Spotting A Film: The First Step in Composing for Cinema

Composing requires an entirely different skill set to film production, one based in the abstract language of music, and as such it is important for a specialist to undergo the task of scoring a film.

That said, regardless of whether you are a composer or not, it is important to know how to begin scoring a film.

Here we will discuss this first step—spotting—which is done as soon as the edit is locked.

It is a process which plants the seeds of the composition in the composers mind, making it one of the most exciting and rewarding parts of the composition process.

What is Spotting?

As the name suggests, spotting is where the composer spots where and when music should occur throughout a film—as such also creating the basis for the themes, styles and motifs for the project.

The process can be done by the composer alone, but is often more valuable when undertaken in tandem with the director.

Cooperation and communication throughout this step allows the foundation of the score to be mutually understood, resulting in the most fitting score for the project.

Throughout the multiple viewings required to spot the film, the composer, and director, will look for various cues and moments where music will play a part in the film, thus laying the parameters within which the composition will take place.

Spotting Markers

The process of spotting can be completed digitally, through various DAWs (digital audio workstations), or analogue with a simple paper and pen.

Composers will have nuanced method to spotting, recording relevant moments in their own style.

However there are four key elements which are almost universal across all methods; in points, out points, hit markers and descriptive markers.

In and out points are pretty self explanatory, being the potential points for moments in the score to start or finish.

Hit markers
record specific moments in the film which require musical cues to occur; for example a character raising their sword, a monster emerging from the shadows or a protagonist leaving their house for the last time.

As these examples suggest, these moments can be small or large, and signaled by narrative or visual importance.

Hit markers will be plentiful throughout the spotting process, and can even be a good point to begin, as their presence often implies other in and out points.

Furthermore the frequency of these hit markers within a particular scene will help to determine a suitable tempo for the scene’s music.

Of course, an action sequence may contain many, many hit markers, while a quiet moment of personal drama may only have one or two—signalling that the music as a whole should react symbiotically.

Finally there are description markers.

These act similarly to hit markers but do not necessarily correspond to musical moments. Instead description markers can help the composer recall important narrative information, or moments of foreshadowing—outlining moments where subtle motifs could be used.

As such, descriptive markers don’t have the profound effect hit markers do, but remain fundamental to keeping the composer considering the film as a whole, instead of discrete chunks.

Of course, all these markers can come in countless forms, but we will restrict them into three broad categories.

  • Firstly, diegetic changes can act as great markers. This refers solely to events or emotions that occur within the film’s narrative world. For example the moment a character stops walking, quickly turns or picks up an object can act as great diegetic in points or hit markers.

  • Secondly, non-diegetic changes are also fantastic and just as frequently used. These can be the editing (and its pace), camera movement, changes in lighting or camera effects. Of course, these non-diegetic moments emerge from a perspective other than the character, and thus will likely have a less narratively emotional effect on the viewer.

  • Third we have environmental changes, which are close to diegetic changes but often unrelated to the narrative world of the film. Ranging from landscape shots to found-footage, these cues often sit slightly apart from the bulk of the film’s score, providing a breathing space to be filled by the score, or left empty.

Why Should You Spot?

By understanding how to spot, it is clear that the process will elucidate the placement of music within a film.

But spotting in fact delivers far more information to the composer. It helps define the project’s needs and the music’s function while stimulating the creative juices of any musician.

Furthermore, the process of spotting brings to light the optimal musical perspective to take.

For example should the music be aligned with the film’s protagonist, mirroring their emotions?

Or is it there for the audience, to signal when a moment goes from being dramatic to being comical?

The process of spotting provides adequate time to consider such questions fully, resulting in a comprehensive understanding of the film, and the soundtrack’s place within it.

Let’s Get Spotting!

Thus, it is clear that spotting is an almost essential step of the film scoring process, and one bound to enrich the potential of any given score.

Now that we all have a solid understanding of the process, it’s time to get into it.

If you have a film project that needs scoring get in touch today and we can get straight into the spotting process.

As communicating artistic intention is a complex beast, the best way to do this is to schedule a call which can be done directly here: