Behind the scenes

See how the themes in Up are adapted to fit a variety of different moods 7:40

1. Film score 101

Music written specifically for a film (or TV show, or game) is referred to as a score. This forms part of the overall soundtrack. The soundtrack is also made up of dialogue, sound effects and songs. Songs aren’t generally considered part of the score, but they are sometimes incorporated into the score.

In Ratatouille, the song "Le Festin" also serves as the main musical theme.

Each track in a score is known as a cue and they are written to begin and end at specific points in the film.

The style of music is dependant on the type of film and the emotions the director wishes to convey. Michael’s scores often contain a variety of musical elements and genres, which may be influenced by where or when the film is set, the subject matter, or a particular character.

Many scores contain repeating musical phrases representing characters or events. Longer phrases are known as themes while shorter phrases are called motifs, and these appear throughout a score and are adapted to fit particular moods or situations.

Lost contains hundreds of musical themes and motifs, used to represent specific characters, locations and events.

2. Spotting

Composers usually enter the filmmaking process when a film is being edited. The composer will attend a spotting session, where the director will show them a rough cut of the film. Many elements including CGI and sound effects will be unfinished or missing, but the composer and director will watch the entire film and decide where music will be placed.

The composer will take specific timing notes so they know where each cue will begin, how long it will last, any moments within a cue that need to match up with what’s on screen - known as sync points - and when the cue needs to end.

As well as also discussing the style of music required, the composer may be given a temp track - a copy of the movie containing existing music (sometimes their own) placed by a temp music editor. This allows directors to quickly convey a particular style they wish the composer to write in, while also giving the producers an early idea of how scenes will feel with music.

Due to time constraints, Jurassic World didn’t have a traditional spotting session. Michael was given a copy of the film and a temp track from which he wrote the full score. He and the director then watched the entire film with the new music where Michael could then make any necessary adjustments.

Hear how using music from John Carter in the Jurassic World temp track influenced the final score 1:22

Michael explains his writing process while working on Ratatouille 3:34

Michael explains his unique writing style on Lost 4:49

3. Writing

A composer usually writes by themselves in their home or dedicated studio. They will likely have a keyboard connected up to computer hardware and at least one screen where they can view a copy of the film.

While some composers still write with a pencil and manuscript paper, performing ideas for the director on a piano, many use sophisticated composition software. The software allows them to create synthesized demos of cues, called mockups, using sampled instruments. This provides directors and producers the opportunity to hear an approximate representation of the music and give feedback before it is recorded with real instruments.

The length of time a composer has to write the score varies between projects but is typically around two months. The amount of music also varies - a modern action film around two hours in length may contain over 100 minutes of music.

Joining the project at the very last minute, Michael had only four and half weeks to write Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Occasionally composers may write music or themes before they have seen a single frame of film, either by reading a script or talking with the director. This allows them to present ideas before they write the full score. Once the film is closer to completion and a spotting session has taken place, the composer can adapt these themes and ideas into the full score. On very rare occasions, films may instead be edited around the music.

Michael wrote and recorded a significant amount of music for Jupiter Ascending before seeing the film, later adapting and re-recording pieces to fit the edited picture.

The post-production process on Lost was incredibly tight. Michael had typically three days to write music for each episode and then record it on the fourth. Michael didn’t read scripts, didn’t have a spotting session and didn’t have a temp track. After receiving an episode, he would watch and write music for each scene sequentially before moving onto the next one. The first time the director would hear the music would be the recording session.

4. Orchestrating & Copying

Once the music has been written, it must be arranged or orchestrated before it can be played by an orchestra. An orchestrator will take what the composer has written - for example, a section of music written for brass - and create instrument-specific parts for each member of the orchestra - horns, trumpets, trombones, tubas etc. Some composers orchestrate music themselves or create very detailed mockups, while others rely on the orchestrator to know the limits of each instrument and flesh out the score.

The amount of orchestration done by the composer and the number of orchestrators involved will often depend on the complexity of the music and a film’s post-production schedule.

After the music has been orchestrated, a team of copyists creates and prints individual sheet music for each instrument in the orchestra. Violin players will only see the violin parts and trumpet players will only see the trumpet parts. A special conductor’s score will be created containing the parts of all of the instruments.

Michael creates detailed mockups for his lead orchestrator, Tim Simonec, to work on.

Michael's orchestrator, Tim Simonec, explains his role in preparing music for an orchestra 1:47

See the perculiar range of percussion used in the score for Zootopia 4:59

6. The musicians

The vast majority of film music is performed by an ensemble of musicians. Depending on the type of film or budget, this could range from a band or small group, to a full size symphony orchestra and choir of over 100 musicians and singers. Many modern film scores also include electronic elements.

The orchestra consists of five sections, usually made up of the following instruments:

  • Strings - violins, violas, cellos and double basses
  • Woodwinds - flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons
  • Brass - horns, trumpets, trombones and tubas
  • Percussion - timpani, drums, triangle, cymbals, xylophone and marimba
  • Harp and piano

As film music encompasses an enormous variety of styles, the orchestra may include other types of percussion, saxophone, guitar, electric bass, drum kit and ethnic instruments.

An orchestra contractor chooses the musicians that will perform and ensures an orchestra is in place for the recording. Unlike a traditional orchestra, musicians are contracted for each individual score, so the number of musicians and setup of the orchestra will vary from score to score.

Some film scores and many television scores are entirely electronic, whether down to choice, but sometimes budget or timescales.

Lost is one of very few television scores performed by live musicians.

