Scoring Films On a Shoestring Budget


The following was prepared as a companion to the SCL seminar I gave on 11/05/19, and expands on some of the things discussed during the event. You can watch a recording of the live stream of the event on YouTube and/or just keep scrolling and read this blog. I hope you find something of value here that helps you on your musical journey. Feel free to reach out with any questions.


Defining a shoestring budget

Any project that has a budget that is significantly lower than the scope of the work would normally require. This can range from scoring a project for free to 6 figures, depending on the circumstances. Creating an electronic score for a feature film for just $1,000 or creating an orchestral score requiring a 70 minutes of music recorded live with an 80 piece orchestra for just $100,000 package deal would both qualify. Each is woefully under-budgeted for the work required to achieve the desired result.

Reasons for taking a shoestring budget project

There are many reasons to take a shoestring project. Depending on where you are your career and life, the reasons to say yes may change. Reasons that were appealing earlier in your career may no longer hold the same appeal later in your career. Reason’s that may seem unattractive when you’re going through an extremely busy period may seem more attractive during a slow period. There is no right or wrong answer nor is there a formula when deciding whether or not to take such a project. It’s an individual choice that depends on a variety of variables.

Some reasons to take a shoestring budget project may include:

  • Gaining experience
  • Building a relationship with a new filmmaker
  • Maintaining a relationship with an existing client
  • Favor for a filmmaker
  • Building one’s reel
  • Building one’s library
  • Personal fulfillment
  • Artistic expression
  • Stretching oneself creatively or technically (or both)
  • Opportunity to do something new
  • Practice one’s skills
  • Potential for awards
  • Potential for exposure
  • Test out new software or hardware
  • Test out a new workflow/team
  • Build a team and learn to work with them
  • Nothing better to do at the time
  • Money/Royalties
    By definition, this is usually not a very good reason to take on a shoestring budget project, though perhaps there’s enough money to make it worth while or the anticipated royalties make it worth while financially.

How to survive while working on a shoestring budget project

Get a job! Particularly early in your career, making your living from scoring films/TV may not be a realistic immediate goal. So get a job that covers you cost of living, and score projects whenever you can – nights, weekends, etc. Your job may be completely unrelated to the world of media scoring, or you may work as a composer’s assistant or as an orchestrator, or music editor, or some other related job. Either way focus as much of your free time on scoring your own projects as you can.

If you’re very fast, you might be able to do a sufficient number of shoestring projects to earn enough money to cover your bills. Or perhaps build (or join) a team that works together so you’re able to work on enough projects to make ends meet.

When I first went freelance I got a job in construction. I would be on the construction site at 5:00 am, work until 3:00 pm, then head home and hustle and/or score short films and whatever else I could get until about midnight or 1:00 am, then I’d sleep for a few hours and do it all over again. Weekends were great because I could spend even more time looking for work or writing than I could during the week and even catch up on some sleep.

Early in my career I worked for a post-production facility where I would put in 50-80 hours a week. In addition I would score short films I got on my own whenever I could, often pulling all-nighters, or spending my entire weekend working on those. When I wasn’t working on my own projects I’d write music for the facility’s in-house music library for use in TV shows we worked on. Things I wrote for free (and had to give up all the publishing and share writing credit with the owners) nearly 20 years ago are still generating royalties today!

When you have income, make sure you save aggressively. If you’re not getting paid through a traditional employer (W-2) make sure you set money aside for taxes, and in addition set aside money for savings. I recommend building up 9-12 months worth of living expenses in your savings before you upgrade your life in any meaningful way. And then make sure you adjust your savings strategy to match your new cost of living. Building up that savings cushion will allow you to manage slow periods, as well as invest in yourself when you need to. More importantly, it’ll provide peace of mind.

Know your limits

You must always assess your skills, abilities and resources (including the project’s budget and your savings and your availability) when deciding whether or not to take a project. When assessing a new project, make sure you keep things within the scope of what you can do well. It’s good bite off a bit more than you can chew, it’s how we grow, but beware of taking too big a bite and choking. Trying to go beyond what you can reasonably handle can lead to failure – whether it means the production quality will suffer, you won’t be able to meet the schedule (or it’ll take too long in general), or you’ll blow your budget.

Failure an tarnish your reputation and undermine your progress. It’s extremely important for your clients to be thrilled not only with the end result, but with the entire experience, that’s how you earn recommendations and referrals, as well as earn repeat business. Remember former clients can potentially go on to bigger and better projects, and if they like working with you they’re more likely to call you again. They’re also more likely to refer you to their colleagues and speak well of you.

When agreeing to a project make sure what is required is in line with your abilities and limitations (skill, budget and/or schedule) and that you can meet the filmmaker’s expectations. Make sure the reverse is true and that the project as well as the filmmakers meet your expectations. It’s not unusual for filmmakers to have unreasonable expectations and you may need to educate them on what’s realistic within their limitations.

Discuss expectations before starting and make sure the filmmakers and you are al on the same page. Discuss whether or not the budget is realistic for what they want. If it isn’t discuss alternative approaches that are realistic within the given limitations. Discuss the schedule and whether or not it is realistic. Are you available to do the work within the given amount of time? Will the schedule require bringing on help? If so do you already have a team or do you need to build one? Does the budget support bringing in help?

