I decided that it would be a good idea to to start a blog and answer some meaningful questions that seem to keep popping up in various different conversations. My aim for the blog is to keep it chatty and informal but also useful, and something that we might be able to chat about as a community of composers and orchestrators.
HOW AND WHY HAS THE TV/FILM ORCHESTRATION PROCESS CHANGED?
To keep things brief, here’s roughly how the process used to be back in the golden age, and even up until the very early 1990’s (before Sibelius was even launched).
The composer has a spotting session with the director/producers.
After the spotting session, the composer slaves away at the piano (generally) to find melodic motifs and carefully match the music to the visuals.
The composer would write roughly six staves of a sketch as a rough outline/guide of the melodic and harmonic content.
The orchestrator would then take this sketch and hand write the score into a full orchestral work (assuming the score was orchestral), assigning various melodies to various different instruments and making the most of some amazing instrument combinations and colours. There are obviously many other skills that an orchestrator must have, but I’m keeping this brief.
They would then pass the full score to the copyist who would then physically copy (by hand) from the score into all of the different orchestral parts so that each player had their own part (bar the strings who each share a part because they sit in pairs. We refer to them as ‘desks’).
The above is very brief because I really want to keep these blogs short and sweet, but let’s see how this differs with the process today and why that might be. In my opinion, the biggest reason that the above process cannot happen anymore, and probably never will again is as follows.
Mockups are now the very core of many tv/film/games scores since the composer can very accurately mock-up how the finished score will sound. Millions of dollars are pumped into Hollywood movies and there’s an enormous amount of money at stake - even the music budget alone can be in the region of $1 million and it’s certainly not uncommon for that to be higher. In some cases, composers in the past have take a fee higher than $1 million for themselves but I’m not sure if that’s the case nowadays. The executives and top bods in Hollywood have to be 100% sure that the composer is on the right track with their vision and the only way they can be sure that that is happening is through the mockup process. Once the composer has had each cue signed off, they will be sent to the orchestrator to clean up the MIDI (this gets the MIDI in a readable state before importing into a notation software program, otherwise it’s very confusing to read), and then start adding dynamics and articulations etc. I work with a lot of different composers and each one has a different view on what they’d like me to do with their work - some composers are happy for me to change voicings around, add new counter melodies and move parts from one instrument to another, but I ALWAYS consult the composer about this before going ahead and making the change. If you don’t, they’ll get to the studio and wonder why their work sounds different. There’s also a good chance that the executives will know that the music has changed. They won’t know what has changed or why it sounds different, but they’ll know it sounds different and that isn’t what they signed off on.
WHAT IS ORCHESTRATION IN THE WORLD OF TV/FILM/GAMES?
Many people are confused about what orchestration really is these days, and it’s extremely rare for a composer to hand an orchestrator a small sketch and ask them to orchestrate it. In fact, I’ve never had that happen to me, and I know of no other orchestrator that has come across that scenario within the last decade. Everything is laid out as it should be in the mockup, with complete dynamic, harmonic and melodic structure.
The modern day orchestrator must now take a mockup and make it work ‘on paper’, so to speak. Many composers are writing quickly and are not thinking about whether a low solo flute line will be heard in a rich tutti passage, and they’re certainly not thinking about what instruments can and can’t play loudly in certain registers. This is where the orchestrator earns their money. It is our job as orchestrators to figure out potential complications and anything that might slow down a recording session. Let’s take the picture below as an example.
The oboe should never be written at a soft dynamic on it’s lowest fifth range of the instrument. That is from the Bb just below middle C to F on the treble clef stave. The oboe is particularly hard to control at its extreme ranges and so when they finger a low Bb on the instrument, it’s basically impossible for the note to sound gently. Even if the composer has played this into their DAW, it is your job to see what else might work within the context of the cue otherwise the oboe player will raise their hand and minutes might go by trying to sort the problem out. You need to avoid these cases like the plague.
A COMMON COMPOSER-ISM
One of the things I most often see is composers writing way too many notes for the ensemble size that they’re later going to be recording with. This happens mostly because they want the mockup to sound thicker and better for the clients and they’re usually concentrating hard on the picture instead of thinking about what is playable in the real world. With that in mind, composers often end up layering patch after patch of sul tasto strings, flautando strings and harmonics alongside a big strings ensemble patch. It is then my job to go through and decipher which notes are actually necessary to fit in harmonically with the cue, and which articulations sound best in that particular context. That is not a complaint about composers, but just an explanation that this is what is necessary in modern day orchestration.
To cover this whole topic in-depth would require several blogs, but I will no doubt touch upon the role of a modern day orchestrator in future. Hopefully this is a small insight into how an orchestrator tackles a composer’s work and how the process has changed.