Making Reel Music: Notes On A Film Score

Michael Shorr, composer of the score of "Pollen Nation," a short film about beekeepers, poses after a sceening of the movie at the Santa Fe Film Festival on Nov. 30, 2007.
CBS/Judy Faber
The 8th Annual Santa Fe Film Festival hosted all sorts of people involved in moviemaking: directors, actors, editors, producers, and screenwriters.

One film composer, Michael Shorr, discussed the process of scoring movies at an audience Q&A after the showing of "Pollen Nation," a short film about the bee industry in the United States.

The Berklee College of Music graduate, songwriter and teacher said that the movie was not scored in the usual order.

"In this case, this was [the filmmakers'] master's project at the School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkley, and they had to finish up before graduation. Music is usually considered to be post-production, so the film is fully edited and you go through what's called 'spotting' the film - you decide where there should be music and where there shouldn't," he said.

Shorr said that instead of him composing to the final edit, the editors edited to the music, similar to the way music videos are made.

"We had to make a lot of decisions before the final edit," he said. "It wasn't the standard way of doing things, but I think it worked out well for the film."

The filmmakers and Shorr discussed the type of genre, the overall feel, and the emotional qualities of the music of the film before he had seen any footage.

"That's kinda fun because basically composing is like getting this enormous container of crayons and you can do whatever you want with them," he said. "You can even melt them down and mix them together - it's really playing."

But, he said, there's a downside to having few restrictions and unlimited possibilities.

"That's also what makes it tough, because how do you decide which way you're going to go with that? Sometimes you just say, 'well, this sounds really cool, I'm just going to stick with that.'" he said. "Once an image comes up then it starts suggesting its own music."

"Pollen Nation" follows a group of beekeepers whose work involves a lot more than producing honey. During the film, the beekeepers transport their buzzing cargo from state to state to pollinate various crops.

The filmmakers decided that Americana music was the right genre for the film, and Shorr believes they subconsciously chose instrumentation evocative of the bee's signature sound.

"I don't know if they were conscious of it, but they chose instruments that have buzz. There were slide guitars, there was even a didgeridoo in there to accompany an engraving of an ancient beekeeper," he said. "So they liked the buzz, and that buzz sound makes its way through the entire film. I love that scene where the almond machine is shaking and it's kind of humming and then it fades into the bees coming in and out of the hive and they're humming, and then it goes to (beekeeper) Jeff in his pickup truck and there's the hum in the road."

Shorr thinks that everyone has the potential to compose music.

"When I was studying at the Berklee College of Music, one of the things the professors would say is, 'You know we all have this knowledge internally because we've listened to so many songs and so much music and we know what makes them work,'" he said. "So everyone in here could listen to a bunch of songs or classical pieces or instrumental pieces and say 'yeah, that's it, that has longing in it, I can tell I can feel it.' I think a lot of it is just experience of trying to create music that does that and also trusting yourself."

Michael Shorr is the resident song analyst for the radio program, "Art Of The Song."

By Judy Faber