extreme sports filmmaker advice

Music for Extreme Sports Films & Documentaries: How to Tell Your Story Through Music

INTRODUCTION

“making sport’s videos must be one of the easiest things to do, you just shoot a load of footage and licence your favorite track, right?”

Picking and syncing music for sports films & documentaries is an incredibly important and artful task.

Often there is none or very little dialogue and the music combined with the images alone must keep the viewer engaged for over an hour.

This is not easy. 

To produce a great extreme sports film or documentary you need a careful and considered approach to the soundtrack.  After all, it often is 50% of the content.

So…

  • How do you pick music for your sports video or sports documentary?

  • What is the best music for a downhill mountain bike shoot?

  • What music works best for a surf film?

The answers to these questions are infinite.

If you watch extreme sports films & documentaries regularly you will notice that one size does not fit all.

If you watch extreme sports films & documentaries regularly you will notice that one size does not fit all.

Here are the fundamental tips for picking and syncing music to your extreme sports films & documentaries.

All the great sports documentaries and films have these features in common when it comes to compiling the perfect soundtrack.

MUSIC EDITING FOR SPORTS FILM

In this blog you’ll learn:

  • How to pick the right track for your sports documentary. 
  • How to keep your soundtrack engaging.
  • Techniques to follow when choosing and syncing music for your extreme sport films and documentaries.
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1.  Match the musical style to the style of the athlete.

Your athlete is like your main actor or character. Regardless of their sport, they will have a performance style. Therefore, match their athletic performance style to your music.

For example, if your surfer or downhill mountain biker has an aggressive style, i.e. fast riding with sharp corners and cutbacks, pick an aggressive style of music like metal.

On the other hand, your athlete could be chilled and have a smooth, relaxed style in riding.  Therefore, look for music that matches this performance style.

This marriage of music style to athletic performance creates a beautiful dynamic as it enhances the cinematic shots and will keep your audience engaged.

This marriage of music style to athletic performance creates a beautiful dynamic as it enhances the cinematic shots and will keep your audience engaged.

Some talented individuals have this skill naturally and do this instinctively, however, for those who don’t, just be aware that you need to be in tune with your athlete and their style. 

A beautiful example of how music and athletic style come together perfectly is seen repeatedly in the surf film: Breaking Through – A Journey Through the British Isles”.  This is a full British surf film by Jimmy Witson Productions & A.P.E House Media.  Written, Produced & Edited By Ashton Wadey

Check out this shot from the film below and see how the surfer and the music are beautifully in harmony. We see a cool chilled surfer with cool chilled music.
It is the perfect balance of action and music.
A great soundtrack that matches the surfer’s style and it just draws you in. I love this movie!
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2.  Edit to the music

Edit your shots to the music.

It sounds simple, but is an essential skill and you would be amazed at how many productions I have seen where this is not done. 

Often, camera crews spend hours shooting downhill bikers or surfers or whatever, for just a few minutes of footage.

Editing is a long and difficult process and as a result, you can end up with hours and hours of footage. Therefore, one of the director’s most difficult task is to decide what footage to not use. 

Keep your music soundtrack in mind when picking your footage and in summary, edit and sync your chosen shots to your music.

Syncing shots with the musical tempo and music dynamics creates a beautiful fluidity in the production.

Above all, the aim is to have your audience imagining themselves taking that dirt jump or riding that wave. This is the golden result and if you get this right, your audience will love your movie!

The aim is to have your audience imagining themselves taking that dirt jump or riding that wave. This is the golden result and if you get this right, your audience will love your movie!

This clever editing is what makes a production great and engaging.

Here is an amazing example of creative editing in an action sports scene. 

“Shifted” is a mountain bike film created by Matt Butterworth and Eric Marciniak of Virtu Media.

In the shot below we hear a chilled beats vibe tune and the riders are in sync with the beat drops.

This film also cleverly intertwines the sound of the bikes with the music – they blend. The editing is beautiful and the soundtrack just works.

Such a great watch. Have a look. 

3.  Keep your musical genres coherent

Sometimes, having a range of musical styles in an extreme sports production can be incredibly creative and refreshing.

You see this a lot in surfing films where a surfer travels to India (cue Indian ethnic music) then to Australia (cue didgeridoos) and then to Hawaii for a surf competition (cue ukuleles).

This can work well if in line with the story, however, don’t pick a variety of random musical styles because you think the music is “cool” and your favorite documentary does this.

This can work well if in line with the story, however, don’t pick a variety of random musical styles because you think the music is “cool” and your favorite documentary does this.

It can be very frustrating and annoying for the audience if your soundtrack keeps jumping between musical styles and is not coherent or “gels”.

For example, I was watching a surf film recently that had an intro with beautiful acoustic guitar music, set to shots of the sun rising and early morning surfers.

