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Arts & Entertainment

Chasing a Moving Edit

Danny Elfman

Lesson time 11:01 min

Composing to an evolving film is a challenge. Danny explains how to find the editor’s tempo and rhythm, how to get in to and out of musical phrases, and how to sync to picture.

Danny Elfman
Teaches Music for Film
Oscar-nominated composer Danny Elfman teaches you his eclectic creative process and his approach to elevating a story with sound.


[MUSIC PLAYING] - How to find the tempo of an editor is a really-- it's something I learned way back at number one, "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure." And I was trying to teach myself, how do I catch cues? I was in the breakfast machine. I was in a couple of different cues. And I realized it wasn't that difficult. But then I also realized later why it wasn't difficult. It wasn't difficult, because I had a good editor. And Billy Webber, who was the editor on that film, did a really good job. And what I discovered was that I didn't have to count anything out. I was intuitively finding the pace of the editing. And if I found the editor's pace, making things fall where I wanted to was just magical and easy. And I thought, wow, this is, like, so much easier than I thought. I'm starting a phrase here. And it ends right, boom-- right on that-- wow, how did that happen? Well, it wasn't magic. I just didn't know it at the time-- that the editing had a pace to it. And I found that editor's rhythm. And once I found that rhythm, making things hit and fall where I wanted it was really easy. Now here's the hitch. First version of a film-- early versions are usually the best paced with the editing. There's a point-- not the rough cut. But it's an early cut. And you're finding that you're scoring it. And, wow, I'm making everything fall just where I want it. I'm not fighting it to make it happen. And now, over the next eight weeks or 10 weeks, the film is going to tighten, and tighten, and tighten. And there's a number of screenings that are going to happen. And as the screenings are going to happen, notes are going to come back. And then things start getting shorter, and things start getting tighter. And all of the sudden, they're saying, oh, you got to redo this cue. And you can't make it work. And it's like, Jesus, I'm fighting it right now. And that's because towards the very end in the 11th hour-- I don't know whether all editors necessarily realize this or not. I don't think directors really do-- they're losing their pace. They're losing their tempo. And I can't tell you how many films I've worked on that, between what I thought was the final-ish cut that I was scoring and the cut that was released, it's two minutes shorter. It's three minutes shorter. It's no big deal. But it feels longer. And it feels longer, because lots of little cuts-- many, many many little cuts happen. And a little bit of breathing room is cut at these moments. It becomes like a fear factor that happens, where it's like, there's a dead spot. Bam, cut it. And the tempo starts to disappear. And now, as the composer, we're stuck in this terrible place. This is where the sound effects guys are really lucky. Because the individual effects, you just tighten, and tighten, and tighten. And you go with it, and you go with it, and you go with it. But when you're in tempo, and you've got 4/4 and 3/4 going, and you've got a tune that's happening, and suddenly...

About the Instructor

From The Simpsons theme to the soundtracks of Tim Burton’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and The Nightmare Before Christmas, Danny Elfman’s compositions are original, memorable, and exuberantly weird. Now the Oingo Boingo founder and four-time Oscar nominee shares his unconventional (and uncensored) creative process. Step into Danny’s studio and learn his techniques for evoking emotion and elevating a story through music.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Appreciated the horror stories about the pitfalls and overcoming them

This class taught me a lot about the composing process, workflow, and more. I found this information really valuable.

Loved this dude! A very human and exciting experience into his world of music for film and what it really takes to make it in the industry.

When you get emotional, see the bigger picture. He's the complete antithesis of Chris Voss. Danny teaches how to implant knowledge, not extract it.


Antonia T.

I was amazed to hear that Danny cannot write the notes he hears in his head (and needs to try them on a keyboard). Nevertheless this doesn't stop him from writing the most poetic and cool music. Interesting.

Suzanne W.

This lesson is fantastic. I have never though about how hard making music and film edits match up can be. Writing music is hard enough and making it fit with edits of a film is quite a challenge. Yikes..

Sean M.

I think this lesson in particular drives home how analytical a process creating a cohesive film score can be. It's very clear to me by this point how "whole minded" Danny is, in that he is as much an artist as he is a problem solver.

Les P.

I can't imagine how frustrating it would be to write for a hit point and have the scene edited so the music no longer works.

Marcus M.

I remember hearing composers talk about the tempo of an editor. Or how an editor somehow cut a scene to a specific tempo. I think that is awesome. I've found on some of the small projects I've worked on, I was able to find a tempo where most of the hits matched key points in the video. It's those changes and re-edits that messes things up. LOL....

Brian Michael F.

So glad he talked about this! I thought maybe I was crazy!!! It’s freaking hard sometimes to get in and out of your idea!!!

Glenn M.

Danny, you gave us the heart and soul of true music composition as you spoke from the heart. It doesn’t hurt to have 36 years of being in the trenches. Loved it!