A film composer is engaged in a series of collaborations, from the initial discussions with the director or showrunner, to the back and forth with an orchestrator that brings a score to life, to the interplay that occurs on stage with a full orchestra ready to record or perform. We caught up with our good friend Anne-Kathrin Dern (Leap!, The Jade Pendant, Sprite Sisters, Galavant, HALO V: Guardians) to learn more about this process and also get her initial impressions on Sibelius 2019.4.
How do you get started when working on a movie, TV show, or video game?
As a composer you are working in service of the project at hand. That means you are learning as much as you can from the director or showrunner in order to fulfill their creative vision. In the very beginning, you sit down with them and discuss what they’re going for musically and what matters to the story.
You start to pick apart the movie, scene by scene, in a ‘spotting session.’ At this point, the footage may have no music in it or maybe has temp music in it. This is an early opportunity to identify what music the movie will need, for scenes, characters, transitions, and other crucial points in the story.
After the spotting session, I go back to my studio and get to work. I do research and mock ups and create the rudiments of the eventual score, putting my own spin on it, before presenting my dramatic ideas. Once the winning musical ideas are selected, I bring the project to my team of writers and assistants to score the movie.
Talk a bit about how you interact with your team.
By the time I bring a project to the team, the music is basically written and there is very little new music that needs to be written. I give the team my initial audio and MIDI files that they can reference, and reuse and their job is to rearrange it to fit the pacing, mood, and storytelling of their assigned scene. All of this is based on my notes from the spotting sessions. Having a team is enormously helpful and allows me to focus on the bigger ticket moments in the film.
At what point do you incorporate Sibelius into the process?
Sibelius comes in at various stages. Sometimes I use it to sketch an idea at the very beginning. Speed is the key to capturing an inspiration when it strikes, and I am very comfortable working quickly in Sibelius.
The most crucial application of Sibelius, however, happens when we get the orchestrator into the process. The orchestrator takes my final MIDI files, which have been cleaned and reorganized so that each instrument is in score–order, and imports them into Sibelius. One of the inevitable pitfalls at this stage is misinterpretation of notes and/or articulations from the MIDI file imported into Sibelius. There is almost always a back and forth between me and the orchestrator in order to iron out the kinks.
How will Sibelius’ new enhanced Review mode help the orchestration process?
The new Review mode functionality is going to come in really handy. I never want to inadvertently alter any of the orchestrator’s work. His notation should be locked, and he should be the only one making changes. As it is now, we have to type up notes in emails and, as you can imagine, this does not fully alleviate the danger of misinterpretation. It is going make our lines of communication way clearer to be able to input comments and highlight sections while the score is locked. All the orchestrator will have to do is see my notes and unlock the score to apply them.
What other challenges does Sibelius help you address?
We always have the challenge of time. It’s common, for example, that I need to write 60 minutes of music but have only 4 weeks to compose and orchestrate. Then once you’re on the stage, because recording sessions are so expensive for film scores (sometimes in the vicinity of $100,000 per day), you often have only two or three takes to get it right. It’s, therefore, so important that the music is properly laid out and notated, that it’s easy to read. Mistakes equal time, which equals money.
I rely on Sibelius’ ability to ensure print-perfect scores in these high-pressure situations. The batch functionality, the loads of extra functions that plugins can do, and other automated processes like Magnetic Layout that makes everything look perfect without any extra work on my part, all save time and prevent mistakes from happening.
What excites you most in Sibelius 2019.4?
I am especially excited to use Loop playback to help me practice conducting. I often need to rehearse on the road, in my hotel or even on an airplane—people stare at me waving my hands around, but that’s ok—and I use Sibelius to playback my score and practice along with it. I am looking forward to being able to rehearse difficult passages, for example tempo or meter changes, without needing to stop and start the playback each time.
Also, I often need to combine multiple cues into a longer score suite for an orchestra to perform. It takes a lot of trying things out to create the smoothest transitions between ideas. Loop playback will really help in addressing these trouble areas and I can just make corrections on the fly.
What else excites you about the release?
To add to my comments about Review mode, I think it’s going to have a huge educational value as well. For example, I also give orchestration lectures at conservatories and as part of those programs I have students do some work in Sibelius. The ability to add comments in Review mode will allow me to more easily give feedback to students.
I’m also excited for the fact you guys are casting a spotlight on plugins. The batch functions I do with plugins—to make specialized notation or simply to do proofreading—are hugely helpful and save a ton of time.
But most of all I’m just excited to see what else the Sibelius team comes up with. Every time I download an update I think, “What else could it do?” But each time I’m delighted by the new features—both big and small. It feels like a program made for musicians by musicians.