How to Spot a Film

How to Spot a Film

In this article, you’ll learn my philosophy on spotting a film. I’ll also cover some of the tools, techniques, and tricks that I use to get the most out of the spotting experience. If your new to film scoring, this article will be a great primer to figuring out how to make your music work with film. If you’re an experienced film composer, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject.

P.S. “Film music” refers to scoring any kind of media. This could be TV, video games, web series, feature films, or some new thing in the future I haven’t seen yet. The concepts in this article are universal.

What is Spotting?

Spotting is the process of watching a film to determine how the music should interact with it. You are looking for cue starts and stops, critical moments to focus on or “hit”, tempo choices and musical structure.

Why is spotting important?

Spotting is a critical step in scoring a film. Spending extra time spotting and thinking about all the variables makes composing easier.

Not to say the composing will always be easy. Sometimes it feels natural and you have a good idea about how things should sound. Other times you feel like you’re grabbing in the dark for ideas.

Proper spotting gets your subconscious working on the musical problems. When you finally sit down to write, ideas tend to come easier.

What I Am Looking For When I Spot a Film

The first rule of spotting is figuring out what the music is supposed to do and what the music knows.

What the Music is Supposed To Do

Film music often serves multiple roles. It could be adding an emotion that is hard to identify within a character. It could be commenting on the relationship between two characters. It could also be adding some feeling of speed and tempo to a scene, or maybe adding a feeling of calm.

It’s your job to figure out what that is. In a sense, it isn’t the director or producer. You are the professional when it comes to music. They are hiring you not just for your skill, but for your opinion. And you should have strong musical opinions.

The most important thing to be think about is the story. Story is king, and the music should be about enhancing the story.

What the Music Knows

This is a strange concept, but once you get it, it is extremely useful. While you watch a film, things unfold over time. The story may jump back and forth, but you as a viewer only watch in real time. Because of this, you only know what you’ve seen. If you are in the middle of a film, you don’t know what is going to happen at the end.

But the music is not constrained by this. Music is a great way to foreshadow events, or ignore things that are known. For instance, you could use a theme foreshadowing a character’s dive into darkness. Or that same character could be doing something that will lead them down the wrong path, and you putz along with your lydian-mode happiness.

It’s critical that you don’t give away any information too early. There is a fine line between foreshadowing, and spoiling.

The Process of Spotting a Film

Ideally when spotting, I use my DAW digital performer, which I will talk about a little bit later. I’ll load up my session and add the movie files. This allows me to add markers while I spot.

Sometimes I have to meet a director outside my studio, and I can’t use Digital Performer. In that case, i’ll just take the best notes I can.

One third way that I’ve used a lot recently is Skype. I’ll discuss using Skype below in the tools section of this article.

The Types of Markers I Use

For each film, I use very specific markers:

  1. Start marker. Each cue has a start marker. I will usually label them “m01 – Start”, “m02 – Start” etc. I haven’t yet had a film with multiple reels, so I don’t typically use the “1m1” style of cue name. The desired effect of the cue (soft and emotional, fast action, etc.) will determine where this marker is. It could be right on an explosion, or the beginning of a chase scene, or you could have to sneak it in behind some sound effects so the audience doesn’t notice when the music starts exactly.
  2. End marker. If I can put my finger on a specific moment when the cue ends, I’ll also add an end marker. This isn’t as critical because sometimes you don’t really know when the music should fade out exactly. But I do try to add these.
  3. Hit markers. Hit markers tell me two important things.
    1. There are critical things the music should line up with. These usually entail some kind of formal division in the music. As a composer I often thing of the form of the cue. I’ve heard other composers say they don’t think film music uses musical form in the traditional sense. Instead, the “film is the form”. But it completely misses the point. The form is just the culmination of techniques used to relate your music to time. There is a big difference in the effect of your music when you state a full theme for 8 measures, versus fragmenting that with techniques of continuation. Traditional form very much applies to film scoring. You just have to know how to apply it.
    2. Hit markers help me determine the correct tempo for a scene. Finding the correct tempo can make or break a cue. I’ll discuss this just a little bit.
  4. Descriptive markers. Descriptive markers are there just to remind me of something in the scene that I want to comment on or remember. It could be a line from the dialogue, a visual element, or something to foreshadow. But they aren’t as weighty as a hit marker. They also usually don’t have a major effect on the tempo.
Adding markers in digital performer. This is the start of m02.
Adding markers in digital performer. This is the start of m02.

