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  • Writer's pictureRosie Record

Your Film is Picture Locked... Now What the F*ck Do You Do?

By Rosie Record

The film is picture locked and a solid relationship is forming between director and composer. Both roles have discussed expectations for the film and music...

Now What?

After higher-level discussions, the composer and director will want to do a spotting session. The spotting session occurs prior to any composing- it's when both the director and composer watch the project to decide on music placement and what the music needs to achieve. During this process, the corresponding spotting notes or music summary document will be developed. The resulting document can be configured as a Word doc, but an Excel spreadsheet is ideal for keeping everything meticulously organized.

Now, this is the ideal spotting session, however, if schedules are hard to align and the director is organized enough, he/she can supply the composer with the essential information. This article provides that information and some important questions you should ask to help create the best spotting notes/ music summary document for your composer.

To read about the higher-level musical tactics you can use, read my article on 5 Approaches to a Film Score.

Some Information That Should Be Included:
  • Cue #: Depending on how long and complex the project is, the numbering system may change. For instance, a TV Show might be broken into Season, Episode, Scene: S1E2S1

  • Cue Title: This could be something like “opening credits” or “Will exits the barn.” This can include a clip of dialog or anything that is an additional identifying element

  • SMTPE In: This denotes when the music starts. It needs to be broken into Hours/ Minutes/ Seconds/ Frames (H/M/S/F)

  • SMTPE Out: This denotes when the music ends. It needs to be broken into H/M/S/F

  • Duration: This is the total measurement of music needed for that corresponding cue. It needs to be broken into H/M/S/F

  • Description of Scene: This can be a more in-depth description of the scene and may include notes about motivation or action that drives the music choice

  • SFX or Music: Identify if the specified area needs composed music or something else including SFX, diegetic music, or another sound design element

  • Music description: This describes the type of music needed for the corresponding cue in terms that were discussed and agreed upon

Here's an example of some spotting notes from the film Wild Men; a hilarious parody of Finding Big Foot.

A traditional spotting session did not occur for this project. After in-depth conversations about music expectations over phone and email, the director for Wild Men only needed to provide the composer with timestamps, descriptions of scenes, and a handful of comments. Additional notes were maintained by the composer. However, the more details within the spotting notes, the better. Having a detailed document cuts down on the potential for miscommunications and missed expectations.

Seriously, next movie night with friends, buy a six-pack of Narragansett and check this odd little gem out here!

Now, while the list of information needed for your spotting notes/ music summary document is straightforward, making those decisions for your project can be daunting. So it helps to know some of the right questions to ask.

Approach Each Scene Within Your Film & Ask:
  • What style of music do you want for the scene? Orchestral surges? Maybe a quirky combination of instruments like banjos and music box strings? Frantic Strings to build tension, or smooth piano to build a sense of romance? What fits the imagery, characters, theme, emotions of the scene?

  • What is the time period of the film? Do you want to honor any sense of history? Have historically accurate instruments to fit the visuals, or do you want to clash against the time period to make a statement like in A Knight’s Tale?

  • What is the emotional state of the characters within the scene? Do you want the music to enhance the acting, or go even deeper? Music has the power to add a different emotion or thought-provoking layer to an already compelling scene.

  • A more practical question you should ask is if you are contending with dialog or FX sounds. You will want to discuss how you want the music to interact with dialog and/or FX, or if no music might be the best approach. Silence can be a powerful tool.

  • One element that should be meticulously planned out is timing. Do you need to hit any cuts? Do you want the music to hit each cut to add drama and impact, or do you want the music to wash over the scene to create a sense of connectivity?

  • An interesting question you can ask is, who is your demographic? Who is this film geared toward? This line of thinking might point you down a slightly different path and help the film be more impactful for the intended audience.

Musical development is incredibly important. Obviously, each scene and the overall film will evolve. These visual developments need to be paralleled with music. You will want to determine how each scene and experience needs to unfold.

  • What scenes need musical transitions?

  • Does the music need to shift slowly, or should there be a hard shift?

  • Do you want to maintain the melody, but tweak emotions with a key change?

  • Do you want to transition by melting in a secondary melody?

Once the scenes are broken down, the director and composer should look at the bigger picture. Continuity with instruments, melodies, or even glimmers of themes makes the overall project more cohesive. While the audience may or may not be aware of the power a score has over the total experience, they will subconsciously be picking up on the collection of musical ideas working synergistically with the visuals. Even if you have a musical element that is a departure from the rest of the film, if you attempt a nod to that somewhere later on, it will create a sense of home for the audience.


Broken Arrow is one of Han Zimmer’s babies from '96. The soundtrack is all over the place and delightfully schizophrenic. There is a sexy western guitar theme song for Travolta's character, a twinkly light melody, your typical action surges, a harmonica, and at one point some Asian vibes that, if likened to fashion, could be described as power-clashing. I'm sure that was a nod to John Woo. However, Zimmer brings most of his melodies and instruments back at least one other time to create an odd conglomerate of musical ideas. And damn it, I love it. It sticks in your mind. Not one of his most cohesive scores, but still weirdly sexy and effective.

Fun note: the French sub-title on this Youtube clip reads "Préparez-vous à être soufflé" which translates into "Prepare To Be Blown" LOL

Shoulda read: "Préparez-vous à avoir votre esprit soufflé"

Ah, when things get lost in translation :)


The take away from this article should be knowing the importance of detailed spotting notes/ a music summary document. This document ensures both the director and composer have one master source to pull from with precise SMTPE in and out and descriptions of what the music should be accomplishing. Having a clear and descriptive document allows the complex process of composing an effective score to go more smoothly. And who wouldn't want that?

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