The Spotting Session: The First Music Production Step in Scoring A Film

There are multiple steps to creating a film. Post production is where the music production falls, but what's the first step? 

Have you ever thought about the music production it takes to make a film? You might be surprised. The finished product provides an audience with about 2 and a half hours of entertainment. But before that, there begins a process that can take a few years. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of people are involved in creating a film.

The filmmaking process can be divided into three main categories: pre-production, production and post-production. At each of these stages, many people contribute their talents. In pre-production, decisions are made, actors are chosen, and sets and costumes are designed and built. This can take many months to accomplish. During production, the film is shot. This may involve shooting on a soundstage or on location. Again, this can take many months to complete.

The most interesting phase of filmmaking is post-production. This stage can also take many months to complete. During this stage, sound effects are added, computer generated effects are created, and music production for the film starts. Usually only one person is employed for this task: the composer. However, the composer alone could not complete this task. The composer generally needs a number of key people to help him. In this series, the process of how to score a film will be explored and explained.

THE SPOTTING SESSION

The music production process for a film is one of the last steps in post-production. Once production is finished, the director and film editor take all the film shot during production and piece it together to create a cut of the film. Once the film is cut together, it is time to bring in the composer and music editor for a spotting session.

A spotting session is where decisions are made regarding where music will appear in a film. During the spotting session, the director, the composer, and the music editor watch the raw cut of the film and discuss where music will go. The director relays to the composer what the music’s role is in each scene of the film. Often times, the director uses non-musical terminology and the composer must interpret what the director means. The role of the music editor is to listen to the conversation between the director and composer and take notes on where the music will be placed. In order to place the music precisely, the music editor must notate the exact timing of where the music will begin and where it will end.

Temp Tracks

Often, directors will use a temp track. This is music selected by the director, reflecting the mood of the music the composer is to emulate in his original score. Temp tracks will not usually appear in the finished film and will eventually be replaced by the original score. Temp tracks can be very helpful to the composer. They can also be a hinderance. If a composer feels that there should be a different focus for the music, he may feel locked in by the temp track. Most of the time, however, director and composer work together without much issue.

Here, George Lucas (director) and John Williams (composer) discuss the music for Star Wars: Episode I. Ken Wannberg, John Williams’ music editor, can be seen in the background:

https://youtu.be/K0ezvZo2AWc?t=1m32s

Here is another spotting session for Star Wars: Episode 5:

https://youtu.be/hu7_dMhdciw?t=2m56s

Things To Consider

There are many things to consider when deciding where music, or a cue, will be placed. “In general, music starts most effectively at a moment of shifting emphasis” (Karlin/Wright, p. 49). Some examples are:

1. A new emotional emphasis or subject inn the dialogue

2. A new visual emphasis with the camera

3. A camera move, which almost always is conceived for emphasis

4. A new action, such as a car driving off, a person leaving the room, a cop ducking behind a barrier

5. A reaction to something that has been said or has occurred

   (Karlin/Wright, p. 49)

In addition to a spotting session, composers also have the opportunity to read the script. This can be helpful. However, a script cannot provide the same insight that the actual film can. By watching the film, a composer can get a sense of the five critical moments mentioned above. In addition, a viewing of the film can reveal places where it might be effective not to have music and places where sound effects would drowned out a music cue. Most composers opt for a spotting session instead of reading a script.

After the spotting session, the music editor will create a spotting sheet for the composer to work from while composing the music. The sheet will contain the timings and notes discussed by the director and composer. It is at this point that the composer is ready to begin the next step: composing the music. Compared to the time allotted for the other aspects of the film’s creation, the music must be written in a relatively short time. Composers usually have a strategy to help them complete their music cues quickly. This is only the beginning of the music production process for scoring a film. 

Bibliography

Karlin, Fred; Wright, Rayburn. On The Track. New York: Schirmer Books, 1990.

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