The Music Editor
The importance of sound in film rivals the visuals on screen. Imagine a character running through a thick forest. Imagine the rustle of leaves and wind, the beautiful chimes of a church bell and a lush romantic score. Now replace the rustle with a loud crunch and crack with each step and the chime with a harsh clang. The romantic music is gone, replaced with eerie sounds most associated with a horror score. All your perceptions can change based on the sound choices made which are calculated to support the tone and feeling of the director’s vision.
This is what a music editor does. They are the person who works closely with the director, composer and sound effects department to oversee all the music in the film. They identify with the director where music should occur, what style it should be and create a temp score. They collaborate and support the composer, arranging recording sessions, taking notes and helping with revisions. The music editor lays down the tracks and fits them exactly to the picture. Then makes sure the final music is delivered to the final mix. Finally, the cue sheets are prepared, which is a detailed breakdown of all the music featured on the soundtrack. This is sent to the performing rights organizations as a way to track royalties.
To get a true understanding of all the roles and responsibilities of the music editor and insight into the process, Assemble chatted with music editor Sebastian Zuleta, whose credits include Apple TV’s Finch starring Tom Hanks, the independent drama, The Unknown Country and Hulu’s Wu-Tang: An American Saga, which tracks the formation of the legendary rap group.
Assemble: Most people understand the role of the music composer is to craft an original score for a film and the role of a film editor is to work with the dailies to compose unified scenes, but the role of the music editor is less understood. Can you talk in general on roles and responsibilities of the music editor from working with the director on the style and temp score, identifying where music is required (spotting) and collaborating with the composer on the tempo within the cuts?
Sebastian Zuleta: In general terms, as music editor, I am there to serve the story by working with the director in realizing their vision and supporting the composer in executing it. Using my work on Finch as an example, when I came on board during the director’s cut, my responsibilities included working with Miguel Sapochnik (Director) and Tim Porter (Editor) to explore the tone of the music and the role it plays within the film. I placed the music, whether it was Gustavo Santaolalla’s score that he wrote inspired by the script or pulling from other soundtracks, to learn where the music could start and end, and what its purpose was within that scene. Once Gustavo came on board to finalize the film, my responsibilities included keeping track of all the music in the film, any comments or revisions that needed to be made, and making sure we were on track for the scoring sessions and final music delivery to the dub stage.
Assemble: What is your role between the sound and picture teams?
Sebastian Zuleta: I work closely with the picture department to keep track of any picture changes and of any music that is needed to serve the story we are telling. I then pass this information to the composer so that they can adjust the music or, depending on where we are in the process, make the changes myself to make sure the music matches the new picture cut. Music and sound share the same acoustic space, and ultimately, I work with the sound team during the final dub to mix the sound effects, music and dialog to deliver the final mix that we will hear in the theaters. I’ve found it very helpful to work closely with the sound team and anticipate any scenes that might require more attention; resolving any possible conflicts where sound or music might step over each other and take us out of the story. For example, if the scene has loud sound effects like a shootout or a windstorm, it is important to understand and define how sound effects and music will coexist and not contradict each other.
Assemble: What is the process during the recording sessions for you? And what specifically do you do while driving toward a final mix?
Sebastian Zuleta: With the delivery deadline coming up fast, the main focus is to get all the music approved and ready to record. I am part of the music playback meetings, where I take notes, make sure that items are being addressed, chase picture changes, coordinate with engineers, orchestrators, music supervisors, post supervisors, musicians, studios; prepare the playback pro tools sessions we’ll use while recording. Basically, doing anything and everything so that when we start recording, everything runs smoothly, and we can maximize the time in the studio with the players and focus on the performance we are capturing. During the recording session, I take notes about each take to make sure we use the best performances. I also keep track of the time and our progress so that we can record everything we need. Additionally, I keep an eye and an ear out for where things can improve or anticipate anything that might come up and resolve it promptly to keep the session running smoothly.
Assemble: What goes into preparing the cue sheet and why is this important when it comes to keeping track of royalties paid?
Sebastian Zuleta: The first thing I do when preparing a final cue sheet, is thoroughly examine the final music Pro Tools sessions and the final music print master to list and measure the length of each score cue or song used. Then for each cue, I list who the composers are, who owns the publishing, what Performance Rights Organizations (PRO) they are part of, how the music is used, and any other details that can help identify the parties involved in the music. This is important because it is the information the PROs will use to distribute the royalties accurately.
Assemble: You’ve worked with some legends in the business, what have you learned from the likes of Hans Zimmer, Heitor Pereira and Toby Chu and how different are their styles and approach to composing?
