Off the Track

No two words can send film music fans into apoplectic seizures faster than the phrase “TEMP TRACK.” What is a temp track and why is it the bane of film composers and film score fans alike?

Definition

A TEMP TRACK is the use of pre-existing music or audio during the editing phase of post-production to guide the mood or atmosphere in a scene, or on the entire film, prior to the addition of the commissioned original score. Directors use temp tracks to give the composer an idea of the direction he wants the music to go in. “Constructed by a music editor, in most cases,” writes Ronald Sadoff, “it is a blueprint of a film’s soundtrack–a musical topography of score, songs, culture and codes in which a balance must obtain between the director’s vision, the music’s function, underlying requirements of genre, and the spectator’s perception.”

Ideally, the temp track survives only through screenings for preview audiences. These days, however, composers face a harsh reality check as they find temp track cues inserted into their original scores more and more.

In 2007, Tyler Bates and  Warner Bros. came under fire for the insertion of two cues from Elliot Goldenthal’s 1999 score for TITUS, which they tried to pass off as Bates’ own on the soundtrack album. So why don’t film composers lay down their pencils (or more likely their laptops and sound boards) in protest?

Pros

While most composers only have a few weeks to compose an entire score, a temp track serve as a lifesaver in those last-minute crunch times when the idea well has dried up. For newbie (and not-so-newbie) composers, a temp track can sometimes save them hours of endless guessing and/or discussion as to what the director wants.

With so few directors having any knowledge of music, other than what they “like,” isn’t it best to give a director what he wants to avoid getting fired? Not necessarily.

Cons

A temp track reminds me of the “Born in a Trunk” number from the 1954 remake of A STAR IS BORN where no matter what Judy Garland sings, some drunk keeps yelling out, “Sing ‘Melancholy Baby!'” After seeing their film edited with familiar-sounding temp music for weeks or months, producers and directors often balk at accepting any new ideas from the composer. It’s “my way or the highway.”

So how do you get around this dilemma?

All you composers out there–you actual practitioners of the craft–weigh in. Is composing to the dictates of a temp track akin to a corporate writer or graphic designer having to write and design within the confines of an in-house style manual? Or does it truly stifle artistic creativity? Can it have long-lasting harmful effects on a composer’s career?

Is it  even possible to stay on track as a composer of today’s film music? Or is it like that track up there in the corner, merging onto another more central track and traveling that way forever into the setting sun?

For more reading on the subject, read blofeldscat’s interview with temp editors Scott Stambler and Mark Wlodarkiewicz.

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