7 Ways Documentary Filmmakers Can Better Use Songs and Scores


Describing documentaries as “nonfiction storytelling” can sound dull, but their soundscapes can be anything but. Documentary filmmaker Michael Beach Nichols, composer Todd Griffin, and music supervisor and producer Barry Cole joined Doreen Ringer-Ross, VP of Creative at BMI, at IFP Week earlier this fall to discuss just that.

In a wide-ranging conversation that covered how composers communicate their ideas, what music supervisors actually do, and when the inclusion of a song is or isn’t considered fair use, the industry professionals shared anecdotes and advice for filmmakers. We compiled the seven best insights from their discussion for nonfiction storytellers looking to turn up their audio game.

1. Recognize the part music supervisors play

Music supervisors are critical contributors to documentaries, but what exactly do they do? “The popular answer is that the music supervisor’s job is to help translate the vision of the director into music,” Cole said. “The B answer is the music supervisor is responsible for helping you have a deliverable section in your folder that’s related to music and has all the licenses and agreements, including the composer’s agreement that you’ll need to actually turn over to a distributor for delivery. One’s a lot more fun.”

In short, music supervisors adapt, facilitate, and ensure that a project gets the best music possible with all the boxes checked on the accompanying paperwork.

2. Don’t skip the spotting session

Once a production reaches picture lock, be sure to attend the spotting session when the most important decisions about songs and music are made. “There aren’t a lot of rules, but it’s in that spotting session where you have everybody in one place where you can get everyone on one page for each scene in the project,” Cole said. “Does it need music? Does it not need music? Does it need a song because we’re actually in a public place or in a bar or restaurant, so we need something playing on the sound system? [Or] is it something that’s underscoring the narrative and driving the plot forward, which may be score?”

3. Look for inspiration in obvious places

If music distracts or detracts from a documentary, then it shouldn’t be there. Composers and sound designers often take cues from the material or the mood of the film when building audio files. Griffin and Nichols discovered a more unique approach, one that involved manipulating and reusing recordings for the score.

In Nichols’ Wrinkles the Clown, his just-released documentary about an Internet clown that parents can hire to scare their children, the filmmaker was granted access to Wrinkles’ archive of more than 2 million voicemails and text messages from parents, which the producers referenced during casting. “Some of them were hilarious, and some of them are really disturbing,” Nichols said of the messages. “A lot of them had just, like, screaming because parents would use Wrinkles’ number, and they would pretend that they were talking to Wrinkles while the voicemail was recording.”

Together, he and Griffin found a way to use the screams in the score. “We wanted to tell this sort of myth of Wrinkles as reflected back by the Internet and by these children,” said Nichols. “We wanted to use their reactions to Wrinkles to create this nightmare scape for the ones that were scared of him. Some kids think he’s awesome and really fun, and we replicate that as well, but the screaming stuff is very sort of genre/horror.”

As a parent himself, Nichols was heartbroken to know other parents were intentionally scaring their kids, but it connected him to the material in an emotional and horrifying way. He was able to take 8-second clips of children screaming and stretch them to 55 seconds. “You can run it through software that will find the pitch on the scream and kind of lock it onto different notes,” he explained. “And so they would create these little weird melodies that had a really otherworldly quality. That really got baked in as part of the impetus behind a lot of the normal-ish music that’s in the film.”

Quick to differentiate that process from sound design, Griffin believes it’s a “matter of perception.” What some may call music, he might refer to as sound design. “If it’s music that communicates mostly through its sound and texture as opposed to things that you would recognize, like melody and rhythm and instruments . . . that’s kind of where the line is for me,” Griffin said. “But the way you deploy those things I think are very similar. They just have a different effect.”

4. Allow great ideas to flourish

You want a score that’s tailor-made for your project, but filmmakers’ vision should take a backseat to the filmmaking process if necessary. Having a framework in place and allowing for exciting new ideas to alter the shape that the music is taking can lead to better results. Ideas can come from anyone involved with the production of the score, but the director should be open to them. As the composer, Griffin requires an authentic connection and “emotional grounding in a story” so that he can bring the most of himself to a job. That’s when his ideas mesh with the rest of the creative group and the ideas he contributes are the most interesting.

For Cole, though, great ideas come from immersing himself in a project’s environment. “Whether it’s a narrative or documentary,” he said, “just actually placing myself in these scenes and having that discussion has changed the conversation for some projects.” For example, for one production, he suggested inserting a real DJ in the background of a scene set at a house party. It wasn’t necessary, but it added another layer that made the scene feel and sound more real. “I don’t think if you didn’t hear the DJ mixing between tracks, you would lose anything,” he confessed, “but for the authenticity of what that party was at that place in time, it really added a cohesiveness to the overall narrative of the project.”

5. Understand the financial dimension of score-making and music selection

Calling the score the “bastard child of post-production,” Ringer-Ross wondered how the panelists made room for music (either original or pre-recorded) early on in a project and how they determine the exact amount they need to write into the budget for it.