Deciding on a Rough Tempo

Tempo is probably the most critical musical factor. More than harmony and orchestration, the tempo can make or break your cue.

But how do you determine the tempo?

After watching the film a few times through, you should have an idea of the rough tempo required for each cue. Usually the best way to start is to just sit there and clap, or tap a tempo on the table. Go with your gut feeling. Fast tempos give forward momentum. They are great for building up tension, or moving a slow scene along. Slow tempos can have an effect of freezing time. They are particularly good at magnifying small elements on screen.

Once I feel I have a rough idea of the tempo, I’ll use a tempo tapping tool to find what my tempo is. Just google around. I’ve actually used this one quite a bit. It’s simple and it works.

Finding the Optimal Tempo

One of the reasons I use digital performer is because it has tempo finding tools built into it. This makes it ideal for film composers.

Once I’ve determined a rough tempo, I will select the markers that are critical in the cue, usually hit markers and the end marker (if I have one). In digital performer, you check a little box called find. You also have a weight. You can leave it at normal, but there are usually several within a cue that are “Very Important”. Digital performer will attempt to find a tempo that hits those first. Tempo changes from cue to cue, so I make sure I only select markers that are applicable to the cue I am working on.

The markers in digital performer allow you to find the optimal tempo.
The markers in digital performer allow you to find the optimal tempo.

Once I’ve selected all the markers to use, I open the find tempo dialogue box.

Digital Performers Find Tempo Dialogue Box
Digital Performers Find Tempo Dialogue Box

As you can see, I can tell it a tempo range, say 117 to 123 bpm, with increments of 0.25 bpms. This tempo is for quarter notes, but you can have it look for markers that would also hit on downbeats by selecting a whole note in the “Compare Hits to Closest” box on the right.

It will then give me a list of tempos to choose, and show me how many frames off each beat is from each marker at the bottom. Hitting apply changes the tempo in the sequence (when you are in conductor track tempo mode).

Composing

From this point on, composing is a little easier than just winging it. You know the start and stop times of the cue, and you have a tempo, which means you have a set number of measures to fill. Based on the important hits, and shape of the scene, you can map out your form and get to work.

Occasionally I need to change the start point just a little, but then I just find a new tempo that matches the hit points. Its usually close to the original, but it could be a beat or so off.

Tools

  • Digital Performer. DP is my preferred DAW. In particular it has two features that make it great for film composing. First, the chunks feature allows you to have multiple sessions within the same file, all using the same plugins. This is important because you can set it up to switch between cues, or even different versions of the same cues, with having to reload your instruments. Second, the tempo finding features are the best out there that I’ve seen.
  • Voice Recording software on your phone. This comes in handy during the spotting session if you are not at your main computer. You can record the entire conversation and just have a record of what the director wants exactly.
  • Skype and Loopback Audio – Loopback allows me to funnel any audio on my computer and share it through Skype, or Youtube Live. This means I can spot remotely, and the director and I are working from the same video in my DAW. It’s very helpful being able to add the markers with the director, even if they are out of town.

Potential Hit Points When Spotting (A Work in Progress)

Now that we’ve laid out the concept of spotting, I want to share with you a list of potential hit points. I started making this list when I was taking a class for scoring animation. Animation tends to hit a lot of things with the music, so if you are scoring a drama, you won’t want to hit everything you see. But I’ve found that I actually do still notice and often hit things like eye movements, foot falls, or scene changes very often.

The ultimate goal of hitting something musically is to bring focus to the moment. The harder you hit something, the more it comes into focus. Having a good tempo that naturally aligns with the things you want to hit gives you options. Often I don’t need to do anything big musically. Just having the tempo lining up can be enough.

Sudden silence is also an effective way to hit a moment. In fact, it can be the strongest kind of hit. Use it with caution.

Overall Change and Movement

  • Scene changes
  • Dolly movements
  • Panning
  • Zooming
  • Changes in Lighting
  • Following a character to their natural hit point, even if it is off screen.
  • Anything that is obviously important.

Body Movement

  • Eye movements and Blinking
  • Foot falls and Steps
  • Arm movements
  • Running
  • Stretching
  • Jumping or flying through the air
  • Falling
  • Spinning
  • Shivering

Objects and Light

  • Breaking
  • Light shimmering
  • Anything that would make a sound in real life
  • Door slams