Sebastian Zuleta: I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with these outstanding composers, and from each, I’ve learned many things; from the very technical aspects of scoring to overcoming the creative challenges that come with each project. I feel like each project is an intensive master’s degree in film scoring. I remember in one of the first recording sessions I attended, we were recording one of the best guitar players in the world, and he had just done an amazing take, but the composer knew that it could be even better and in fact the next take was amazing and the one that was finally used. It is very inspiring how visionary and resourceful they are. Although there are some similarities in the composing process, I find that each composer has a different approach. For example, some composers prefer to write music inspired by the script before the film even goes into production, while others write to picture, scoring each scene specifically.
Assemble: Having worked on both feature films, animated productions, and TV shows – can you share the similarities and differences depending on the medium?
Sebastian Zuleta: Most of the process is very similar in all mediums, for example, temp music, spotting sessions, music playback meetings, cue sheets. etc. One of the biggest differences is the schedule, and when I join the process. For example, I’ve worked on animated films that are still in development where I edit temp music to storyboards about two years before the film comes out, and in contrast, I’ve worked on TV shows where we were finalizing one episode every week, delivering around 30 minutes of music per episode.
Assemble: You recently worked with Gustavo Santaolalla ( Brokeback Mountain, Babel ) on Finch. Can you talk about cutting original pieces that Gustavo had written not to picture? Is this typical and what are the challenges in making it work?
Sebastian Zuleta: It is a treat to have worked on Finch where we had original music from the start. It gave me a better idea of what the score was going to be, about the themes, instruments, and tone. This allowed me to, from the beginning, start playing with the placement of original themes, building a thematic journey throughout the film. It also helped to have the stems from these original pieces at my disposal, because if there was a piece that tonally and emotionally worked great for the scene, but there was an element that was distracting or getting in the way, I could go into the stems and mute or edit that element in a way that would make the music work even better. One of the challenges of cutting original pieces is that films evolve during the editing process and sometimes can veer off from what was originally intended. So, music that was written prior to having a cut might not always work exactly how they were written but will need to evolve with the picture in order to match the new vision.
Assemble: I would assume finding the musical tone of a film involves many different approaches – either reading the script, viewing the dallies or edit. Where do you get your inspiration and what kind of challenges do you face when establishing that?
Sebastian Zuleta: There is an enormous amount of information pouring out of the screen that can inform how to score a scene. It can tell us where the music should start, where it should end, the overall tone or any shifts that need to happen within the scene. For example, the characters’ performance, the dialogue, camera movements, as well as more subtle things, like a hand gesture, a look, a nod. Any action or expression can hint at what music is needed in a scene. When temping, a common challenge is finding the right pieces of music that will work, not only hitting the emotion, but also the overall style and tone of the film. I also try to learn as much as I can about the director’s taste, preference, and vision. This way I can better anticipate how they like a scene to be scored, if it needs music, what to accent or highlight or what to play straight.
Assemble: What about shows where the music is integral and part of the story, such as Wu-Tang: An American Saga? How do you stay true to the source material, but also reflect the director's vision?
Sebastian Zuleta: On Wu Tang: An American Saga, RZA is both the producer and composer which is wonderful because he knows better than anyone how to stay true to the story we are telling; what sounds to use, how to approach scoring a scene. Additionally, for a lot of the songs, we worked with DJ King Tech who also lived through a lot of the moments depicted in the series and was key to staying authentic to the story.
Assemble: You are a composer and arranger yourself; how does your background better serve the story in your role as music editor?
Sebastian Zuleta: Being in the composer role has given me more insight into what a composer might need, so when working as a music editor, I constantly place myself in the composers’ shoes to identify, anticipate and resolve any issues that might come up for them. I also bring many of the skills that I’ve learned as a composer to my role as a music editor. For example, when temping, I sometimes need to write short pieces to smooth out transitions between soundtracks from different films, or sometimes when I have a piece that is working but needs more variety or another element to augment certain moments, I can layer elements I’ve composed to make the temp piece fit the story better.
Assemble: Is there a specific path to becoming a music editor? What would be the best experience someone could gather when wanting to become a music editor?
Sebastian Zuleta: I started working as a composer’s assistant, where I learned many of the skills I use to this day as a music editor. Being a composer's assistant gave me the opportunity to learn and experience the film scoring process many times. Being present in spotting sessions, scoring sessions and playback meetings gave me a lot of insight into what usually happens during this process and what I need to look for to make sure we succeed. It is not the only way to become a music editor. I’ve worked with colleagues that started working as picture editors or sound effect editors and later transitioned into music editing. For me, it was important to get as familiar as I could with the process, to understand what was needed during each stage and to know the tools extremely well.
Assemble: Finally, I am sure you now view films and notice the music editing. Outside of films you’ve worked on, what are some films that the music editing impresses you and what about it works so well?
Sebastian Zuleta: I find it very impressive to see the scope, complexity and volume of music in certain projects where there are a lot of moving parts and yet everything just works great to picture. I love learning about their process and how they overcame the challenges the project presented. I really admire the music editing work on Dunkirk, where they were dealing with a score that uses an aural illusion where the music is constantly rising in tension and feels like it’s speeding up. This added another degree of complexity to music editing.