jazz ballad I wrote sound like it was coming from a radio and we used it there instead. We were lucky to be able to make those changes on the fly, but if I wasn't prepared we would have had a restaurant that didn't play music.
The Scoring Process
There are many ways to go about scoring for the 48 Hour Film Project, but just I'll explain one process that I used this year.
First Things First: The Theme
After discussing the story with your team, the writers are going to need to come up with a script. You may want to wait to get the script before writing, but I like to find my theme on Friday night while the script is still being written. You'll want to come up with a theme that is simple and relatively universal so that it can be molded for any situation that might come up in the script.
Get It Approved
Make sure that once you have a theme that you like, you record a little mock up (or demo) and send it to the director and producer before moving on. Chances are they will be too busy to listen or care too much, but having that approval is a good way to keep the team in the loop with what you're doing and the director and producer will appreciate that you value their opinion. If they like what you're coming up with, it's time to develop the theme into a score.
Spotting the Script
Shooting usually happens all of Saturday and sometimes into Sunday morning, and you may or may not get a chance to see any of the film before post production if the editor is still putting the scenes together. So you may be writing blind, or at least partially blind.
A good rule of thumb when it comes to reading scripts is that one page will be roughly a minute of the film. Using this rule, you can figure out how long your cues might need to be for each scene. It's hard to know how the film will actually turn out, but this might be the best way to determine without seeing the film.
Writing the Score
Although maybe not as interesting as you might want, keeping the harmonic progression, tempos and keys simple will make editing easier during post production. Just because it's simple, doesn't mean you can't have fun with it - you're going to want to make quite a few variations on the theme, harmonically, melodically and in length. Here are a few tricks to consider:
Delivery and Post Production
The Portable Studio
When it comes time to deliver the music, you're going to want to be prepared for anything and everything. Be sure to bring anything you think you'll need to make edits on the fly, this might include a laptop/tablet with your DAW, hard drives, headphones, a portable MIDI keyboard, USB drive, etc.
Delivery & Backups
I can't stress the importance of backups enough. First, make sure that all of your audio is playing properly and is in a format that will be compatible with any computer program (.WAV is universal and standard). Back up the audio and bring multiple forms of delivery (USB drive, hard drives, FTP, etc.)
Aside from backups and compatibility, the most important thing for delivery is organization. You need to be able to navigate and find any audio you need quickly and efficiently, so create a logical naming convention and organization that works for you AND the director/editor. It also helps to include the length of the audio in the file name so that when "Ms. Director" or "Mr. Editor" says "if we had 14 seconds of music right here that would be awesome", you can come back with "well I have a piece here called '48HFP Piano_Strings_15s.wav' that would work perfectly. Let me just edit it real quick for you."
The 48 Hour Film Project is a great way to exercise your craft, meet new people in the film industry and possibly make some new professional relationship, but it's important to have fun with it. Hopefully with these tips, you'll be able to create a successful soundtrack without any stress or anxiety that comes with short deadlines.
Finally, be sure to go to the screenings - they're a great way to hear your music on the big screen, and celebrate having an exciting weekend with your team!
Film | Music
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