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

Photo of Ryan Lattanzio By Ryan Lattanzio | TOH! July 22, 2013 at 3:43PM

Through their longstanding Composers Labs, Sundance invites gifted musicians who want to work in film composition to an intensive program facilitated by industry-established advisors. So what's different this year? Enter Skywalker Sound.
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Skywalker Sound
Skywalker Sound

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.

"Skywalker 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."

Among 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 composers.

This article is related to: Sundance Institute , Skywalker Sound, Skywalker Ranch, Composers Lab


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.