Songmine: Scoring Films on a Low Budget Part 1

A John Braheny Songmine column from the archives…

Songmine: Scoring Films on a Low Budget Part 1: Research and Spotting

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Songmine: Scoring Films on a Low Budget Part 1: Research and Spotting


by John Braheny

A couple of weeks ago I finished a film score and thought, after explaning the process to several people, that it might be of interest to you, too. What is interesting, I think, is that I am not an arranger, per say, with a lot of background in theory and composition in that department. As a result, I realize that my potential and scope are limited by the lack of those skills, but it’s all about priorities in my life and becoming an arranger is not one of them. Nonetheless, I’ve done alot of work with film music. There was a period of about 3 years when I composed and produced music for radio and T.V. commer-cials and because I used unorthodox approaches to compensate for lack of chops in other areas, I came up with unorthodox sounding music, which was what they were looking for. Most people dping music for commercialsiareiarrangers.and con-sequently, inspire more confidence in ad execs, who are notoriously paranoid to begin with, and con-sequently, those composers get alot more work. I’m not going to B.S. you that I got rich on it. It just worked out that way when people wanted something out of the ordi-nary, some of them took a chance on me. It gave me the chance to experiment on somebody else’s bread and I did alot of things with studio technology using every new gadget and technique I could think of. Working with film is, to me, very exciting because beyond the mechanics of timing to the second, it’s very subjective and interpretive. Obviously, the ad people as well as film directors, know what the music is supposed to do, but there are lots of different ways to achieve what they need and that’s where the creativity lies. I play guitar and violinand thosechopscan ‘transfer to bass and viola without a lot of trouble. Also, though I lack techni-cal arranging skill, I have a fairly good understanding of the dyna-mics involved which are the same skills basically, that producers need in putting together a “head ar-rangement” (one using only chord charts)

So with that in mind, along comes Bernard Selling a month or so ago and asks me to score his new film. I’ve scored 3 other films for Bernard and he likes my work. He won an award for one of his first documentaries called “Henry, Boy of the Barrio” before I’d met him and subsequent films he produced and directed were aimed primarily at an educational market. His last two have been films of short stories used often in English classes. It’s good preparation for him to move into longer feature films and gives him a way to develop and demon-strate his skill and style. The film I just worked on was from a Ray Bradbury allegory called “The Fly-ing Machine” which is set in ancient China. The story briefly, is about an emperor who upon dis-covering a man flying over his kingdom in a self-made machine, then decides he must kill the man to prevent the possible danger that evil men might use this invention to do evil things. There is much dialogue between the emperor, who appreciates the possible joys of flying, the beauty of the invention and the imagination of the inventor, and the inventor himself, who ob-viously believes he shouldn’t be punished for doing something beau-tiful. In the end the emperor does execute the ‘birdman’, but not without considerable inner turmoil. It’s the classic confrontation bet-ween change and the status quo, and between technological advance and our protection from its evils (see the China Syndrome).

“But Bernard,” I said, “I’m not really into Chinese music. Why don’t you hire someone who is?” He explained that the music didn’t have to be traditional and strict and that he wanted what could result from the synthesis of styles. In that regard, he also put me together with Curt Berg who is a big band leader, composer and arranger. He was looking for a synthesis of our styles, too. As it turned out, it was a very busy time for Curt and he didn’t have as much time to work on it as he would have liked. He composed a beautiful theme,and we spent some time together on the research and recording end. Next issue we’ll get into the nuts and bolts including research, ‘spotting the film’ ,(where it does and doesn’t need music), conversion formulas (frames to seconds), choosing in-struments and players, click tracks, recording, transfers, mixing, etc.

Previously in the Songmine Collection:

About Songmine and Music Connection Magazine:

John Braheny met Eric Bettelli and Michael Dolan right before they were going to publish Music Connection magazine. Eric and Michael wanted to get their publication out to as many songwriters as they could. They had already heard of the LA Songwriters Showcase, and of John and his partner, Len Chandler. John’s goal was to advertise the schedule of guest speakers and performers at the weekly Showcase… so they made a deal. 

They published John’s Songmine column (he had never before written a magazine article!) in their very first edition, in November 1977. Trading out the column for advertising, this arrangement continued for many years. Plus, Eric and Michael came to the Showcase each week and distributed free copies to the songwriters!

Those articles became so popular that (book agent and editor) Ronny Schiff offered John’s articles to F&W Media, where they became the backbone of John’s textbook, The Craft and Business of Songwriting. As a follow-up, Dan Kimpel (author, songwriter, teacher), who had also worked at LASS, took on the Songwriting column at Music Connection magazine which continues to this day! You can subscribe to get either hard copies or online.

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