I Got the Film Scoring Job, What Happens Next?

Author: Tomas Morton | Updated: | This post may contain affiliate links.

Being a film composer was always my dream job in the music industry. I was so lucky to attend one of the best schools for film scoring – Berklee College of Music in Boston.

After graduation, it took several years of learning the ropes, writing music, producing albums, and trying to get my foot in the door. But then, I finally landed my own movie to score!

And wow, let me tell you, there’s nothing that can truly prepare you for the whirlwind of activity that starts once you land the job.

Most resources out there tell you how to get a job as a film composer, but not many tell you about what happens when you actually get the job – how crazy, complicated, and busy it really is. I wish someone would’ve given me some advice on that!

I thought it’d be helpful to write an article that focuses on what exactly happens after you get that incredibly thrilling phone call saying you’ve landed the gig.

So, here’s a simplified, yet quite concise walkthrough of all the steps that happen from the moment you get the phone call about the job to the final delivery of the music.

Creative Meeting with the Director and Producer

Imagine this – you’re a film composer and your phone rings. It’s your agent (if you’re lucky enough to have one!) sharing the fantastic news: they loved your reel and you’ve got the job!

You’re over the moon… for a few hours. Then, reality sinks in and a wave of panic washes over you. Tomorrow, you’ll be meeting the director in person for the very first time.

Now, while we, as musicians and producers, are used to communicating in musical jargon, having a chat about music with a film director is a whole different ball game. You’ll rarely hear them say things like “Let’s have the violas carry the melody here, and the timpani playing eighth notes starting from bar 35”. Nope, that’s not their lingo.

Instead, they speak in a different language. A language of emotions and colors.

So, this first encounter is more of a brainstorming session. You’ll try to understand what the director wants the audience to feel – the emotions that aren’t obviously portrayed on screen.

As you watch the film together, the director will pinpoint certain plot elements that might need a contrasting theme – to create a sense of discomfort perhaps that wouldn’t be there without the music. It’s a creative meeting, kind of like a first date.

Spotting Session

Once the ice has been broken and the first meeting has taken place, that’s when the real conversation about where score music is needed happens. This is what the industry refers to as the spotting session.

Have you ever seen a movie when it’s a work in progress? It has a large strip of numbers, known as the time code, which helps us pinpoint specific moments in the cut.

In the spotting session, you’ll usually find the movie editor, the director, the music editor (who works for you), the producer, and sometimes the music supervisor. The producer of the film isn’t like a music producer.

He’s more like the finance guy, and he might attend the spotting session to meet you and discuss certain budgetary constraints.

The music editor is your go-to person. As you and the director go through the film, he might say, “Okay, stop right there. That first kiss? That’s where I want the music to start.”

The music editor will mark this as cue number one, noting down the exact time code displayed on the screen where the music should start and end. That’s what we call a music cue.

After that, the music editor compiles what are known as spotting notes. These show you all the key moments where cues are going to happen, and what the director has decided should be the direction of the music.

Thematic Writing

Now comes the exciting part – creating the actual music for the film! Depending on the film’s genre, directors usually want to hear the main theme or hero’s theme first.

For instance, if you’re working on Iron Man, they’ll want to hear the Iron Man theme. If it’s a love story, they’ll want a love theme.

This initial piece can be crucial as it often sets the tone for the rest of the music in the movie and needs to be approved.

Sometimes, the theme doesn’t even have to be aligned with the film at first. They might just want a simple melody on piano and violin, or perhaps even a solo piano piece.

It all depends on the film’s needs and the director’s vision.

Cue Writing

Once we’re all happy with the main themes, we can start focusing on the other cues from the spotting notes. This is where the fun really starts—you get to play around with more instruments and orchestral sounds.

You’ll begin creating your mock-ups or demos, which we’ll send off to the Director for a thumbs-up or some handy feedback.

If the Director loved the first theme or the main theme, he might be keen for you to start weaving those melodies into your other cues. John Williams, the brilliant composer, is an absolute genius at this—you can hear it in movies like Indiana Jones.

Even in the scary, dark parts, there’s a hint of Jones’ theme, but it’s usually in a minor scale and quite dark.

