It’s not easy for budding film composers to get a foot in the door, something not lost on the Sundance Institute. Twice annually, the Institute’s Film Music Program gives composers the opportunity to gain hands-on experience scoring either feature or documentary films at the Composers Labs held at the sprawling and picturesque Skywalker Ranch in Marin County. The most recent lab focused on music for documentaries.
Even though film is made up of images and sounds, images can tend to take priority. But sound is just as important, says Tabitha Jackson, director of the documentary film program at the Sundance Institute:
It carries so much emotion and so much of the story in films that if you don’t get the sound and imagery right in speaking the language of cinema, you’re not going to be heard properly.
Out of the 450 composers who applied for the labs this past year, only 10 were selected. Linda Oh, a New York City-based bassist, was one of them. Oh was paired with filmmakers Bill and Turner Ross and given a chance to practice writing music cues for their latest documentary, “Western” — a non-fiction film that follows the lives of residents of the border town of Eagle Pass, Texas. It screened last month at the Sundance Film Festival.
Over the course of the eight-day lab, Oh wrote cues for the film while attending workshops and completing assignments related to film scoring. She gained valuable insight from Skywalker Sound staff, including sound designer Pete Horner. Toward the end of the program, Oh and the other composers in the lab had the opportunity to see their work come to life in a scoring session.
The Sundance Institute’s Tabitha Jackson says these labs allow the participants to think differently about what sound and music can do to a film — and the experience can be demanding:
There’s some robust critique that goes on both of the composer’s work and the filmmaker’s work. But it’s done in this safe space so it feels like a very constructive place to be.
Though this is an educational opportunity for the composers, in some instances they do go on to work with the filmmakers they are paired with in the lab. That didn’t happen in the case of Oh and the Ross Brothers, but the siblings said their experience of working with Oh did change how they view film scoring.
Meanwhile, Oh is back in New York City, applying what she learned at the lab to the job of scoring a short film by Sabrina McCormick called "A Good Egg."