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Using Music in Film & Video
By Carmen Borgia

Independently produced films often arrive at my mix room with a completed sound edit. Most of the dialogue, effects and music have already been chosen by the picture or sound editor and prepared for the final mix; I am given an OMF and Iím ready to go. In such a case, I would not be inclined to offer criticisms or suggestions regarding the music in the film as my job at that point is to realize the directorís vision by getting the final mix right with the elements Iím given. However, as a musician and a person who is obsessed with how sound works with picture I sometimes wish I could chime in.

Iím not referring to the aesthetics of a particular style or use of music. I donít believe that music is a universal language but is subjective, and what is brilliant for one person may be objectionable to another. Instead, Iíd like to throw out some rules of craft that I think apply broadly to the use of music in film, be it documentary, narrative, short or industrial.

As is always the case with things like these, these rules are 100% valid unless you violate them in your project and get away with it. Here we go!

Try things. Since musical score is not motivated by the actuality of a scene (in school we say it is ďnon-diegeticĒ), you have huge latitude in what music can be used. Try a variety of styles of music under a given scene to see how it plays, even if itís a style you may not be particularly attracted to. Music can make a scene seem to move faster or slower, and it can add (or subtract) dynamics from a scene. If youíre making a documentary, try humor. While music can add drama, it can also subtract seriousness.

Music should fit the world of the film. The amount and style of music used in a film or documentary may depend upon the audience for which it is intended. Some cable workplace docs may have wall-to-wall music intended to ramp up the pulse of the show. The documentaries of Fred Wiseman tend to use no music at all, and this gives them a quality of truth, as if the filmmaker were trying not to manipulate you.

Be careful with lyrics. Donít use songs with lyrics under scenes with dialogue.

Donít go too high and donít go too low. When mixing music into your film along with dialogue and effects, there is a window of acceptable level that the music should play at relative to the other sound elements. Dialogue should be intelligible and the music should not overwhelm. If the scene is in a physical environment, sneak in at least a little ambience as it directs the viewer to the screen. If the music is driving a scene with no critical dialogue, knock yourself out and turn up the music. If you donít like the music youíve chosen, (I swear this really happens) donít compensate by turning it down really low. A very low sound that might possibly be music it will take viewers out of the film.

License the music you use. Locate the publisher of the music and arrange to pay for synchronization rights. Itís good to pay for things you use that were created by another artist. Imagine how you would feel if somebody took a scene from your film and used it in his or her project without asking you or paying for it. Plus, they can sue the living daylights out of you.

Be careful about using existing popular recordings in your project. There are two reasons for this:

1- They are expensive to license, possibly more so after the project has been completed and picked up by a distributor. If you spend your budget doing a full mix and then on lining and/or making a print of the film, it can be quite costly in post just to remove a piece of music you canít afford to license.

2- Music that youíve heard thousands of times on the radio acquires a power that can overwhelm the scene and mask other problems your film may have. If you decide to drop ďSatisfactionĒ by the Rolling Stones under a scene, a good portion of your audience would settle in for the familiar, enjoyable experience of that song. In fact, they may be relieved that this moment has come and you may mistake that for a response to skilled filmmaking. Now, Iím not saying that if you use popular music in your film that youíre a bad person or a hack filmmaker. Many great films have been made with oft-heard tunes. Iím also not saying that a familiar tune may not be the best element to serve your film. But if you later find out that you canít afford to license the piece, then you may have a not gratifying and expensive time replacing it with music that you must get for nearly free because youíre spending your remaining budget patching it onto the master tape. In short, you wonít get no satisfaction because...

You canít assume that the distributor will pay for an expensive piece of music placed in your project. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they donít.

Using library or existing music will make a scene conform to that musicís rhythm and tempo. This can be good if you cut the scene to the music. Youíll want a large selection of music to choose from, try the Internet or a large post-house. If you canít find what youíre listening for then...

Working with composer is an excellent idea. To me music in film begins with function. Armed with a locked picture, a composer can build a music cue that interacts tightly with a scene in tempo, pacing and tone to make it much more effective than it would otherwise be. Sometimes the composer will have a perfect musical style for your film, but not be as adept at the functional part, so consider both aspects; some projects need more style and some need more function.

If you work with a composer, here are a few tips. Different composers have different strengths. Someone who can knock out a fabulous piece of electronica in a few hours may not be so swift with a string quartet, so it helps to have a fair idea of what youíre looking for before hiring a composer. This is the main reason one uses temp music in the picture edit. Musicians speak a specific language that makes crucial distinctions between issues of rhythm, melody, harmony, timbre, feel, pitch and timing. If you donít know what these things specifically refer to, be up front with your composer and theyíll work with you. I promise.

Lock your picture completely before giving it to the composer. They will be able to make the music to order to fit the scene exactly. All of the sound in your film should work together to form a seamless whole, and since the dialogue must be in absolute sync with the image, it is the music that must adjust. A good composer will make it all flow. If you recut, it is proper etiquette to pay the composer for any adjustments that he or she must make to the music. The composer is probably dealing with lots of sound elements in whatever system in use and will know best how to make adjustments. Finished mixes should be delivered to the picture editor as stereo .aif or .wav files and to the mixer in six-channel format if they are working in 5.1.

Although I may get some grief for this, Iíll say it anyway: Donít let your composer mix your film. They may favor music over other elements in the film when what is best is a blending of all of the sound elements for the best overall effect. If I may say so myself, an experienced film mixer is the best choice for getting the balances right, making it the right overall level and keeping your film in sync.

Carmen Borgia is the head of audio services for DuArt Film & Video in New York City. He oversees a post production sound department that provides mixing, sound design, restoration, transfer and printmastering. His department caters to independent projects in all formats from mono optical up to digital 5.1.

Editorís note: If anyone has any questions, please submit them to cborgia@duart.com. Carmen will do his best to answer your queries.


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