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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.
Benh Zeitlin at Sundance
Benh Zeitlin at Sundance

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 together."

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 palette." 

Sundance 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 meantime.

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

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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.