Summer’s Top Films Fueled by Music and Sound from Berklee Alumni
When the closing credits roll after a film in your local movie theater this summer, there’s a good chance that one or more of those names on the screen are Berklee alumni. The college’s former students are sprinkled liberally throughout the film industry in Hollywood and play a wide variety of roles, as evidenced by the alumni below who have worked on some of this summer’s top films.
While a comprehensive list of alumni working in film would quickly turn into a novel-length treatise, we offer this abridged cross-section as merely a glimpse into the diverse array of recent Hollywood music and sound work that those informed by their education at Berklee continue to undertake year after year.
Composing in Hollywood
For many Berklee film scoring students, the ultimate goal is to become a film composer, and several alumni have made it happen on projects of all sizes. Among those working on big-budget films is Angelo Milli ‘99, who most recently composed the music for Hands of Stone, the true, rags-to-riches story of Panamanian boxer Roberto Duran. To prepare, the Venezuelan-born Milli says he listened to a lot of Panamanian and percussion-rich music, and watched many boxing movies. Then, he wrote an hour of orchestral music that was recorded by a 50-piece orchestra.
Director Jonathan Jakubowicz requested that Milli give each of the film’s five boxing matches its own unique musical character, corresponding to the fight’s emotional and historical context. “Every movie is different, and I like to change as much as I can from film to film. This keeps the composition process fresh and inspiring for me,” Milli says. Some aspects of his approach remain consistent between projects, however. “I constantly try to keep my scores focused on the story and the characters,” Milli says. “I think about the emotional context of a scene as much as what’s actually happening on screen. I tend to let the subtext inform most of my musical choices.”
Sometimes film composers write all of a film’s music, but especially on larger budget movies, it’s common for more than one composer to contribute. Often this composer will receive the “composer, additional music” moniker, as was recently the case with Batu Sener’s ‘12 work on Jason Bourne. The film’s primary composers were John Powell and David Buckley, and given the history of the Bourne series, Sener had strong themes to work with. From there, he revisited, rearranged, and re-orchestrated some cues from earlier Bourne films, while other cues had to be created from scratch. After past work as an orchestrator and score coordinator, Sener’s first big-budget composition role came last year with Pan, again working with Powell.
In composing, Sener, who hails from Turkey, says he always begins with piano (or a piano sample in Logic), and then takes time to look critically at his own work and how it pairs with the visuals before presenting it. For Sener, who cites his Berklee education in counterpoint and fugue writing as integral to his career, learning is a lifelong process. “During Pan, I learned to work faster than I thought I could,” Sener says, pointing to the tight-timeframe process as “a lovely combination of excitement and madness” that pushed his efficiency and organization skills to the next level. After that experience, he says, working on Jason Bourne was, unlike the tension-filled film itself, practically relaxing.
Another Berklee alumni composer who has been extremely active in the industry is Kevin Kliesch ‘92. Though best known these days for his Emmy Award-winning work composing the music for the hit Disney series Sofia the First, Kliesch has previously racked up a long line of credits as an orchestrator. Most recently, Kliesch orchestrated the song that opens the adults-only animated comedy Sausage Party, “The Great Beyond,” which was written by Grammy- and Academy Award-winning composer Alan Menken (other Berklee alumni, Marcus Sjowall ’02 and Gernot Wolfgang ’89, worked on score orchestrations for Sausage Party).
While Kliesch has previously orchestrated scores for Menken, this was his first time working on a song with him rather than on a score. “It was a nice change and definitely a challenge to work on it, since the song goes through so many different genres,” Kliesch says. “Getting to work with Alan is always an honor; getting to orchestrate one of the raunchiest songs he’s ever written was the icing on the cake.”
Film composers must work closely with the film’s director, and in the case of Brazilian composer Marcelo Zarvos’ ‘88 work on Our Kind of Traitor, that meant meeting with director Susanna White to discuss ideas such as incorporating Eastern European instruments such as balalaika and bandura into the score to the film based on John le Carre’s novel. Zarvos says he read the book after watching a cut of the film for the first time, and later recorded the film’s music at Abbey Road Studios.
