Interview

[Interview - Jeehun Hwang]

Composer Jeehun Hwang has been in the unique situation where he has composed music for two projects by one of the most successful filmmakers of all time. Expedition Bismarck and Aliens of the Deep allowed him to collaborate with James Cameron. Recently, SoundtrackNet had an opportunity to talk with Jeehun about his works.


You began your career with writing music for video games. How did you become involved with James Cameron's exploration projects, for Expedition Bismarck, and now Aliens of the Deep?

I worked on a TV pilot with Randy Gerston, who has been the music supervisor for all of Cameron's movies since The Terminator.It had been quite a few years since I wrote music for video games at this point, and I had signed with a composer agency to focus on scoring for film and TV. Randy liked my music a lot and thought of me when he was looking for composers on Expedition Bismarck, shortly after we worked together. He told me it was a long shot, but he wanted to submit me anyway for the ambient portion of the show.The project required a lot of orchestral battle music, and he didn't know that I did music of that style. I had done quite a bit of battle music during my stint in the video game world, so I gave him a collection of music in that genre.To my surprise, I was told that I was one of a few composers Jim was considering and that I should write a few new "battle" cues specifically for the project. I wrote a new cue overnight and sent it in, and got hired the very same day. Jim and I got along great and established a good working relationship, and I was delighted when I was asked back to work on Aliens of the Deep.

Some of the music in Aliens of the Deep has a very serene, ambient feel for underwater scenes. I have noticed this approach in other scores for scenes taking place underwater. What inspires this effect?

I think the underwater environment is naturally conducive to "serene, ambient" music due to its inherent atmosphere.It's like looking into a fish tank to relax.There's something very zen about the movements in the ocean the fluidity.To accentuate that movement, the music is, in a way, mimicking the atmosphere with organized sound.It's not always the case, of course.When there's sudden movements, violence, turmoil, etc. underwater, it would probably be scored much the same way those scenes are scored above water.

James Cameron, of course, began his ideas of ocean exploration in the 1989 film The Abyss. Did Alan Silvestri's work have any influence on your score for Aliens of the Deep?

Actually, no - I'm not too familiar with that score, although I really liked Alan Silvestri's score for the Back to the Future series and more recently, Forrest Gump.Both times when working with Jim, he's been very specific about what kind of atmosphere he wants to create for each scene and how he wants the music to add to the storytelling.So I just started from scratch each time, trying to meet those objectives.

Toward the end of the IMAX film, we get to see some very inspiring images of exploration on the moons of Jupiter. Did your musical approach change between the Earth and space scenes?

Very much so.I'm not sure if it's as obvious as I intended, but I wanted to capture the essence of emptiness when we got into space exploration.The score does get fairly intense in key moments, when certain images needed to be addressed for various purposes, but moving about the space environment was kept very minimalistic.The sound selection was another area I paid a lot of attention to in that regard, and you will notice the more "futuristic" or "computerized" sounds showcased in those scenes.On Earth, I tried to make even the synth score parts sound more organic.Also, one of the common sound elements I used throughout the film was the choir, which can just as easily create a grand, majestic sound as it can suggest bleakness.I used the choir to add some eeriness in the space exploration scenes and, by contrast, used it as a celestial texture in many of the deep sea segments.

How did you get involved in film scoring?

When I was scoring my first video game, a friend of mine who was attending USC film school asked me to score his first short film.Having been a songwriter most of my life, I was still somewhat skeptical of my ability to convey emotions purely through music- without the aid of lyrics.Since I had already started exploring this realm with the video game (MechWarrior 2) anyway, I gave it a shot.It was a very rewarding experience in the end but it was also very difficult.Up to that point, I had always created music the way I wanted, without having to adhere to a context or somebody else's vision.That was my first experience with learning to communicate with a director who may not be a musician but has just as much of a vested interest in the way the music turns out, if not more.I worked on several indie films after that, and I eventually stopped writing music for video games altogether to focus on other musical endeavors, mainly film scoring.

How is writing music for video games different than your more recent work for Cameron's documentaries?

I don't get to play video games much but from what I understand, game music has evolved quite a bit since my foray into that world.The similarity lies in the fundamental purpose the music serves in any visual media, which is to enhance the experience and help the audience get immersed into the world.That aspect is the same whether you're staring at a monitor playing video games or watching a movie in a big theater.The main difference in my opinion is the context.In video games, the music is often looped during a particular level since it's not matched to picture.If you're playing a level where there's a lot of action, some form of action music will be playing in the background to help with the game play.Suspenseful music for suspenseful levels, spooky music for spooky levels, so on and so forth.

