Frame by Frame (Writing a Film Score)

I am a musician and a film fan. I’ve been a film fan for as long as I can remember. As a child I had been blown away by the Star Wars trilogy, stood in line to catch the latest Indian Jones offering and later eagerly anticipated the release of the next Schwarzenegger classic. So when I was offered the opportunity to write the music for a short film I jumped at the chance. The film was to be a reworking of the Don Quixote story – with our modern day hero doing battle with pollution belching buses rather than windmills.

The opportunity arose through the singer in my band who had seen a stage play produced by a local television workshop, which included music from local bands and musicians. We took a chance and contacted the TV station offering our services for their next production. The company replied asking for a sample of our music which we readily sent off. They liked what they heard and we were offered the position of ‘resident band’ in a two night multi-media event. The event was a great success and we again offered our services to the television workshop for any future projects. Soon after we got a call offering us the chance to write the film score for a short film that the team were currently working on entitle ‘Windmills’. I had no idea how to write a film score, but I was not about to pass up this opportunity so immediately said ‘yes’ and worried about how I was actually going to do it later

The remit for the score was very broad – basically, write what I thought was appropriate. My first idea was to write an upbeat Punk song but I quickly discarded this idea in favour of something Spanish to tie the new story to the original story of Don Quixote, which is set in medieval Spain. I already had a Spanish style chord progression I had been toying with for some time and now I had finally found a use for it.

The first problem I encountered was the fact that the film was not yet finished and I had only a vague idea of what to expect. I decided that the best way to tackle this problem was to write a piece of music with several different parts which would allow me to place them in different scenes. These parts would need to convey different moods, be easily lengthened or shortened and be able to fit together in any order.

I took my original idea to the other musicians I was working with at the time and over the next week or two wrote a song with six distinct sections –

  1. Verse consisting of Spanish Guitar and vocals
  2. Chorus consisting of Spanish Guitar and vocals
  3. Instrumental section with Spanish Guitar
  4. Space-y midsection with string and synth sounds
  5. Heavy verse with overdriven electric guitar
  6. Fast finale

I got the idea for Section Four (i.e. playing the verse with an overdriven electric guitar rather an acoustic guitar) from the Doors ‘Spanish Caravan’ which uses a similar technique. (By the way, you can receive an MP3 of ‘Turning’ – soundtrack to the film ‘Windmills’ – by writing to

Eventually I received a rough cut of the film and began to restructure the song to fit with what was happening in each scene. Fortunately the musical ideas I started with fitted well and I really only had to lengthen and shorten the different parts to fit the scenes. I sent my ideas off to the producer who said he liked them so I began tightening up the music to fit with the action – a dramatic pause here and a building of tension there. I was pleased with the results so far and sent the second draft back to the producer. Again he said he liked it, but asked if I could drop out Section Three completely, as it interfered with the dialogue. I was slightly annoyed about this as I had spent quite sometime creating many subtle variations for this section. However, I bowed to his greater experience and took the section out.

I thought that the score was finished but the Writer/Director began to make suggestions. He didn’t think the ending was powerful enough. He wanted it more like the soundtrack to the movie ‘Speed’. Wanting to do the best job I could, I dutifully acquired the sound track and attempted to emulate some of the drama by adding some kettle drum rolls. “Better but not quite there,” he said. I added a tambourine playing sixteenth notes to give a sense of speed and acceleration. “Getting there, but could do with more drama” he commented. After several more attempts, in which I added orchestra stabs and a distorted guitar, we finally agreed that there was enough tension and the score was finally complete!

A week or two later I received the final cut complete with music. I was very pleased with the end result. But what was this? The section I had been asked to take out had been put back in but only as a repeated sample of music! All the work I had done creating subtle changes and nuances wiped out and replaced with the same piece of music looped over and over. I was not happy but I let it go. I had done my bit to the best of my ability and for a first attempt at writing a film score I felt I had not done badly at all.

The film enjoyed a short release mainly playing at art house cinemas with myself and the singer playing an acoustic version of the song on the opening night. It has also been shown several times on the local television network.

Writing this film score was not the easiest thing I have ever done in my music career. I was lucky that the remit I was given to work with was so wide I could do just about anything I liked. However, trying to please both the producer and the writer/director and to reproduce their ideas in a musical form was sometimes very difficult and frustrating.

So what have I learned from this experience and what advice would I give to would-be musicians/score writers?

  • Take a chance, as I did when I approached the TV Company, and get your music out there because nobody is going to discover you in your bedroom
  • Say ‘yes’ first then work out how you will do it later
  • Follow up every opportunity as you never know where it will lead. It was only by taking part in the multi-media event that I later got the opportunity to write the film score
  • Be open to criticism – don’t just disregard it out of hand as sometimes other people’s opinions can be really helpful even if it’s not meant to be. The writer/director and I did not always agree but we both had the same goal in mind – a great film

And after all this would I put myself through this all again? You bet.

To receive an MP3 of ‘Turning’ (soundtrack to the film ‘Windmills’) please write to

About the author

Ian Hand is a founder member of the Shadowplay Collective and has been writing and performing for music twenty years. He is currently a student of Tom Hess.

© 2008 Shadowplay Collective