The goal was to create a score that would serve the dramatic tension of the thriller without fully embracing the typical tropes of the genre, instead focusing on the inner world of the film’s characters. “The whole thing was a thrill from beginning to end,” Zarvos says. “The main challenge of the movie was how to approach music from a more abstract place and of course still deliver on the plot and ticking clock aspect of the story. I loved every minute of this one and consider it one of my happiest collaborative experiences,” says Zarvos.
Making a Score Work
In addition to composing, on many projects Berklee alumni are integral to making the film’s score work. A great score might not hit home if not mixed properly, and that’s where the work of a score mixer like Justin Moshkevich ‘07 comes in. Moshkevich has worked on several films with Zarvos and calls him “one of the most talented composers out there,” adding that “the industry is full of Berklee alumni” so “the list never ends” when it comes to fellow alumni that he has worked with. Moshkevich recently worked as score mixer for Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, with music coming to him from the Czech National Symphony Orchestra.
In addition to film work, Moshkevich, who is from Peru, is also an album recording and mixing engineer, most recently working on Rufus Wainwright’s latest release. In his score mixing work, Moshkevich stresses the critical importance of understanding how each cue in a film will play out in context. A dual major in film scoring and music production and engineering while at Berklee, Moshkevich points to the enduring value of the interdisciplinary work he engaged in with these departments, both in terms of technical knowledge and business acumen. Depending on the project, Moshkevich might receive feedback from composers, producers, and directors, so, he says, to avoid getting overwhelmed, “knowing how to work under pressure is a must.”
That sentiment is echoed by Leah Dennis ‘13, whose recent work includes score coordination for The Angry Birds Movie. Dennis is a cofounder of the Women’s Film Initiative at Berklee, which continues to be an active student club and is now expanding with an L.A. branch. A former dual film scoring/professional music major, Dennis says the latter enabled her to dive into music business and conducting classes, while the former honed not only her scoring chops but also her music editing abilities.
“My music editing experience really helped me to be a score coordinator on big projects,” says Dennis, who now works for composer Heitor Pereira, a position in which she has made herself indispensable in handling communications and logistics for Pereira projects. “I’m so fortunate to be a Berklee alumni, because it has really helped me in moving to L.A.,” says Dennis, who is originally from Canada. “It’s crazy how many alumni are out here and it’s really been an advantage to be able to connect with people who share the same background.”
One of those who shares that same background is Daniel A. Brown ‘13, whose recent music preparation work extends to many of this summer’s biggest films, including The Secret Life of Pets, The BFG, Central Intelligence, and Hands of Stone, among others. Brown works with music preparation company JoAnn Kane Music Services, which handles film, TV, Broadway, and live music projects. While many Berklee alumni point to Berklee’s indirect networking boost, Brown’s career path is tied to Berklee more directly: “I got my current job at JKMS through a referral by my local Berklee alumni office, which is a really great resource for alumni looking for gigs,” he says.
Ultimately, Brown’s aim is to compose film music. In the meantime, his music preparation work gives him insight into all of the details that must come together to create a successful film score recording session, and he credits the mock-up courses of Sheldon Mirowitz, a film scoring professor at Berklee, for preparing him for his current position. “Berklee replaced in three years what could have been more than a decade in the music and film industry learning the basic ropes,” Brown says.
The Artful Design of Dialogue and Sound
When people think of Berklee, they often think first and foremost of music, but many Berklee alumni bring their musicality to sound more broadly, especially in the film industry. A good case in point is Vince Caro ‘87, who has logged 25 years of experience working with film dialogue. Recently this work included original production dialogue recording for Disney’s Finding Dory, which involves studio setup and recording of voice talent.
Because animated features often take years to make, consistency is a challenge, so Caro notes that he is careful to always use the same mics (a Neumann U87 and Brauner VMA) and pop filters. A veteran of the industry, Caro has witnessed firsthand what he calls “the tectonic shift brought in by the digital audio workstation.” Along the way, Caro has picked up some helpful tricks of the trade (for example, he notes the importance of having Granny Smith apple slices on hand to eradicate “sticky-clicky mouth noises” voice talent may inadvertently bring into the studio).
