by Erica Ginsberg, Docs In Progress® Executive Director and Adele Schmidt, Docs In Progress® Director of Programs and Services

The role music plays in documentary is a subtle but important one. Good music can help move a story along, underscore the emotions of a sequence, and – let’s be honest – help cover those problem sound areas you couldn’t quite “fix in post.” Many independent filmmakers dream of ways they can convince their favorite artists to give them a good deal on the rights to the perfect song or feel like the only thing they can afford is pre-packaged “needle drops” from a music library. But original music composed for a documentary is not as much of a pipe dream for the independent filmmaker as you may think.

john_keltonic.jpgWe recently talked to film composer John Keltonic of JDK Music about what filmmakers should think about when working with a composer. Keltonic has been composingoriginalmusic for documentaries for almost 20 years. He has scored major films for PBS, Discovery Channel, BBC, Animal Planet, Hallmark Channel, and many others. “Autism Is A World”, a film he scored for State of the Art Productions in Washington DC, was nominated for an Academy Award.

Q: At what stage do you normally get involvedwith a documentary film? What typically attracts you to a project?

As you’d expect, every project is different. With directors that I haven’t worked with before, I like to get involved as early as possible. It helps to see how the project is developing – moving from rough cut through fine cut to picture lock. This process gives me a better idea of the direction that the producer and director want to move in. With directors that I’ve worked with before, this isn’t as crucial, because I’m under the delusion [smiling] that I know how the director thinks, and what he or she is looking for.

As to what attracts me to a project, there can be any number of elements. I guess I’m looking for a story that hasn’t been told before, or hasn’t been told in this particular way. I love to find a director that’s passionate about his or her subject, and who is willing to let me bring my own musical ideas of my own to the project.

Q: If a director approaches you with a potential project, what things should he be prepared to discuss?

In addition to all the logistical stuff that needs to addressed first – budgets, time frames, etc. – I love to hear the director just chat about the film. What interested them in the subject? What are they trying to say? What they hope to accomplish with their film? All of this info gives a composer a look into the director’s point of view, which after all is what a composer is being hired to enhance.

Q: How can a director best convey what emotion he wants, even if he doesn’t know much about music?

Believe it or not, I don’t think it’s crucial that a director be an expert about music. Instead he or she needs to know their film intimately – what they want their audience to be feeling at any particular moment in the film, how much foreshadowing there should be, things like that. It’s my job to translate that direction into a music score. I’m looking for emotional and descriptive adjectives from a director, not necessarily a musical solution – that’s where the composer comes in.

Q: Do you usually compose to an existing edit or provide music for the editor to cut to? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each approach?

The vast majority of my work is “post-scored” music, meaning music that is composed to existing picture, with very little work being “pre-scored” where the music is composed first. Pre-scoring is usually done when the editor prefers to cut to music. I usually prefer to post-score a film, although it involves more work on my end. There are just so many variables that can’t be described in a script – the speed at which the camera pans, the light on the edge of a face, etc. – that can affect the direction of the music. I’ll often find small things in a picture – maybe a single sparkle of sun on water – that I’ll catch with something musical when I post-score. Those kinds of things can’t be done well if the music is created before the picture is edited. The other danger of a pre-score is that, because the music wasn’t done to picture, the score can come off sounding like glorified library music. Post-scoring really lets the music breathe with the picture.

I’ve even done one film that I didn’t pre or post score, because, I was never allowed to see the film at all! Years ago, I scored a secret film done for the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon. Instead of being allowed to watch the film, I was given only verbal instructions – things like “OK, at 1 minute and 14 seconds, something really big happens.” Um, OK…Imagine me scratching my head here. Is this a “good” big thing or a “bad” big thing? Like I said, every project is different…

Q: How do you approach projects where a director or editor has used a temp track and grown attached to the music?

Great question! There’s actually a term for this in the industry – it’s called “temp-love.” Even the greatest directors of all time have succumbed to this temptation. There’s a terrific score that composer Alex North (SpartacusDeath of a Salesman) wrote for Stanley Kubrick’s2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick never used North’s score, because by the time the music was finished, Kubrick had so fallen in love with the temp score of Strauss waltzes that nothing else would do. Temp scores are a great tool, and provide for a common frame of reference between composer and director, but beware of that “temp love!”

Q: What do you wish more producers and directors thought about when it comes to music?

The budget! Seriously, it’s often the case for newer directors that they don’t allot enough time or money to do the music right. When you consider that audio is half of the experience of your average film audience, music often does get the “short end of the stick”. When this happens the entire film can, and often does, suffer.

Also, directors sometimes make the mistake of creating an audio track of narration, voiceover, and sound effects that is very full before handing the project to a composer. When this happens, there isn’t much room for the music to breathe – that is, to live on its own with just picture. By the time a composer gets a film to score, the narration, voiceovers, interviews, and sound effects sometimes have so filled the audio that the music winds up being not much more than audio wallpaper. Experienced directors will intentionally leave holes in the audio track for the music, so that the pictures and music alone can advance the story. It’s not necessary to have human language filling in every hole or telling all of the story. Sometimes the film is best served with sections using just music and picture and no dialog. Listen closely to some high-end docs, and you’ll see what I mean.

Q: On average, how long does it take compose for a one hour film? What would be your ideal lead time for such a film?

Usually, I can compose and arrange about two minutes of music a day. Producing and recording the music can either take a lot or a little additional time, depending on how the music is produced, the number of musicians involved, etc. For directors that I haven’t worked with before, I like to allow for extra time, so that they can live with each music cue for a while before deciding where they might like changes made. Ideally it’s great to have six weeks to score a one-hour film. That almost never happens, of course, but you did ask what was the “ideal” lead time…

Q: How do you know what kind of music is appropriate for a film?

