Creating movie soundtracks is an engaging and effective activity for middle school students, which allows them to gain an understanding of the effect of music and sound effects on visual imagery. Film scoring encompasses a range of tech skills – including recording audio, recording MIDI, editing and synchronisation – and a range of music skills such as the effective use of tone colour and timbre, and the use of rhythmic and melodic compositional techniques to invoke a mood, place, time or person.
In this two-part article, we will look at a five-step process to approaching film scoring with students:
- Introducing students to film scoring and sound design.
- Creating or finding the visual element.
- Preparing the visual element.
- Choosing software for film scoring.
- Creating the soundtrack.
This first article will begin by looking at ways to introduce film scoring to students and places to find visual resources such as videos and images.
Before embarking on a film-scoring project with your class, it is a good idea to define the project parameters:
- How long the project will last: a few lessons? A whole term or semester?
- Will the students work in groups, individually or as a class?
- Will students make their own sound effects or will they have access to a sound effects library?
- Will students be using pre-recorded loops in their soundtrack? Will they compose entirely from scratch? Or will it be a combination of the two?
Types Of Projects
For an initial film scoring project, it is a good idea to start simple: have students add sound effects to a movie in a sequencing software program, or add un-tuned percussion sounds to create “musical sound effects” if they are using a notation program. Concentrating on the simple act of synchronising sound with visuals allows students to become comfortable with the software program they are using and to learn the technical skills needed.
Once they are comfortable with the process, it is easy to move on to more complex projects involving sound effects and original composed music which matches the action on the screen.
Step 1: Introducing students to film scoring and sound design
The Effect Of Music
In movies, music serves multiple purposes: it creates a mood, invokes an emotion or feeling, creates a sense of time or history, or represents a character or place.
There are many great videos and movie clips which illustrate the effect that music can have on a movie scene. One excellent example is the “Scary Mary” video that can be found on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2T5_0AGdFic). Scary Mary is a recut Mary Poppins trailer that paints Mary Poppins as a character from a horror movie through the use of dramatic music and some clever video editing.
An interesting exercise is to play a dramatic flying or fighting scene from a film such as Harry Potter or Star Wars with the sound muted and then play it a second time with the sound turned up. Students can compare the effectiveness of the scene with and without the music.
You can also ask students to write a response to different styles of music played against the same movie scene. Show students the YouTube video Same Scene 5 Ways (created by the author: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ktKcnDfWs2c ) and ask them to write down a word to describe the mood of the music (e.g. happy, sad, scary) and then two or three other words to describe the music itself (e.g. high-pitched, light, heavy, major, minor, short, sustained). A comparison of answers can often yield some interesting results!
Sound Effects And Foley
The study of sound effects and the way they are produced is another effective way to encourage students to think consciously about sound. Watching a movie scene without seeing the source of a sound effect can prove that the ears are easily tricked into believing that the sound source is real. The excellent 10-minute video Back of the Mic: Behind the Scenes of a Radio Show (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZ43UC5tIOY ) is compelling viewing and a perfect example of ingenious (and humorous) sound effects creation.
How Do Real Composers Work?
It is also useful for students to gain an understanding of how real film composers work. Students are usually surprised to discover where soundtrack creation fits in the overall movie-making timeline: right at the very end. Music is composed to the final version of the film (known as the “locked picture”) which means that the composer must wait until all the filming and editing is complete before composing the music for each scene.
In the film-making timeline, there are roughly four stages:
- Pre-production: writing the script, seeking finance, creating the film schedule, hiring actors
- Production: rehearsing, shooting the film
- Post-production 1: edit and assemble the film until it reaches “locked picture” (or “fine cut”) stage
- Post-production 2: create the audio track including dialogue, sound effects and music.
The composer may have about 6-8 weeks to work on the music for a film. Because the composer needs to wait for the final version of the film, if there are any delays in filming, his or her time may be cut down drastically because the release date for the film does not usually change. The renowned film composer John Williams says that on a good working day he can produce two minutes of usable composed music.
Step 2: Creating or finding the visual element
One of the biggest challenges teachers face when working on film scoring projects with students is finding good-quality, appealing videos to work with. It is best to search for a short film (1-2 minutes is ideal) that is either copyright-free, Creative Commons licensed or in the public domain.
The ultimate copyright-free video is one shot by you or your students! You will need to decide whether to base your movie on a known story such as a fairytale, or whether you will just provide students with a theme to work with. Spooky or suspenseful themes always work well and provide an easy option when gathering sound effects and composing the soundtrack.
Finding Legal Videos
If you do want to use an existing film, there are a number of places to find good materials. You do not necessarily need to find a silent film (although there are many available). Your sequencing or video editing software will separate the audio and video tracks, allowing you to delete or mute any existing music.
The Moving Image Archive (http://archive.org/details/movies) on the Internet Archive website contains thousands of copyright-free films. It includes multiple sub-collections: Animation Shorts, Brick Films (stop-motion animation made with Lego) and Film Chest Vintage Cartoons – classic cartoons from the 1930s and 1940s including Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker, Betty Boop, Popeye and Mighty Mouse.
In addition, they have a collection of non-fiction films including British Government Public Information Films from the 1940s and 1950s (very entertaining!), a series of short adverts in the Drive-In Movie Ads section and a large amount of NASA videos and footage from space.
The Open Video website (http://www.open-video.org/) also has a collection of copyright free films. The site has an excellent search engine that allows you to narrow your search to films of a specific duration (e.g. less than one minute, or between 1-2 minutes) and you can specifically search for silent films.
Two open-source animated videos created by the Blender Foundation are a useful resource for student projects: the playful Big Buck Bunny (http://www.bigbuckbunny.org) appeals to all student age-groups while the darker Elephant’s Dream animation (http://www.elephantsdream.org/) is better suited to older students.
Film-scoring competitions are also a useful source of film footage. The competition organiser makes a short film available for use in the competition, but the films are usually available to download whether you intend to enter the competition or not. Favourite sources include the BBC’s Wallace and Grommit film scoring competition (http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/teachers/wallaceandgromit/ ) and the annual Tropscore competition run by Tropfest (http://tropfest.com/au/tropscore).
If you are seeking more information about copyright in Australian schools, visit the Smartcopying website (http://www.smartcopying.edu.au/). More information about Creative Commons – a non-profit organisation that encourages sharing and collaboration of music, videos, text – can be found at http://creativecommons.org/
You may like to consider using a series of images for the visual part of the project instead of using video. Still images can be easier to find and also easy for students to create themselves, especially if you have access to a class set of iPads. The images can be assembled in a specific chosen order within the sequencing software and then synchronised with the music and sound effects (covered in Part 2 of this article in the next issue of the magazine).
If you choose to use images, it can be a good idea to limit the number that students use in their project. Three to five images work well for a short project. Use more than five for a more substantial project.
Finding Legal Images
Favourite places to find sources of public domain and Creative Commons images include Pixabay (http://pixabay.com/en/ ), Public Domain Pictures (http://www.publicdomainpictures.net ) and Public Domain Photos (http://www.public-domain-photos.com ).
In Part 2 of this topic, we will discuss the preparation of the visual element of the project, examine software options and then work through the technical steps for putting the soundtrack together.
Katie Wardrobe is a music technology trainer and consultant with a passion for helping music educators. She runs hands-on workshops and online courses through her business, Midnight Music, and focusses on incorporating technology into the music curriculum. Katie is also the author of the middle school MusicEDU curriculum program Studio Sessions and is currently writing an ebook titled iPad Projects for the Music Classroom. For more information, visit www.midnightmusic.com.au