By Paul Ng

When you watch a film, music helps convey the underlying emotions of a scene. Picture the synthesiser accompaniment to all those lonely space scenes in Interstellar, or the rousing soundtrack played during sword fights in Pirates of the Caribbean, or the melancholic music of every broken heart in a Nicholas Sparks melodrama. So who’s in charge of the film scoring?

These big budget films have commissioned composers to come up with the backdrop to amplify specific scenes in their films. But what about films with much, much smaller budgets? More often than not, they probably don’t allocate budgets to hire a composer – even if for a few thousand dollars – to score the film. Especially not when they can simply purchase library music for just $5.

So with these limitations, how are young composers supposed to get the opportunity to make a living, hone their craft, and eventually climb the ladder to become the next John Williams? In the future, who’s going to score the music to the favourite film you love? Where does that leave young composers who aspire to create soundtracks to great films and TV shows?

A rundown on film composing

First, let’s set a context for what’s involved in film scoring. There’s usually a process for composers. The first task would be to communicate with the film director and have them communicate their vision. Next would be reading the script or the visual storyboard to get a feel of the characters or scenes. Thereafter, they would create what’s called “temporary music,” which consists of about 10% of the actual composition work. 

The main goal would be to enable the director to get a feel of the creative direction, and to be inspired for any scene changes. Different composers work differently. Some use a piano to draft ideas; others prefer to use virtual instruments to create a mock-up. 

Next is the post production phase. Once all the film timings and scene changes are fixed, composers can do 90% of the actual compositional work, arrangements, instrumentations, and fine-tuning of virtual instrument mock-ups. On bigger film productions, this includes the recording of live instruments or a live orchestra. Lastly, it would be the fine-tuning and mixing for the film itself. 

As you can see, there’s a lot of work that goes in behind your film scoring. What composers do is both costly and very time-consuming. It could take anywhere from days to months to complete a film score, depending on the scope of the film. So, what is that worth? 

The Singapore context

Singapore has a small film industry, which leads to small budgets, which forces film producers to economise. To put it bluntly – to cut corners. The best place to cut corners is on hiring creatives, and part of it being the music and composition. As a film producer, would you rather spend thousands of dollars on film scoring fees, or $5 on stock music? 

Hollywood, or even Bollywood for that matter, have a lot of systems in place for music. But our film industry is still growing and developing. With this in mind, would a career in film composition in Singapore be viable? 

“There’re not a lot of requests for pure composition, which is why I’m super heavy into the production and artist side. And the remuneration is very low as well,” according to local composer Tabitha Boon of Noivil Studios. 

“Initially, when I wanted to do pure composition and orchestration work, I found that there weren’t a lot of filmmakers hiring out there. If you look at Singapore, our film industry is really small, and budgets are even smaller. So for me, it wasn’t very sustainable to dive completely into that. I shifted over to the more commercial side of things, just to make sure I have money to survive.”

Fellow composer, Alex Oh of White Noise Studios, echoes the sentiment: “In my opinion, we are not compensated that fairly. I have a recording studio, so that’s another source of income. I’m still doing music production, sometimes voiceovers, mixing, and also recording.”

“If you think about it, the average Singapore film is made on [a budget of] less than a million dollars. In fact, a lot of them, a lot of indie films are made with less than $100,000. So sometimes the production quality can’t match up,” says Ting Si Hao, an accomplished composer. He’s found opportunities overseas and is currently working on a mobile game project for Tencent, “Honor Of Kings”. 

Interestingly, these composers are making a living through various means, but this also proves the point that as a composer, film scoring within Singapore is not a great option. It’s tough, so in order to survive, you need to diversify and seek opportunities elsewhere. 

The cost of composing

When it comes to creating the score for films, it’s not just the creatives that a production company has to pay. The composer just creates the music, but the sound still needs to be produced. 

First, let’s look at the cost of the sound production. Composers have the option of using a sample library or session musicians. 

Si Hao frequently works with the Budapest Scoring Orchestra. “It’s actually pretty inexpensive to record with an orchestra today. It costs something like US$1,300 for a half hour slot, and it’s a 60-piece orchestra! These musicians come together, they read your music on the spot – there is no rehearsal – and they record music to a really professional standard. On the first or second or third read, you can usually use those as a good take. You can record about three to four minutes of music.”

On the other hand, you could also use something called a sample library. It’s basically a virtual instrument – like a violin or a piano – that allows you to compose and replicate the sounds of real-life instruments. A good sample library typically costs USD$500-1,000 for a perpetual licence. Sample libraries today, like Spitfire Audio, Orchestral tools, Cinesamples, and Native Instruments, have reached a level where you sometimes can’t differentiate between what’s real and what’s not. They’re basically a cheaper option to hiring real musicians.

So if you have the actual technical know-how and the music chops, you can actually write pretty impressive music for your portfolio. However, having live musicians is useful, especially to bring out the details and real-life human expression of the music. 

How much does a composer charge?

Besides the musicians and software, it’s also not as crazy expensive to hire a composer in Singapore as you’d think. Alex says he usually charges 10% of a film budget. For example, for a $100,000 film budget, $10,000 would go to composition fees for (good) music composed by a good composer. 

“I use the percentage as a gauge. I have to take into consideration how much work there is for me. Do I spend two months or three months on it? If I’m doing that amount of work, then perhaps a small amount doesn’t make sense,” says Alex.

For the composers, their time is money. Understandably, for film producers, budgets are everything. Do they hire someone for 10% of a film budget, or shell out just $5? That’s the question that weighs on every aspiring film composer’s mind.

What it takes to be a composer

It’s a well-worn cliche that artists – and composers – do what they do for passion. But passion doesn’t pay the bills. A short poll among a class of music students showed that they’re all in it for the arts, over wanting to make a living out of it. It goes to show that a lot of creatives hurt themselves because they don’t really think about the future consequences.

How are we going to put a value in our work if we’re in it just for the creative? 

For both Tabitha and Si Hao, their advice is to diversify and be open to new things, and new global opportunities. Basically, don’t limit yourself to a certain box. If you tell yourself, “I only want to score music for animation,” chances are it’d be very limited if you’re going to stay in Singapore. So, broaden your horizons – there may be opportunities beyond film scoring in the realm of industries like advertising, gaming, or even composing for music libraries. 

Want to hear more? Check out our podcast, “Everything, Explored” as Paul speaks to local composers to get their views on 10 August in “How Come so Many People Don’t Respect the Art of Film Scoring?”