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The Digital Naturalist is an inspired forum for video, film, and multimedia with a cause. It brings together an elite panel of experts to analyze what makes digital storytelling successful, establish helpful guidelines for advocacy groups, and shine a light on the most effective and inspiring work being produced today. Through analysis, forums, interviews, and personal accounts, we hope to help nonprofit organizations and the creatives working with them better communicate the most pressing, complex issues of our time.

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Entries in soundtracks (1)

Tuesday
Feb152011

Inside the Mind of a Composer: Q&A with Dan Venne

Cougar, the band. Dan Venne (far right) worked closely with drummer Dave Skogen (second from left) to compose original music for David Nevala's tomotherapy videos.

Jaws. Titanic. Mary Poppins. Into the Wild. We remember these movies not just for their stories, but for the songs we kept humming long after the final credits rolled. Their soundtracks broke through screens, infiltrated pop culture, and became as iconic as the films themselves.

So what does a Hollywood score have to do with 90-second advocacy videos? More than you might think. The right kind of music can deepen a viewer's connection to a story in a way stories can't do alone. And given all the recent studies showing that emotion, not knowledge, is the catalyst for change, advocacy groups must begin looking beyond the cheap, fast, and sometimes cheesy audio solutions that too often define nonprofit videos. Because when it comes to music and storytelling, one size does not fit all.

Which is why I'm so excited to share this recent conversation with Dan Venne, a musician and commercial composer in New York City who produced the score for David Nevala's tomotherapy video (which we'll break down even further in an upcoming case study on TDN). Venne explains the process of putting music to video-- from the initial creative steps to budgeting hard numbers.

The best part? Commissioning original music isn't nearly as out of reach-- logistically or financially-- as you might think. Read below to find out why.

TomoTherapy Brand Video - Watch more Videos at Vodpod.


TDN: Let’s dive right into the tomotherapy piece. What was that process like?

Venne: Well I really like working with Dave Nevala and Scott Pauli (the designer). But our process was a little unclear at first. We eventually worked it out, but it took some trial and error to get there.

So in the beginning, they referenced a couple of pieces of music in their emails—I don’t remember what the tracks were—and said they were looking for something like that, and gave a description of how the video was going to look and a few other details. But they were a little vague on the deadline, and there was no picture. Looking back on it now, I can’t believe I didn’t say, “I need the video for this.” But there wasn’t a firm deadline, so I let it slide, and next thing you know they were like, “Can we get it in the next couple days?” So I wrote something quickly without seeing the picture.

Well they weren’t 100% thrilled with it—they said, “It’s not really working with the picture”—so they gave me video to look at. And once I got that, I solved the problems in one day. I saw those images that you see now—the circles spinning—and I thought, “Of course, I wrote the wrong music. This makes a ton of sense.” And, bam. It was instant gratification on both ends.

It was a good lesson about setting some kind of schedule, even if that schedule doesn’t necessarily reflect reality, because it helps create a clear line of communication. I think I thought there was panic, and there wasn’t, so I just wrote something without the picture. And that rarely works.


TDN: So if you would be pulled into a similar project a couple months down the road, what would your ideal process be? How much time would you need?

Venne: I work on music for media full time, so usually a week or half a week is enough for me. I can even get something done in a day or two days if need be. But that’s not a blanket solution for all composers, because not everyone is doing this for a living—some people might need as long as two or three weeks.

I actually just finished another tomotherapy piece with Dave, and this time I asked for more of a schedule, and I didn’t start anything ‘til I got picture. There needs to be some kind of structure in place, and both sides need to realize that. And then if those dates are approaching and you can’t make it happen, then you reset the deadlines and keep moving. That’s how this last one worked, and it worked really well. I got the picture, I told them when I was going to get them music, and I sat down and did it, delivered it, and all parties were happy.

One more thing about logistics: If someone’s composing music for your video, you need to agree to one thing: This picture is final—it’s essentially locked—so you’re not gonna go back and edit the timing. If a composer writes a piece of music, then the filmmaker goes back and edits a couple scenes—even if it’s just a few frames—then asks the composer to adjust the music to reflect the changes... well it’s really, really hard for a composer to do that.


TDN: So you almost need to pulled in at the very last minute.

Venne: Yeah, and that’s okay. It’s not unheard of for a composer to be given a tight turnaround. The filmmaker’s locked the picture and needs to deliver it to their clients within the next week, so there’s just a week left for music. That happens. And generally I’d rather have it be a rush job than have to deal with a picture that’s still being adjusted. It’s ideal when the filmmaker or music producer plans out a schedule with plenty of time for music, and everything falls into place. But shenanigans happen; it’s just the way it goes.


TDN: Talk a little about that moment when you get the picture—what’s that process like? What’s going through your head?

