Resounding Music

Gabriel Hudelson

Q&A: Temp Tracks?

David asks: “Temp tracks: yay or nay?”

It’s a simple question, but a very, very good one, one which composers generally love to be asked because temp tracks can- well, sometimes temp tracks are the bane of our existence.

First things first- what is a temp track? A temp (temporary) track is a previously composed piece of music, generally from another film, that a director or editor puts into his project temporarily while editing it together. This provides the editor with an aural sense of rhythm that he can edit to; it also makes the film-in-progress feel more complete and emotionally satisfying, which is, of course, very fun. Take an action scene that you’re editing together and stick a track from The Bourne Ultimatum underneath it, and suddenly it is twice as thrilling.

As you might expect, the response to this question includes a little bit both of yea and nay.

I think the biggest concern for every composer who discovers that his director has been using temp tracks is that the director might fall in love with that epic track by John Williams and want exactly. the. same. thing.

As a composer, I am hired to bring my experience and knowledge and skill and passion in the realm of music into your project to make it better. But if you fall in love with a particular score, that may end up reducing me to the producer of a knockoff score. Instead of being able to be genuinely and freely creative, I am tightly bound to the choices some other composer made. The issue is not that his score wasn’t good- it’s that his score wasn’t written for your project. I want to work with you to find more than just a good score- I want to find your movie’s voice. I don’t want to just dress your movie in really well made clothes- I want to tailor the suit to fit exactly.

So if Giacchino’s UP is already the score for your movie in your head, but I have a crazy idea that maybe some humming might fit well into the score, it will be hard to pitch that idea to you, because that doesn’t sound like UP.

But maybe it actually does sound like your movie.

So if the temp track prejudices the director to be closed off to the composer’s creativity, then in the end the film is worse off for it- the composer cannot bring his full expertise to the table, and the director will struggle to make his decisions about the music without bias.

If the director is careful to reserve judgment, however- if he keeps himself from falling in love with the temp track, and uses it only as a loose guideline for the emotions and pacing of the film- then temp tracks can be quite helpful.

For my part, I prefer no temp tracks at all. I much prefer painting on a blank canvas. However, previously composed music makes for an excellent translator in the discussion of music; one of the most helpful things for me is when a director gives me the names of some scores he likes, both in general and for the project at hand.

Sometimes it’s pretty straightforward. Years ago, working on the medieval action short Brothers Arise, Hans Zimmer’s Pirates of the Caribbean score was a very accurate picture of the feel we were going for. While the resulting score was not a copy-paste of Zimmer’s work, the influence is clear, and being able to reference a previously composed score gave us common ground on which to build the musical world of the film:

Sometimes the benefits are much more subtle. Before scoring Bound, I spent some time talking to the director. In the process, we discussed music that we liked, and he played me this track- one of his new favorites at the time:

This wasn’t a temp track; it didn’t appear in the edit; it wasn’t really even the right style for Bound. But he was communicating to me what he liked in a more general sense. What made him tick. And without having to have any long conversation, he effectively communicated to me that he liked the modern, epic grandeur of The Battle Room. That got filed somewhere in the deep dark recesses of my brain, only to reappear when writing the suite for the film- you can hear the modern influence coming out at 3:18 even in the midst of a score that is, overall, very classical in tone.

I had a fuller picture of how the director thought, and I was able to better sculpt the world of the score in a way that resonated with the director.

So if I had to answer this question in a word, I would say “nay.” Skip the temp tracks, or hold onto them loosely. Trust your composer with the music of your movie- give him room to experiment, to throw out ideas, to really work at perfecting the music. Don’t bind him to some other movie’s voice. But while you’re at it, compiling a little mental list of soundtracks and/or composers that have “the right sound/feel” for your movie is a great idea; it will give you and your composer a great jumpstart on the communication process as you narrow in the vision for your score.

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This post is the first in a series answering questions about the composing process. Next week, I’ll be taking a break from the Q&A, instead sharing and commenting on a video about the music of Marvel movies. Have a question for a film composer? Just comment below and I’ll add it to the list!

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  • Philip Steele

    Very interesting. I know that when it comes to temp music, Alan Silvestri has one rule: only listen to the scene with the temp music once. This seems like a much safer way of using them.

    • GabrielHudelson

      Yes. Very true- point being don’t get bound to the temp. Director or composer!