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Thoughts on Music in Documentary Films.

Projecting moving images to a paying audience began in 1895 in Paris with a series of short scenes from everyday life by the Lumiere brothers which they called actualities, these actualities were the precursor to all modern day non fiction audio visual formats.From the very early days of silent movies, music was considered essential to the moving image. At this point, its prime purpose was to disguise the noise of the projectors and prevent the audience from feeling a sense of disembodiment, caused by the rather surreal, ghostlike quality of the images projected onto the screen. With the arrival of talkies, there was a brief period when music was thought to distract an audience from following the dialogue in a film.

However, it soon returned to take a pivotal place in filmmaking, music is essential to storytelling and without it, the audience's engagement with any narrative factual or fictitious is considerably reduced.

Music can be used in a variety of ways depending on the film's aims and the techniques employed by the director and his team. The most obvious uses are listed below:

To create or enhance a mood.

To function as a lietmotif, linked to the appearance of a character or idea or to remind us of one not actually present on screen.

To link one scene to another providing sonic continuity.

To emphasise an action.

To provide unexpected juxtaposition.

To illustrate geographic location and historical period.

To influence the pacing of a scene.

Documentaries concentrate on factual description, or reports of a nonfictional nature, and musical accompaniment is very much dependent on subject matter. Most documentaries are made for television and producers are understandably wary of using music in the background of reports. For example, in a report on a middle eastern conflict or a political conference, music would supply an unwelcome emotional input that would colour the dispassionate information giving.

However, historical documentaries might use music of the period to engage the audience and add an additional realistic dimension to the narrative. Similarly, nature films delivered simply as factual reports can lose the interest of the viewer and so music can be used to help dramatise the images and commentary.

Nanook of the North(1922) was the first anthropological documentary- a silent film about the life of an Inuit. It had soundtracks composed separately for it in 1947 and 1976 by Rudolph Schramur and Stanley Silverman respectively. The BBC is renowned for its series of nature programmes, and few of their producers avoid music altogether. One exciting passage which is worth studying from the many filmed from Peter Scott onwards, is the battle between ants and termites in David Attenborough's Life in the Undergrowth series (2005), with music by Ben Salisbury and David Poore.

In terms of docu feature films, one of the highest grossing nature documentary to date has been March of the Penguins (2005). The frozen wastes of the South Pole and the emotional story of the penguin colony are perfectly complemented by Alex Wurman's sweeping orchestral score, featuring sustained and moving string parts, lyrical woodwind solos, minimalistic piano and tuned percussion loops.


In this regard one of the best documentary film score composer Bruno Coulais (Microcosmos, Himalaya, Les Choristes, etc) employs a musical style that is inventive and creates atmosphere with innovative textures and instrumentation. His musical language is at times atonal, but frequently chromatic or based on a tonal centre, with a subtle, original style of phrasing. He enjoys using the human voice often as a coloristic effect, and sometimes mixes in electronic sound sources.

In Microcosmos: le peuple de l'herbe (1996), a film which uses cutting edge photography to show close ups of small creatures in a meadow at various times of the day in varying weather conditions without any voiceover commentary Coulais's imaginative score creates a surreal atmosphere. His score employs percussion (both tuned and untuned), vocal solos from a boy treble and a mezzo soprano, strings and fuller orchestral sounds mixed with electronic effects, and real life(actuality) noises created, for example, by insect movement.

The title track of the film is considerably influenced by Danny Elfman's music for Nightmare Before Christmas and include chromatic harmonies, particularly minor triads shifting down a semitone. For 'The Bee and the Flowers' string special effects and percussion are mixed with the bees buzzing wings. The music within the film has pizzicato strings to mirror the fuzzy movement of the insects and uses musical elements to colour, counterpoint and juxtapose the visual artistry embedded within the narrative of this film.


Although an established composer or musician may be brought in for discussions at an early stage in the documentary film making process, most of the music is composed once filming is complete. The composer is sent a copy of the film after the edit is locked. Then the director along with his creative collaborators, preferably sound designer, music editor and others does a spotting session with the music composer. Here decisions are made as to where music is needed in the film. The various music cues are noted down by the music editor to help the composer with timing.


The composer then has only a few weeks to complete and record the score. As this process progresses music cues are sent to the director and his collaborators for approval and the composer proceeds further on getting approval, he might sit with an orchestrator and his musicians for final rehearsals before going for recording. In this regard one must understand that the files sent in for approval are mostly scratch tracks produced using virtual instruments by using midi keyboards connected to producing softwares and digital audio work stations. However the final score is mostly recorded using real instruments played by professional session players. Once the final score is recorded it is sent to the music editor who has to ensure synchronisation between sound and picture.


