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Star Wars Orchestra

Okay – you’ve had the call – the director wants you to write the kick-ass soundtrack for his next movie! Oh, and by the way, you only have a few weeks to write and record music for the whole thing. What do you do? You turn to our resident music maestro, Douglas Black Heaton, that’s what. Here’s his guide to making magic movie music.


First off comes the “Spotting” session. This is where you sit down with the director and hopefully he tells you where he wants the music to go, what emotions he wants it to convey and how it will add to his grand vision. Or he may not. Fingers crossed.

After the spotting session you should also have an idea what musical palette you’re going to be working with. Industrial electronica like “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”? Soaring symphonic orchestra like “E.T.”? Twee acoustica à la “Little Miss Sunshine”? Maybe a bonkers hybrid of several genres?

Time to head off to your musical weapon of choice and start developing your ideas. For some this is a cerebral task with pen and paper, but for many this means banging your head against a keyboard until the ideas detach from your brain and start flowing onto the notes.

Temp Love

Often the movie edit will have had someone else’s music plastered over it in order to give movie execs an idea of the finished product – the “temp” track. The problem with this is the director/producer/studio exec gets used to hearing this music on the movie and may have trouble accepting your ideas in comparison. Even the greats have had to deal with this. The first Star Wars film was temped with pieces from Holst’s Planet Suite and Korngold’s King’s Row, and you can clearly hear their influence all over John Williams’s now classic score.


First you’ll need some themes. Done? Good. Now you’ve just got to write around 45 minutes of music using these themes in just 2-3 weeks. Hey! Hold on, that’s 2-4 minutes of finished music a day without taking any days off! Better grab a coffee and get a move on!  When James Horner took over scoring duties on the 2004 movie Troy at the 11th hour, he had just 2 weeks to write and record 90 minutes of music.

Sometimes the scoring schedule is so tough that composers dip into their standard bag of tricks just to be able to produce something usable in time, so you might hear a composer’s favourite chord progressions, melodies and harmonies appearing between different movies. Mr. Horner is a master of this.


Now, depending on the type of score we need to get it orchestrated so that the musicians have a decent chance of reproducing your caffeine-induced ideas for the recording. Luckily there are specialists who can make sense of your ideas and turn them into movie gold. Good orchestrators often contribute as much to the overall sound as much as the composer- David Arnold’s orchestrator Nicholas Dodd is almost as much a part of Arnold’s Bond scores as Arnold himself.


If you opted for electronica or lo-fi acoustic the chances are you’ve completed most of this as you were writing. If you went full-blown orchestral this is where it gets magical (and expensive!). You’ll need to hire a sound stage, recording engineers… Oh yes, and 80 top-notch musicians to play your strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion in true bombastic blockbuster style. Not cheap, but this is where the sound really comes to life.


All the audio needs to dubbed on to the film. Dubbing can be really tough on a composer. He has to sit there cringing whilst the music that he’s slaved over for the last 3 weeks is invariably drowned out by special effects and actors bellowing their lines. Luckily for most movie goers it’s not usually the composer who gets to decide the balance.


After all this work you still need to have your score accepted by the powers that be. There have been some notable cases where entire scores have been rejected at the last minute- Alex North’s score for 2001: A Space Odyssey was jettisoned after Stanley Kubrick got temp love and decided to keep the “guide” classical music. Tough on Alex North but can you imagine 2001 without Richard Strauss’s “Also sprach Zarathustra” at the start?

Congrats – if you made it through all of the above you’ve completed a movie soundtrack, and if you’re lucky it might just be a kick-ass one.