Tag Archives: Film Composer

Samantha Van Der Sluis moves from Composing for the Dublin Philharmonic Orchestra to Feature Films & TV

Samantha Van Der Sluis
Samantha Van Der Sluis recording violin

Great cinema is far more than just the images projected on the screen. When a film’s score is truly exceptional, it can often tell as rich a story as the film itself. While moviegoers fix their gaze on the characters and places they see, it’s what they hear that often sets the tone and subtly guides their imaginations. Few people understand the relationship between sight and sound in cinema as well as film composer Samantha Van Der Sluis. Fueled by an early love of storytelling, Van Der Sluis strove to find a medium perfectly suited to the tales her mind would weave.

“I was 15 years old when I started learning to play songs on the piano,” Van Der Sluis recalled. “I started venturing toward other instruments like the violin, French horn, bass guitar, and choral singing.”

As she developed an understanding over an array of instruments, her mind became filled with countless unwritten scores desperate to see the light of day. She found the outlet she needed when she began her work as a composer.

“Once I discovered I could perform music, I realized I had the potential to create it too,” she said. “Music is meant to be shared and listened to, and I believe the best form takes place in visual media like film, where music works together with the visuals.”

Samantha Van Der Sluis
Samantha Van Der Sluis conducting an original composition

Before she began her work as a film composer, Van Der Sluis received critical acclaim for many of her orchestral compositions. One of her pieces, ‘Searching For Home,’ was chosen by the Dublin Philharmonic to be performed as part of their world tour in 2015. Soon after, composer Jeff Russo collaborated with Van Der Sluis as part of his team; and she was given her first big opportunity to shape the musical soundscape of an array of hugely-anticipated television titles. The wide-ranging list of projects Van Der Sluis worked on included the Golden Globe and Emmy-winning FX series “Fargo,” the CBS All Access series “Star Trek: Discovery,” and Netflix’s dystopian thriller “Altered Carbon.”

In 2017, Van Der Sluis composed the score for the tensely claustrophobic and relentlessly terrifying feature film “Landfall.” The film centers on a pair of young lovers as they barricade themselves inside their beach house, desperate to keep out something much more sinister than the impending cyclone.

Though “Landfall” was completely unlike any project she’d worked on before, Van Der Sluis’ meticulous and immersive approach to scoring the film was exactly the same as it had always been. She wrote every note of the score around what the characters were experiencing. But because suspense was a major component of the film, she was careful that the story her composition told didn’t tip off audiences to any of the story’s secrets.

“Over the duration of the film, a lot of questions the audience may have at first are answered,” she explained. “Because of these mysteries, I had to be very cautious of the score not to give away the unexpected twists in the plot.”

Directed by Travis Bain, “Landfall” stars two-time Melbourne Underground Film Festival Award winner Kristen Condon (“The Beautiful and the Damned”) as Maisie and Rob Stanfield (“Windscreen Watch”) as Dylan, the film’s main characters. A testament to the power of the film and Van Der Sluis’ work as a composer, “Landfall” was recently purchased for distribution by industry heavyweight Archstone Distributions.

“Landfall” director Travis Bain says, “Thanks in part to Sam’s terrific score for ‘Landfall’, we’ve now secured a worldwide distribution deal, which will see the film be released in multiple countries around the globe… Samantha brought plenty of enthusiasm plus a willingness to help me fulfill my directorial vision… Her professional scores really help elevate all the other elements of my films. Her music adds so much production value, and for international audiences and distributors who expect a certain level of quality, production value is everything.”

Samantha Van Der Sluis
Poster for the upcoming film “Landfall”

As the film progresses and more is revealed about protagonists Maisie and Dylan, it gradually becomes clear that neither is the person they initially seemed to be. In the same way, Van Der Sluis’ score evolves dramatically between the first introductions to the characters and the tense final moments of the film.

“I had to compose themes for the characters dependent of their situation and not who they were, because in Landfall, this has a very different meaning,” she said. “I created tense cues around the main female character, Maisie, utilizing chromatic melodies, atonal harmonies, a variety of rhythmic passage to achieve inconsistency, and cadence that never resolved… Later in the film, when the audience starts to understand the character’s situation, this music turns into something more tonal and warm.”

