Working With Composers - A Guide For Directors

19 June, 2012 10:11am

It’s not long until Virgin Media Shorts 2012 closes for entries but we know there are lots of you out there still in the early stages of making your films. One question we’re often asked is ‘where can I find good music for my short?’ As you  know, we’re always banging on about how important it is to clear the rights for any music you feature in your entry, but how do you do that without forking out hundreds of pounds? We asked Billy Payne, musician extraordinaire, how directors can nail the perfect soundtrack without emptying their pockets.

Commenting on why he never works with composers on his films, Quentin Tarantino once said “Thats just too much power to give somebody who’s not me.” Well that’s alright for Quentin, but what if you reach down the side of the sofa and still can’t raise the money to pepper your film with cool, retro pop songs? Well, its time to stop, collaborate and listen - working with a composer needn’t feel like handing over all the power to an unknown quantity. Rather, you are combining forces to create something even better... like The Avengers! All they had to do was learn how to work together.



First of all, you need to find some composers. This shouldn’t be too hard, as lots of good, hard working composers will be actively looking for you on websites and forums that film makers tend to frequent, eager to get experience and exposure.

The issue of payment on lo/no budget films is a controversial one. Everyone has a different opinion on this, but as someone who often scores films for free myself, here are my DOs and DON’Ts of fair composer recruitment policy:

  • DO ask for previous examples of their work, and listen carefully to what they submit
  • DON’T make potential collaborators jump through unnecessary hoops
  • DON’T ask composers to compose test pieces to pitch on a film for which you are fairly sure they’re not suitable
  • DON’T ask for a CV. It usually isn’t relevant if you’re able to listen to samples of their music, and it undermines what should be a collaborative relationship, turning it into one of employer and employee
  • DO try to sell yourself and what you have to offer the composer. A credit and a copy of the film should go without saying, but it’s important to demonstrate that you’re good at what you do and are someone worth working with, now and on future projects
  • DO put in the time and effort to find a composer for whose services you would be willing to pay, even if you can’t afford to right now. The potential for future paid work is sort of implied, even if not explicitly stated, so you owe it to the composer to try and make this a realistic possibility. This is another way of saying, “choose a composer whose work you really like,” which should be obvious anyway!


So, once you have a bunch of demos and showreels to listen to, what is it you’re looking for? Well, instrumentation is pretty key. Chances are the budget won’t allow for the composer to bring in session musicians, let alone an orchestra, so it’s worth knowing a little about the tools that they have available. I’ve broken these down into three categories and each have their uses and limitations:

Acoustic/Real Instruments

The original and still the best! Nothing beats the depth of emotional expression from a real instrument played well. If you have your heart set on a score played on piano and cello, find a composer who happens to play piano and cello (which limits your options somewhat).


Sample Instruments

Sample instruments are computer based imitations of real instruments. Basically, if you have at least one hand to bang a keyboard with and enough money for the software, you can play an imitation of any instrument in the world. Guitar, cello, Tibetan nose flute...there’s an app for that!

Unfortunately, even the best sample instruments don’t sound quite like the real thing. Remember version 1.0 of the Matrix when the Architect made everything so perfect the human brains rejected it and died? Well, sample instruments aren’t all bad, but if overused they can create a nagging feeling of inauthenticity that can kill an otherwise healthy film. 


What’s nice about synths is they’re happy with who they are. They don’t need to pretend to be acoustic instruments. They’re cool, modern, futuristic even! They get to star in awesome films like Blade Runner and Drive, but they never get cast in Jane Austen adaptations - and if they’re being honest, they’d feel a little out of place if they were.


* * *


Most composers will have some degree of skill in each of these areas but you can get an idea of the composer’s tendencies towards instrumentation from their previous work, and this can give you a clue as to how they will approach your film.

For a lot of directors early on in their careers, expressing an opinion on how the music should sound is a bit of a daunting prospect. There is a temptation to defer entirely to the composer on all things musical, but this is potentially where problems can occur. There is a good chance that your awesome new composer, left to their own devices, will come up with something absolutely awesome, and completely wrong for your vision of the film. It’s the director’s responsibility to provide a brief which describes as best they can the music, or at least the feel, that they have in mind. You don’t need to be really hands-on or overbearing, just keep in mind - if you don’t ask, you probably won’t get!


Traditionally, a composer and director will have what is called a ‘Spotting Session’ where they sit together in a room and watch the film, working out what kind of music should go where. Of course, in this day and age we have no need for old fashioned concepts like ‘sitting’, ‘together’ or ‘rooms’ - we collaborate standing in the vast, open space of infinite possibilities that is Cyberspace. Thus, I will now describe to you what I have renamed (quite wittily if I say so myself).the Spotifying Session. Whether it takes place in a room, over email, or on Skype, going through the film scene by scene and deciding where the cues should go is an essential part of the process. Youtube clips and Spotify are a great resource in this process as it allows both composer and director to illustrate their ideas with filmic and musical references.


Music can be used to do a number of distinct jobs. It might be used to evoke an emotion in the audience, to portray a character’s feelings or inner thoughts, or even to say something more general about the character (e.g. hip hop music plays while this character is on screen = this character is the sort of character that listens to hip hop). Therefore, as a composer, it is really useful to know not only where the director wants music, but also why. Hitting the wrong emotional note in a particular point can change the mood of the scene and in turn, the entire meaning of the film. That’s a lot of power to give to someone who’s not you!

So, just a few weeks left before the Virgin Media Shorts deadline. What are you waiting for? Directors and composers, unite and be excellent to each other!

Billy Payne

More on music: Regan Hall Q&A | How Sigur Ros helped me

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