How Can Composers and Sound Designers Better Collaborate in Film? Sundance Institute and Skywalker Sound Have an Answer

How Can Composers and Sound Designers Better Collaborate in Film? Sundance Institute and Skywalker Sound Have an Answer

Through a new
partnership, Sundance Institute and Skywalker Sound want to change the noisy conversation
about music and sound design in film.

Each year through their longstanding Composers Labs, Sundance invites young, gifted musicians who want to work in film composition to an intensive program facilitated by industry-established advisors (read the list of this year’s composers and filmmakers here). So what’s different this year? Enter Skywalker Sound.

Back in
June, Sundance Institute relocated their longstanding, now newly redefined
Composers Labs to Skywalker Ranch, George Lucas’ secluded site of filmmaking
genius in Marin County, CA.  Though the
documentary arm of the Composers Lab wrapped up in June, Sundance hosts its
lab for narrative features through July 25, under the stewardship of Sundance
film music program director Peter Golub. Sundance has held annual Composers
Labs for fiction films since 1999 and for documentaries since 2005. But this is
the first time the Institute has engaged with sound design at all, and it is
their first collaboration with Skywalker Sound.

Sound has been enormously generous with the independent film community,”
said Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam in a phone interview, where she spoke to me from the open splendor of the Northern California
ranch. “It became apparent that the work we’ve been doing for many years
with film composers through our program at Sundance would benefit from adding
the dimension of sound design.”

mentors hosting master classes this year in fiction film are composers Thomas
Newman (Oscar winner for “American Beauty”) and Mark Isham (nominated
for “A River Runs Through It”). Mentors
bring their past work to the table as visual case studies. Lab participants are
asked to craft new music for scenes from the films of these mentors. After seminars
and rounds of critiques, they’re paired with Sundance resident filmmakers who
give composers the chance to create music for their unfinished projects.

Typically, sound was not part of the dialogue at the Sundance labs. But the lab’s new home at the ranch gives composers and directors access to Skywalker resources, technology and onsite designers, allowing participants to supplement their lab-based education in music with a crash-course background in sound design through this new, hands-on designer model. Throwing sound designers into the mix augments an already rigorous program aimed at bolstering the creative collaboration through composers and filmmakers. Composers, sound designers and directors then work together to create both a score and a soundscape. 

It was
surprising to learn from Randy Thom, director of sound design at Skywalker
Sound, that sound design and music – two elements of filmmaking that should be
inextricably linked — aren’t hitting their notes in unison. In the lab,
Sundance and Skywalker seek to temper this discord between sound designers and

Thom urges
for an early collaboration between sound and music composition. “This idea
of getting sound involved beginning with the script hasn’t been taught in film
schools. Our hope is that we’re starting a movement that will take sound more
seriously and integrate both of them more fully into the filmmaking process
rather than their being the caboose at the end of the train,” he said.

According to
Thom, young directors are intensely interested in sound from the get-go. “The
older, more established directors we work with – especially on big-budget films
– have a more conventional notion about sound’s role in a movie as a decoration
you add to the film at the end of the process,” he said. “The idea
that sound should factor in early, even in pre-production and at the script
level, is bold new territory. But young, wet-behind-the-ears filmmakers love
the idea of thinking about sound before you shoot the scene.”

Thom cited
Benh Zeitlin as one such filmmaker, whose 2012 “Beasts of the Southern
Wild,” a Sundance darling from the ground up, incorporated innovative
sound design in even its most nascent stages. Zeitlin composed the music
himself alongside Dan Romer, and together they deftly blended a lively score
with the sonic textures of a southern Louisianan bayou.

But this
kind of collaboration, according to Thom, is an anomaly. “The
communication between composers and sound designers doesn’t seem to
happen,” he said. “You end up with the final mix of the music
clashing with the sound, and that can be averted if the two camps are talking

One of the
goals of the Sundance/Skywalker partnership is to give composers, sound
designers and directors the organizational tools to avoid the problems that
occur when communication between the three disciplines doesn’t happen.
“There’s potential for sonic conflict. Music and sound effects can mask
each other simultaneously so the audience doesn’t hear either one clearly. In a
way, it’s like one big orchestra playing,” Thom added.

In a summer
of voluminous – in every sense of the word – tentpoles that rattle multiplex
theaters with noise, Thom’s remarks ring clear as a bell. Along the way, the
relationships between composers and sound mixers, and therefore the one between
the film and its audience, get lost in the din.

“Now is
the right time for sound design,” added Keri Putnam. “It’s such a
critical filmmaking component, which we didn’t have the resources to support
[previously]. Getting to know the Skywalker people and how they are so attuned
to the creative vision of artists, this seemed like a very natural, organic way
of building on the support we offer artists, like another color to the

Institute and Skywalker Sound will reprise their Composers
Labs collaboration in summer 2014. Though there is still a gap to bridge between composers and sound
designers in film, Sundance and Skywalker have found a pleasant harmony in the

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