How COVID-19 Affects Scores and Music
As COVID-19 spikes across the country and productions halt to protect casts and crews, many of us are stuck mid-shoot with little idea of when we will be back in business. The halt to in-person production does not affect post-production, however. And many of us are fortunate enough to have projects entering post right now. So, let’s turn our attention there and look at one of the final pieces of any production and one that must not be overlooked: Music.
Music plays a powerful role in any production. It amplifies the emotion, guides the audience, builds tension, adds emphasis, and so much more. Music has a transformative effect and, without it, iconic scenes become empty shells. Just take a look at the original training montage from “Rocky” and one with the music removed. Music, clearly, helped to cement that scene in the cultural zeitgeist.
COVID-19 has changed the way we make movies and television shows at every level. From pre-production to distribution, no aspect of our industry has been left untouched by this pandemic. This article is designed to help you understand how best to score and add music to your finished film and television shows during COVID-19.
To do this, we will focus on trying to eliminate the need to convene a large, live orchestra in a tight indoor space. This is simply not recommended during the pandemic. So, let’s look at some alternatives that can keep the power of music in our movies and television shows while simultaneously avoiding an outbreak.
In this article, we will highlight three ways to avoid unsafe recording conditions.
- Organize Temp Tracks
- Lean on Needle Drops
- License Preexisting Scores
Organize Temp Tracks
Temp tracks are used by the director and the post-production creative team to approximate the finished product’s feel. Basically, it takes other people’s music—usually from many different sources—and puts it in your movie (but only temporarily, as a place holder).
Temp tracks allow the creative team to communicate, with music, to their composers. One of the most famous examples of this is George Lucas’s original “Star Wars.” Lucas used classical music from composers like Holst, Korngold, Stravinsky, Dvorak, and Wagner as his temp-track score for the 1977 classic. John Williams then composed an original score inspired by those temp tracks.
This technique has been around since the beginning of Hollywood. But it has recently come under some scrutiny for making many new films sound too similar to each other. In the middle of a pandemic, however, we might not have the luxury of worrying about how similar things sound. We must keep our eye on safety and temp tracks are a great tool during COVID-19.
Temp tracks will allow us to get the film as close to complete as we can. It keeps the chains moving, which is something we are all struggling with right now. Most importantly, by temporarily scoring our projects with available music, we can identify exactly what type of music we need and how much. With that information in hand, we can look at ways to achieve a similar result, safely.
A talented music supervisor is essential when navigating your way through post-production. Still, they are ever-more vital during this pandemic. We will undoubtedly need a music supervisor on-board to help us with our next category.
Lean on Needle Drops
A needle drop is industry slang for playing a pre-existing song (usually a pop-song) during your film or television show. Famous examples include Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody in “Wayne’s World,” Family of the Year’s Hero in “Boyhood,” Simon & Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence in “The Graduate,” and basically everything from Shonda Rhimes.
But few do it better than Martin Scorsese. His entire filmography is made up of movies that are brimming with brilliant needle drops. From The Rolling Stones’ Jumpin’ Jack Flash in “Mean Streets” and Warren Zevon’s Werewolves of London in “Color of Money” to The Dropkick Murphys’ I’m Shipping Up to Boston in “The Departed” and Santo and Johnny’s Sleep Walk in “The Irishman,” Martin Scorsese is the king of pop music in movies.
It is a fantastic way to punctuate a scene, highlight the time period, and add momentum. When we currently cannot safely get a band together, we can turn to the music industry for great songs. When we are making our temp tracks, we should use whatever song fits the scene best. But when it comes time to finalize our needle drop choices, we might end up with sticker shock.
Hit songs can cost a lot of money to license (and we don’t all have the budget of a Scorsese film). Depending on the artist, the song, the intended use of the song, and the project’s budget, one track can easily cost you $30K. If you want multiple pop songs, you could end up spending a large chunk of your budget.
A talented music supervisor can help. Music supervisors can take the pop-songs on your temp track and find equivalent tunes from up-and-comers. There is a sea of striving artists out there who would love to get paid to have their songs featured in a movie or television show. A good music supervisor will know how to find you a track with the same vibe as your temp music for pennies on the dollar.
But what if we don’t want a movie littered with pop-songs? What if we want a classic score?
License Pre-Existing Scores
Similar to a needle drop—in that we are talking about using music that already exists—this category is slightly different. We are not talking about using pop-songs, but instead scores from other movies and classical music.
One of the most talented users of this strategy is Quentin Tarantino. Until 2015’s “The Hateful Eight,” Tarantino had never used an original score for his movies, choosing instead to license other people’s film scores.
As one of the world’s most famous film geeks, Tarantino used his stockpile of old movie soundtracks as a grab-bag of music for his own films. He pulled mostly from obscure, 1960’s-70’s blaxploitation flicks, Italian slasher films, spaghetti Westerns, and b-movies. He’s so talented at it that many outside of Hollywood have no idea that his movies feature scores from other films.
There is an added bonus to licensing pre-existing film scores: it can camouflage the move. You can achieve a full orchestral sound without audiences realizing that you have used someone else’s music. This obfuscation is true for classical music too.
Sadly—or not sadly, depending on your opinion of classical music—most contemporary audiences have little working knowledge of orchestral music. Many film directors have used classical music in their films so successfully that we now associate that piece with the movie rather than the original composer.
Most famous among these is the main theme to Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The actual name of this song is Also Sprach Zarathustra, written by Richard Strauss in 1896 and inspired by Nietzsche. In fact, that entire Kubrick masterpiece is scored with pre-existing classical music. And it consistently ranks among the greatest movies ever made.
Licensing other people’s music doesn’t have to mean sacrificing the artistic vision of your creative team or diminishing the quality of your final product. But it does mean a safer and faster post-production process.
Music is a powerful component of film and television. Without it, many of our most iconic moments would be dramatically diminished. To safely add music to projects during the COVID-19 era, we must first create a solid temp track like George Lucas did for his iconic “Star Wars.” Then we must turn to a talented music supervisor to help us find and license music that fits our project and our budget.
When it comes to using other people’s music, we have three templates to choose from, provided by three famous directors: Scorsese, Tarantino, and Kubrick. We can pepper our production with pop-songs like Scorsese. We can use old movie scores like Tarantino. We can use classical compositions like Kubrick.
We can also do a combination of the three, but the important thing is to maximize the mood and emotion of our projects while also minimizing the dangers inherent to music production during a pandemic.
With these cinema titans as our guides, we can safely add fantastic music to our next project and finish another pandemic production without an outbreak.
Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.
*DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before starting production in a pandemic.