Interview by Chris Olson
Short film Lookouts is a daring fantasy, with an outstanding visual aesthetic. We talk to the film's very talented composer about working on such a high-end movie, as well as indie filmmaking in 2016.
Can you tell us a bit about how you came to be the Composer for Lookouts?
My former manager read the synopsis for the casting call and really liked the story, so he contacted David & Kristin (Director and Executive Producer respectively). After a few months, they sent some stills from the movie that completely blew us away. They lured me in visually and I knew I wanted to take on the project with full force.
What’s your history in the film industry?
Oddly enough, I am a mechanical engineer from Imperial College by trade and was working as a consultant in London when I decided to change careers and come to the US to try my hand at composing for film. I refined a lot of my skills by getting a music degree and diving into the film scene in LA. Since then I have had the chance to work on some exciting projects: worldwide-released trailers, two feature films, as well as being very blessed to be involved in top-notch shorts such as Lookouts.
David creates a strong aesthetic in his film, especially as DoP. How did you ensure you complemented his tone and vision?
From the day I first saw the stills, I knew this was a very refined project and that we needed the music to match the high level of production. We recorded the strings with top session musicians in Hollywood, had two experienced engineers (Zavosh Rad and my business partner at LoudMono, Orlando Perez Rosso) mix the score in 5.1. This is not common procedure when scoring a short; nowadays all this is done in the box, given the technology and limited budgets. However, since I saw this short as a condensed feature film in terms of production value, I decided to go full board in production with the score. I believe that more than half of the effort I put into this score was put into achieving the precise sound I wanted as opposed to the actual notes I composed.
Beyond that, a few things come to mind. The central force in the short is the basilisk, so it was essential for me to represent its power through sound, which I achieved by creating a two-note motif. The contrast of high-pitched and low-pitched sounds, together with the effect of surround sound in the cinema, makes the viewer feel the basilisk coming from all angles and really heightens the drama. I was very intentional about the role of music in Pehn’s self-transformation throughout the film, starting with the soft and sweet theme inside the hut that develops throughout and ends with strong heroic elements as he finally confronts the basilisk.
I also wanted certain elements of the score to sound tribal, and to achieve that we used a lot of open strings and came up with the gritty riffs you hear throughout the chase scenes. Going off of that tribal inspiration in the fight scene, we actually incorporated sounds from an Indian dance called Dandiya, which uses sticks similar to those wielded by the lookouts. Finally, the key symbol of the cinderleaf, at the same time mysterious and beautiful and deadly, had its own theme in the score. Its melody as well as the “twinkling” effect in the surrounds brought to the symbol to life and turned the cinderleaf into a character rather than simple scenery.
Were there any lessons that you learnt during the project?
Since this was a short, I had limited space to develop the arc of the score, which posed a challenge. I learnt that the credits are an excellent place to further develop the score; moreover, it is a blank canvas where there is only music. This is where the idea of making a lullaby sung by Pehn’s mother, Kleia, came from. I combined all the themes from the movie and played them simultaneously. This idea is borrowed from the postlude/finale of operas, wherein all the character themes are played in tandem. Had I not been restricted by time due to the nature of the short film narrative, I do not believe I would have pushed the credits development as much. I’m glad it turned out this way. It is a lesson that I will take with me now for future projects to come.
What, in your opinion, is the toughest aspect of filmmaking in 2016?
Personally, I feel that within the industry it is hard to keep up to date with the burst of information available via social media and the internet in general. It is difficult to make a project reach people’s eyes and ears given the saturation of information and complete overload of channels and entertainment. I think that after fundraising, the biggest challenge for the filmmaker is to cut through that flood of information and reach an actual audience. Are there any tips you would give to newcomers to composing for films?
Value your sound - it is as important as your music. Film composing, even though it uses the same orchestra and language, is not like composing for the concert world. Film scoring is a different beast, and to tame it you must be both a composer and a producer. Never settle until you have produced your best work both musically and sonically. That will push you and make you grow - good work breeds more good work.
What is the next project you are working on?
I am currently working on a feature, a comedy based on a treasure hunt filmed in Sardinia by director Luis Ventura, as well as emotional short by Manuel Trotta about an executive dealing with his father’s dementia.
What would you say if you were a dolphin?
“That singer is out of tun-a!” Followed by a maniacal dolphin laugh.