Filmmaking and the Power of Composition (the Musical Kind)

Composer, arranger and world-class musican Ryan Frayley created the original score for our 48 Hour Film Project.

Perhaps the most commonly-asked question among new filmmakers and videographers (especially in the event filmmaking world) is, “Can I use popular music in my video if I pay for it? Or if the client gives it to me?” The answer is an unequivocal NO. Technically, if you use popular music in your video without the proper rights, it is an illegal use of that music. (Read my “Music in Film” blog post if you want to read up on the details of how to do it right). In the event video world, thousands of filmmakers get away with it all the time simply because it’s obviously not worth it to the music rights holders to go chasing after mom and pop wedding videographers for rights to music used in people’s personal wedding and event work. However, when it comes to producing commercial work, or personal film projects, especially ones that stand the chance to be aired on regional or national television, or shown theatrically, it’s a whole different ballgame.

If you want to use music legally in a short film production, you have one of four choices: obtain the rights to a popular song you like which could costs thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars (even licensed music from sites like Triple Scoop Music, whose songs are generally only $60 a pop when used for online videos, promotional videos, or event videos, can cost a few thousands dollars when used for short films); use royalty free collections like Digital Juice’s; throw something together yourself using programs like SonicFire Pro or Garage Band; or, get someone to create original music for you. For most of my productions, licensed music or royalty free collections work great. Going into our 48 Hour Film Project last week, I fully expected to be using one of the “cinematic” sounding tracks from my Digital Juice library. But then my terrific line producer Amy reached out to her network of connections and found us a minor miracle—composer, arranger and producer Ryan Fraley.

Creating an Original Soundtrack

I had my doubts what could be created in such a short period of time. But in the end, Ryan came up with not one, not two, not three, but FIVE original pieces of music for us to use. I remember being on set Saturday night when I got the email with links to the first two songs, Evelyn’s Theme and Tom’s Theme. As I listened to the tracks I was blown away. This was the first time I have ever had original music created for one of my projects, and it was like a natural high.

Saturday morning I sent Ryan a copy of our script and told him which scenes I definitely wanted music for. I wanted something ominous and eerie for Tom’s theme (Tom Goodwin is the main character and one of the elements required to be in the film). I wanted something mellow and bohemian for Evenlyn’s Theme (the lead female character). For the general score I wanted something futuristic, perhaps inspired by the movie “Brazil.” The results were better than I had hoped. Tom’s theme was indeed an ominous and eerie tune with futuristic whines and long, melodramatic strings. The title track has a sci-fi thriller feel with what sounds like marching cellos and violins combined with more futuristic beeps and whirls, with a crescendo drum segment. My favorite is Evelyn’s theme. It starts out with this lonely, single pluck at a harp that is joined later by some chimes. In all we used four of the five songs. The fourth is used over the credits and perfectly captures the spirit of the ending.

There are three main benefits for having an original score created for your work:

  1. Uniqueness. Having an original score is one of the best ways to set your film apart. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched a video online and recognized the track from Digital Juice (despite the fact they have hundreds of songs in almost 50 collections). Triple Scoop Music has over 5,000 original songs, many from Grammy and Emmy-award-winning artists, and every now and then I still hear the same song used in different photographer promos. But, when I watch a film from Whitestone Motion Pictures (who has a freaking amazing composer on their team) I know that will be the only place I will ever hear those songs.
  2. Custom Fit. An original score is like getting a custom made suit. It fits perfectly. You can have just the right level of crescendos, peaks and valleys for your film, and make each scene just as you envision it.
  3. Legality. The last obvious benefit is that you’re creating music for your piece that is legal to use.

Finding the Talent

We got lucky in that our line producer happened to have an old high school friend who just happened to be a world class composer (I actually like to believe it was providential.😉 If you’re not in such a situation, here are some ideas you could use to find an original musician:

  • Ask around online filmmaking communities like Vimeo. This is actually where I’d start. Of all the amazing film talent on that site, you know there are hundreds, if not thousands of connections to eager and hungry composers looking to get their work heard in your opus.
  • Contact companies like Triple Scoop Music or With Etiquette to see if they have any artists willing to do work for short or indie films.
  • Check out your city’s indie music scene to find artists looking to get their work out.
  • Reach out to musicians in your church’s worship band for connections.
  • Make connections at your local music supply store like Guitar Center
  • Craigslist

And it goes without saying that I can’t recommend Ryan Frayley enough. Check out his work. The nice thing about having music created for you is that the composer doesn’t have to live in your town. Ryan is in Indiana. As long as you each have a high speed internt connection, you can do business.

Hear Our Soundtrack

So you’re probably thinking to yourself, “Okay Ron, enough with the descriptions already. Let’s hear this music.” Well, you’ll have to wait. If you’re in the Atlanta area, I strongly encourage you to come to the premiere of ours (and 15 other) short films for our group. At 9:45 pm tomorrow, June 18 at the Plaza Atlanta Theater our film “The Last Author” will be played. Tickets are only $10. Click here to buy them. If you’re in the area, please come out. We need your support. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait for a week or so until we’re allowed to post the films online.

5 thoughts on “Filmmaking and the Power of Composition (the Musical Kind)

  1. I’m starting to explore some music options, too. Archive.org has some Creative Commons-licensed music (and other audio), as well. Probably better suited to non-commercial work, and also likely a wider range of quality, but some nice pieces on there, as well, in a pinch. Especially for folks just starting out and looking for low-cost options.

    http://www.archive.org/details/opensource_audio

    I’d be interested in any other links to similar projects that folks could share, as well.

  2. As a composer it’s really nice to read an article like this. While it may seem intimidating turning over your project to someone else in a sense, you’ll get an expert who will write something exclusive and unique for your film, and you won’t be having to look over your shoulder on legal issues. Plus you know you’ll be doing the right thing as well..

    One thing Ron doesn’t point out is that depending on your project there’s a very good chance you can afford a composer. While many won’t work on large projects for peanuts, you’re likely to find that if you’re professional, and producing something of quality content, even if on a very low budget you still stand a chance to get a decent composer for a very reasonable price (like a couple meals, or gas money), which in many ways is cheaper than purchasing Digital Juice or Sonicfire libraries. No, not all composer music styles will fit every need, and you can definitely hire the wrong composer for your film if you’re just looking blind, but the general benefits of hiring almost any composer far outweigh whatever caveats there may be.

    Phil Anderson
    Portland, OR

  3. Great info Ron! Actually a while back you featured a music video I produced for a band called Clocks & Clouds, they will also be able to create an original score for your project. They are amazing.. if you want something loaded with emotion or just plain epic.. check them out! You can contact them about pricing.

    Ron’s post: http://bladeronner.com/2011/02/12/a-song-that-will-take-you-on-an-emotional-journey/
    C&C’s site: http://www.clocksandcloudsmusic.com/
    Email Luke to chat about a project: Lucas@clocksandcloudsmusic.com

    D

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