The reason video is such a powerful medium is because it is both a visual experience as well as a sonic one. Any good video editor knows that the choice of music is just as important as the footage itself in telling a story. Music creates emotion—it has a magical quality to it in that it can make us feel certain things that words or images alone can not evoke.
“An instrument can be a great storyteller,” says Argentinian composer and musician Gustavo Santaolalla in an episode of the podcast On Being. Santaollalla, who has composed original scores for movies like Brokeback Mountain and Babel, emphasizes the importance of including spaces in his music, “the silence that occurs between notes”. These momentary silences are designed to give the visuals the room to breathe and help to express the story the director is trying to tell.
Audiences expect feature-length movies to have high quality audio and sonic landscapes that are just as compelling as the footage itself, but when it comes to digital video production, there’s a huge range in the accepted quality. The Internet is a place where an estimated 300 hours of video are uploaded EVERY MINUTE just to YouTube alone, and those videos fall into one of these categories:
A) Original music compositions: At NORTH + NOMAD, we always advocate for creating original music compositions whenever possible. Why spend the time and money to capture the exact visual story you need, just to pair it with a canned music track that was created without any understanding of the mood, pacing and story you’re trying to tell?
B) Licensed music: Most digital video projects use licensed music created on one of dozens of websites where you can sort by things like genre, mood, instruments, energy, length, vocals or characteristics. (When budgets and schedules require that we go that route we head to Marmoset or Musicbed.)
C) Stolen music: For lack of a better term, the Internet is full of director’s reels and non-commercial projects and weddings that use Top 40 hits or old classics over their footage; this is a cheap way to try to elevate a video. There are significant legal issues associated with appropriating someone else’s copyrighted music to try to make your own Internet videos look better than they actually are (see here and here just for starters).
We know that sometimes budgets and schedules do not allow for the creation of a custom piece of music (to which we’d like to say: not every project should be a fire drill, and it’s better to take a few more days to do it right). I’ll never forget a question that Director Skip Armstrong of Wazee Productions told us, years ago, that he said he always asks his clients when beginning a project: “Do you want it good, or do you want it done?” We’ve asked that questions to prospective clients before, and the typical response is, “Both.”
However it’s important to know that as a client, you must decide; while we’ll always do our best work possible in the given scenario, the clients who truly understand the process of video production know that good things take a little bit more time. Do you have the time to spend to properly plan, execute and create a brilliant story? Or do you just need a piece of content to check off the boxes? More and more we’re trying to say no to the “we need it yesterday” type of projects and focus on the productions that take a more thoughtful approach; these are the projects that allow enough time for important aspects like composing an original soundscape, which truly can make all of the difference in the tone and emotion a video can evoke.
Music and visuals should be edited in tandem; we’ve found our most successful projects are the ones where the editing process is a dance that looks something like this:
The editor will review raw footage and begin making selects.
The editor will send a very rough cut of the footage to our composer so he/she can get a sense of the mood and story we’re working with.
The composer will create 2-3 sonic landscapes, just 10 or 15 seconds in length, as a starting point to start exploring the different instruments and sounds that could enhance the story.
The editor, together with the director, will select one of the sounds as the initial direction. (Sometimes we’ll loop client/agency in at this stage, but it’s often better to wait to present a fully-realized idea.)
The composer will begin to flesh out the idea, creating a 1-2 minute song (depending on the length of the final deliverable), that he/she sends back to the editor.
The editor will use that first reference song to pace the edit and create the first version of the video that is sent to the client.
First client review. Any requested changes are consolidated into a clear list for editor and composer.
Typically at this point, the audio will be adjusted first. The composer sends a 2nd version of the music track to the editor, who then tightens the edit to the pacing of the new music.
Second client review. Any final changes are consolidated into a clear list for editor and composer.
Final tweaks are made to both audio and visuals, and client signs off on picture lock, which means nothing further will move.
- The visuals are sent to get colored, and the audio gets mixed (meaning the music is adjusted to swell and dip to make space for any dialogue).
For me, music became an increasingly important part of the video production process when I spent a year studying electronic music composition in an effort to better understand how to tell a story through sound.
My current favorite soundtrack is from the movie 'Arrival', scored by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. Give it a listen on Spotify. What have you seen recently where the soundscape was just as important as the visuals?