Caro’s work has run the recording and engineering gamut on Pixar shorts such as Presto and Lava, and he advises those getting started to “show up for every gig, and always be on time—which means be early. It’s really basic, but I’ve seen so many talented people not find work or not be called a second time because they are not dependable.”
Like Caro, David Bach ‘93 has been working on sound for film for more than 20 years now. One of his latest projects is the offbeat superhero film Suicide Squad, on which he worked as dialogue and ADR supervisor. Bach makes a point of balancing his time between blockbusters and more modestly budgeted films (such as his past work on hit indie films such as Sideways and Nebraska).
Suicide Squad presented several unique challenges, Bach says, not the least of which was a late-breaking decision to have two characters speak in their own language—meaning dialogue originally filmed in English needed to be replaced with this new language that the sound crew dubbed “moonspeak.” The solution? “Reversing and slowing the picture down, transcribing phonetically, and substituting various syllables according to their mouth shape,” Bach says, adding that Berklee helped prepare him with the problem-solving skills to tackle a challenge like that. “I’ll never forget Dave Moulton’s first problem- solving class,” he says. “He handed us a black box with some connectors on it and asked us to draw a flow chart diagram of how it worked…I use that kind of logic—or try to—daily.”
Pairing technological versatility with the ability to make interesting and creative choices also drives the work of Russell Gorsky ‘11, who recently completed his work as sound effects editor on the quirky, comedic adventure film Swiss Army Man. “Anybody can learn Pro Tools, but knowing when and where to place the right sound can make or break the sound of a project,” Gorsky says.
For sound editors, Gorsky adds that it’s also imperative to have a great library of sounds to work with and to know the contents of that library well. Given his Berklee background, perhaps it’s no wonder that Gorsky approaches sound effects much like musical instruments. “The sound of a car can be an instrument, and a character itself,” he says. “Just like a guitar is to a band, a sonic element in a movie can have the same impact.”
Film Work, Career Diversity, and Lifelong Learning
That idea of bringing out the musicality even in sounds one wouldn’t typically consider musical rings true to Kate Bilinski ‘10, who recently worked as sound editor on new films Don’t Think Twice and Wiener-Dog. Bilinski, an electronic production and design major while at Berklee, notes that she finds herself dealing with issues of musicality “even if you’re focusing on subway sounds.”
Bilinski has successfully pieced together a freelance career in New York City, including work on the uber-popular Serial podcast in addition to other sound and music editing work on feature films. Of the freelancer’s life, she says it takes some getting used to: “You have to learn that there will be days when you’re working around the clock, and then days when you’re not working at all.”
While a lot of film work in the United States takes place in Hollywood, Bilinski is living proof that work is available in other areas, and she finds being based in New York allows her to pick up more independent features and documentaries, as well as the opportunity to work more closely with the core nucleus of filmmakers on a project. It also comes with a more rapid turnaround time than might be common to larger-budget films where the work all takes place in L.A.
Like Bilinski, Alex Lowe ‘92 is also building a multifaceted career outside of L.A. Based in Atlanta, Lowe founded his own business, Red Tuxedo Mastering, after working as a freelance engineer in the recording industry on Atlanta-based projects in the city’s top studios for artists such as R.E.M., Usher, and TLC, among many more. His work now includes Pro Tools playback on new films such as Ghostbusters, Captain America: Civil War, and Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising.
Lowe says this work is fairly simple from a technical standpoint, so getting it has more to do with his interpersonal qualities than his considerable technical skills—although the same may not be said about his mastering business. “My career is really diverse and I have to make money every way I can, but it all stems from the fact that I really know Pro Tools, and I’m a good engineer who understands signal flow really well,” Lowe says. “Berklee laid a great foundation for me to learn. I was humble and eager, so it was easy to find work, and of course the Berklee name had prestige among the people who were hiring me.”
Building on his expertise, Lowe continues to expand his skill set, now taking on a music supervisor role on a TV show for the first time. A lifelong learner, he says the opportunity to explore new things keeps him excited about this work. Perhaps more so than anything else, it is this intellectual curiosity that Berklee alumni working in the film industry share, and as they and the scores of others behind the music and sounds on this summer’s films alone demonstrate, that pursuit of expanding one’s knowledge base is an excellent way to keep the industry work coming.