Weaving the theme in different tonalities throughout the score is a little trick that helps make the music stick in the listener’s mind. It’s a lot like the catchy hook of a good pop song.

You might even find yourself humming that motif for days after leaving the theater—and trust me, the director and composer are hoping for just that!

Weekly Update Viewing

When you’ve got about four or five cues ready, it’s time to reunite with the Director. The music editor will place your mock-up demos into the film, and together you’ll see how they enhance each scene.

If everything is spot on, then it’s a green light to proceed with the next batch of music. If something doesn’t quite hit the right note, no worries! You have a chance to tweak it before moving on.

Remember, a film may contain 30 to 40 pieces of music. So, these weekly catch-ups with the director will happen as often as needed until you earn that thumbs up!

Studio Test Screening

After we’ve nailed down a good portion of the movie score and gotten the thumbs up from the Director, we usually have a cozy screening with the top brass and the movie’s producers. Up until this point in the film’s creation, they’ve been listening to what we call temp music or a temporary score.

This might be their first time hearing the original music, lovingly crafted by you, for the film. It can be a bit of a nail-biter, but it’s also incredibly rewarding.

If they love the direction you’re going in, you earn their trust and sometimes you might not even have to see them again!

Non-Orchestral Recording Session

If the Director gives a thumbs up to all the music and the studio and producers are also on board, then you’re all set! You can start recording some of the non-orchestral elements.

This could include electronic music beds, ambient tunes, solo piano pieces (which could be played by you or a professional pianist), and often vocals.

A lot of orchestral sessions take place far and wide, from London to Slovakia, or even remotely via cloud collaboration. Ideally, you’ll want to have all non-orchestral tracks ready and approved by then.

Doing so will save you from having to rehire musicians just to make changes later on.

Orchestral Recording Session

At last, when everything’s approved and no changes can be made, it’s time for the grand finale – the final orchestral recording session. It’s like the last piece in our movie jigsaw puzzle.

To make this session a hit, you need to come prepared. Make sure all your pre-recorded tracks are ready, your tempo maps are laid out, and anything else the orchestra might need to play their best.

And don’t forget about an orchestrator! Unless you’re pulling double duty and orchestrating yourself, which takes a lot of time.

They’ll transcribe all the parts from your Midi mock-up to the actual sheet music that our orchestra will read. It’s a huge task, especially with a 60-piece orchestra.

And it needs to be done well because the last thing we want is to have to correct any mistakes on stage while the clock is ticking and the budget is shrinking. So, let’s make every note count!

Final Music Mix Session

Hey, if everything sails smoothly during the orchestral recording session and the music earns the thumbs-up from the Director, Producers, and perhaps even the head of music at the studio – then you’re all set to have your audio engineer dive into the final mix session.

Picture this, if you’re using a full orchestra, this could turn into a whopping 700-track ProTools session, loaded with everything from loops, vocals, choir, full orchestra, and even guitars and drums added to the mix.

It’s a wild ride, that’s for sure! But don’t worry, a top-tier professional mix engineer will be called in to deliver you the final mix.

Dub Mix Session

Once the mix engineer has completed your final mix and everything has been approved, the audio engineer begins to lay out groups of stems. These are typically stereo groups of individual families.

You’ll find a stem for all the percussive accents and big hits throughout the cue, then a guitar or melodic stem, synths and piano stem, orchestra stem, pulses or arpeggios stem, bass stem, and finally, a beats stem.

And then, our super-talented music editor steps in for the ultimate dub of the movie. This is the magical moment when everything for the movie ties together – the sound effects, the dialogue, special effects, and of course, the music.

They pass these stems over to our movie’s dub engineer to blend seamlessly into the final movie. And just like that, you’re done!

Ready to jump into the next project? Can’t wait to hopefully celebrate with you at the Oscars!

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About Tomas Morton

Tomas is a record producer, engineer, and synthesizer enthusiast based in Pasadena, CA. He received training at Berklee College of Music in Boston and the Musicians Institute in Hollywood, CA. When not in his studio, he can often be found scouring garage sales or Craigslist ads for vintage gear treasures.

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