Spotlight: Creative Stories from Around Ireland

SPOTLIGHT: How do you score a film?

"You never really know where the inspiration is going to spring from" - Michael Fleming shares the ins and outs of writing soundtracks

When its bad, you notice it. When its good, you don't. It's so subtle, yet influences everything. Have you guessed yet? 

We're talking about the soundtrack, of course. The heartbeat of a film that evokes emotions we aren't even aware we are feeling. The cue in an ad that sums up a pitch. The backdrop to a performance or art installation that brings everything together. But what goes into creating soundtracks? We spoke to Michael Fleming, who has scored numerous award-winning films about his creative process.

Read time: 15mins

Who are you?

I'm a freelance composer based in Dublin. I compose mainly for film and TV but have also written music for many commercials, dance performances, and gallery installations.  I've scored four IFTA winning films, one BAFTA nominated animation and numerous other projects that have received accolades at various festivals worldwide. I hold a Masters in Music & Media Technologies from Trinity College, a diploma in classical flute, and also used to play guitar, banjo, and bouzouki with a rock band called The Jimmy Cake.

We had to Google it. This is a bouzouki.

What are you working on at the moment? 

During the summer I composed the score for the feature documentary, Katie and it's currently in cinemas nationwide. This is my third feature documentary with director, Ross Whitaker (Unbreakable: The Mark Pollock Story and Between Land & Sea are the other two) and it was the most varied of the three musically. There are a lot of tonal changes and energy peaks and troughs in the film so Ross and I spent a lot of time breaking it all down together and deciding on approaches to each scene. Ross is really great to work with. He's clear and decisive about what he wants but allows me full freedom to put my creative mark on it overall. What resulted is quite a wide stylistic mix of music  - from orchestral to ambient electronica and even country!  Harnessing it all together to ensure a sense of musical cohesion was a challenge but I'm really proud of how it turned out.

Most recently I composed a big orchestral score for a dance film called How To Sink A Paper Boat which was written and directed by David Bolger, creative director of Coiscéim Dance Theatre. Although it is inspired by an actual event (the sinking of the Irish mail ship RMS Leinster by a German torpedo in 1918), the film's approach is quite conceptual and there is virtually no dialogue so the music has a lot of work to do. David and I have worked on two other projects together (Deep End Dance and Body Language) so we trust each other creatively, communicate well and allow a lot of space and time for exploration.

Up next is a totally different project - a feature drama/thriller. So far I've only had a loose conversation with the director about it but we are due to meet up, look at a rough cut and drill into the detail over the next few days

Michael Fleming at Windmill Lane. Photo by Emily Quinn.

Why do you do what you do?

Although I've been performing music since I was very young, my first real taste of composing for film came during my time as a student on the Masters In Music & Media Technologies at Trinity College, Dublin. I had always dabbled in composition but was a bit terrified of the blank sheet of paper that comes with writing concert music. During the Masters I was paired with an animation student at IADT (Institute of Art, Design & Technology), Dún Laoghaire to write music for his final year film project and it was a bit of a penny-drop moment for me. Writing for film is more 'responsive' in nature as there is a script, a concept/idea, or some film footage already in existence to latch onto creatively. The composer's job is to soak up what's there and breathe musical life into it. That first experience as a student in 2000 was really rewarding so I went in search of more and here I am now over sixty projects later...

I had always dabbled in composition but was a bit terrified of the blank sheet of paper that comes with writing concert music.

Score sheet. Photo by Emily Quinn.

What drives you to create?


Composing - tell me about the craft?

No matter what style of music is being composed, you're always broadly dealing with a combination of the same things: melody, harmony, rhythm, tempo, texture (combinations of instruments or synthesized sounds), dynamics (loudness), duration and acoustic space. With ensemble writing in any style, I need to have a complete technical knowledge of each individual instrument in order to compose for it in a compelling way. I also need to have an intuitive awareness of the composite musical 'colors' that result from combining different instruments – also called 'orchestration' or 'arranging'. For example, in the orchestral score for How To Sink A Paper Boat, I combined violins and oboe together on one of the central melodic themes. Introducing the oboe brought more 'sparkle' and 'definition' to the theme and allowed it to 'shine' on top of the bed of dissonant cluster chords I had composed for lower strings and brass.   

Orchestra in Windmill Lane. Photo by Emily Quinn.

If I'm unfamiliar with instruments I will try to spend time with the musician(s) and explore the instruments' potential. This occurred a number of years ago on a short film called Alia which required a score involving instruments from the Middle East that I had only a cursory knowledge of. To get up to speed, I spent a workshop afternoon with the players, filming them playing each of the instruments I had in mind. I then prepared a synthesized version mock-up of the score for these players to listen to and they came along with suggested arrangement ideas to the recording session. The final version ended up being a combination of these arrangements all mixed together.