It set a calm theme and feeling. I was hooked.

Next shot, was a great clip of a shortboard surfer but synced to aggressive electro rock which had some weird synthesizer.

The shift in music dynamic and mood was to much and I quickly turned off.

If you are going to jump between musical styles and do these big dynamic shifts in the audio do it gradually or coherently.

If you are going to jump between musical styles and do these big dynamic shifts in the audio do it gradually or coherently.

Sudden musical jumps will confuse and annoy your audience and take them out of the fantasy of the film.

An amazing example of a production that uses a diverse a soundtrack that gels and works brilliantly is the film by Dave Brown, “Welsh Connections” –  Bamboo Chicken Productions.

I stumbled across this film while looking for a good rock climbing documentary.

I noticed some good comments on the soundtrack in the reviews which got me excited and I was not let down!

This is a great film with a fantastically diverse soundtrack that is engaging and flows beautifully.

A must watch for UK climbers in particular! Here is a shot. 

4.  Are you telling a story?

Some extreme or adventure sport films and documentaries are compilations of great shots of athletes doing their thing, for example, camera crews that just follow a surf team and shoot hours of footage of them riding waves.

The result is often an hour documentary of just great surfing. 

Other extreme or adventure sport films are stories, for example, following an athletes journey through the sport in order to achieve their life goal.

Although obvious to some, it is really important to be self aware and acknowledge which category your production falls into.

If you are telling a story, dumping your favorite music onto a soundtrack, treating it like a montage of great sporting shots won’t cut it.

If your story is any good it will have highs and lows. Tension and relief.

You need to bring these emotions out just like any other story telling production.

Music is crucial to telling your story and emphasizing these emotions.

The simple formula for matching music to film when a story is being told, is to match feelings.

In a nutshell, match the feeling of the music to the tone (feeling) of the narrative.

The simple formula for matching music to film when a story is being told, is to match feelings. i.e. match the feeling of the music to the tone (feeling) of the narrative.

Be bold and obvious, i.e. sad part of the story equals sad music. 

Some people are naturals at picking music when telling a story and go on instinct.

If you don’t have this natural ability and are questioning yourself, keep it simple and stick to the simple rule of matching musical feeling with visual feeling.

Getting this right is the difference between “just another sports movie” to an award winning production that moves your audience. 

Getting this right is the difference between “just another sports movie” to an award winning production that moves your audience. 

5.  Keep the music dynamics fluid.

The success of a film can be made or broken through the dynamic range of the soundtrack.  So…

  • What is dynamic range?

  • Why is dynamic range so important to a film’s sound track?

The dynamic range of a soundtrack is the ratio between the loudest and softest parts of a soundtrack.

I remember my lecturer when I was a newbie sound designer giving this advice. “If everything is loud, nothing is loud”.

If everything is loud, nothing is loud.

When I say soundtrack, I am not just taking about music. I am taking about the entire soundtrack of your film, including all dialogue and sound effects.

The public is usually not aware of the influence of a film’s soundtrack but it is essential to the plot and success.

Keep your audio dynamics engaging by using loud and soft parts.  Even silence works brilliantly. 

Even silence works brilliantly. 

One of my favorite mountain biking shots of all time is from the film “unReal” featuring Brandon Semenuk.

The shot opens with the natural sounds of Brandon Semenuk getting ready. Pulling up and unloading his bike. The quietness is engaging. 

When Brandon starts his bike route, the music starts. 

The music is soft and calm and there is not a dramatic shift in audio dynamic. 

The soundtrack is brilliant yet understated making room for Brandon Semenuk to do his thing. 

The mood of the music and that of Brandon is calm and in control, despite those drops being absolutely terrifying! The feeling of the movie and rider is matched in the music, perfectly.

Such an interesting choice of music, yet perfect.

Again, the “visual mood” of the rider and music is matched perfectly.

Fantastic clip,  check it out below. 

Conclusion

There are some very simple and basic rules you can follow to take your film making, video editing and sports productions up a notch.

One of the best ways to get good is to actively watch lots and lots and lots of documentaries and sports productions.  Pay attention to the soundtrack and note what you like and dislike.

I hope this simple advice is clear and is of some help to you. If you have any additional gems of advice please DM me or drop a note in the comments below.

Happy producing!

Louise.

Louise Byrne Music Producer Profile

Louise Byrne is a UK based Composer and Music Producer who writes & produces music for filmmakers & content creators.

Her music has been used globally by major broadcasting houses & brands such as MTV, Discovery Channel, Discovery Science Channel, The History Channel, Fox Sports, VISA, BBC, NBC Sports & many more.

      

Disclaimer: This blog is intended as a guide only for educational and informational purposes. It is not legal advice. The content contained in this article is not legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific matter or matters.

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