At Sundance, PBS Virtual Reality Short Film Features Music by Graduating Student Davey Thomas Tucker

Belinda Huang
April 24, 2017
Headshot of Davey Thomas Tucker.
Poster of My Brother's Keeper.
Graduating film scoring student Davey Thomas Tucker composes the music for PBS Digital Studios's virtual reality short film <i>My Brother's Keeper</i>, which made its debut at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
<i>My Brother's Keeper</i> debuted at a "VR on the Mountain" event on January 21 at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
Image by JR Johnson

At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, PBS Digital Studios’s virtual reality (VR) short film My Brother’s Keeper debuted, featuring music composed by film scoring student Davey Thomas Tucker. Tucker, who is graduating this May, was invited to write the music for the film after being recommended to the directors by a friend from Berklee he used to collaborate with, Jesse Garcia B.M. ’15, who now works as a sound designer at Technicolor in Los Angeles.

The short film, written and directed by Connor Hair and Alex Meader and produced by Brian Seth Hurst and Don R. Wilcox, tells the story of two brothers who are fighting on opposite sides of the Civil War, so Tucker chose to compose minimalistic soundscapes of ambiguity.

“The film has a lot of flashbacks of the two brothers, so we used the piano to reflect 'home.' Cutting to the battlefield, it’s more eerie, so there are a lot more electroacoustic textures combined with synths and sul tasto strings to create this icy, dreamlike effect,” Tucker says. “So nothing really plays to picture like battle music. It’s all just this wash of emotion trying to capture the heart of two brothers fighting on opposite sides of the Civil War.”

Watch the 360° experience of My Brother's Keeper:

A Timely, Immersive Virtual Reality Experience

For Tucker, the process behind the project began in mid-November last year. It involved a working relationship with the directors through Google Hangouts and phone calls, and many of the decisions about the music were made together through a spotting session. According to Tucker, the process of composing the music became very personal for him due to the timing of his first deadline.

“The day after the election was the day I had a deadline to send them themes or motifs that captured the adolescence of these two brothers. I tried to channel feelings [from the election] to write the themes for the two boys because they’re fighting against each other in the Civil War, and I feel like that’s kind of where we are now,” Tucker explains. “So all of that mess was enough for me to send them things that worked.”

While the film is an immersive VR experience, the approach to mixing the music was straightforward. The approach to mixing the sound effects, however, was VR-specific, in that sounds needed to be placed and spaced to create a realistic atmosphere for the viewer. All of the music was created with plugins and sequencing, with none of the instruments or sounds recorded live. To work efficiently, Tucker set up a template for the project in Digital Performer with a library of sounds that matched the mood he was aiming to create. Tucker attributes his success to his learning from Berklee's film scoring faculty.

“I would not have been able to make the deadline if I wasn’t able to move through [Digital Performer] quickly. I have to thank Tim Huling and Richard Davis for that,” says Tucker. “When I came into Berklee, I was already trying to play around with the software, but I’m so excited to see where I am now in terms of orchestration and the way that I work as opposed to two to three years ago. I used to have this huge fear that I would never be able to get my music on paper, so that’s one thing I’m really thankful to Berklee for: I have something to say and now I know how to say it.”

Round Trip: L.A. to Berklee and Back

Tucker is originally from Oak Grove, Alabama, where he fell in love with film music from watching classic movies with his grandmother. In addition to composing music, Tucker is a seasoned multi-instrumentalist who has performed on prestigious stages such as Boston's Symphony Hall and who has toured with the Blue Devils Drum and Bugle Corps. Prior to coming to Berklee, Tucker, then in Los Angeles, read Richard Davis's Complete Guide to Film Scoring. Inspired, Tucker applied to Berklee to learn more about the craft and to take classes with Davis.

Upon graduation in May, Tucker will move back to Los Angeles to continue pursuing his goals as a film music composer. There, he plans to keep the momentum going with freelance projects similar to My Brother’s Keeper, and to assist a seasoned composer. Thanks to a connection with an agent at the Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency (which represents top film industry composers such as John Williams '80H, Alan Silvestri '70 '95H, Ramin Djawadi B.M. '98, and A. R. Rahman '14H, among many others), he feels like he “isn’t playing the lottery anymore” with landing a gig.

“I just really want to be there for the music, learn how to make changes on the spot, be a fly on the wall, and make really good coffee,” he says with a laugh.