When it comes to electronic or electroacoustic music, the sonic possibilities are endless so an in-depth knowledge of synthesizers and sound processing techniques is required in order to achieve the sound you're after. Sometimes the blend of electronic and acoustic works really well. Once the electronic sounds have been constructed and instruments have been chosen, combining them in an interesting way is where the real fun begins.  For the Katie score, I used a lot of piano in the low register with shimmering orchestral strings for tension and combined this with extra sine-wave sub bass for definition and depth in the low end and occasional surges of synthesized electronic sounds for contrasting texture. The tapestry of sound that results from this combination can be really exciting. I once wrote a piece for flute and electronics where the whole electronic part was generated from the rustle of a crisp packet. Time-stretching it digitally and processing it with lots of electronic effects made it completely unrecognizable as but it sounded really unique once I was done with it and complemented the flute part well. 

What is your creative process?

At the outset of working on a film, I'll generally get a rough cut with no music which I watch repeatedly. This is where I get to know the script and characters, become well-acquainted with the film's central themes and digest its overall energy and emotion. Following this, I start to build a music framework in my head of what it 'needs'. This can involve quite general decisions around instrumentation, style/genre, tone and pace that help lay a cohesive musical foundation on which to build. Once I've settled on this framework, I sit down at my studio and begin fleshing it out. I tend to throw everything at an idea and then refine later. Once the 'essence' of something is working I can tweak endlessly!

Musical approaches to a specific film scene (or 'cue' as it's called in film composing) can vary. I may choose to follow the movement on screen and have the music reflect the ebb and flow of tension, as was common in the fight scenes in Katie. Other cues may require a more consistent underscore that supports the scene on a more general level emotionally. Another approach is to use music as a juxtaposition. A number of years ago I scored a documentary about the September 11th attacks on New York. One of the scenes included quite shaky footage of the people jumping to their deaths out of the Towers accompanied by a chorus of screams and shouts from people on the ground and endless traffic and sirens emanating from across the city. I suggested to the director that the music should not add to this cacophony of sound but should rise above it both in its emotion and articulation. The result was a heartfelt but calm piece for piano, violin, and cello that provided the perfect sonic counter-balance. In the final mix, the engineer gradually faded out all sound except music. This lent a deep poignancy to it and helped soften its inherent brutality.

On other projects, I may have no film footage to work from at all. I once scored a film about W.B. Yeats where the director prescribed six of his poems for me to read and asked me to 'respond' to each of them with a 2-3 minute piece of music. The editor then took this music and placed it into the film in allocated segments. I had a similar experience this summer when The National Gallery commissioned me to compose four pieces of music in response to four paintings from the Roderic O Conor & The Moderns exhibition. These pieces were subsequently woven into a podcast about the exhibition and worked really well.

Michael Fleming. Photo by Emily Quinn.

What's your favourite part of the creative process?

The beginning of a project is always a vicious struggle for me but once I've got a solid framework and I can sense its potential I really enjoy refining it until it's right. I'm quite forensic and can get ridiculously hung up on detail. However, my favourite part by far is recording and mixing the end product. I love hearing the music come to life and communicating back and forth with the players, conductor and recording engineer to get the best representation of what I've written on the page. At the end of the mix, I'll generally rush home with a hard-drive full of the final tracks and pour over them again for hours in my studio. When I've been intimately involved in a project for many months it takes a while to let it go and move on to the next thing!

The beginning of a project is always a vicious struggle for me

What do you do when you hit a creative wall?

It depends on the type of creative wall. If it's at the beginning of a project and hours (or even days!!) of staring at the page or screen hasn't yet yielded a note, I will leave the house and not come back until my mind is clear again. That sometimes involves strolling around the City Centre aimlessly window-shopping and listening to a podcast that has nothing to do with music. I have also built a daily yoga class into my schedule. Along with combatting lower back issues, it helps focus the mind and rips through the creative blockages.

You never really know where the inspiration is going to spring from

If the framework idea is already there and I'm struggling with how to develop it, I will listen to lots of other music and try to be inspired by it. For example, I was really struggling with aspects of a string quartet piece that I was composing in response to the painting La Cap Canaille for the National Gallery commission series referenced above. I felt that the interplay between the first violin and viola wasn't having the impact I had hoped for when I began. Oddly, the remedy came from an electronic music track called Luminous Beings by Jon Hopkins.  There is a little section halfway through with some synth notes playing off one another that really struck me so I applied a similar composition device to my quartet piece and it really worked. You never really know where the inspiration is going to spring from so I also keep a notebook on me all of the time in case something arises.


Do you have any encouragement/suggestions for other creatives out there?

As I work mainly in creative collaboration with others maybe I'll offer a few suggestions around communication. My job as a film composer involves way more than bringing music expertise to the table. As music is so subjective, I spend quite a lot of time in conversation with the director and/or editor trying to parse out the detail and gain clarity and agreement on the desired approach to each scene. Most directors/editors are not musicians – they are people who listen to and enjoy music are not au fait with academic terminology or technical approaches to composition. With this, the most important thing throughout the process is the ability not just to ask the right questions, but also to interpret the answers.  This requires being clear from the outset about the information you are trying find out so I tend to make a detailed, technical list of questions for myself during my first viewing and then summarize them for the director/editor with accompanying suggestions and references to other work. This generally yields good results, saves time and helps avoid confusion as the process unfolds.

You can find out more about Michael's work on his site or follow him on Twitter.

Some of the words by: Sasha Kinch

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