Consonance: Scoring a Short Film
Posted on 6.4.13 · by Zack
Music has the power to tell a story. For a long time now I've wanted to score a film. I think it's because I find I can be moved beyond words by the sounds accompanying the story as it unfolds before my eyes. I want to be a part of that movement.
I was asked last year to compose music for a short film - a quirky romantic comedy called Duck Food about a couple meeting and trying to get along with one another. I'm going to tell you about my process for creating the music: the struggle and the fun. You'll also have a chance to see the film:
A longtime friend of mine has a sister named Sara who started a film company, and with her friend Dewey, they are producing a series of short films about relationships. When they contacted me about working on Duck Food, I was excited.
After reading the script and listening to what they wanted, we talked first about using one of my existing songs for the trailer. They asked about The Spoils of Warring Hearts, so I sent them an instrumental and vocal version of the song, and here's how the trailer turned out...
Because that song is so contrary to what they wanted for the film (it's sad and intense whereas the film is quirky and deliberate), I was surprised it worked in the trailer. I realized from this that it's not misleading for a film's trailer to be, in a way, its own work, with its own timing. It can have different music from the film if you are trying to give it a separate feel. The trailer has it's own perspective on the story.
My first impressions of the film were that it skillfully expressed the inherent awkwardness of new relationships. There is very little dialogue in the film and so I began to understand more about how music can shape emotion and make hints about what was happening to the viewer. I realized my score would either help the audience understand the story, or it would cause the film to be confusing. Obviously, I wanted the music to help the story come across well.
I aspired to compose something special that genuinely fit and worked for the film. I set about watching the film over and over again and listening for something. I saw it tens of times before even picking up my guitar.
I kept it playing on repeat as I worked through different chord ideas that came to my ears. Gradually, a theme appeared. There was a peculiar, simple melody that kept recurring to me, and I recognized that the glockenspiel would be the best voice for it. That instrument gave the melody an appropriately cute sound.
The theme firmed up with repetition and I started to feel that this process was almost like writing any other song. I often have an idea that has the hope of working but I'm not quite sure yet what it needs to be complete. What's the timing? The scale? The rhythm? How is the idea best embodied?
One interesting and, at times, frustrating aspect of songwriting is that some awkwardness must prevail for a while as long as the song remains unwritten. This was so similar to the feeling I got from watching the two characters in the movie; they conveyed the same sort of awkwardness while trying to find their compatibility.
I was wondering how I could use the music to help make this even more apparent, when I began to note that I kept choosing the same chords to play when each character would enter. I tended to stay on the root C chord when the guy appeared. Yet I felt repeatedly that an Fmaj7 fit the girl. It's a chord that hasn't quite found itself, and because of that holds an indefinable rarity and beauty. An Am7 made the fragile, ethereal quality of their quiet interactions come to light, seeming to ask the question of whether or not they will ever become a couple. To contrast this there were moments of hopefulness that shone through at times, and I heard a G chord express this mood perfectly, and also drive the story forward at the same time. And so I had happened upon chords to create sonic space for both major characters and the various feelings between them to exist as they carried on, individually and together.
After playing around more with these ideas and recording the sound of my tendencies, it hit me: The soundtrack was becoming a song that was being written over time. Through the course of the film you'd hear all my songwriting failures and successes to shape the song, just as you would see the failures and successes of the characters to shape their relationship. I enjoyed the tension there, which I had felt in the advent of every other song I'd written: Would this actually work? Would the couple come together? Would the song come together?
In effect, you can hear the song being written during the film, as if you were in the room with me throughout this entire process. In the beginning we have the song idea formed by a movement between the two main character's chords and the little melody on glockenspiel. Then I try out some other ideas that don't really turn out all that well, and so the song sort of loses itself right off the bat. There is soon afterward a moment of despair as I am unsure that the song is going to become something great, and in being humbled by that I am open to find a new expression of what I'm really trying to say. It's as if I first had to see what the song was not, in order to find what it would become. In the end it is seen that I learned something from each of those steps (even the failed ideas) and was able to put together what I thought was the best collaboration. My hope was that this would provide some continuity without becoming boring or redundant, and that it would echo the experience of the characters. As chords in sequence create a context for melody to fill, a couple is given time and place to meet and (hopefully) become something greater than their independent selves.
It wasn't until I was repackaging the Duck Food soundtrack into a release for our listeners called Consonance that put to words this additional similarity between the song and the couple. They both went through very similar stages of development: Emergence, Venture, Shame, Falsehood, Loss, Repair, Trust. These also happen to be the stages I believe we all must go through in life, repeatedly, in order to become whole. You can hear these stages of songwriting/relationship by downloading Consonance (pay what you want).
I was nervous about sending my work in to Sara and Dewey, but as it turned out they were happy. I'm never good at hearing that people don't like my work, so I felt very lucky. Here is the final film...
Again, I'm so happy I had the chance to work on this. Thanks to Dewey and Sara for letting me. You can find out more of what they are doing at their websites: CandyPig Films and Modern Menace Entertainment. The second film in their love series, Quiet, is available for viewing as well.
Thank you for reading these rantings of one little songwriter trying to understand how the magic of music happens. I hope you enjoy the sounds and the story.
Have you ever worked on a film, or ever wanted to? How was your experience different or similar to mine? Let me know in the comments.