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Arts & Entertainment

Starting Your Score: The Spotting Session

Danny Elfman

Lesson time 10:40 min

The first day on the job for a film composer is the spotting session, where it’s critical to listen to your director. Danny explains how to map out your score and determine length, budget, and how to overcome temporary music.

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] INSTRUCTOR: Depending on the film, the beginning is officially the spotting session. You sit with the editor, and sometimes the producer, and certainly, the director. And you run the film top to bottom. And in running the film top to bottom, you find every moment. Music starts here. Music starts here. It runs 2 minutes and 15 seconds, and it kind of comes out here. Now you give that a number, and the number is based-- again, this is an antiquated system, but it's still how we do it. It might be-- it's in the first reel of the film. So it's the fifth piece of music. So it's 1m05. Reel 1, music 5. And I'll encourage the director during the spotting session to talk about it a little bit. Tell me the thing you're concerned about. So I've had spotting sessions that take two days, where literally, the director wants to talk about it so much, we can only spot half the movie in one day and half on the next day. It happens, and that's just director to director. And the other extreme would be Tim Burton, who, if the movie is an hour 45 long, the spotting session will be an hour 55. He doesn't like to talk about the movie. He just doesn't like to talk about it. So I'll encourage him to say something about the cue. So he might just go, make sure this is sad, or make sure this gets really hopeful here. OK, next. And so we're basically just starting and stopping and really defining music starts, music stops, giving it a name and a number. I should add that the really important thing about the spotting session is everybody now knows how long the score is. And there's a huge budgetary condition because it's abstract. Well, we think there's about 60 minutes of music, but the spotting comes in at 75. Everybody's got to adjust the budget and the number of days of recording for 75 minutes, rather than 60. Or it's the other way. Well, the music only came in at 51 minutes. OK, we're actually really good, or we could even maybe give up one session. So from the studio standpoint, this is actually a very important moment because they're going to get a number. And that number is going to tell them how many sessions, how big of an orchestra. And there's a huge budgetary process that has to happen, and that also begins with the spotting session. [MUSIC PLAYING] Temp music is the bane of every composer. And that's a huge part of a composer's job. Now, some directors are remarkably unconnected, disconnected from the temp music. And that is just like having a huge weight lifted off of my shoulders when I sit down with the director and I'm looking at a film for the first time. Because usually, the very first time I see it, it's going to have a temp score. Because I'm actually looking at some kind of preview cut that they're generally looking at. Sometimes it's not. Like, again, some directors are just literally showing me the film on an editing machine. And I'll say, just play me a cue you're in love with. And so I don't want to hear ...

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.

I liked Danny's honesty and I felt like he shared tangible skills. I also just loved that it was very encouraging for people of all backgrounds.

Love this class! Danny's made his masterclass relatable even if you are in a different industry. Love his energy in life and his work.

Danny's insight is inspiring yet practical. I felt as if I had a personal mentorship with him from watching the videos. Well worth the price of admission.

Loved it! I'm not a music composer but I love Danny Elfman so this class was really great to hear how he works. I think this would be vastly helpful for anyone in that field and even though I don't think I'll be writing music for films anytime soon, his creativity and passion inspired me.


Suzanne W.

I have always wondered how the composer and director get past the Temp music and demos with synth strings. Their vision has to be so profound that they know exactly what they are shooting for musically. I know from doing my own recording that it is very easy to get "attached" to a theme, musical passage or harmony that can be hard to change the sound design, form or music even if it may be better. It is so easy to hear what was done first as the only music that will fit there. Good advice on handling the director!!!

Onalivia S.

Being a film production student in college right now, I found this lesson to be very beneficial when it comes to composers and directors working together. I'm hoping to become a film director one day, so I'm glad I'm learning about the value of having a true orchestral score rather than using temp music. Composers should be given the freedom to create something unique and fresh, and not feel held down with all of these expectations to make their score sound just like the temp music.

Rob H.

Being that I work with virtual instrument a lot. I do agree that getting a rich full worm sound is really a challenge. I will say its not hard to tell when a film score in a movie is practical or all virtual instruments. In its defense, music in today's films would not be possible without it.

Rob H.

I find it interesting. I also spent countless hours at the movie theater when I was young. Movies back then only cost 25 cents at the local theater. I even worked as a projectionist at the same theater later in life. I still go to movies weekly, with a keen ear on the music. The first song I learned to play on the guitar was “The Twilight Zone”! Thanks for sharing your journey!

Ryan W.

I agree wholeheartedly. I think everything that is within the composer's control should be authentic and not recycled and/or thrown into a cookie cutter machine. It is difficult to work with synthetic sounds at times because they often do not properly convey how something will sound with real instrumentation or live performance. It is also hard to remember the difference between sample sounds and real instruments at times as well. I have tried to memorize the color and flavor of an army of different instruments just so I can remember how it will "actually" sound. I have second guessed myself multiple times. I know what something will sound like or what effects it is going to have in a piece of music, but after working on something time and time again dealing with poly sounds or sample sounds, I start to think it isn't going to sound right or how I want it to sound. People may be surprised, but even sample sounds do not end up being quite as much like the real instrument as people think. When it is digitalized and placed into a file, certain things get lost even though it was sampled from the real instrument. It is different when someone records an actual performance because the process is left alone and maybe a couple of things are touched on a mixer like volume tabs, but that is it.

Patrick D.

I find this happens so often in regards to the director falling in "love" with the temp music because they're accustomed to it for so long. Like you say it's our job to create something new and fresh, and using your words it's "bullshit" if we do otherwise! Thanks for reinforcing these points, Mr Elfman!

Joel S.

I love the way Danny described the "battle" with the director in working through the temp music phase... specifically how to position yourself when your score doesn't do the exact same thing they've been hearing in the editing room. It's also very inspiring to hear him talk about the way an orchestra, big or small, brings your music to life in ways samples could never.

Ryan T.

So... when you're sharing your cues with a director, are you doing full recording sessions? How do you do this cost effectively?

Eirik M.

I value Danny's honesty in this. I'd like to thank him for encouraging us to fight for our own ideas rather than just go the easy route and satisfy the director more quickly with closely matching the temp score. I'll take that with me to the next time I find myself in that situation.

Marcus M.

There are some companies getting really good though. Still not the real thing, but Spitfire is trying to get there. LOL...