Cinematic Composing – The Magic of Film

Cinematic Composing with Jagan Ramamoorthy

‘Sound’ is something in our world that we take for granted. When we look around, there is so much noise in our waking hours that we often forget it while asleep or in our dream state. The noise we hear, or particularly known as “Struck sound”, forms the vibrations from our electronics and they create a monotonous tone. However, we seldom stop to ask, consciously, “Is that the refrigerator making that noise?” Unless of course, the refrigerator is making an unusual noise; then we assume it’s time to call the repairman.

The same is true about films / talkies. When we are watching any film we often ‘Hear’ music that makes us apprehensive or music that thrills us or even music that let’s us know that something funny is about to happen. This also brings our selective perception and sensory organs into play. The gestalt created around any objective truth observed is triggered and influenced by our senses. However, we seldom ask, consciously, “Who is the composer that created this wonderful sound or music score?” Or “That’s Beethoven in the background” or even say, “That’s James Brown’s composition enhancing these exotic feelings in that scene.” Sound is definitely one of those “silent” additions to the film that helps us get emotionally involved with and relish it.

Who is behind the music and sound scores in a film and how does it get chosen? Well, a lot is involved in this process and I have collaborated with one of Hollywood’s most accomplished composers – Jagan Ramamoorthy, to tell us more about what goes on behind the scenes with music making, sound score and the film.

MC: Thank you Jagan, for joining me. Music and sound design, composing is such a critical component for the making of any film. Many of us don’t realize how important sound is to film. Tell us how important it is from your perspective.

JR: Sound is the SOUL of every story we hear. Without sound, the visuals can’t always do the job of triggering emotions in us, being the viewers of any film. Although silent movies were made many years before talkies came along, audience did always hear sound even while watching those silent movies. (Just as John Cage proved that “Silence IS noise” around us via his famous composition, 4′:33”). Sound is critical for visuals, expressions to be captured and the emotions to be evoked in each individual sitting in a theater. This is true for movies, theater and other forms of exhibitions as well. Since the human mind moves very fast and often zips past important brush strokes in creativity while the slow and steady beats of a camera rolling and capturing the scenes cannot be separated from the essence of sound as it consists of time and tone. Sound follows these beats in an inseparable journey and hence it is imperative for the visual effects editors, film editors and producers / directors to let the sound guys deliver their best, adding-dropping elements they feel necessary to match with the storytelling and convey the accurate messages through each nuance and angle of the visual medium we know as film. And yes, you are right that we take sound for granted in life as it is and particularly in films. Without any sound, whenever we try to watch movies (Muted) our emotions are not triggered by what we see on TV or film. I would even go a step further to state here that this holds true for even the mainstream media’s nonsensical news that we see every day we see and hear on the oblong box on a corner stool in our homes. Try watching your television muted for a while and you can observe the difference it causes in your life and how you perceive each of the programs aired on TV and how these actually trigger you / us or not.

MC: Tell our readers how important is your job in the film industry and when did you actually started composing or contributing your music for films, especially?

JR: I am responding to the second part of your question first. My journey in Hollywood films began quite accidentally. Although, I have had a very long association with the Broadcasting Corporation of India, the country’s pride and premier media unit for almost 15 years as a performing artist and composer, also a documentary feature writer at times. I landed at CalArts in 2002, for my Master of Fine Arts in world music performance. I indulged in various styles, genres and learned a little bit about Jazz, Improvisation and other music, creating writing etc, while I was enrolled in graduate school. Then I started to collaborate with very talented and great composers in and around town and met an excellent drummer-music producer, Carlos Torres, who was recording his personal album at that time, titled Love Pass Filter. This was my first major break into the industry and I lent my solo violin for this album [Love Pass Filter, 2002-03]. That was the beginning and I never looked back ever since. Subsequently, a cover story about my journey was published for a ‘World Rhythm’ magazine. And the next thing I gained from these was to receive a phone call from Ms. Debbie and she happened to be Danny Elfman’s Manager / Secretary. She hired me for a sound/music score session at Capitol Records sometime in late 2002 or early 2003. The movie was Universal Studios; “HULK”, directed by Ang Lee and starred Eric Banaa and Jennifer Connelly. This was my first major movie here in Hollywood and the credit I received from it, opened the way for many such gigs down the line, for me as a soloist. Soon, I started to dig this line of work as well, though this was never mainstream for me. This is because as a classically trained artist films usually don’t enamor us (The classical musicians). However, since the pay is great and the film credits are truly important for us to get more recognition and our talents are better recognized, worldwide. That’s the power of the visual medium of the films. I love my work as a professional, because I play a very special and rare genre of violin and music, as well as compose music-sound design for cinematic storytelling. I have six major film credits. After “Hulk,” I provided my violin solos and music for “The Quantum Activist,” “Drag Me to Hell,” “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World” and “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” The sixth is underway, hence confidential for now.

MC:  Jagan, there are some of our readers somewhere out there who are composers and probably considering being composers for film.  How does an ordinary composer who wants to venture into this get started?

