February 1st, 2009 by Dan Meyer
Adding a music track to film used to be a technically strenuous task requiring an optical printer to run a transparent strip alongside your film print. Now, your computer's stock video editor (iMovie or Windows Movie Maker), VoiceThread, or PhotoStory will import a track from your iTunes library in seconds. Here, again, we have conquered the technical hurdle but we have underestimated the height of this particular creative hurdle.
When you make videos, vodcasts, and montages, you are attempting to create meaning.
You create meaning — whether that's a thesis or a tone — when you write scripts, cast actors, place cameras, use lights, direct actors, and edit shots. Not one of those creative tasks is value neutral. If you can align each of those creative tasks to your thesis or tone, then music will be redundant at best, distracting at worst, serving only to remind your audience that they are watching a movie.
In our classrooms, when we make movies, we write a sloppy plot outline, a soft script, we act unskillfully, direct unskillfully, edit unskillfully, and then trowel a soundtrack onto our movie to fill the gap between what it is and what we wanted it to be. We wanted something buoyant so we add Louis Armstrong. We wanted to convey menace so we add John William's soundtrack to Jaws, or the Creative Commons-licensed equivalent. When we let our students use music in their videos, we let them outsource the truly difficult creative work to industry professionals.
Four Illustrative Examples
- No Country For Old Men featured smart suspense, fat-free plotting, and some truly terrifying set-pieces, all without the shock chords and shrieking notes that horror schlock has to trowel onto otherwise unscary sequences. The movie was silent.
- The Wire and The Shield were, for my money, two of the best dramatic television series of the current millenium. Both of them established complicated characters and rich drama without soundtracks.
- I used music in exactly one of my ten dy/av episodes and I blew it. The CC-licensed track I selected was far too ponderous and far too mopey for the footage it was working against.
I witnessed a montage at ILC 2008 featuring a Frankenstein medley of "Highway to the Danger Zone," "Ride of the Valkyries," "Dare You To Move," "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow," "New Soul," and "Requiem for a Dream," the lyrics and songs straining to carry the weight which the photos, themselves, couldn't carry, photos of students unboxing laptops.
Far better there, to play ambient audio of the students excitedly unboxing their laptops or of student testimonials and, beneath that, if absolutely necessary, a track that functions not as an emotional signpost ("hey hey! feel happy! yeah, you!") but as an emotional lubricant, something pleasant but inexpressive on its own.
If your students can demonstrate that all of their creative decisions from pre-production through editing support their thesis or tone, and they still need music, then let them have at it. Otherwise, you're letting them off easy and they need to cut Louis Armstrong in on the grade.
BTW: Ken Loach, director, winner of Palmes d'Or:
I think film music that tells you what to think is cheap – the film should do that without that prompting.