The most honest answer that I can give you is that even after 20 years of composing music for films, I’m still learning. I’ve scored hundreds of different projects, and yet I still come up with new musical solutions almost every day.

The process I use to determine what kind of music is appropriate is pretty much the same for most music cues. While watching the film, I start playing around with musical ideas. I figure out what musical ideas seem to be working, and start narrowing down the possibilities, eventually discarding everything that doesn’t work perfectly. I suppose it’s not that different from Michelangelo’s alleged quote “All you do is start with a block of marble, and chip away everything that doesn’t look like David.”

Q: How do you adapt to music in a style or tradition you may not already be well versed in?

For any film composer, I’m not sure that’s a viable option. While every composer will have his or her own musical strengths, a good composer should be able to emulate most existing musical styles and forms, in addition to being able to create his or her own unique style.

If you listen to samples of my film scores, you’ll find a pretty wide variety of types and styles of music. Full-blown orchestral cues, small piano solos, hard-edged rock, big band, etc. I’m not just “blowing my own horn” here; any good full-time film composer will be able to handle a multitude of styles pretty easily.

Q: Which elements of a documentary make it particularly enjoyable to work on and why?

I love to compose for films that are about a subject I may not know much about. I love opportunities to explore new musical directions, even if the director may not see their project as such. I’m not too interested in copying or emulating something that’s already been done. I’m more interested in “creating” than “re-creating,” if that makes sense.

Q: What documentaries — other than ones you have worked on — are great examples of use of music?

The Nature series on PBS is usually very well scored. I love most of the music NOVA series on PBS as well (even those NOVA shows that I didn’t score!). Scores like this stand out to me because they’re not the standard music fare.

So many docs on cable stations these days use the same distorted heavy metal guitars over rock drums and bass – it gets really old. It may have been new and fresh at one time, but now it’s just boring. While there certainly can be a place for this style, it’s really overused. I prefer innovation in music, wherever it’s found.

Q: How would you approach a documentary differently than a fiction film?

It’s not as different as you may think. In both cases, it’s the job of the composer to work within the director’s vision. In documentaries, however, sometimes a composer has to create music that’s historically or ethnically very accurate – usually not as much of a requirement in a fiction film.

Q: What should an independent filmmaker with a modest budget do when it comes to music?

A perfect question! Probably the best thing a filmmaker can do is talk to a composer early in the process, finding out what is and isn’t possible within the given budget parameters. Because of the advances in digital technology in just the past 10 years, a director may learn that more is possible than they might have thought, even with a limited budget.

Q: When is it appropriate to bring real performers in?

Whenever the budget allows! Actually, whenever a composer is going for a “real instrument” sound, it’s almost always best to use a real player. That said, it’s often not possible for financial reasons to use live players. Often, I’ll use mostly instrument samples, but bring in a real violinist, guitar player, etc., for those sections where a solo instrument needs to stand out from the rest of the music.

Q: How has the digital era affected your work?

In the last 20 years or so, the entire music production business has changed drastically because of digital technology. It’s hard to count all of the ways. I almost never compose or arrange using music paper anymore, but usually compose directly on the computer, printing out parts for individual musicians. It’s now possible to have frame accurate mixing with the ability to recall all dynamic parameters -not just volume and panning, but virtually everything else, including compression, reverb, delay, limiting, pitch correction, you name it.

Also, with the advent of faster computers and the Internet, it’s now as easy to work with a composer across the country as it is with a composer across the street. I’ve done several films for KCTS in Seattle, scored projects for the NOVA series (out of WGBH in Boston) without ever meeting any of the WGBH directors in person. Next month, I start scoring a two-hour film for WTTW in Chicago, and I’ve never met the directors or producers. So much can now be done over the internet via mp3s, Skype or iChat video conferencing, ftp sites, etc. It’s easier than it sounds, and it’s a pretty efficient way to work as well.

But I would guess that the biggest change in the digital era is the newfound ability to digitally create and sample the sounds of real musical instruments – some of them with amazing accuracy. Even some tricky individual instrument sounds that would have been considered impossible to duplicate only a few years ago – a solo violin, for example — are being reproduced with greater and greater degrees of realism. That said, I’ll always use a “real” instrument if time and budget permits.

A year or two ago, a very high PBS executive (who will remain nameless) called to compliment me on a score I’d just done for PBS. He had nothing to do with this particular film, but wanted to thank me for the music, saying how nice it was to hear real liveinstruments again instead of all that “electronic crap”. Truth be told, there wasn’t a live musician to be found in the entire score. Nothing but good samples of real instruments. While I was stammering a thank you to this guy, and trying to find a way to tell him that there were no real instruments, he said he had to go, and hung up. Not sure if he ever found out how the score was really done.

I also did some music for VisaCard recently, where I was asked to compose an orchestral piece using a real orchestra for a long-form “smiling faces” spot. I did a demo for them, using only MIDI instruments. I didn’t spend much time on the actual sounds, because I knew that they would be replaced by real instruments. Of course you know the rest of the story. They approved the demo as a “final”and told me not to make any changes! That’ll teach me!

Q: Is there anything else you think it is important for the documentary community to know about working with composers?

Every pro in this business understands that film-making is a collaborative process, where everyone is working together, bringing his or her expertise to the project. A composer is just another part of the same team, working for the same end: an excellent film. Remember, as Red Green says, “We’re all in this together!”

To hear samples from John Keltonic, visit his website at

© October 2007, Docs In Progress®. This article may not be reprinted without permission.