Masterfully, Van Der Sluis captured the film’s characters not as they were, but as the audience was meant to believe. Together with the action onscreen, her score lulls viewers into a false sense of security and sets them up to be shocked by the film’s big twists.

“For the duration of the film, until the last 20 minutes, we assume Dylan and Maisie are completely innocent — turns out they aren’t,” Van Der Sluis said, careful not to reveal too much. “The music in the last 20 minutes starts to reiterate themes of what was heard previously. The theme used for the bad guys are now being played when Dylan and Maisie are seen.”

As the storm closes in and the main characters’ true natures are seemingly unveiled, Van Der Sluis continues to keep audiences on the edge of their seats. Her score takes on a more sinister tone, building in urgency until the storm makes landfall and at last the full truth is revealed.

Prior to her work on “Landfall,” Van Der Sluis composed a much different score for a much different story. Soulful and nuanced, the 2016 drama “Day Off” is a tragic drama from director Stephen Hall that tells the story of a middle-aged couple whose lifelong love is being taken away by an insidious disease.

“A 50-something year old man is struggling with dementia and having trouble remembering things. He vanishes from his caretaker,” Van Der Sluis described. “His caretaker calls the man’s wife, Laura, explaining that he has walked off and she can’t find him. Laura leaves the cafe she was sitting at with her friend and runs around the city to find him.”

The film follows Laura as she desperately races to find her husband, Brendan. She’s frantic and alone, yet her determination is unwavering. Her search leads her to places from their past, when their life and future together seemed perfect.

“The most important scene was when Brendan wanders around, having flashbacks of his wedding day,” Van Der Sluis explained. “Although these are happy memories, he’s still frustrated because he feels like he’s forgotten something, and therefore, [like he’s] losing something.”

Van Der Sluis’ score for the film is poignant and resonant. The music of “Day Off” perfectly echoes the deeply-nuanced emotions felt by Brendan and Laura. Her compositions tell the same story as the dialogue and images on-screen; they ring with lows every bit as devastating and highs just as euphoric as those of the film itself. Without uttering a single word, it was with “Day Off” that Van Der Sluis proved herself a master storyteller.

“It starts off delicately with a lone piano, which gradually increases in size with strings, winds, and rhythm section. It begins with a sparse, minimal texture and evolves into a more orchestrated, thick texture, which constantly repeats itself,” she explained, before revealing just how meticulously she considered every detail of the piece. “The act of repetition is a little ironic, due to portraying a character who is having trouble remembering certain life moments. But because one of his important memories is still there, his wedding, the repetitive music pieces seems to work.”

Every note of every piece she’s written has been guided by her philosophy that cinema is at its most powerful when the two are weaved together. Her adherence to that guiding tenet, together with her unrivaled skill, earned her quite a bit of attention for “Day Off,” including a nomination for the Best Score award by the Underground Film Festival.

The full breadth of Samantha Van Der Sluis’ work is staggering, yet each of her projects is linked by a common thread. Regardless of how different any two films may be, Van Der Sluis’ defining quality as a composer is her ability to visualize a project from the perspective of a storyteller. That skill, together with a meticulous attention to detail and a virtuosic understanding of music on an instinctual level, are what make Samantha Van Der Sluis an unrivaled composer in modern narrative cinema.

 

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Min He communicates through her extraordinary compositions

William Shakespeare once said, “when words fail, music speaks.” It is a universal language with the power to change lives, to evoke emotion, and to allow human beings to connect with each other on the deepest level. For renowned composer, Min He, it is a language she speaks fluently. She is one with her music and her compositions are profound. When audiences listen to He’s work, they hear far more than an arrangement of notes and chords. They hear her passion, her expertise, and her extraordinary ability to connect the world through her music.

“I love composing because I like being creative. I have so many things to say to this world, whether it’s my feelings, my thoughts, or my imaginations. For me, being a composer is an opportunity to capture my emotions, to write them down, and then to share them with my audiences. It is a bridge that connects me with the world and it is the most wonderful form of communication that I can think of,” tells He.

