Chris Boardman Music Blog: January 2014

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Top 10 Myths About Being A Film Composer-#8

"I'm the composer- I'll write what I think is best..."

Is there truth to this statement? Yes. Most of us, save songwriters who are accustomed to collaboration, are the masters of our universe. We spend a HUGE amount of time alone...we even talk to ourselves or our muse. One famous composer friend even has a name for his muse. He calls her Shirley. Long durations of muteness (being wrapped up in the moment) can create problems. When I was young I would spend hours upon hours, by myself in my studio. When I would take a break if the phone rang it felt like I had a mouth full of cotton balls. Long hours spent alone is something we all deal with in different ways.
I'm going to assume that you have already gone through the interview process, made a deal, spotted your project and are now left alone in your room to begin work. An empty canvas waiting to be filled with paint.
Early on in my career I had the attitude: "I'm the expert. I'll make the musical decisions. I'll be in charge of what music the direction the music takes. After all, I'm the one who has spent a lifetime becoming an expert. Right? WRONG!!!

Film is a collaborative medium

It became apparent to me almost immediately that I was uncomfortable and ineffective in a collaborative environment. I didn't know how to ask questions.
More importantly- I really didn't know how to listen.
I was so used to making decisions by myself I was a fish out of water. Sure, I was confident that I could write great music. But to be an effective film composer there are a couple of things to consider:
  • The director (or producer) will not only have an idea about what the music should be- they will have strong opinions.
  • Chances are if the director could do it themselves, they would...and you wouldn't be needed.
  • Directors are control oriented people. Talking about something they can't control (music) can be very intimidating
  • We, as composers, are not hired to be "right" about our opinions. We are hired to serve the vision of the director/producer.
  • Arguing with your boss about this lick or that sound is career limiting. It works for some...but they are the exception
We are hired to bring our expertise....but our experience and expert opinions must always be expressed in a way that supports the director/producer's vision be it correct, misguided or flat out wrong. I've heard it expressed in these analogies:
"I layed a lot of carpet today"
Where do you want the couch? The same place it was before we moved or where it is now?

Making a movie is a study in collaboration and compromise.

The quickest way to get fired is to argue about your vision being better than the director's. I am not suggesting that you be entirely subservient (although it can be that at times). I am suggesting that you learn how to communicate in language that the film maker understands. Learn the language of storytelling.
If you express yourself by extolling the virtue of this chord progression, or the incredibly clever musical solution you've come up with...chances are the response will be a blank stare.  If you learn the language of the film maker: plot, protagonist, subplot, character development, story arc, spine, backstory etc. you will be easily understood by the director and thus be able to communicate effectively.
The art of the film composer is this to:
  • take direction
  • understand the story that is being told
  • bring the sum total of your experience and talent to bear to serve the direction you have been given
  • collaborate with those you are working with effectively
  • fashion a creative compromise that is satisfying to those who are paying your bills.
To paraphrase Carter Burwell: "I'm in the business of making people happy".
The biggest challenge for the film composer is connecting the dots....learning how to integrate all of these non-musical elements successfully into a piece of music. ( ARE being paid to write music...not wallpaper as some might suggest).
Learn to identify all of the different pieces of the puzzle, serve them jointly and independently, and you will on the road to becoming a competent film composer (which means you are a "safe" hire).
Next week: Top 10 Myths About Being A Film Composer-#7 "I don't have to have any technique...I can hire someone to do that"

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Monday Musings: What is the job of an artist?

It has been said that the job of an artist "is to lift the soul". 

What does that mean? Perhaps it is meant to let the reader fill in the blanks? 

A compelling piece of art is one that will draw you in and ask you to take a journey. And while most art attempts it...few are interesting enough to hold our attention. So....what makes the difference?

A great film (or story) presents us with a choice: do we take the journey, or not? If we engage we will most likely be led to a conclusion that we have already anticipated. It is how the journey unfolds that is important for the audience...not the destination.

Immersing ourselves in art (including stories) releases us from the day to day worries and cares of our lives. "To lift the soul" provides a momentary escape. This is important business...and takes a lot of hard, dedicated work.

Music, Film, Stories, Sculpture, Painting, Photography, Drawing...

It matters not which medium you chose. What matters is that your "art" be compelling to the point an audience will trust you with their imagination and let go. Making that connection requires you, as the artist, to be courageous. It requires you to be willing to risk, to be fearlessly honest and authentic with faith and commitment. Anything less is a waste of time (yours and your audience).

So why do we do it? For some of us it is a compulsion. For some it is an active choice. Some have no chooses them.

If making art is your journey then realize you are part of a unique group of individuals who make it their business to enhance and delight...create unimaginable beauty and emotional richness. Use your gift wisely and take great pride knowing there will always be someone who will be looking for you to lift their souls.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


9. “ All I have to do is write wonderful music and I will be a success”

