Scope of work, Deadlines, The project itself
So, you’re talking with a composer about your project, and trying to let them know what you need from them. You don't belong to an established studio, and don't have any set contracts. Maybe you’ve got some really specific ideas. Maybe you don’t, and you’re just kind of spitballing. Both of these scenarios are okay, actually. As a composer, it’s part of our job to figure out exactly what a project needs. But, there are some things that you can communicate about your project that will be helpful in almost every instance, and you can do it even if you have no idea what the finished music should be.
The scope of work
What is the scope of work the composer is doing? It’s actually not a very simple question, sometimes. For a film, you might say the length of the film. For a podcast or television series you might say the average length of an episode. For a video game, you might have an asset list (My personal favorite thing right after the design document.)
Those are pretty good starting points. But, the scope of work can still have further variables. For example, is your movie a standalone film? Or do you plant to do further films in that universe? If that big bad in your horror film is going to pop up again in your later work, you want to let your composer know. Because, they will be composing something that may be referenced in later soundtracks. It may be referenced even by different composers, if you hire somebody else, depending on the terms of your contract.
For an episodic work, such as a television series or podcast, your composer will need to know the level of interconnectedness between episodes. Is it a procedural, where every episode pretty much stands on its own? Or are there common elements that will be tied together? Do you need an opening theme, closing theme, and are there specific story elements you’d like to tie in?
For a video game, it can be tricky. Because there’s so much you could ask for. Maybe you’re making a simple shooter, and you’re thinking that you just want four loops of music for the four zones you plan to have the player play through. Okay. Do you need stingers? Are there power-ups? Do you need a music cue for dying or running out of lives? Is there menu music?
Are you making an RPG? Well, you’re going to want to share a lot about the different characters, and how characters relate to each other. Maybe somebody the player thinks is a friend is actually (*Gasp*) an enemy. That’s very important information for your composer to know - There are ways to make this moment even more poignant with music. With story driven games, not only is there music for levels/places, but often characters and ideas will often need their own motifs.
Asking yourself these questions about your project and having some answers to communicate to your composer will always be helpful. Even if you’re not sure about a solid answer, this information can be invaluable to a composer, who can help hash things out with you with more confidence.
Deadlines are extraordinarily important. Many people I work with have had very structured timelines for their projects, and I am grateful for that. But, some of you may be thinking “How do I know when this will finish? I hardly know when post-production will start at all.” Not to fret! You can really ballpark this.
For scoring something cinematic, you can say something like this: “We anticipate finishing in the early fall, which is when we’d get the final cut to you. I’ll communicate more as we get closer, to keep you in the loop once I have some more specific dates. We’ll have a rough cut to you within a week of our finishing shooting. We’re hoping that you can complete the composing in four weeks from the time you receive the final cut.”
What you’re doing in that message is conveying a general deadline, as well as a conditional deadline that works whenever you get the film to your composer - “Four weeks.” This isn’t perfect - As a composer, I do occasionally have busy periods or commitments to plan around. But, as you’ve promised to communicate more as you set more specific dates, that helps set me at ease. I may respond back asking for six weeks, or saying that the month of October is bad for me, so I can make better commitments if I know for sure I’ll get it in September. But, we have somewhere to start!
It’s also helpful to include time for revisions in your timelines. I may give you a finished cut in four weeks, but what about the changes? When after receiving the cut do you think you’ll have notes ready? How long do you want to give the composer to make the required changes? And then, well, you have to listen/watch/play it all over again after.
For video games, you may have a more structured timeline. You may expect that certain levels/themes are completed in tandem with your programming team. You may have a design document to upkeep, and you may use project management software. Communicating your preferred PM software and general workflow is always helpful. Don’t shy away from it - Specifics are great! It helps a composer anticipate how to integrate their process into your team’s, and come up with questions/concerns that you may not have thought of yet.
The Project (Not just words about it)
This might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t think of this. If you’ve hired your composer, you want to give them as much info about your project as needed. And what’s usually sorely needed is the project itself. Or what you have of it, at least. You haven’t started filming? Send a script. Haven’t coded the game? Send that vertical slice you worked up for PAX east. Send your design document, level design, artwork. If this is proprietary, send whatever NDA you need to.
What’s important is that this gives a composer time to evaluate the work and start composing, even before you get a final cut, or a beta version to them. This time is invaluable, and only strengthens your final product. Of course sometimes this isn’t possible - Maybe you’ve hired a composer very early into your process. But, never underestimate the info about a project that can be conveyed with the project itself. Or, even what can be conveyed through other projects.
Do you have a previous project that you’ve made and you liked what your composer did for it? Share that. Send reference tracks, allusions to other films/podcasts/games, anything that will help your composer get a feel for what you want. What you want to get away from are “words about” your project. Words are great things. But nothing can replace the experience of actually watching/listening/playing something. Those references are priceless.
I hope this was helpful to you, as you figure out how to explain the great thing that’s in your head to a composer.
And, if you think I’d be a good fit, feel free to reach out to me for a quote. You can put all of this into practice right away!