Through He’s unwavering desire to compose, she has built a career unlike most. The award-winning composer has acquired experience from a variety of different projects and she is well versed in studying a script and determining how best to bring it to life with her music. Whether she’s scoring or orchestrating, she has an unprecedented affinity for creating unique sound arrangements and she is an invaluable member of any team she works with. She has a vast amount of experience, composing for films like Princess Eun Hwa, Sanjiang Dream, and Jin Zhi Xi Yan (No Smoking).

 One of the many things that sets He above her competition is her diverse understanding of the art of music and her willingness to experiment composing for different genres and mediums wherever possible. For instance, in 2014, He was approached by game designer Zi Li about composing for the video game, Dissonance, and due to her love for video games and her passion to expand her knowledge in the arts and entertainment industry, He eagerly accepted. The success she earned from Dissonance, however, was the reason she was later approached by designer Jack Cai about lending her talents to his game Pursuit of Light 2 in 2015. Cai had heard of He’s reputation, sampled her work in Dissonance, and knew that he needed He to take his game to the next level.

When He composes for a video game, she begins by speaking with the game designer about the type of feel that he or she hopes to communicate in the game. She then requests a cue sheet with the designer’s vision for each piece. This is where He’s magic begins. She carefully and considerately reads through the designer’s ideas and determines how best to translate these ideas into scored scenes. Once she has developed her composition, she vigorously edits through it to ensure that presents the designer with nothing but the highest quality composition. She then allows the designer to review and make any changes necessary.

Due to the fact that He has such a vast understanding of her profession and an unparalleled creative edge, she is often trusted with taking full creative authority over the process. In rare cases, where designers are skeptical about stepping outside of their comfort zones, He uses her professionalism and work ethic to communicate their options and to make sure that they are getting the best result for their project. For instance, when He worked with Li on Dissonance, she was asked to write dark and depressing music to keep with the mood of the game’s storyline. He, knowing Li’s vision for the game, was certain that there was some leeway to dive deeper into the player’s emotions and create a more dynamic score. When she suggested adding elements of hope and brightness to the composition, Li was hesitant. He proactively decided to craft two separate pieces, one keeping with Li’s vision and one demonstrating He’s ideas. Upon reviewing the two compositions, Li realized that He was right and loved the result.

“Working with Min was a wonderful journey. She has phenomenal ideas when it comes to making music and more importantly, her sound is unique and she is innovative beyond measure. On top of that, she is so gifted and hard working. Her love for video games also helps to make her music fit with the game. She just knows what will work best for the project at hand and I am glad I was able to work with her,” states Li.

He becomes instrumental to any project she works on and is often showered with praise and recognition for her efforts. She has received a number of awards for her work. Dissonance, for instance, won the Indie Prize for Best Innovative Game 2015 and The Experimental Game Showcase at the Out of Index Festival. Pursuit of Light 2, on the other hand, won the CGWR SINA Award for Best Indie Mobile Game of the Year. For He, receiving recognition for her work is fulfilling, but the true joy of her job comes when she hears what her audience or the players of her video games have to say about her work.

“One of the greatest joys about my career lies in the way that people receive my music. They truly love it and they actively look to hear more. After Pursuit of Light 2 was released, I saw reviews from players left on the Apple Store and they were all talking about my music, saying how beautiful and enjoyable it was. In that moment, when I was reading those reviews from absolute strangers, I felt truly loved and it was the highlight of my career,” He recalls.

In future, He hopes to continue creating beautiful compositions to share with the world. Professionally, she aims to work with more talented and prestigious movie and television directors, as well as game designers. Personally, she is bursting at the seams with inspiration to compose even greater works than she has already created. For He, composing is more than a job. It is her creative outlet and she is always ready to try something new.

Peter Lam’s musical genius wins Best Score Award for film ‘Lovebites’

When Peter Lam was a child, he, like most other children, loved movies. He would sneak into his parents’ movie collection, eager at any opportunity to experience a new film. However, unlike most children, who would be enthralled by what they saw on the screen, Lam was captivated by what he heard through the speakers.

