Want to know how film composer Hans Zimmer comes up with musical ideas for feature films? From Rain Man to The Lion King to Inception and The Dark Knight, Hans is one of the busiest composers in Hollywood and has composed some of the best known film music of our time. To date, Hans has composed over 150 films, making him one of the foremost experts in the world on writing movie scores.
When writing a film score, Hans starts by thinking of a theme as a conversation or as a set of questions and answers. To try this out yourself, find a scene you love in a film, and create an original score by setting up a question and answer motif. Think about the fact that you know how the scene ends before the audience does, and establish a question at the beginning knowing how the scene will conclude. Write a cue that highlights those questions and answer them.
That’s just one tip from Hans about writing movie scores. Here are 12 more, directly from the master himself.
First, you need to pick a key — and stick with it. Hans takes this approach, rarely using many key changes. Hans mentions he likes to write in D, which gives him the solid ground and freedom he needs to create an original theme. Choose a key that gives you the room to express a full range of emotions.
Your job as a composer is to tell a story; stick to the story and never abandon it. You will develop a score that coexists elegantly with the images and words, and colors the world the director creates. To do this, you must live in the world of the story.
To begin living in the world of the story, learn the rules of it from your director. Hans would rather sit down with the director than read the script, to try to get at what’s in the director’s head. Your goal is to arrive at a common language that informs how you’ll approach composing for the story.
In the first conversation, learn the rules of the story from your director. Hans says that the rules can often surprise you, and can give you a framework from which you can build the score. Working within these rules is like playing a game. The rules help you avoid arriving at a mashup of different Play-Doh colors. Only once you’ve established a strong framework of rules for yourself to build from, you can then start to break those rules to add a bit of “freshness.”
Films aren’t made by committee. Your duty is to follow the director’s lead and create a shared musical vision. If you jump into discussing music specifically or even technically, you may miss important subtext that informs the director’s intention.
Hans makes a habit of starting conversations with directors as early as possible and allowing that conversation to inform how the music will shape the story. Avoid having those “reality” conversations that are imagination-killers, and save those for the producer.
Hans likes to write music as soon as possible, even before filming begins, to help influence the direction on set. He avoids temporary music because it can pigeonhole him into something that limits his freedom and creativity. The most effective environment exists when everyone on set works towards serving the story, and uses their individual voices (and talents) to do so. Trust your collaborators’ instincts and help influence their creativity by giving them your music early on in the process.
Hans keeps a music diary in which he writes and captures his ideas from day to day. He doesn’t edit prior work, instead moving on and continuing to develop certain ideas to find the right themes and styles for the film. Some of Hans’ tips for keeping a music diary include:
Find your Doris. Hans has created a persona for whom he writes. This helps him ground his approach to ensure that he’s giving his audience an escape, an experience that she wouldn’t have in her day-to-day life. Write for Doris, and then test the score in front of an audience to see if you’ve achieved the escape they’re looking for.
Sound palettes are used to design the world of the film and give them unique atmospheres. Hans discusses how instrumentation helped to distinguish day from night in Gotham City. As an iconic fictional city, it needed its own distinct sound. Hans considers music and image as complements to one another, and attempts to create sound palettes that coexist with the cinematographer’s approach to telling the story. Hans thinks every composer should study light, color, and editing to help with the world-building.
Hans tells us that it’s important to set up the sound palette early in the film, to inform and invite the audience on the journey into the world that your sounds help build.
Know also when to avoid Mickey Mousing: don’t always hit the cut. By doing so, you can give the audience too much information about what emotion they should feel, which takes them out of the journey. Take them on the journey with you, don’t take it for them. And if the story is complicated, use music to your advantage to entertain them and help tell the story.
Hans talks about his approach to scoring Black Hawk Down, and allowing the score to hit the action one frame ahead of the action on screen. This creates a sense of tension, the idea of an event coming out of nowhere. Watch the film and think about the difference in feeling and emotion had he approached it by hitting the action and hitting the cuts.
Hans encourages students to write for the best cinema experience possible. Your scores will be played in many different environments with varying sound quality, but you should write for the best sound systems possible.
Finding the right tempo might be intuitive by this point in Hans’ career, but it isn’t that way for everyone. Your editor will be your guide as you narrow in on the tempo that best fits the scene at hand. Use the edit as the drum for your score, and determine a BPM from which to build your score that coexists with the edit.
Hans will start composing by setting a metronome. The click is steady, reliable, and serves as your grid as you map out the pace of the drama. Hans used to watch a scene, then turn the picture on to write, and turn it back on to see if his composition and the scene matched up. Now he’s able to identify common bpms. He mentions that 80 BPM is a great starting point, as it is seductive but easily fits with faster paced scenes. 60 BPM is a bit slower and easier to get more profound, whereas 140 is a bit more energetic and dancy.
It’s your job as the composer to write to the strengths of the musicians you’re working with, and the strengths of their instruments. Write with specific players in mind, so that you don’t find yourself working with a player who can’t execute your vision. Find those collaborators who will find a solution rather than make up excuses for why they can’t create a certain sound.
At the end of the day, Hans believes that you want to achieve what he calls “authentic passion,” and you want to work with musicians who will take the tune you wrote and “set fire to it.”
Hans tells us that revisions should be a conversation between the composer and director, rather than about giving feedback and notes. It’s a collaboration, the goal of which is trying to find and write the best music for the story.
Revisions happen early in the process. During the diary process, Hans is figuring out his way into the score, and revising his intention as he gets more precise about the rules for his score. Take comfort in knowing that even for Hans, showing his music to the director is an emotionally tough experience, and he becomes fragile in the process. Show it to your music editor or a key collaborator first, and ask a very simple question: “Is it shit?”
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