For Cole, it often comes down to how many songs the producers and directors want to have. “Usually there’s not an answer because we haven’t shot yet,” he said, so he often follows up to ask about the budget.

Indeed, Cole typically uses the Most Favored Nations (MFN) approach for documentaries, which “begins with determining the number of songs you want to license and determining how much you can afford to pay for each song if all songs get the same fee,” he wrote in an email. By setting all songs at the same rate, filmmakers can offer a valid reason for not paying market rate for any particular song. For instance, if there are five songs and the music budget is capped at $50,000, then the proposed MFN would be $10,000 per song ($5,000 for the master use fee + $5,000 for the sync fee). If four of the songs are green-lit, but the fifth holds out for $1,000 more than the offered price, then filmmakers can choose between finding a different song or upping the rate by $1,000 for the remaining four. The MFN strategy works best when the more prominent artists agree to the rate first, which you can then communicate to the remaining rights holders.

Once a budget is set, Cole has a better idea of what’s needed, which often includes a composer for original music. “Sometimes I get to that point where it’s, like, well, this is a documentary about x, and we’ve got to have a lot of music, and we’re probably thinking, like, twenty songs per episode,” he continued. “It’s, like, well great, and we already know that your current budget doesn’t support that based on the map that we have here. So we started to talk about other options.”

PBS, for example, has a unique deal when it comes to licensing music. According to Cole, Lauren Koch, director of music copyright at PBS, handles the music licensing for all of the network’s programming. Thanks to a deal struck during the Truman administration, however, PBS doesn’t pay the same fees to the registered song publishers. The nonprofit also doesn’t have to go through the same approval process that everyone else does. “So PBS will actually pay their $44 for a background use, $99 for a feature use, and they don’t have to clear master recordings,” Cole revealed. This benefits documentary filmmakers because less time is spent tracking down and obtaining rights. It also means more freedom to include as many songs as the project needs without sacrificing a large portion of the budget.

As long as the content stays inside of PBS, things are simple, but deals with distributors like Netflix and Hulu turn the films into commercial products, which complicates finances. “If you realize that within PBS you can make whatever you want, music’s not an issue,” said Cole. “That becomes a point of discussion. So, between there and the twenty songs that you want to have, sometimes there are ways that you can manage your music budget differently.”

6. Use an attorney for fair use and royalties

Fair use can be more complicated than some people think. “If you have somebody sitting in a car and singing along to a Stevie Wonder song, that may not be fair use,” Cole said, explaining that the doctrine was created by the government expressly for nonfiction works. The difference sometimes comes with context, but it’s more often case-by-case. “If the dialogue behind it is, ‘Every time I heard this Stevie Wonder song when I was in this car, this thing happened,’ and then the song plays,” he added, “you’re a little closer to reaching the fair use meter than if it’s just a song that’s playing in the background.”

Consult a professional, he advised, instead of assuming that you don’t have to pay for a piece of music or a song. “There are pages and pages and pages of legal documentation, which is why you would consult with a fair use attorney specifically so that they can actually verify that the use of the music would be fair use,” he said. “That will be the piece of paper that will end up in your music deliverables folder for that particular song and scene.”

The ins-and-outs of what royalties are and how or when they’re paid is similarly confusing. It often depends on who holds the licenses and how the music is being used. Incorporating a recording of a rock song in a show or film requires a master license and publishing license approvals. It would also require synchronization approval from the songwriters.

If a film includes someone walking down the street singing a song by Madonna, for example, then the approvals needed are different. “You would not be on the hook to go to her label to clear her master recording or the physical recording, but you would have to go to her publishing, which would most likely reach out to [Madonna] if she wrote the song,” said Cole. “She would need to decide whether or not she would want to give permission and at what price to let you have the synchronization rates or the publishing rates to use that song in your project.”

(Learn more about master use licenses and synchronization/publishing licenses with ASCAP’s primer, which contains helpful definitions and links.)

7. Elevate the score, learn to listen to unfinished music, subscribe to podcasts

Given the breadth of their experiences, the panelists shared a potpourri of advice for other filmmakers. Cole, for instance, suggested prioritizing the score. “Score should come before songs because score is something that is going to be originally made and tailor-fit for your project . . . putting that importance on the composer and on the score of your film I think is a great place to start,” he said.

For Griffin, knowing how to listen to unfinished music is a skill directors should hone. “Most of the time your temp music is going to be finished music, but your back and forth with a composer is unfinished music and learning to find pieces in that music that resonate with you. Understanding all of the different options of where you could go with that is an incredibly powerful position to be as a director,” he said.

Griffin also recommended two podcasts for learning about how music is scored or how songs are made: Song Exploder, which dissects primarily pop music, and Meet the Composer for hour-long discussions with more serious concert composers.