Now, Lam is an internationally sought-after film composer. He has worked on countless successful projects, including the award-winning films The Ballerina, The Shoemaker, & His Apprentice, and (le) Rebound. He recently worked on the score for the TV movie Menendez: Blood Brothers, which premiered on Lifetime earlier this month, with over a million people tuning in to hear what he is capable of. However, what is perhaps the most celebrated film of his career is Lovebites, a 2015 animated film that catapulted Lam to the top of his field, being recognized as one of the best film composers to come out of Hong Kong in recent memory.

“I am always excited to work on animations. It’s a very imaginative genre and music often plays a big part in shaping the ‘sound world’ of the animated world. A composer often doesn’t come on board on a live-action film until the film has been shot. But in animation, I often start composing while the animation is still being developed or rendered alongside. The whole creative process feels very organic, hence it’s always fun to work on animations,” Lam described.

Lovebites is about the praying mantis Cecil, and tells the story of his first date. Lam’s music is vital for Lovebites, as the story is essentially told through music. It is an animated film with no dialogue and minimal sound effects, and the score runs continuously through the film from start to finish. Lam’s ability to capture the emotions of the two mantises is what makes the film so engaging.

“We bounced back and forth about musical ideas and the storyline, and when I started working on the project, I was presented with the initial character sketches and concept art. I scored the entire film based on the animatics (pre-rendered animation). In a way, the material I was working with then was not as detailed or delicate as the final product, but on the other hand, it offered me a bit more freedom for imagination, and encouraged me to be creative,” he described.

Stuck Truck Studios, the production company of Lovebites, had total trust in Lam’s creative decisions. Knowing they needed the best for a film that relies so heavily on the score, the team quickly invited Lam to be a part of the project after hearing samples of his work. Lam decided to create a score that only featured percussion and plucked instruments to create the quirky world of insects.

“Stuck Truck Studio encouraged me to think outside the box in order to create a colorful and quirky palette for this cute animation. It’s always fun to break away from conventions and experiment with new sounds,” said Lam. “I think the approach I used for the music gave the film a unique character, and I had a lot of fun experimenting with wild percussion sounds that, if not for this film, I would never have thought of using.”

This musical approach proved fruitful. After its premiere at the Original Narrative Festival in Dubai in February 2015, the film went on to see enormous success at film festivals around the world. That same year, it was an Official Selection at BFI Future Film Festival, Chile Monos International Animation Festival 2015, Athens Animfest, Tiltshift Festvial, 9th River Film Festival, Original Narrative Dubai, Reel Teal Film Festival, MICE Valencia, and the Vancouver International Film Festival. It went on to win the Audience Choice Award at the Melbourne International Animation Festival, and the Character Animation Award at the ANIMEX International Festival of Animation and Computer Games. Lam was personally recognized at the Short Sharp Film Festival Australia that year, winning the award for Best Score.

“Given that this was one of my first experiences in working with animations, I was very delighted to know that the film did so well in so many film festivals. Lovebites has been screened around the world and has set foot on almost every continent. I guess winning the Audience Choice Award at the Melbourne International Animation Festival and Best Score in Short Sharp Film Festival in Australia shows how effective my music can be,” said Lam.

After its success at so many film festivals, the film was later featured in the acclaimed animation website and channel CG Bros. It has amassed more than 4.2 million views (on YouTube since that time), making it a viral animation. None of this success would have been possible without Lam’s creative ear for the score, knowing its importance in telling the story. Agaki Bautista, the Art Director for Lovebites, believes Lam is one of the best film composers he has ever worked with.

Peter was always punctual in responding and we always felt comfortable having a dialogue with him. Communication was clear across all fronts. Peter is super receptive towards creative collaboration. We started off by sharing references and bouncing off ideas with each other and he was open throughout the process. It is rare to have the level of creative cooperation that we had with Peter,” said Bautista.

Lam’s talent is evident in everything he does. His work on Lovebites shows the world that his creative instincts are spot on, and he is exceptionally versatile. Be sure to check out his work in the upcoming animation film Slippages – Grace in IMAX later this year.

In the meantime, watch Lovebites here and let your eyes, and ears, capture the essence of the story with Lam’s work.