Before digital technology made this job more controllable, an editor would have to rely on streamers and punches. This is where the film is scratched, progressively moving across the frames (streamers) until a hit point is reached and the frame is pushed through (punches). The orchestra conductor will then see a white line moving across the projected image and a flash for the hit point. With digital technology music recordings can be time stretched by small amounts without a noticeable reduction in quality and made to fit the moving image very accurately.


The reason many people seek out certain documentaries is because they have a personal connection to the subject matter or an interest in gaining greater insight. The same is true for the composers that sign on to create the sound of these films. Composer Miriam Cutler reflected on her work on the film Ethel, which tells the story of Ethel Kennedy, saying, “I often found myself overwhelmed by my own feelings about the Kennedy family and their place in American history. Sometimes I was the only person in the room who was alive when Robert Kennedy was shot and for my generation, this had a huge impact.”


Composer Joel Goodman had a similar experience with an episode he scored for American Experience focusing on Walt Disney, explaining, “Prior to getting the call to score this film, I had read books and articles about Walt and was very familiar with his personal story. Sometimes we have personal connections in that way, reading about someone, and sometimes we may identify with the subject matter.”

When it comes to historical events and people, it is easy to find a way to tap into the emotion, but even something as innocuous as a documentary about coffee can create a connection. Barista tells the story of those behind the counter making our complicated coffee orders and the film’s composer, C.A. Gabriel, admitted, “I am a huge coffee fiend and it really was inspiring creating music for a film about the very thing that fuels me to create music.”


However a personal connection to a documentary is not always necessary ‐ sometimes it is simply the content of the story and the passion of those creating the documentary that become the draw. The film Bigger, Stronger, Faster is about the use of steroids and composer Dave Porter had little knowledge of the topic when he signed on to compose the film, but noted, “I was quickly fascinated by all of the moral and ethical questions the filmmakers were raising, and that fed me creatively while scoring it.”


Recorded music appears frequently in observational documentaries. As in the early days of sound film, a shot of a radio or record player often signals the diegetic source of recorded music. While the filmmakers want to indicate that the music was found on location, this practice is also the result of legal and financial concerns. Filmmakers believe that if they can prove that they are using a musical segment as a social document, they will not be obliged to pay users' fees to the copyright owners. In a recent appearance at the Ohio Film Conference in Athens, Wiseman argued that his extensive use of location-recorded popular music by bands like the B-52s in Model (1980), for which no fees were paid, would be defensible in court. Negotiating for the rights to use contemporary music in film is a notoriously difficult and expensive process, forcing some filmmakers to avoid such scenes altogether. Tony Buba addresses this issue in an amusing scene in Lightning Over Braddock in which a song by the Rolling Stones is not heard on the soundtrack. As we watch a mock performance of the song by local teenagers in a bar in Braddock, Pennsylvania, Buba tells us in voice-over that the rights to the song, which was played on the jukebox, would have cost $10,000. He remarks that if he paid such an extravagant amount of money, from his low-budget film about the economic downturn in the rust belt during the Reagan years, St. Peter wouldn't allow him into Heaven.While the conventions of observational film require that music be recorded on location, the function of music in the narrative structure of these films appears quite similar to that of music in classical Hollywood cinema. Music provides continuity, covers up edits, facilitates changes of scenes, provides mood, offers entertaining spectacle, allows for narrative interludes and montage sequences, and comments on the action. Eleven of the episodes of An American Family open with musical passages, while ten episodes end with music over the credits; these musical passages bracket the programs. Wiseman begins High School with a car radio playing Otis Redding's "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay" and the chorus about "wasting time" quickly comes to stand for the experience of the students at Northeast High. For the most part, Wiseman avoids such commentative uses of music in his later films. The virtual absence of music in Hospital no doubt contributes to its oppressive atmosphere of suffering and pain. The young man who overdoses on mescaline in that film begs his attendants to "play some music or sing" to relieve his anxiety. By and large, documentary filmmakers have become as rigorous as their Hollywood counterparts in finding musical passages that contribute to the narrative and thematic concerns of their films. Barbara Kopple's Harlan County U.S.A. (1976) profits from a rich and moving sample of folk songs that shows music to be a repository of community and memory in the miners' struggle for their civil rights.


We all respond to music - whether clicking our fingers, humming along or dancing - there's something out there for everyone.Visuals gain from sounds and sounds gain from visuals, without the harmony of visuals and sounds life would cease to exist.


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