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The influence of temp scores

What is a temp score? The term stands for “temporary” and it’s exactly what it sounds like: an existing piece of film music used by a director to temporarily score his movie. The practice is invaluably useful, and at the same time heinous.

To complete his cinematic vision, a director needs to see his movie with music. That’s the very reason he hires a composer in the first place. But very often he needs to see his movie with music… now. He has to come up with a demo immediately for his producer, or for a test audience, or just for himself, and he can’t wait for the actual composing job and recording to be done. Or, being musically illiterate, the only way he can express his musical needs to his composer is to show him an existing piece of music and say, “I need something kinda like this.”

Thus are the advantages. But the dangers abound, too. A director or producer can become married to a temp score so much that the words “I need something kinda like this” end up taking the subconscious edge of “I need EXACTLY this.” And the poor composer is then left with the unenviable job of treading a fine line between inspiration and imitation. Very often he’ll be criticized by his employers for “not being enough like that other piece”, while he’ll also face the ire of his fans for “ripping off that other piece.”

A fine example is the movie The Ant Bully by John Debney. A fine composer with a tremendous body of work that commands respect, Debney still has to contend with temp scores like anyone else, and the influence of James Newton Howard’s modern masterpiece Dinosaur on The Ant Bully is quite obvious.

What are the solutions? Of course the filmmakers can just obtain the rights to use the piece of music they fell in love with (such as the use of a piece from James Horner’s “Aliens” in Die Hard) but this is rarely done. They can also fire a composer they feel is unable to “sound enough like that piece but not too much”, which is sadly far more common. They can also learn to live with what they have and trust artists at what they do.