Composer Daniel Raijman Speaks to International Audiences Through Powerful Film Scores

Daniel Raijman
                                                  Film composer and guitarist Daniel Raijman shot by Fernando Stein

Guitarist and composer Daniel Raijman spent his youth growing up in Buenos Aires, the cultural hub of Argentina, has been playing music for most of his life. At age 8 he began playing piano, at 11 he picked up guitar, and at 17 he started attending the Buenos Aires School of Music where he would go on to receive a Bachelor of Music in Performance, Specializing in Guitar.

Heavily and eclectically influenced by Argentine tango, Pat Metheny and John Williams, Raijman has a hugely varied background of experience and style that he applies to his work as both a guitarist and film composer.

After touring Argentina and Uruguay for four years up until 2009, Raijman began working with Rosario Barreto, producing Barreto’s debut album Imagem Imortal. It was the first of many such projects he would work on in the following years.

Raijman, who studied film and television orchestration at the prestigious Berklee College of Music and graduated from the UCLA Extension Film Scoring Program, got his first job in Los Angeles working on An Opening to Closure. Raijman composed the soundtrack for the film, on which he also played guitar. A romantic drama, the film follows two ex-lovers who find themselves revisiting their painful past after a dinner party with mutual friends.

“There is a love scene in which there is passion but at the same time, sadness and regret. I decided to match the groove of their breathing to an electric guitar rock solo, along with programmed synths,” he said. “I increased the distortion and the effects of the guitar, and the music grows in intensity until there is clearly a feeling of sadness and loneliness. Then, by keeping the groove and letting the guitar fade out, the motif is introduced with a piano solo.”

One of his most moving projects to date, 8 Seconds: Humane Decision Making in the IDF, required Raijman to compose three different styles of backing music to match the changing mood and subject of the film. An eye-opening documentary, the film tells the story, from multiple perspectives, of the ethical training of Israeli Defense Force soldiers fighting Hamas and other threats to national survival, and the life-or-death decisions they must make on a regular basis.

“Composing three completely different cues to match the different part of the film was challenging… One of the cues had to represent the military part of the story, so it had to be very intense and fast,” said Raijman, explaining in depth the intense planning and research involved in setting the mood for the film.

“The next cue had to correlate with Israel and the authentic sounds that come from the music of the country… [so] I used a lot of Middle Eastern percussion and woodwinds like Duduk, and composed the melody around the Phrygian major 3rd mode, which is always related to Jewish music. For the last cue, I had to compose music that matched the soldiers’ feelings. I accomplished this using a lot of strings accompanied by Middle Eastern percussion played at a slow rhythm. I truly loved working on this documentary.”

In addition to scoring, Raijman also played guitar for the film, which was an official selection at the 2015 USC School of Social Work Film Festival.

The musical genius also arranged the composition for director Zack Wu’s Violet, about a young man in a new town, love at first sight, and the idea that things can often be far from what they appear, especially to someone blinded by love.

“Composing wall-to-wall music for this film with only a few days to deliver was a bit of a challenge but a great experience for me,” Raijman said. “When you see the film, you can tell from the beginning that the music is telling the story and that something isn’t right between the couple.”

When a composer does his or her job well, the audience should be able to feel the movie through the score, so much so that even with their eyes closed, they can still hear the plot, the relationships between the characters, and the anxiety in the action. Raijman has shown himself to be a natural and a consummate professional with a talent for organically conveying the filmmakers’ emotional intent through his music. He is currently working on several upcoming projects, including a solo album featuring some of his stirring instrumental music.

Juno Nominated Film Composer Headed for Greener Pastures

Film Composer Rob Teehan
                                             Film Composer Rob Teehan

Rob Teehan has decided to head south to thaw out from the Canadian winter in the warm California sun.   When we got wind that one of Canada’s top film composers was coming Stateside, we decided to catch up with him to talk about his eminent migration.

Rob Teehan started his career as a performer, playing the guitar, flute, and tuba, before moving into classical choral and orchestral composition, which led him to his forever-home of film composition. He has gone on to score more than a dozen films, including the award winning films Tulip, Texas and Us, and The Sugar Bowl. In addition to film scoring, Teehan is perhaps best known for his work with the acclaimed Lemon Bucket Orkestra, with whom he has toured Canada and Europe, as well as being a member of the European Saida Baba Talibah jazz band, and, currently, the Heavyweights Brass Band, whose music is regularly played on jazz radio stations across Canada.

