Can I begin by asking you about one of your latest assignments,
EQUUS-STORY OF THE HORSE, how different is it scoring a documentary as opposed to a feature film are there things that one must consider on a documentary that differ greatly from scoring a motion picture?
I’m not too sure if I approach a documentary any differently than I do a feature film. My approach to any sort of film scoring is to understand the emotion and the drama behind the picture, understanding the characters, understanding the story arc and then adapting your writing to that. There are certain things that you do only in documentary, like sometimes putting music underneath an interview, in which you must push the pacing of the interview along, but still maintain the integrity of the interview — sometimes that means being not too musically interesting but providing enough motion in the music to help with pacing.
How much time were given to score EQUUS?
We had started work and initial spotting early along with creating some thematic material a few months before the real work came. Once we dug our heels in and had picture lock, we really had seven weeks to write the music for recording, and then another week or two to do all our post production mixing and editing.
What size orchestra did you use on the projects and how much music did
you write for it?
Equus is scored for a 45-piece orchestra, and a 24-person choir. We also had some fun additions like organ, taiko drums, cimbalom, and even a hurdy-gurdy in one cue! There was about 96 minutes of music of actual underscore, but when you add together all the trailers, bumpers and stings, and everything, we recorded over 100 minutes of music.
The score is available digitally on Spotify etc, will there be a
compact disc released, and do you have an active role when it comes to compiling a recording of one of your soundtracks?
Yes! Once the show premieres in the US, we will release a physical album in January or February. One of the hardest things I had to do was to choose how many tracks to bring it down to a 50-minute album. But the fun thing about having so much music, is that we are going to release a “bonus” digital album of some of the cues that didn’t make it. There’s some great stuff in there that didn’t fit into the “soundtrack arc” that I had crafted, but I’m super pleased that the music that didn’t make the first cut will make it out.
What musical education did you have, and did you focus on any one
instrument whilst studying?
Like all good Chinese boys, I started playing piano when I was three! I also am a decent saxophone player (although I haven’t picked up my horn in ages!). I have a bachelor’s degree in music composition from McGill University in Montreal, but a lot of my education in film music has been through experience or working with other composers.
Do you always conduct your film and tv scores, or have there been
times when you have handed over the baton to someone else so that you can monitor the recording from the control box?
Really the only time I hand over the baton to someone else to conduct is when I’m doing a source connect and can’t physically be there. I really treasure and enjoy conducting, and I feel like since I know the score best, I have the ability to get the score recorded faster from the podium than I can in the booth. But it also means having people you trust in the booth to hear things that you might miss otherwise.
Were you always intent on pursuing music as a career, or did you
begin in another career, also were any of your family musical?
I think it was pretty clear from high school that music was going to be my chosen career path, although I thought about being a pilot (I actually have my pilot’s license) and very much enjoy the public policy advocacy work that I do. I’m super grateful for the fact that I get to write music every day of my life and someone pays me to do it! My brother works with music from a more holistic approach and uses music as a conduit for communication and healing, but it’s very different than what I do.
You have worked on several movies, and scored shorts, is it more difficult to work on something that is of a shorter duration, does
it being brief make it difficult to develop any themes or stamp a style of any kind upon the film?
Because short films tend to be conduits into feature length or television projects, the creative teams tend to be less experienced, and have less resources to work with. So, there are those challenges. I think in short films, you have a longer “days to minute” ratio, because it still takes you the same amount of time to develop thematic material. Once you get on a roll, it’s much easier to churn out music when you have your themes written and developed. I don’t think it’s more difficult, the nature of the short film medium doesn’t allow you to be as productive as say a feature or a mini-series.
Going back to EQUUS STORY OF THE HORSE, did the director of the
documentary have set ideas as to what style music was required for the project, and did they have a hands-on involvement?
Niobe was very hands-on, with very detailed spotting notes and every cue was approved in MIDI mock-up format before we went to record. One of the biggest challenges for us on Equus was making sure we didn’t try to repeat the score to The Great Human Odyssey, which had similar parameters and resources. Another thing that Niobe insisted on was avoiding the “western” idiom — despite in several scenes seeing epic green landscapes with horses and cowboys, he wanted to really avoid those stereotypes. Other than that, I think the cinematography and the stories on screen are so epic and grand, that it really requires an epic and grand score to match.
When you begin to work on a film, do you like to watch it over and
over before getting any ideas about music, or is it better to watch the film just once and maybe return to certain sequences later?
I tend to watch the film once all the way through, and then I’ll focus in on certain segments when I’m working on a cue. There’s usually not enough time to continually watch the film repeatedly. What is important though, is to watch the film all the way through with my music, to ensure timing and pacing is correct. And if I do get stuck on a cue (it’s not being approved after 4 or 5 versions) I’ll come back to it at the end after I’ve given myself a little bit of creative space.
You worked on the miniseries documentary, THE GREAT HUMAN
ODDYSSEY, when you are doing a series such as this do you score each part separately or do you watch the entire thing and score it in the same way as a feature film?
Like Human, Equus was also a three-part miniseries. I generally score chronologically, from start to finish. The same thematic material comes back in all three episodes, so I’m certainly not re-inventing the wheel each time.
Orchestration and temp tracks, do you orchestrate all your music and
what is your opinion of the use of the temp track by directors and
I wish I could orchestrate all my music but there’s no time! My assistant and orchestrator, Vincent Pratte, is an incredible composer and musician in his own right, but it took a fair bit for him to completely gain my trust as an orchestrator. Because I’m so particular about my orchestration, my MIDI mock-ups tend to be very specific and there’s not a lot of room for creativity in the orchestration stage, it’s clear what I would like.
Temp tracks are great and horrible. I think Niobe would agree that he can suffer from temp love, and it can be frustrating to try and exert new ideas on a director who has fallen in love with his/her temp track (I will say though, that Niobe is amiable to discussion and debate!) That being said, I think nothing communicates a director’s intent better than a temp track. So, it’s a double-edged sword.
Can you tell us what you are working on next?
I am doing some work on a video game (can’t talk about that) and have another doc and some feature films coming up soon. Also doing some pop tune orchestral arrangements, which I find very fun to do!