Short Drama Film: “The Best Gift”

Short Drama Film: “The Best Gift”

 I’ve been contributing music to several films this month. The most recent one is “The Best Gift”, a lovely film written and directed by Joshua Pitney. Joshua is currently a student at Pepperdine University, majoring in Screen Arts. He is also a member of the Positive Identity group, which is dedicated toward creating positive race relations. “The Best Gift” is about a high school senior who is auditioning for various college drama programs. The problem is that he is autistic, and becomes very nervous, finding it difficult to get all the way through the audition without breaking down.

I enjoyed collaborating with Joshua, and composing the music score for this film. The film is about 11 minutes long, and Joshua wanted a set of cues that fit some of the scenes. At the bottom of this page you can watch the entire film. But first, I describe some of the technical aspects of instrumentation and performance. 

Music in a film has multiple functions. One function is to underline the emotions felt by the characters. Another function is to help to unify the film, to give it a sense of coherence, belonging together in a single story. Before beginning to compose the score, Joshua gave me an excellent music brief. He summarized exactly where he wanted music, and the emotions being felt by the characters that should be emphasized by the music score. He gave examples of the styles and emotions he was aiming for, by sending links to specific music tracks. That was very helpful, of course. He also mentioned that he would like to repeat some musical themes at various points in the film. For example, a “hopeful” music theme begins at 6:05, when the mother approaches her baby and the future. At the end of the film, as the student feels triumphant and hopeful, the same theme repeats and expands at 10:30. 

Another example occurs at the beginning of the film. The student has just woken but nevertheless feels stressed by the events that he anticipates today. His stress leads to stimming at 0:44, which is accompanied by a special “stimming theme” played by the piano. During his first audition, he again stresses and begins to stim at 3:07. This time, the musical theme repeats with an ensemble of instruments; the louder volume and especially the harsh violin emphasize the character’s emotional turmoil. After all, this time his stress has direct consequences on his audition. 

Events in films often occur “in threes”; during the next audition, the student again begins to stress out. The same musical theme begins at time 9:33. The same harsh violin plays, but is also accompanied by a snare drum which further emphasizes his distress. But then, the character contains his emotion, and a flute dives into a restful orchestral conclusion.


Here is a short video of a virtual piano instrument named “Pianoteq”. Unlike most virtual instruments, this one is not sampled. Instead it is modeled, that is, special algorithms were developed to emulate different brands of pianos. This particular one is a Steinway D piano, with a “cinematic” style. It is interesting to note that the “Steinway & Sons” piano company likes this Pianoteq virtual piano sufficiently, that the company has “authorized” the entire instrument pack! That is because of the total realism of the virtual instrument.

I used this virtual instrument in the first cue, at the beginning of the film. But for a later cue, Joshua suggested a “temp track” that included a piano sound with a delay, sort of an echo. So, I modified the instrument for this one cue, to produce a delayed echo. Not just any delay time; Pianoteq allows me to adjust the delay time to be synchronized to the tempo. So, I chose the delay time to be exactly half a beat, that is, the duration of an 8th note. You can easily hear the delay in this video, where I have isolated the piano. You can hear the entire cue with all the other instruments at time 7:30-8:30 in the full video below. This cue has a triumphant style, because the student is “on a roll”; he is successfully rehearsing his audition part.

These days, I use the Aaron Venture wind libraries; Infinite Woodwinds and Infinite Brass. They are so easily playable, and do not require lots of keyswitches to control the different articulations. They offer amazing control over many aspects of playing technique, including vibrato depth and rate, microphone placement, panning placement, reverb, flutter and growl, and of course attack and sustain volume.

In this video clip, you can hear the flute and three horns. The flute plays with vibrato, while the horns do not. You can hear the entire cue in the full video below, from 6:01 to 6:22.

Next we come to the solo violin. I use Embertone’s Joshua Bell Violin, a virtual instrument that automates much of the needed articulations. You can override the automated articulations, through keyswitches.

This short video clip shows the articulations playing. The sliders on the left and right are moving up and down with the continuous controllers that control dynamics and vibrato. The very last note in this clip is a harsh double-stop; that is, two notes played on the violin simultaneously.

This sforzando — a strong stressed staccato double-stop gives the scene a forced emphasis on the student’s utter aggravation caused by his stimming behavior. You can hear the complete cue in the next video clip.

The cue which accompanies the student’s stimming is a slow build-up in tension, that culminates in the dramatic violin solo. But in this video clip, you can hear yet another interesting virtual instrument. This video clip repeats twice. The first time through, you hear only an “animation” patch from The Orchestra Complete 2 sample library. Then, the clip is repeated, so you can hear the solo violin and the animation patch together with all the other instruments. You can also view the clip in context in the full video below, from 3:07 to 3:22. 

The strongest aspect of The Orchestra Complete 2 sample library is its rich selection of pre-made ostinatos–repeated melodies or rhythms–which the library calls “animations”. Each animation consists of up to five different instruments. The composer plays a chord, and the animation performs an ostinato based on that chord, perfectly synchronized with the tempo. Here, I have turned off two of the instruments, leaving clarinet and oboe staccato and violin sustain to play. Outside of this particular preset, I added pizzicato strings from Strezov Sampling’s marvelous sample library called Afflatus Chapter 1 Strings.

So, here is the complete film “The Best Gift”. Enjoy!

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