Virtually every major music award from coast to coast in Canada has recognized Teehan’s extraordinary work. Since 2010, he has been nominated for an impressive list of awards, which includes three Juno Awards, the first of which marked him as the youngest person to be nominated for a Juno in the Classical Composition category. He has also been nominated for a staggering seven Canadian Folk Music Awards, four of which were for his work with the Lemon Bucket Orkestra, one for his work with The Boxcar Boys, and two for his work as the engineer and producer of the Ventanas’ self-titled album. He also earned a nomination for Best World Group of the Year at the Sirius Radio Indie Awards in 2014 for his work with the Lemon Bucket Orkestra. Other accolades include a Toronto Independent Music Award nomination, a 2nd place finish at the SoCan Foundation Awards, as well as numerous top finishes at choral competitions across Canada as well as internationally.

When asked about some of his most memorable film projects, he singles out a few of the films that stand out to him. The first film he mentions is Hogtown, which was directed by Canadian actor turned director Nick Latimer, and features among its cast WWF wrestling legend Jake “the Snake” Roberts. Teehan describes the film as “avant garde” and the experience as one he “can never forget.” Hogtown is the name of the city where the film is set, a futuristic version of Toronto, which has slid into poverty and debauchery. The protagonist, Boris (aka Baxi) is Hogtown’s only pig-mask wearing insomniac “baxi” driver, which means that in lieu of shuttling people around in a taxi, he spends his evenings transporting his fares from Point A to Point B on his back. When the dirt, grime, and depravity of his surroundings become too much for him to take, Baxi takes it upon himself to clean up the streets in a gory wave of vigilante justice. The film screened at the Shaved II Film Festival, as well as enjoyed several underground screenings, which sparked the major cult following the film has today.

Despite the independent vibe of the film, it drew the attention of Mississauga Life mag, as well as the famous Toronto culture site Blog TO and Zee Big Bang, who covered the film’s making and release. Rob Teehan’s work with the Heavyweight Brass Band on the film’s score was a big selling point for the film.

The next film he cites as a favorite is Tulip, Texas, and Us, a charming love story uniquely set to Balkan brass music, scored by Teehan. One of the things that stand out about this film is its international reach and appeal. Tulip, Texas and Us was the winner of the Grand Prix at the Zubroffka International Film Festival in Poland, and was also selected for the Kustendorf International Film and Music Festival (Serbia) and the Timishort Film Festival (Romania). Teehan was interviewed on CBC Radio 3 about his work on the film, which he describes as “quirky”.

The other film that immediately stood out to Teehan was the film simply titled Joe, a documentary chronicling the true story of musician Joe Garisto, a musical genius whose career is threatened by a debilitating anxiety disorder and an addiction to the medication used to treat it. The intense film, directed by Patrick Collins and Scott Williamson, was released on DVD as well as on iTunes.

Taking on such varied musical themes as mental illness, young Eastern European love, or futuristic dystopia is no small feat, and shows the breadth of Rob Teehan’s great talents.

Teehan insists that the themes and music in his next films are so varied that they will continue to defy categorization in any particular musical genre. They include the Italian animated short film Life is a Coin, about the exciting travels of a 2-Euro coin named Dante who travels across Europe, followed closely by the release of the documentary feature The Babushkas of Chernobyl, a film about the old women of Chernobyl who chose to sneak back into the contaminated zone after the nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl, Ukraine in the 1980’s to live out their last days in their hometown, rather than suffer through a relocation to a new uncontaminated city, as well as the Venezuelan documentary film Flor de la Mar about a well-hidden archeological treasure found on the Venezuelan island of Cubagua, and the feature documentary The Unsinkable Captain John about a historic Toronto ship facing and fighting eviction after generations in the Toronto harbor.

After many successful years in his native Canada, Rob Teehan is heading to Hollywood, not only for the warm sun but to bring his music to more Hollywood films. We wish him good luck, fame, and fortune, and can’t wait to see this top talent hit Tinseltown!

Untitled excerpt from Life as a Coin composed by Rob Teehan

“Caracas” composed by Rob Teehan for the upcoming documentary film Flor de la Mar