Danny Elfman’s Film Scoring Tips
Danny is unique amongst many film composers in that his career actually started outside of film as the founder of the band Oingo Boingo. Danny first started scoring films when Tim Burton asked him to try his hand at film composition and write the score for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Since then Danny has written some of the most iconic scores in film industry.
Below are some of Danny’s tips for working as a film composer:
- Watch the film as a viewer. The first step in any film scoring process is actually watching the film—getting an instinctive feel for its rhythms, its tone, and the areas where music will play an important role. Ideally you can find an informal way to do this before sitting down to work—at a screening, public or private, or even in an editing booth, where you can absorb the film as a complete work and react to it as a viewer. Your first professional viewing of the movie will likely be in a spotting session, which is usually held in a small screening room. During a spotting session, you and the director can sit down and go through the film scene-by-scene, making note of where music should start and stop, how long each cue or combination of cues will be, and numbering each cue. These cues will be noted on what’s called a cue sheet where you’ll keep track of where music should come over the course of a film and how long each piece should be.
- Communication is key. One of the biggest challenges you might face in writing a film score is communicating with your director. The spotting session is your first opportunity to formally discuss the director’s thoughts and feelings about what they want from your music, and music can be a notoriously difficult thing to describe and discuss (even for a composer). Some directors have musical experience, but even if you can discuss musical terms in detail with the director, you may not hit on exactly what they want out of a score. Discussing the feelings, the intensity, perhaps the tempo—does your director want fast-paced music, stately music, insistent music?—can often help indicate what the director is looking for better than technical jargon. In some cases, a director may be uncomfortable discussing anything about the film’s music, so it is your responsibility to draw them out as much as possible at the spotting session.
- Choose your moments. Danny advocates choosing several impactful moments from the feature film and building your original score around these moments. Scoring for film is unlike most other jobs writing music because your film music has to follow an emotional logic that is determined by the narrative of the film. By choosing story moments and considering the journey of the main character and supporting roles, you can start to build a score that will fit nicely with the larger story you are attempting to score.
- Make your own sounds. As a composer, there are many different instruments you have at your disposal when starting the songwriting process. Danny uses acoustic instruments in addition to a synthesizer, his voice and many sample libraries full of sounds he’s collected over the years. The beginning of film scoring is a time for exploration. Danny will play around with different synth tones and sound effects and follow many different musical ideas as he builds his original music. Great music is borne through experimentation. Play with different styles as you put together audio tracks, mockups and temp music that will eventually find their way into your final film score.
- Work on various budgets. On a medium-sized motion picture budget (somewhere between $10 and $25 million), you may plan for a 24-piece orchestra. For a small budget production (anything under $10 million), you may hire seven musicians for two days of recording sessions, using three or four of the players as soloists on one of those days. Often low-budget scores can be crafted with synthesizers and a soloist or two, but any group of players—whether it’s 16, 30, 64, or 90—will give you a different sound, and you must plan your score around the capabilities of your musicians. As a new film composer you may be working on a short film, tv show or even composing for video games. The important thing is to be able to adapt and write an enduring piece of music with engaging musical ideas that can be executed by whatever musical ensemble is afforded to you.
- See the leitmotif. As a composer you use melody in any number of ways. You may construct a melody or theme to provide a structure for your score, or you may use a leitmotif approach to apply specific themes or motifs—shorter musical phrases—to specific characters or story elements. Combining story logic with your knowledge of music theory and songwriting can produce incredibly impactful scores.
- Breathe life into your score. When you first sit down to work on thematic and orchestration ideas for your score, use an instrument you’re comfortable with (even if that particular instrument doesn’t end up in your final score). Historically, film composers have used the piano to experiment with themes and material, not only for themselves, but to demo scores for filmmakers. The range of a piano’s sound creates a perfect test bed for melodies, rhythmic material, and chords. These days composers have a wide array of software, synthesizers, and samples to work with. Use whatever it is that you prefer to work ideas out on.
- Get to know your studio crew. Film composers collaborate with a few other important people in the music department, namely orchestrators and music editors. As an aspiring composer it’s important to be familiar with these other roles and understand their respective duties. The Orchestrator works very closely with the composer and prepares their original score to be performed by live musicians. As their name implies, orchestrators handle the orchestration of a musical composition and decide which musicians and instruments will handle which parts during recording. The music editor is the liaison between the feature film editor and yourself. They will keep you abreast of how editing will affect your cues and film score. In addition to these two roles, a film composer often works alongside a music producer, music supervisor and other professionals in music production.
- Trust your instincts. The directive to “go with your gut” is a cliché for a reason. Creativity does involve instinct—you will feel yours pretty intensely when something is working perfectly (or when it’s not working at all). You may not recognize them so intensely, however, when something is just starting to work (or just starting to go off the rails). As you take the next step in your career and start working more consistently as a film composer, you’ll gain valuable on the job insights and know how that will make your instincts that much stronger and your scores that much better.
Want to Learn More About Film Scoring?
Whether you're an aspiring film composer or simply want to learn more about musical composition, navigating the complex world of music and film can be daunting. No one knows this better than versatile and accomplished film composer Danny Elfman. Danny has scored over 100 films ranging from The Nightmare Before Christmas to Good Will Hunting. In Danny Elfman's MasterClass on music for film, the four-time Oscar nominee shares his approach to writing feature scores, working with directors, and identifying themes and melodies.
Want to become a better composer? The MasterClass Annual Membership provides exclusive video lessons from master composers, including, Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, Itzhak Perlman, Herbie Hancock, and more.