Trends and Insight in association withSynapse Virtual Production

‘Demo Love’: Editing, Music and the Problem with Placeholders

London, UK
Editors discuss the dilemmas they face cutting a commercial before a track’s been chosen

Music is 50% of the final film, or so they say. Yet music companies regularly opine that, within the creative process, music is often an afterthought. A recurring example of this dysfunctional approach is that they frequently find that an editor has put a ‘placeholder’ track on a film – one that everybody subsequently falls in love with – only to find that it’s unobtainable. This makes the music supervisors’ job even harder… but are the editors really at fault, when nobody really knows what the final film should sound like?

So, when facing an edit without the final track, how do editors approach the music they use when cutting commercials, and is the relationship between music, editing and advertising as dysfunctional as it appears? LBB’s Paul Monan finds out more…

We often think of the role of editor in visual terms. Yes, they take endless streams of rushes and cut them into beautiful, succinct commercials, but they also have to marry the visual aesthetics with the audio - dictating the style, speed and rhythm of the film. But, with music rarely the forefront of a production process, editors are quite often faced with a dilemma – which track to cut the commercial to?

When the musical brief is far from completion, editors almost always cut a film to ‘placeholder’ track (99% of the time, reckons Stitch’s Phil Currie). 

“I can’t imagine an edit without music,” explains Ambassadors’ Oscar Marmelstein. “A placeholder gives an edit a flow - it doesn’t mean it won’t work without music, but the music generally sets the mood. It’s an essential part of the creative process. It helps create the feeling that you’ll carry through a commercial.”

Music has a profound effect over how we view things. The speed and style of a film can be heavily influenced by the music it’s cut to, so in an ideal world the musical brief would be more or less nailed by the time the commercial reaches the cutting room. If the music is yet to be finalised, then editors and directors can be reliant on the placeholder to dictate the commercial’s rhythm. Without all the tools they need, they must do all they can to get the film into the best possible place.

“The tail shouldn’t wag the dog, with music leading the edit in terms of the process,” says Cut+Run’s Gary Knight. “They happen together, sparked by the product, emotion, and cadence of the film. Many influences determine what the final music will be; one feeds the other and makes it more memorable.”

Ideally, editors would receive the musical brief as early as possible. Whether it’s presenting the director with an array of tracks, discussing a vibe or feeling with agency creatives, or being provided with demos by a music company, the general consensus is the sooner that all parties can collaborate the better. 

There is, as always, a catch – the creative process differs by region and creative etiquette doesn’t always translate across borders. Hailing from the UK, Rooster’s Marc Langley has arrived in Canada (via the US), and has first-hand experience of the frustrating briefing process. 

“In the US and UK, where I’ve worked extensively, music houses usually pitch for the job before production has started, which means we can start collaborating right away. In Canada, most music houses are selected before the job takes off but collaboration often doesn’t begin until after we’ve presented the first edit. I find the pre-production approach [in the UK and US] is much better, as it allows editors to collaborate with the music houses more effectively right from the start, and present something that brings out the best in their track, versus us having to present a cut with a placeholder, which could end up trumping their contribution - and that doesn’t facilitate a harmonious relationship between editors and music houses."

At Stitch, both Leo King and Phil Currie agree that the sooner music is a part of the conversation the better. “If the film requires music, then everyone should start thinking about it even before they start shooting,” says Leo, to which Phil adds, “Start as early as possible to give enough freedom to try possibilities. It's always great to collaborate with creatives. Someone can bounce an idea that I hadn't thought of.”

For Ambassadors' ELAN commercial, the first placeholder was chosen as the final music

Whether its Biggie vs Tupac, Oasis vs Blur, or The Beatles vs The Stones, music is an incredibly subjective area that polarises opinion. The language used to describe sound – particularly by those who aren’t ‘experts’ in the field – can often lead to a misinterpretation of the brief. Approaching the music from a too narrow an angle can be detrimental to the final outcome, so being open to alternatives and approaching the audio from multiple directions can be key. “I try to see if there is another, less expected direction,” says Christine Wolf of The Whitehouse, Chicago. “It’s important that music doesn’t overpower the visuals and dialogue or do all the work to steer the viewer towards a particular emotion.”