JR: It is a combination of three very important things. #1 is Meeting the right folks at the right time and remaining humble in your shell and outside alike.

# 2) Professionals should just stay truthful and integral in work ethics and they will do just fine in the industry. If you try to overlap and take things from others that belong to them and their talents, then your climb will be short-lived. You will fall hard on ground. Composers generally are rare breed and not many can do justice to the tasks on hand, especially designing sound and music scores following the visual (Cinematic) storytelling. Unless you connect with the story, storytelling and the target audience, you can’t compose great music and background score. I would humbly submit to other aspiring professionals, to always aim higher, look for the bigger gigs and never be satisfied with small accomplishments in your trade.

#3 – Try and remain within the genre specificity of your skills and trade. Crossover genre is rare, but is very difficult to impress people with first off because of stiff challenges and competition from 7 billion in the world. Instead of the 45 Suzuki trainers you compete with!  My genre and style of violin playing itself makes me a specialty artist and people come asking for me rather than me going to them and looking for paid work.

MC:  Describe what it is like to create music for film.

JR: It’s simply the ‘Story’ and that always sells. If your music is not connected with an innate, internalized or externalized, explicit storytelling then you will see many failures before someone recognizes your talent in composing. Films move in small spurts across the mind’s eye and follow a path to trigger human emotions. Your musical ability should create that effectively and exploit it to the hilt. Writing also helps a lot in music making and vice versa. I was a naturally born artist, per se. I started out as a child artist, doing stand-up comedy in Classrooms when I was 7 or 8 years old. Then, also picked up the violin as I come from a very traditional Indian family. It took me many great mentors and years of vigorous training in lineage music to nurture my talents and taking my journey into and beyond the arena of getting “Small” contentment. Violin has never been a hobby for me.

MC: If someone is seeking your assistance specifically for a film production, how do they attain your services?

JR: The film producers or senior music composers usually send me a care package. It involves a Quicktime file of the film. I take great pains to practice – sometimes I dabble with Pro Tools and design sound /music I feel intuitively accurate for the film and match /flow with the visuals for the story. If they like my work and approve it as something they really connect with then I take it on to the next level. I involve other instrumentalists / composers I work with or train in my genre-specific style.

MC:  And also what other services do you provide besides cinematic composing for film?

JR: I do write stories all the time – documentaries included. I don’t enjoy writing ROMCOMS or Slashers, so avoid these. Every day, I am practicing both of these arts – writing stories, screenplays and playing my music. Music of course, takes precedence over writing but I enjoy doing both. I hope my answers provide your readers a good enough understanding of how I succeed in whatever little my contributions to Hollywood films have been so far and will continue to be.

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To hear some of Jagan’s compositions for film – click on these links:

(Composer, Performer – Jagan Ramamoorthy)

(Composer: Carlos Torres, Lead Violin: Jagan Ramamoorthy)

(Composer: Carlos Torres, Lead Violin: Jagan Ramamoorthy)

(Composer: Carlos Torres, Lead Violin: Jagan Ramamoorthy)


Sound Production Series Part II – Nicole Hankerson

Women in Sound – Entrepreneur and Production Mixer Nicole Hankerson

Women in Sound - Entrepreneur and Production Mixer Nicole Hankerson
Entrepreneur and Production Mixer Nicole Hankerson

I vividly remember sitting in an audio engineering class during my junior year of college and listening to a beloved professor who implored us not to limit our concept of professional competition to the people who we were sitting next to. We were warned that this narrow scope would distort our reality and lead us to dismiss the fact that there are indeed people around the globe who are working harder, sleeping less and perfecting their craft with tenacity and due diligence. As I sat in the office of C.C. Productions 803 LLC, and chatted leisurely with company founder and resident production mixer – Nicole Hankerson – I realized that she was, indeed, one of those types of people that my professor was talking about.

The twenty-seven year old South Carolina native has already built an impressive resume working in location sound for television shows like “Drop Dead Diva” and “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.”  She has also managed to simultaneously build a successful Atlanta-based production company.

“I have always known that I wanted to start a business ever since I was little, I’ve always been entrepreneurial and I have always had that ambition.”

Hankerson’s ambition and drive was more than evident as she shared stories of how she first pursued her interest in audio. From seeking out mentors in various recording studios to working pro bono on location, Nicole rigorously pounded the pavement in order to establish herself as a force in the Atlanta audio community.

It is a common fact that the audio community in general is typically one that is dominated by men, and though Nicole understands that her validity in the industry may be questioned by some, she continues to thrive despite any possible objections to her presence in the competitive world of entertainment.

“It is definitely hard to be a women in this industry. It’s very competitive, but it’s good because it brings a lot of attention my way. Every time there is a show that comes to Atlanta that needs a female mixer, I get the call, but what matters is that we [female mixers] stick together.  If we stick together, we all can eat.”

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Be sure to support Nicole by visiting www.ccproductions803.com