Frame By Frame: Film Composer Kathryn Bostic Talks 'The New Black,' 'Dear White People,' More (Part 1)
Photo Credit: S & A

Frame By Frame: Film Composer Kathryn Bostic Talks 'The New Black,' 'Dear White People,' More (Part 1)


our next installment of the new S&A

series Frame By Frame, featuring

guest posts and in-depth conversations with film and television professionals.

Find the first piece in the series, with cinematographer Daniel Patterson, HERE. We’ll next hear from film composer Kathryn Bostic.


is a composer, singer, songwriter and musician who has scored several

independent features we’ve written about on this site, including Ava DuVernay’s "Middle of Nowhere" and "I Will Follow," Yoruba Richen’s "Promised

Land" and "The New Black," "Dear White People," "Soul Food Junkies," and the forthcoming August Wilson documentary "The

Ground on Which I Stand." She has also scored for theater, working on the

Broadway productions of "Gem of the Ocean" and "Bengal Tiger at

the Baghdad Zoo" and the Mark Taper Forum production of "Joe Turner’s Come and Gone," directed by Phylicia Rashad.


her first post for "Frame By Frame," she discusses her career and the basics of film scoring.

Kathryn BosticBeginnings in Music

I started writing music at a very

young age. I was three when I started to play the piano and took to it right

away. I used to sing and make up these little songs and melodies that left me

feeling so happy and it’s been that way ever since. Storytelling through music

is something I’ve always enjoyed and appreciated. I studied music composition

and piano in college and would write for various theater and dance productions.

I’d also sing with various artists worldwide discovering different styles of

music and genre. These experiences later translated into an interest in film

scoring. I’ve always appreciated how a good film score can really take a film

to a place sonically irresistible and memorable.

Getting a Project Started

When I first start working on a

film I have a spotting session with the director and we go over where the music

should be placed. I then like to sit with it on my own and feel how it’s

hitting me emotionally and feel how the story is unfolding. I like to get a cut

of the film with the temp music in and without (temp music is already put in by

the director and editor prior to the original score.) This way the film itself

reveals its own voice as well. The director already has ideas in place and the

temp music indicates the tone of what they are looking for… or not! Sometimes

the music is there solely as a point of departure, a point of reference. Other

times it’s in and it’s already working quite well! That’s the challenge, how

can I take that and make it something fresh and authentic. Temp music can be

the director’s "Svengali" for the composer. They’ve lived with this

music a long time and have become used to the way it resonates with them.

However, I find there’s always an opening for fresh creativity regardless of

this, and that’s what I look for.

On the Director/Composer Relationship

When I worked with director Ava

DuVernay on "I Will Follow," "Middle of Nowhere" and "Venus Vs.," these films had been cut to temp music

that more or less worked. Ava is very generous about hearing new ideas and new

approaches so I never felt like I had to replicate the temp. I never felt

constrained by this. The temp was more of a "menu" of textures and

instrumentation that I could draw from. I also worked with director Justin Simien on "Dear White People," and he too had specific ideas that

were already in place and temped in, but he was very open to what I could

create within that point of reference.

“The biggest thing that directors have to have in their relationship with a composer is trust; they have to know that you can translate what’s in their mind to a musical language that works…”

I think the biggest thing that

directors have to have in their relationship with a composer is trust; they

have to know that you can translate what’s in their mind to a musical language

that works for their film and for this reason, communication is extremely

important. I like to get a dialogue going right away. I’ll present sketches

early on to know if I’m heading in the right direction. Yes, it can be really

daunting and nail biting to do this but the worst thing you can is wait until

you think it’s right before you share your ideas; this is really hard if you’re

a perfectionist. Often you have the clock working against you and you have to

show some ideas "yesterday!" Let the muse take over, which for me is

always the best. I try and strike a balance between being aware of deadlines but

also being present enough to compose something effective and evocative. 

Conversation about the film between

the director and composer is ongoing until the very final stages of post-production

and for new directors, I want to stress the importance of realizing that

collaboration is a process and takes time. The score can be one of the most

intimidating elements of filmmaking because it is one of the last things to

bring in and it is also one of the most intangible to express. It’s important

for the director to speak in terms of the emotional intent they are looking

for, there is no need to try and speak in musical terms that may or may not be


Scoring for Documentary

I recently worked with director Yoruba

Richen on her documentary "The New Black" and the music for this was quite

different in terms of approach. Music in documentaries is often laid in more

extensively to not only highlight emotional intention, but to move the story

forward. It often runs parallel to the dialogue. I had worked with Yoruba on

her documentary "Promised Land" and this time around with "The New Black," the music was also a

combination of soundtrack material from the artist Tonex, which was great because his own personal story was a part of

the documentary.

The score in a film is the spine of

the film. Its themes and presence hold the movie together in ways that are

vital to enhancing the story and without a good score the movie can be

disjointed and lack dimension. I am fortunate to have worked with some amazing

directors who know how to weave music masterfully in their cinematic stories.

In my next article, I will talk

more extensively about scoring on a budget as well as scoring around

pre-existing music and source cues. I’ll also share some of my collaboration

process in working with director Sam

Pollard for the American Masters Series "August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand", coming soon to PBS.

Shadow and Act is a website dedicated to cinema, television and web content of Africa and its global Diaspora. With daily news, interviews, in-depth investigations into the audiovisual industry, and more, Shadow and Act promotes content created by and about people of African descent throughout the world.

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