Thinking outside the box quite often leads to the best final film, believes Gary: “It’s the most unexpected tracks that provide the biggest reaction. When people are open, you can see things in a different light. Inspiration can come from anywhere, but there are many things that focus the discovery process and ultimately the final choice. You need to be open to all styles and genres. You don’t have to go home and enjoy it personally, but it’s important not to let your personal taste get in the way of what really fits the edit and project.”

"This is a great example of how music, lyrics and picture all compliment each other!" - Marc Langley

When it comes to selecting the placeholder, inspiration can come from anywhere. Gary has a vast collection of music that he’s tagged and catalogued: “I find a cross-section of music so that I can see what sticks, again listening for the unexpected or the unconventional. As far as staying up to date, I have friends who work at music labels who send me collections, I watch a lot of music videos, and will Shazam things I hear randomly so I can back pocket them for later. Music is a passion of mine so keeping up on it is a pleasure.” 

Meanwhile for Christine, inspiration can be found from anywhere: “I try to pay attention to what’s current, but I also try to continue to learn about the past.  I like to see live music which inspires me as a musician and editor; I also try to pay attention to movie scores and other commercials.”

As a part-time DJ, it’s inevitable that Oscar’s finger is on the musical pulse but, like Gary, he stresses the importance of not solely selecting to the music you listen to: “I’m not a big fan of commercial hits but I’ll still listen to the radio to stay up to date on what’s new. Mostly, I’m searching for tracks on blogs, Spotify, Beatport, 22tracks, and YouTube channels such as Majestic Casual.” 

In this spot, edited by Christine, the first placeholder track made it through to the end of the project

Staying on top of what’s hot and what’s not in the world of music can be a full time job in itself but, fortunately for the editors, they’re surrounded by assistants who are on hand to make their lives that little bit easier. “Sometimes I only have a short window of time to bring all the elements together, so I really have to rely on my assistant to help me get a good base of music tracks to select from,” Christine. “Assistants really are the front line when it comes to music searching. Their support and point of view is incredibly valuable and helpful.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Leo: “I often use the assistants’ help. They have a much trendier music taste than me! I also have a folder on my computer that if I hear a track anywhere and think that one day it could be good on something, I’ll save it for another day.”

The track for this HSBC commercial was chosen by Phil and made it all the way through

Whether it’s the editor or their assistant who’s picked the track, the placeholder is an integral part of the journey towards a final commercial - if the director likes the first cut, it’s a direction in which the project can continue.

“I truly believe that music is 50% of the finished spot and most editors wouldn’t want to present a cut without a track they can stand behind,” says Marc. “The down side of this is that from time to time the client can end up falling for that track, which is unfortunate for the music houses. Placeholders can definitely pose a challenge to our relationship with music houses because many of them end up on the final spot. Not because the music house wasn’t up for the job, but because the client has seen the cut with the placeholder and if it works. There’s this ‘if it ain’t broke, why fix it?’ phenomena we call ‘demo love’.” 

Leo found almost all of the music that was used in this Warburtons spot

Nevertheless, it isn’t as simple as falling in love the first track and obtaining it. Licencing fees can prove impossible to negotiate, whilst higher powers may interfere with their opinion (damn subjective nature of music!), with the buck ultimately stopping with the client. “I’ve had experiences where the client has really liked the placeholder track, but then the top client has pulled it at the last minute and it leads to a frantic search for an alternative,” says Leo. “Many tracks that I’ve picked have ended up on a final piece. It’s amazing how often people fall in love with the first track they hear on an edit, then nothing else compares.”

A lot of the time, however, the placeholder won’t make it to the final edit. So, does selecting a placeholder track create an air of uncertainty around, not just the edit, but the final film? It’s a fine-balance, concludes Marc: “I won’t lie. It’s really tricky, which is why the sooner we can collaborate the better. Partnering at the early stage gives us all a better chance to evolve our individual contributions to create a better spot, which is ultimately what we all want.”

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