Make a No Budget Movie: Chapter Fifteen

November 26th, 2011

A sample of the finished score, from the end titles, featuring the Brahms piece and three solo fiddle selections. Click this title, then click it again on the next page: The Curtain Closes

If one third of a movie is picture, and one third is sound, the final third is music. Even movies without music or minimal music recognize this to some degree, since audiences expect music and its absence is a kind of soundtrack. Music sets the tone and the mood, and a good score can rescue bland scenes, adding drama and tension. Music can even be the signature for your movie (think Star Wars, for instance), and that’s what I wanted for Bloody Creek. I wanted something both appropriate and distinctive.

My plan, at least at first, was to find public domain recordings of eighteenth century music. This would help with the period feel and give the film some sweep. The most hassle free source of rights free music was Wikipedia, which had an extensive catalogue that only required – at least at the time – a simple artist credit. I listened to some samples of Vivaldi, Telemann, and Purcell, and found what I thought were appropriate pieces, but when I did a few test edits with several scenes from the movie, I didn’t like the results. The one piece that did seem to work in terms of mood was the opening to Brahms’s Requiem, but that was an early nineteenth century composition. It seemed my idea to use only period music wasn’t going to work.

The alternative was an original score. I liked this idea best, but wondered how to get original music for no budget. One idea that occurred to me was to compose my own music by making some mash ups, to chop up some recorded music in my audio editor and reassemble it. This seemed like a viable options, so I took one of my free Vivaldi downloads and sampled a few phrases, then put them together with a drum beat, making a monotonous piece I called “Forest Menace.” It worked well enough and the piece is used in the movie at least twice, but it had a strange Phillip Glass feel to it that wasn’t my idea of how the film should sound. Plus it was a lot of work, and by now I just wanted to get on with it. I wanted to see something like a finished film.

I tried another approach, this time with a solo musician.  For his first feature, The Duellists (one of my favourite historical films), Ridley Scott had employed a solo flutist to perform the entire score. He had done this for budget reasons, and it had worked. Well, if it was good enough for Ridley, it was good enough for me.

For some time I’d thought that a solo fiddle might do the trick, because a solo fiddle was just the sort of thing you would have heard in an army camp in the mid eighteenth century. I even had a fiddle player in mind, Aaron Murnaghan, who had worked at the Citadel and was happy to try and hash out a music score. It was worth a shot, anyway.

Aaron and I sat down one day in one of the wardrobe rooms at the Citadel. The hanging clothes absorbed all extraneous sound, and the place was as good as any recording studio. I explained that I was looking for certain moods, so Aaron tried a combination of old folk tunes and original bits he just figured out on the spot. I just let the camera run, and after an hour I figured that we had enough. Sifting through it promised to be a lot of work, but I was looking forward to it.

Several hours later, while sitting at my PC in the rec room, I realized that I had the beginnings of a pretty good score. I had to manipulate what Aaron had played quite a bit, but there was plenty of material to work with, and I ended up with about eight separate themes. I took phrases from here and there, recombining, trimming, then adding humming (I did that myself), drums and various levels of reverb. The drums were samples from a Timpani concerto that I looped to create a repeating rhythm. I also took some military drum recordings I’d done earlier with Rob Welch. I also did my best to simulate the sound of fifes by recording myself whistling, then trimming and overlaying several recordings, and adding a bit of reverb. The results were pretty good.

To my original score, I added my favourite pieces of rights free music, most notably the Brahms Requiem, but I strengthened it in the editor, adding more volume and body, and adding a few whistles and hums.

In the end, I found that I’d compiled a unique score with a unique sound. All of the moods were there, with themes for the different characters and themes for certain situations. I used a combination of orchestral pieces, my experimental mash up, straight recordings of martial drums and my simulated fifes, and various fiddle pieces, some with a solo fiddle and some with a combination of fiddle, drums and distorted humming.

As I mentioned in the last chapter, I was pretty happy with my efforts at producing sound effects, but even happier with the music. It brings a lot of character to the film, and is one of its greatest merits.