A friend recently asked me how I start my creative process when composing for a television drama. So, I thought I’d share my approach with you here.
The beauty of coming on board as a composer for a new scripted drama is the excitement of starting with a clean slate, knowing that anything is musically possible.
The only thing holding you back is your imagination. What comes with this feeling that anything is possible is the slightly daunting prospect of where do I start.
From the outset, working on a television drama series is all about collaborating with the production team. It’s like being a small cog in a giant machine – to run smoothly every individual part needs to be aligned – I think of my role as composer being one of those cogs. The synergy created by this way of working is what makes the whole process so rewarding.
It all starts when I am sent the scripts for the first few episodes.
After I have had my initial read though, my first point of contact is usually with the producer and often the executive producer, who is responsible for hiring the heads of departments. While they may not speak in musical terms, these producers have a very clear picture of what they are trying to achieve with the script.
I love these conversations as they may not touch on anything musical at all but slowly begin to paint a picture in my head of how things could look and sound. The daunting thought of endless possibilities begins to ebb away, as slowly a musical direction for the drama beings to form in my mind.
Sometimes this starting point can be a certain track of mine that I sent to the producer, or the tone of an episode that I scored previously, or even the idea of using certain instruments in a particular way. It’s these early discussions that help to narrow the goalposts on what is possibly required for the final soundtrack.
At this stage, I am usually introduced to the first block director, either on the set (if the shoot has started) or via video call.
In a 12-part drama, the episodes are often divided among 3-6 directors. The director of the first block is tasked with the ‘vision’ for the series, setting the tone and style in these early shows for the rest of the series. So those early conversations about music are critical as they divulge their thoughts and reasons for shooting things a certain way. I remember a director on Silent Witness wanting to shoot two episodes in a hospital to give these scenes an industrial look, these small details informed me how to create a cohesive soundtrack aligned with the narrative.
As shooting gets underway, I love to send in my initial musical sketches for the edit. I would far rather have an editor temping the music with my first ideas than music from another composer’s soundtrack.
The beauty of these early pieces is that not only do they immediately create a very original soundworld but they can begin to help inform the style and feel of the subsequent films.
I always aim to have the tone and style of the music dialled in as the edit moves from assembly to fine cut. Not only is this helpful for me, but it also enables the executive producer to get a closer vision of what the director’s intentions are, rather than seeing an on-screen caption with ‘TEMP MUSIC TO BE REPLACED’ as is often the case.
Now with the film in fine cut, it is time to finesse certain cues and perhaps rewrite others. Sometimes a music editor or picture editor working with stems or various cues brings something unusual to the cut, which can provoke another avenue of musical exploration. At this fine-cut stage, there is still time to experiment and try out ideas. Sometimes a note comes down to me from the executive producers asking if ‘can the music help out here, or can the music help drive this scene?’
Once the picture lock is reached the final cut gets sent to me with the timecode and the pictures should no longer change, though this is not always the case.
Depending on the earlier involvement of the director this is when we might have a spotting session, where we both watch the entire film together stopping and starting at each point where there is music to discuss each scene. If my music is already in the cut, this makes any additional musical changes seamless. On average for a 60-minute episode, I will have two weeks to compose, record and mix the score.
It still amazes me how often my early musical ideas or slight variations on them end up in the final films. I believe this collaborative process of scoring informs me and excites me to create just the right sound for each drama.
Even though I have been composing music for TV and film for twenty years I am still learning. The craft of adding music to picture is an incredibly exciting and stimulating process and working with great directors, producers and editors to bring stories to life is my passion.