For example, when director Dax Phelan & I discussed scoring his film Jasmine, he wanted very little music, but he was referencing scores that used large orchestras and were very aleatoric, which wasn’t something we could do considering the lack of budget. I came up with the idea of an electronic score, completely changing the musical approach. I wrote a couple of demos to show him what I had in mind and he liked them so we moved forward. The more I wrote, the more music he wanted until we had a version of the film with wall-to-wall music. We later removed a lot of the music as sound-design came into the picture. That score ended up pushing me technically and creatively, which was extremely gratifying despite the lack of budget, and both the film and the score went on to win several awards, which is always very humbling and validating.

Working with filmmakers

Keep in mind that most of these projects will involved inexperienced filmmakers. More experienced ones have likely worked their way up and are working with bigger budgets. But you may be working with a very experienced or established filmmaker working on a passion project with limited funds. Whatever the case, be aware of their situation and keep it in mind whenever interacting with them

Inexperienced filmmakers often have insecurities. This may be their first film and they’re learning as they go, or they don’t yet have the comfort and confidence that comes with working with a familiar team. They may appear very confident and in control yet still be less self-assured than they let on. In my experience many filmmakers feel quite a bit of uncertainty when it comes to music. Be sensitive to this, especially when issues or problems arise, or when they are indecisive or struggle to explain what they want, or what isn’t quite working for them.

Always remember that writing film/TV music is not about the music, it’s about the story being told. Your job is to help the filmmaker tell their story their way. The trick is to give them what they want, even when they don’t know what they want, and ideally do it in your own unique voice.

When discussing the score, remember that most filmmakers are not musicians. They likely don’t know or understand musical terminology and some may misidentify instruments. Don’t talk in musical terms, but isntead talk about story, mood, pace, emotion, drama, colors, textures and so on. It’s your job to translate all of those things into music, not the filmmaker’s. If the filmmaker uses musical terminology, mirror what they’re saying in non-musical terms to make sure they’re not misusing musical jargon and giving you bad direction.

I remember when I was in school one of my instructors recalled working with a director who kept asking for a cue to be more dissonant. He rewrote the cue two or three times, each time making it more and more dissonant, to the point where he was concerned that it no longer works as well emotionally. When he played that second or third revision the director complained that the music was no longer working, but it still wasn’t dissonant enough. My instructor asked, “what do you mean by more dissonant?” The director responded “You know, faster!” I’ve never had as extreme an experience as that, but I’ve had filmmakers misidentify instruments or use musical terminology incorrectly.

Another thing to consider is that the filmmakers have a myriad other things they are dealing with in addition to the score. And if the filmmakers are inexperienced, they’re likely equally inexperienced in all departments, not just music, so they have a lot going on. Make sure that whenever they interact with you it is a pleasant experience and that you are providing solutions to their musical problems, not creating new problems.

Sometimes there are multiple filmmakers involved, with diverging tastes and agendas. If that’s the case identify who has the final say – that’s the person you ultimately need to make sure your’e pleasing first and foremost. Usually that person will be whomever is holding the purse strings. However don’t ignore the rest of the filmmakers. You don’t want to alienate them.

Keep in mind that they have likely been on the project much longer than you and have been dealing with their differing sensibilities on multiple fronts for some time. You want them on your side, you want to try to build consensus through honest discussion. Rather than picking sides, always let the project dictate what you think is best and argue for that. If you can’t get them all on the same page, offer to present more than one version to address the differing approaches. Sometimes the best way to prove a point is to just show them and it becomes obvious.

Finally, I’ve been asked how to deal with difficult filmmakers. It’s my opinion that there’s really no such thing as a difficult filmmaker. If there is difficulty dealing with a filmmaker it’s usually the result of mismatched expectations and/or poor communication. A little understanding and empathy for their situation can go a long way towards overcoming obstacles, foster better communication and lead to finding good solutions and aligning expectations. That said, sometimes you may simply not be the right fit for this filmmaker and/or project. Sometimes we just don’t really click. If that’s the case you still want to do the best you can to improve communication and get the job done well. They may not hire you again and this may not be the beginning of the next Spielberg-Williams collaboration, but you certainly don’t want to alienate them and risk them speaking ill about you.

What to do when you don’t know what to do

Sometimes you may just hit the wall and not know how to deal with a situation. This could be a creative impasse, an interpersonal one, a political one, or a situational one. Whatever the case, you can always ask your friends and colleagues for advice. Talk to your partner, or reach out to a trusted friend and run things by them. If you’re working as an assistant and feel comfortable doing so, ask your boss for advice. If you don’t have someone you can reach out to personally, there are many online forums and resources where you can either find answers to similar questions, or ask your question.

If the problem is creative and you just don’t know what to write, use temp score to help figure it out. And if you have no idea where to even start, just start anywhere. Literally anywhere – grab a song, a classical piece, a soundtrack you have handy and play it against the scene that’s giving you trouble. Even if it’s completely wrong, it’ll be very illuminating because it will become clear what about it is wrong. Do this a few times and in no time you’ll have a very good idea of what not to do, which in turn leads to what you should do.