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A Collaboration That Scores

Published: August 8, 2016

In general, artists have great appreciation for others artists.

That’s certainly apparent when students from CSULB’s illustration/animation program in the School of Art and musicians from the campus’ Bob Cole Conservatory of Music work together.

What sparked years ago as a chance encounter of two individuals during a new employees’ orientation meeting has now become a regular collaboration between two of the campus’ most creative entities.

“It was kismet,” joked CSULB animation professor Aubry Mintz of his initial connection with orchestra director Johannes Mueller-Stosch during that orientation. Call it what you wish, it’s turned into an extremely beneficial relationship—for the students.

In the past, student animators who worked for more than a year to turn out a two-to-three minute film, out of necessity had to use “canned” music as scores to back their works. It sufficed, but wasn’t ideal. However, that’s not the case anymore. Now, thanks to the collaboration, student animation filmmakers are rewarded with a custom score played by the CSULB orchestra.

According to Perry La Marca, who teaches the film scoring courses and mentors composers through the process, being great at creating a film or a piece of music is only half of what it takes to be successful in one’s particular field; the other half involves being a great collaborator.

“These kind of real-world experiences are the best way to gain those skills,” said La Marca. “It’s especially important to learn how to collaborate with others when you don’t speak the same artistic language. One has to be very sensitive. Listen. Translate. Opportunities like these provide a safe way to develop requisite skills before one’s job or professional reputation is on the line.”

According to La Marca, such collaborations involve the process of reaching consensus and learning to trust each other, which can be very challenging.

“For the director, it has to do with letting go of a certain part of the project and leaving it in a stranger’s hands. That’s very difficult—even for the pros,” he said. “For the composer, it’s a matter of developing sort of a professional maturity and understanding that, ultimately, this is a collaborative process with music being only one element.”

Rianna Liu, a student animator at CSULB who has benefitted from the collaboration, is clearly happy and excited with the results.

“While you can always imagine pre-existing music that would tonally match your film, it’s absolutely surreal to hear music made specifically for your work,” said Liu, whose film is called “Dies Irae,” which means “Day of Wrath” in Latin. “It breathes life into your art and really pulls everything together atmospherically. It gives you a completely unique voice to accompany your personal vision. I was fortunate enough to be partnered with a composer who was just as passionate about my story as I was so that helped a lot.”

From a student composer’s point of view, Kevin Capacia felt the process was definitely beneficial and that it created a mock experience of what professional scoring sessions are like in Hollywood. For young composers, such sessions are rare. Opportunities to write for an orchestra are extremely difficult to come by, not to mention the expense to hire such a large ensemble.

“Young composers seldom get the opportunity to write and have their music performed by orchestra like this,” he said. “As for the film itself, the orchestra’s recording really gives life to the animation and I think really helps propel the story forward.

A Collaboration That Scores
Perry La Marca (l) and Johannes Mueller-Stosch work closely together during the session.

“This opportunity is a great piece to add to my portfolio and website, which in turn can help showcase samples for future producers/directors/animators,” added Capacia. “The collaboration is also a great network opportunity in itself. I was fortunate to work with two animators on this past semester’s collaboration which may pay dividends when one of us has a potential project in the future.”

La Marca says experiences like this are maybe more important than work done in a classroom.

“In most creative fields, people are hired on the basis of their experience and portfolio and not necessarily on what classes they took, what their degree is in or where it’s from,” he said. “Any work like this demonstrates experience and credibility.”

Before the collaborative teams even meet, Mintz works with animation students to get them thinking about rhythm as they go about creating their story boards. That way, he says, the composer can get a feel for the rhythm of the film right away, even before it’s done.

“It gives them kind of jump start,” said Mintz. “The nice part is because it isn’t a finished film, it becomes a true collaboration. The composer gets involved early enough in the process that the score they create can actually have an effect on the film. There might be a certain instrument that sparks a decision a character in the film makes or how they move.”

For Mintz, watching it all come together during the actual recording session is quite something to witness.

When 60 or so CSULB musicians gather for a session to score the animated films, they have done preparatory work, which allows orchestra members to come right in and get down to business. They spend approximately 15 minutes playing the score for each film, so with eight pieces produced last year, the most recent session lasted nearly three hours.

“It’s amazing to watch. It’s a completely professional, somewhat overwhelming environment,” said Mintz, noting that many of the student musicians come to the morning session wearing flip flops and sporting disheveled hair. “You’re thinking, ‘They’re not going to figure this out in the hour and a half we have.’ Then Johannes taps his baton, they all lift up their instruments and they sight read the music. They get it in one or two takes. It’s beautiful to watch. These students are trained so well, but it still amazes me. It’s a great reflection on their department and the culmination of some great collaborations.”