Venne: That depends on what kind of direction I’m getting from the filmmaker. If someone gives me a piece of video but doesn’t give me any direction, I feel like I could potentially tell the story wrong, or tell the story the way I’m interpreting it—and I wouldn’t even trust myself to do that unless I was making the video and understood the story. The filmmaker really needs to tell the composer where the music is going… is it happening from the first frame of the picture to the last frame of the picture? Is it coming in at this point? What’s the general energy of the piece, and what kinds of emotions is it conveying? Because when there’s no music to a picture, it’s not always obvious what the emotion is.

It’s like an old joke—you put different music against a picture, and it can make a depressing scene absolutely hilarious, or vice versa. I mean you don’t usually miss the ball that much. But the tomotherapy videos are a good reference for this, because the second one I worked on is dealing with a woman who had brain cancer and had to have tomotherapy, and they told me, “This is a heavy topic, but we don’t want the music to be overwrought with emotion, we don’t want it to be overdramatic. It needs to be pushed along that line without playing on anybody’s emotions.”

So a composer needs to know some of that material. Some of it can be left in the dark—I’ve had people say, “I don’t know if I want music here, let me know what you think,” or, “I think I want the piece to get a little more inspiring here, but I’m not sure”—and that’s okay. But there needs to be some level of direction.

Then the creative process, once I’m looking at it, is being filtered through whatever kind of direction I received. In the first tomotherapy video, the beginning shows those circles spinning, and it was just like, “Oh, I get it, I need to have some kind of simple repetition here that’s soothing.” The first track that I wrote probably would have been humorous to put it against those soothing, repetitive visuals. But that wasn’t exactly his direction—I think it was more like, “I want guitars in it; simple guitars, nothing too heavy; keep it sparse.” Which is what I did on the first pass without looking at the visuals. But I didn’t feel that sense of calm repetitiveness that I wanted once I saw the video. So there’s a real specific example of what a picture inspired musically.


TDN: So are you pretty happy with the final tomo piece?

Venne: I’m always critical of stuff I’ve done, not so much in an artistic way but in a product way. The actual quality of the sound is something that I can’t stop picking apart. I feel like it always gets better—but because it always gets better, it’s always worse when I look back on what I’ve done. So when I look at the tomo video, I kind of did it fast because I wasn’t 100% sure of the deadline, and I’d already kind of stumbled once in terms of giving them a piece of music that wasn’t working. And now when I go back and listen to it I hear some slight imperfections that drive me a little nuts. But I do think it works really well with the picture, and I’m pretty happy with the music I created. I think it tells the story really well and I think it conveys the message.


TDN: Can you talk about budget? Where's a good place for nonprofits to start?

Venne: Let’s talk about the biggest side of it first—like a music company that would be doing an AT&T commercial. Those budgets can be five if not six figures. And that’s not going to one person, that’s paying for a company—and that company’s turning out 20-plus demos, or 30-second pieces of music, to the client, and they’re picking maybe four of those, and they’re revising those four several times, and they’re picking one of them, and then they’re revising that. So it’s not like $50,000 is going to one person. It’s a gigantic production. And in that kind of situation, the music composer might see $4,000 to $8,000 of that, and that’s not getting into royalties. So that’s the high end.

Now, these composers—let’s say they’re asked to write a piece of music for a 30-second commercial. So they get a demo fee regardless of whether or not their track is chosen, and that demo fee is $250. It’s always a little bit of a bummer, but only one out of 20 tracks you write is likely to get picked. So in general, composers are used to writing a 30-second piece of music for $250; if that music isn’t chosen, they put it into their library and they might try to sell it later or use it for something else.

But when I’m dealing with a situation like the tomotherapy videos, I’m not competing against 20 other writers, and I’m not as worried about losing the job. It’s a situation that composers want to be in. There’s just less stress because they're not gambling on winning the job. So there’s already an advantage, I think, that filmmakers have in this situation.

Something else to keep in mind before you start talking about numbers is the length and amount of music you need. Say you have a five or ten minute video—you’re talking about several places where there will be different pieces of music, because you can’t just drop in one long, continuous piece. So you need to say to the composer, “It’s a five minute video, and I’ve identified about a minute-and-a-half’s worth of places that need music.” Or if you have a bigger job and you’re worried about pleasing your client, you might say to the composer, “I want to present an Option A and an Option B with music.” You also might want to ask yourself, are you prepared to accept a piece of music as-is? In other words, if the budget is low or barely existent, I could say, “Here’s what I’ve got, and I can’t give you any revisions on it.” That doesn’t necessarily happen a lot, but people should be prepared for it if they’re dealing with a low or nonexistent budget.

The style of music influences cost too. If someone comes to me and says, “I want a Big Band soundtrack,” that’s very hard to do for cheap. So the next question is, does this piece of music require recording live musicians, or can it be sequenced on a computer or handled by the composer? I play guitar and all sorts of string instruments, so I did all the music by myself with the help of the drummer who worked with me on the tomotherapy piece. We didn’t have to hire anybody. But if someone really wants the sound of a cello on their score, and the composer doesn’t play cello, they have a choice: Either use one that’s sequenced via computer, which is not going sound as good—or increase the budget to pay a cellist. This doesn’t always matter to small jobs and first-time filmmakers—I think the fake instruments can sound just fine—but it’s something to consider. Going back to the Big Band example, you can’t really fake a Big Band. You can fake a rock band, and you can fake hip hop and electronica.

