Motion Picture Music

The Business Art of Scores in the Film Industry

Mussa Husain, 36, a 2008 graduate of Yared School of Music, under the Addis Abeba University (AAU) has been working for the last two years in his studio, which is located in the middle of his apartment’s living room. Recently, the popularity of movie scores in the Ethiopian movie sector and the market opportunity that came with it has caused him to shift his focus to producing movie scores rather than music albums or singles.

“This does not mean I will stop arranging albums or singles. That will never happen; but there is a big business opportunity for movie scoring right now and it will only grow bigger. Additionally, as a composer, we have a responsibility to take it to the highest quality possible,” explained Mussa, playing with his long dreadlocks.

Three months ago, since the request for composing a score from one movie director, he has done two more movie scores, and has another one pending. Mussa, who was one of the many foster children raised by an Italian couple in Addis Abeba, developed the love for both movies and music from his foster parents.

They had a daily schedule of movie watching in the Italian household he grew up in, he remembered with a smile. And as for music, it was a love that developed gradually as he grew up surrounded by musical instruments.

Another movie scorer and music composer, Biruk Assefa, says that though it is difficult to pinpoint when exactly original movie scoring in Ethiopia became more visible, there has been a growing interest in the past one to two years.

Biruk has made seven original movie scores since he opened his music studio two years ago, including one for the popular movie Rebuni, which was released last year,.

Once there was a time in the Ethiopian movie sector when nobody seemed to care about a movie’s visual quality, only having scripts to obsess over. But this has changed over time as movie making skills developed and technology expanded. Then, the focus changed to directing skills and now it seems like the time for movie soundtracks has come, he hypothesised.

In the past, there were music arrangers who would write and compose one or two short pieces of music at the request of the movie director or producer with their just describing the specific scene they wanted the music for, explained Ermias Tesfaye, music arranger. As for the rest of the scenes, either they played out the same music again and again or used other foreign movie scores, which seemed to mock all the technicality and professionalism of movie making, he added.

Even if it is in the early stages, what has begun to appear more is the making of full-fledged original movie soundtracks, written specifically for a chosen movie, which is done after an analysis of the script in addition to discussions with the director, emphasised Ermias.

This emerging trend is one of the reasons that made Mahlet Tigistu visit music studios. Mahlet’s Segniko, a movie that premiered in cinemas since April 2015, has an original movie score that lasts for the run time of the movie, which is just over an hour and a half.

Movie scores are composed to support the plot and provide appropriate sound backdrop to reflect emotions, places and characters throughout the whole movie from beginning to end, explained Nebyou Baye, dean of the College of Performing & Visual Arts at AAU.

It is what gives soul to the movie, which has a power to communicate with the audiences’ souls at a higher level, making what occurs in the movie intense and real, clarified Mussa. Just try to see a movie without a score and you will understand how important it is, he challenged.

This is great for marketing as well for it is recalled by the audience and creates greater appreciation for the movie, said Mahlet.

Mahlet spent 1.5pc of the total budget for Segniko, which has made her satisfied compared to its significance, she stated.

The price of movie scores depends on the inputs to their composition and their sophistication, Biruk pointed out. The number of musical instruments used and additional sounds vary in order to reflect and express the mood and tone of the movie, he added, declining to state what he earns per movie score.

Ermias’ earnings have been as high as 20,000 Br. But he has also been paid sums as low as 5,000 Br for a score made for customers that are close to him.

Mussa, on the other hand, was paid an equal sum of 15,000 Br for both of the scores that he has developed. In the future, as people understand the significance of a movie score and the skill involved in their creation, Mussa is certain that a professional will make a lot more as the sector develops.

Usually, fifteen to thirty days may be spent to develop a score. The first day will be spent studying the script, followed by a period of analysing the movie, which leads to further discussion with the directors, script writers and producers. All this is done in order to better understand the movie, what each character and occurrence implies, explained Ermias.

The process of understanding the movie is like being an actor. You have to get the feeling right what every moment, place, and act means and understand what makes the movie characters who they are, said Mussa. Then, of course, you have to change all that into full-fledged music, he remarked, surrounded by various musical instruments, from guitar to masinko.

Stringed instruments such as the violin, guitar and cello are mostly preferred to make scores as they can communicate movement profoundly, which is required in a movie. For joyous scenes, mostly percussion instruments are used. These include drums and tambourines. Bells, on the other hand are associated with fantasies. Music that is related to the dominant culture and prominent attractions is used to describe places within the movie. A score, or rather a theme is also composed for the main character in the movie, called the protagonist – taking into account his/her behaviour, role and background.

In one of the scores that Mussa composed, he used the hammering sound of steel to make a score that identified the protagonist. The hammering sound was arranged with other instruments and played whenever the character appeared. It was chosen based on the protagonist’s residence in Minalech Tera in Merkato, the place known for its non-stop hammering sounds that echo in its surrounding as the people there are engaged in mending and selling used steel pans.

The same character identification score can be used in high or mellow sounds, depending on the specified character frame of mind, according to Mussa. However, knowledge gaps in the movie sector and lack of finance is holding back the movie scoring business, said Biruk.

Most people do not even think of it as part of the movie making process and come in at the end of the production just to toss an element of music into their movie but there are others with financial challenges, agreed Ermias.

Abay Tekle is one of the movie directors and producers that Fortune met with at Quarra Pictures. The idea to integrate a movie score came to him as he was wrapping his movie production. With the low budget allocated, he decided to employ the musical score of his movie’s soundtrack, which runs for two minutes and seven seconds. Unfortunately, he had to use the soundtrack’s score over and over and to fill other scenes with ready made scores from other movies, which is not prohibited since Ethiopia has not signed the World Intellectual Property Organisation Copyright Treaty.

Using scores from other movies however is not a fun business, as the score does not suit the ever-changing settings, characters and states in the new movie being produced, said Biruk.

Some 99 movies have been reviewed and approved for cinema audiences during the one year period between July 2014 and June 2015 but no data have been recorded and required in relation to a movie score. According to Habtamu Teklu, movie supervisor and support officer at the City’s Culture & Tourism Bureau, there is no regulation or review checklist directed to movie scoring.

Nevertheless, most music arrangers use various Internet sources to develop their skills, and it is guaranteed to enhance and the knowledge gap to be filled as time passes, remarks Mussa.


Published on Jun 22,2015 [ Vol 16 ,No 790]



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