7. Recording

Recording takes place on a scoring stage - similar to a recording studio, but large enough to hold an entire orchestra. Major Hollywood studios have a scoring stage on the backlot. Before the orchestra arrives, a recording engineer will position microphones and preamps around the stage and set the levels. The engineer will work in the control room and is responsible for the recording of the music.

The orchestra performs in front of a large screen showing the film, while the conductor directs the performance. Timings and indicators matched up to sync points are also shown on the screen which the conductor will use to keep in time with the film. The conductor, as well as many musicians, will also wear headphones where they can hear a click-track - a series of clicks that helps them maintain the correct tempo and stay synchronized with the film. Crew in the control room can also communicate with the conductor who can give feedback to the musicians.

Tim Simonec conducts nearly all of Michael’s scores, while Michael works in the control room with the director and recording engineer.

There are no rehearsals, and the musicians see the music for the first time when they sit down to record it. They are so proficient they can play from sight. They often don’t even know what film they’ll be working on until the day arrives.

Musicians hired to perform on "Los Alamos" didn’t know they would actually be working on Rogue One until the day of recording.

Cues are often recorded out of order and generally more difficult pieces are tackled first. Complex cues are split up into smaller parts that can be recorded individually and later assembled into the full length cue.

A large budget Hollywood score is recorded over 5 to 10 non-consecutive days. This allows time for bigger changes and adjustments to be made. Several takes of each cue and alternate versions are recorded, and roughly 20 minutes of finished music will be produced each day. A music editor is responsible for keeping a breakdown of everything that is recorded on a cue sheet and then editing the best takes together.

Michael's music editors are largely responsible for the pun-filled track titles you see on his albums.

After hearing a piece played live, it may be decided that the orchestration needs to change, or the piece may even be re-written entirely. The film's editing may even have changed since the composer wrote the music - if the length of a shot has changed, or a shot has been added or removed, the music will not match up with the sync points. Sometimes a pickup session dedicated to re-recording edited music will take place closer to the film's completion.

Choir, some percussion, and sometimes even certain sections of the orchestra are recorded separately to ensure clarity and provide extra flexibility when mixing.

Michael explains the different methods of recording the orchestra 1:54

Watch the recording of a cue for Ratatouille 1:11

Watch a scene from Mission: Impossible III with just the music 2:35

Hear how two different versions of a cue drastically alter the mood of a scene 3:24

8. Mixing & Editing

After the music has been recorded, the recording engineer works with the composer to combine all of the individually recorded parts into a single track. Any pre-written electronic elements will also be combined at this point. The recording engineer will adjust levels and use other techniques to ensure each part can be heard as intended. Mixing usually takes place in the scoring stage control room but after all recording has been completed.

Simultaneously, the music editor is responsible for fitting each cue to the film ready for a final mix of all of the sound elements.

9. The soundtrack

To coincide with a film’s release, a soundtrack album is produced. Some films will have a soundtrack consisting of songs used in the film and a separate original soundtrack (OST) album containing the score.

While a film may contain 100 minutes of music, soundtracks rarely feature the entire score. CDs hold a maximum of 80 minutes of audio, and vinyl holds 22 minutes per side. Digital downloads have no such restriction, but a full score will often contain music which is not very engaging when listened to away from the film.

A composer will choose a selection of cues to be included on the album. They may be truncated and sometimes a different version or take will be used from the one in the film.

On some occasions the composer may have recorded suites or special album versions of cues where they have been able to flesh out themes and ideas away from the constraints of the film. Alternate versions, unused cues and the composer’s original drafts which may have also been recorded are sometimes included as bonus tracks.

A mastering engineer will prepare the soundtrack album. Music is mixed differently to how it appears in the film and the mastering engineer will enhance the audio to improve the final sound.

A record label will handle licensing fees, artwork and distribution and there are some record labels that are entirely dedicated to releasing film music.

Over time, popular soundtracks may receive an extended special edition which includes more music or the complete score. Sheet music companies also adapt and publish certain cues for anything from solo piano to full concert orchestra.


Click trackA series of audible clicks played through headphones to help the conductor and musicians stay synchronized with the film
ConductorA person who directs the performance of an orchestra or choir
Conductor's scoreSheet music showing the parts of all of the all instruments in a composition
Control roomAn enclosed area of a scoring stage where the recording and mixing of the music takes place
CopyistA person or team responsible for producing sheet music for each individual instrument in an orchestra
CueA piece of music written for film
Cue sheetA list used to keep track of all the music in a film
Mastering EngineerA person responsible for taking an original recording and preparing and enhancing it for the soundtrack album
MockupA synthesized representation of a cue generated using samples
MotifA short, recurring musical idea
Music EditorA person responsible for keeping track of all the music that is recorded, combining the best takes, and editing it to fit the final picture
Orchestra ContractorA person responsible for putting together an orchestra and choosing the musicians
OrchestratorA person responsible for arranging a piece of music so it can be played by an orchestra
Original Soundtrack (OST)An album featuring the original score
Recording EngineerA person responsible for setting up microphones on the scoring stage, setting levels, and recording and mixing the music
ScoreThe original music written for a film
Scoring stageA large recording studio capable of holding over 100 musicians
SoundtrackThe combination of dialogue, sound effects, songs and score
Spotting sessionA meeting between the composer and director where they decide which points in the film require music
SuiteExtended arrangements, themes or motifs typically written to present ideas to the director, to be included on albums, or performed in concerts
Sync pointSpecific points in music that are synchronized with events happening in the film
Temp trackExisting music put against a film during the editing process, used to provide an indication of the mood the director wants to create
Temp Music EditorA person responsible for editing existing music against a film
ThemeA recurring, recognisable musical idea