I think it would safe to say that if you are reading this you have a passion for music. More than likely I wouldn’t be surprised if you spent large amounts of time pursuing your passion. Some might describe it as an addiction, a compulsion, or worse. They are most likely correct in their assumption. Not to worry- to achieve your goals all of these attributes are needed and more.
You might be prone to sitting at the piano, composing or improvising-- envisioning your music being heard in a darkened room with hundreds of people sitting in rapt attention. There is nothing wrong with that either.
Undoubtedly there are some of you who have a healthy ego and believe that your musical skills are well suited to the task. You’ve studied Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Strauss, Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky and more. You’ve also are fanatic about the latest scores from James Horner, John Williams, James Newton Howard etc etc.
You’ve also done your homework regarding popular music. You understand pop, rock, rap, rave, electronica. I imagine you are a programming whiz...highly adept at making samples and sequences rock.
All of what I’ve described above are pre-requisites for a career in film music.
But, and this is a big but, most of this really doesn’t matter to a film director.
Did you hear me? …it doesn’t matter.
They may appreciate your expertise but at the end of the day all they will truly care about is whether or not you can deliver a score that will help their movie be successful.
Directors, in my experience, are single-minded people.
From the moment they begin a project they are, and have to be, consumed with their movie. Directors not only have to answer to studios, investors etc.,hey constantly have to manage everyone who is involved in the process. Can you imagine being asked questions from everyone you see 24/7? I can’t imagine being in that position…it has to be exhausting.
Why is all of this relevant to the statement above?
Music is only one part of the process of making movies. In a sense you are part of a hierarchy that includes, actors, production designers, cinematographers, writers, producers, lighting designers, costumers, editors, dubbing mixers, adr engineers, gaffers, best boys, etc.
Important points to remember:
Understand your place
Be prepared (know the story, the cut, each character, their back story if possible)
Learn how to communicate effectively (more on that in subsequent posts)
Above all- don’t waste your director’s time. Time is their most important asset.
Being talented enough to be able to write wonderful music is a given. It may even get you a meeting.
Being talented will only take you so far.
Acknowledgement and understanding of what I’ve said above will be needed if you want to create a career as a film composer.
Coming next: #8- "I'm the composer- I'll write what I think is best"

Monday, January 20, 2014

A picture(song) is worth a 1000 words

Lee Plaza Ballroom - Detroit

A filmmaker will use every means at their disposal in service of the story they are telling. The great filmmaker will use the script, casting, performances, set design, lighting, costumes, camera, lenses, sets, locations, props, costumes, hair and more to manipulate and create the desired experience for the viewer. Music is just another color on the director’s palette. Great photography captures a moment in time that asks us step outside ourselves and ask: Who are those people? What are they thinking? What in the world happened? Every picture has a story behind it. Adding music provides an unseen emotional context to the experience. An original dramatic score composed for a movie heightens the suspension of disbelief required by the audience but the use of music from a different medium serves an entirely different purpose. But what about using songs or existing music from a different medium?

The power of music as a story telling tool

If we were to hear “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones or “Light My Fire” by The Doors or any other song from the sixties we would unconsciously remember our feelings, and knowledge of the turbulent times in which these songs were written and recorded. Using existing music leverages the viewer’s personal experiences thus providing a cultural point of reference for a filmmaker. Not all filmmakers understand this but those that do tend to make better movies.

The use of this song over that song (freely substitute existing piece of music) is a conscious decision made by the director.  Blending original score with existing music is challenging but not insurmountable if you take the time to understand why those songs were chosen and how it helps the director tell the story.   You can learn a lot about your director and the project by understanding how they went about choosing a temp score or a song.  Taking your awareness to this level will not only help you write more effective will make you a better composer...and more employable.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Top Ten Myths about being a Film Composer #10

Myth #10-

"My music is a perfect fit for film"

Music in film is not about your music, my music or anyone's music per se. The role of music in film is to help the film maker tell his/her story more effectively. Period.
Sure...if a film maker likes what you may get the opportunity to work on their film.
If you get the opportunity...good for you!!! The battle is half won.
The other half is to do whatever it takes to make your boss (the director) happy. While it is gratifying to have someone flatter you about how talented you are, or how great your music is never lose sight of what the main goal is: happy customers.
Directors are not musicians. They are directors. Directors have a knack for finding ways to motivate those around them to achieve their goals/needs. Some might call it manipulation.
Directors are not your friends. The director is your boss. Treat the relationship with the appropriate respect.
Next week: #9 "All I have to do is write wonderful music and I will be a success"

Monday, January 13, 2014

Creating Community: What is your goal?

Creating Community: What is your goal?

If you are a business owner, a marketer, a concerned individual or all of the above it probably occurred to you that  “community” is a buzz word that is generally misunderstood depending on where you stand.
Building a community is hard work. And, like any endeavor, without clear goals the chances of success are slim to none.
When defining a goal there are usually more questions than answers. What can easily be missed is in this process is the underlying intent behind the action.
Are you honest with yourself about why you want to build a community? Is it for money? Is it to satisfy your ego? Is it altruistic? Is it to amass power?
It can be all or none of the above.
Beyond understanding the building blocks needed to create a community (barrier to entry, influence, shared emotional values etc), it is important to be clear about your underlying motivation as well. Clarity of purpose (intent) and motivation will guide your every move going forward. Success will require following a predetermined  road map along with enough gas in the tank to get you there. Intent and motivation provides the fuel needed to make the journey.
It’s a funny thing about human beings: we all perceive information differently and to a large degree will spin information so that it falls in line with existing beliefs (confirmation bias).
In “Blink” Malcolm Gladwell talks about our innate ability to determine truth from fiction based upon facial muscles, instinct, context etc. No longer is “do as I say, not as I do” a valid strategy. This falseness will be apparent to everyone. Like “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, let’s hope you are not the last to know.
Building a sustainable community requires being clear about your intent and motivation. The quickest way to discover that is to look inward with honesty. Your audience/community will then be able to determine if the value you offer warrants their attention. If they choose to participate it will because they perceive that membership is of higher value than the real or implied “barrier to entry”.