"Scoring for Film" with David Hoffner
[left photo] David Hoffner composes to video for the upcoming biography film "Billy Graham, God's Ambassador:" All initial
sketches and mock-ups are completed with keyboard samples and synthesizers to allow flexibility as the film changes form
and is edited and re-edited. [middle photo] After the film's basic structure and edits have been fairly well established, sampled
parts are replaced with live musicians. Here, session ace Mark Casstevens overdubs a classical guitar part for a scene about
Billy Graham meeting his wife, Ruth. [right photo] The last step in the music production is mixing. Here, recording engineer
Rocky Schnaars and Hoffner work on a final music mix. Music mixes are delivered to the film's dubbing session as WAV files on
a firewire hard drive. All of the film's audio elements (music, dialogue, narration, sound effects) are then combined in the final
film mix in 5.1 Surround. The film's director, composer, and editor are usually present for this final mix, along with the film's
mix engineer, usually a different engineer than the one who mixed the music.
"Music is always the last step in the process," says David Hoffner, a musician and composer
who has parlayed his expertise into post-scoring for everything from "National Geographic" TV
Specials to documentary films. "By the time the visuals get to me, the project is edited, and the
director may have temp music in place, which gives me an idea of the kind of music he had in
"Music serves as a subtext to the show or film and it's your job as a composer to tell the viewer
what they should be feeling. The trick is to make sure you know what the director wants people
to feel. Many times they know the feeling but they can't tell you that they want a string section
in a minor key," he explained.
"There was a particular nature scene that (musician/performer) John McEuen and I scored for
'National Geographic' where a northern lynx was chasing a snowshoe hare through the snow,"
explained Hoffner. "It had to have tension, but they were running through snow, which makes
no sound, plus the scene was in slow motion. We were down to the final mix and we were
desperately trying to make the producer happy. At 2 a.m., we finally came up with some
strange fluffy percussive sounds on the synthesizer and mixed them with heavily-processed
phrases from (native American artist) Bill Miller's flute. It gave a feeling of impending doom for
the poor rabbit, yet we also had a soft collage of sounds with rhythm and excitement."
After the spotting session, (where the director and composer decide where the film needs
music, and what emotional purpose it will serve), he finds the tempo for the music. "Editors
edit in a rhythm, and people tend to talk to a beat. I'll watch the scene with the metronome
clicking until I find a tempo that feels right." Hoffner says a composer must be careful to get
out of the way of the dialogue. "Most composers treat the dialogue as a lead singer, so you
keep that music pretty simple. There are other places where there is no dialogue and you have
freedom to stretch out, but you still need to find that magic emotional sound that the show
One of the hardest things for a composer to deal with are the constant changes being made in
"You jump through hoops to make the music match and they send you new visuals where
they've cut two seconds here and added half a second there. So you re-write to make it fit and
they send it to you again and they've changed it back!" Hoffner said. He added that once he fit
the music into the "final lockdown version", he asked the editor to keep a log of her changes.
That let him know exactly how much time she added or took out and made it easier for him to
adjust the music accordingly.
At one point Hoffner had to write preludes to music already written. "As the show goes into
different sections they start with a quote that comes up on the screen. Some had music, others
"When the executive producer saw it he said, "The quotes that don't have music just lay there;
put music behind them." So, I wrote introductions to the pieces already written," he added.
From: "Making Music with Visuals in Nashville" by Vernell Hackett