So these are things to figure out before you start worrying about money: How picky are you going to be, how much music will you need, what kinds of options do you want, and what kind of music are you asking for?

As for nonprofit jobs, I’d start at $1,000. Of course I’d hope that if someone’s budget was really large, they’d realize that $1,000 is on the low end. But it’s still acceptable for 60 or 90 seconds worth of music, especially when there’s no competition, minimal revisions, and you’re not hiring any outside musicians.

That said, the demo fees for commercials are $250. So I guess I want to just encourage anyone who’s thinking of film to not be afraid to ask for something that cheap. It’s not ideal and I think if the same person came back to me a few more times with the same rate, I’d be like, “Sorry, no, I was kinda hoping our partnership would get a little more lucrative.” But I would be happy if someone came to me and said, “Look, this is the first time I’ve done this, it’s for a nonprofit, and once you write the track it’s yours to keep, and I’m not gonna ask for more than maybe one change once it’s all done.” There are a lot of composers I know who would do that. We would rather use our talents for good.

As for the licensing thing—like if you fall in love with an existing song and you want to get permission from the artist to use that song—that’s not really my field. But the people I know who work in that industry will say similar things: Always, always, always ask. Because people want to make money and get their music out there. It’s way better to ask than to assume you can’t afford it.


TDN: So when you say, “Start at $1,000”—what do you consider a truly fair rate for a simple piece like the one you produced for tomotherapy?

Venne: I don’t know if I have an answer for that, because I would need to think more about where it lives. If it’s an internal piece that’s just going to be shown inside an office and at presentations… well, even that's hard to say, because if someone’s selling a product but it’s not on the air, then it starts to get trickier. Obviously if my music is helping to sell a multi-million dollar facility, I would want a bigger cut. But if my music is helping an actual charity that’s underfunded and trying to raise money, then I’d take a much softer approach and say $1,000 is totally worth it.

But even then, I don’t know enough about nonprofits. I mean, March of Dimes is a nonprofit, but they’re huge, so if they approached me about showing a 60- to 90-second piece of music that would be shown as a fundraiser, I would probably want closer to the range of $5,000. I would also assume that there would be many more people involved—people saying, “I like this, I don’t like that…” and I’d be putting a lot more work into it. The bigger the company, the more hands involved, and the more work it’s gonna be. But with the tomotherapy piece, it's just Dave. I don’t have to go through a whole series of approvals. It’s way different when it’s just one person.


TDN: Why is music important to storytelling?

Venne: The wrong music choice can really water down and cheapen your message. But it’s tough to find a balance between music being too involved versus being too passive. I was happy with the tomo video because I felt like I hit that sweet spot. The music is not overly suggestive of an emotion; I’m not saying “Be happy right now,” or, “Be sad”—but it’s not 100% passive either. And that kind of thing is tricky to verbalize or even quantify.

So when you’re giving direction to the composer and you’re saying, “I want the music to do this here,” really consider what’s going on in terms of dialog or voiceover. Because that’s where you really don’t want busy music, and if you're a first-time filmmaker, or you have a small budget and you’re using a friend who’s a first-time composer, you should make sure to suggest that: “In this part of the video, there’s a lot of talk, so we don’t want the music to be front-and-center right there. Maybe it’s in the background, or maybe there doesn’t have to be music there at all.” It sounds obvious, but it’s constantly an issue. The music needs to work around the dialog and voiceover—it can’t compete with it. I’ve lost commercial jobs because clients will say the melody is fighting with the voiceover. So knowing when not to have music is incredibly important.


TDN: This part of it is so subtle. Do you have any thoughts on how to train people to develop an ear for that?

Venne: I think some people are hesitant to use temp tracks—in other words, say I’m starting to make my video and I’ve found music that I like in my own personal collection, and I’m going to put it in my video as a temporary track. More often than not I think that’s probably a good thing, if people are having problems with understanding how music’s going to affect the story. The issue with temp music is that filmmakers develop what we call “demo love,” where they put a U2 track against something, and of course it’s going to be an incredibly uplifting part of the video. But the reality is that you can’t use that track because of licensing, and then it can be hard to find a good replacement for that song. At the same time, experimenting with music like that can really help a filmmaker understand where they do and don’t want music.


TDN: I’ve been a soundtrack junky my whole life—there’s just something about music that was written to tell a story. Do you have any favorite scores?

Venne: American Beauty. In some circles, people would probably roll their eyes and say that’s obvious—but yeah, American Beauty. The score’s by Thomas Newman, and I think it’s just an amazing score. I have a hard time even moving on past that. I do get a kick out of the older scores—like from Ennio Morricone who did the old classic spaghetti westerns like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. And Bernard Herman, who did music for Alfred Hitchcock movies. It’s one of those things where if I played you a couple examples, you’d be like “Oh, that’s an old war-time movie isn’t it?” Their styles became idioms.