In a film, not only does the music need to help set the mood of a particular scene, but it has to be written to match the scene precisely.This is especially true for busy action cues, since all the hits have to match the cuts and the music needs to also drop out at the right spots to clear for dialogue and sound effects.These limitations don't exist for video games.There are, however, mini-movies in video games where you simply watch a movie sequence take place, usually to help tell the story.The way you'd score these scenes would be the same as scoring for film, except for the fact that you don't have to worry about continuity- kind of like scoring for TV right before breaking for commercials.

What film composers have influenced your work and in what way?

I can't say that I've consciously been influenced by any composer because I haven't started really paying attention to film music until fairly recently, when I started scoring myself.I have always admired the scores of Ennio Morricone and Jerry Goldsmith.I also very much enjoyed Danny Elfman's music when he started scoring, and was very impressed with how distinct of a voice he was able to create for all his work.To be fair, I'd have to say my influences are from all types of music including rock, pop, jazz, electronic, etc.I simply try to provide the appropriate music without feeling bound by limitations of style and instrumentation.This, of course, is only possible because of the tremendous advance in technology in the recent years.I can decide to make a full orchestra score or a metal guitar score instantly and proceed to work, all in the confines of my own studio.

What recent score releases have you particularly liked or found inspiring?

I remember hearing the score to Lord of the Rings while watching the movie for the first time and thinking that I would have approached it quite differently.It probably had a lot to do with the fact that I was a fan of the book and had my own ideas about that world.But listening to it more, I not only found it to be utterly appropriate, but the complexities of the score blew me away.Now I pay attention to anything written by Howard Shore.

How do you go about writing a score? How involved are the producers of the project?

The writing of a score starts the moment I get a job.I start formulating ideas in my head while I'm eating, watching TV, driving, what have you.And this process sometimes starts before I see a single scene from the movie.The real brainstorming starts when I spot the movie with the director, going through scene by scene, exchanging ideas about the appropriate music.Then starts what, in my opinion, is the loneliest job in the world.I sit in the studio alone, coming up with ideas after ideas, with nobody to tell me if it sounds good or not along the way.Sometimes I would develop an idea for a full day, only to scrap it and go with a new one that took me 5 minutes to put together.It's not uncommon for me to have 3-4 different approaches for each scene and torture myself, wondering which one is the best one for the scene and if any of them are any good.Still, despite all of this, something happens along the way that makes the process all worth it.The moment the music starts to feel just right for a scene, there's a renewed excitement for further building and molding the cue.

My experience with producer participation varies from project to project, but in cases where the producers are involved, sometimes they would have conflicting ideas from the director, which is the worst possible scenario.Fortunately for me, Jim is the only person dictating his vision for the music on his projects and I only had to make sure I came up with what he wanted.

What equipment do you use for the score?

I digitize the film and put it into the video drive connected to my PowerMac G5, and open up Emagic's Logic to start scoring.I have about 10 different hardware synthesizers & samplers as well as stand-alone effects units, but which of them actually get used is a matter of the style of music I set out to score.In some cases, I would write whole cues entirely with soft-synths and soft-samplers inside the computer.I have a separate PC that exists solely to run Gigastudio, which I use a lot to make realistic mockup orchestral scores.The technology has advanced so much and there are such good sample libraries available that you can make very realistic sounding orchestra scores in your own studio.

For string samples, I heavily rely on the Garritan String Library and often use Garritan Personal Orchestra to make quick mockups when I'm pressed for time.I use a MOTU firewire audio interface and have a separate computer with ProTools for audio editing in the end.For synth sounds, I have a few analog synthesizers that I like to use such as the Roland Juno-106, but I've been using a lot of software based modules like Reason and Reaktor with great results.For guitars, I have used the SansAmp and the Pod Pro for some time, but the software plug-in Amplitude was my weapon of choice for this project.The ability to manipulate the guitar tone after recording the part is a must in situations where you're still building the rest of the music- the tone that sits best with the rest of the music may change after layering a lot of different sounds.My mic'ed recordings usually go through the Focusrite Producer Pack, which is a mic pre, compressor and EQ all in one unit.

What do you foresee the next step in your career to be?

I'm very fascinated by the way the orchestra sounds and the changes you can make on the fly while working with them.I'd like to do more orchestral scores with different size orchestras to experiment not only with different styles of orchestration, but also with sound manipulation using a live orchestra.I would also love to explore different kinds of synthesis from layering the orchestra with non-orchestral acoustic and electronic instruments, and try to come up with 'fresh' sounds.

What are some projects you are currently working on?

I'm currently having a lot of fun recording and playing with my band at the moment.I'm also writing songs for various artists but I plan to work on more films when the right projects come along.

Tell me more about your band.

The band is actually brand new.I've hadseveral bands that fell apart in the recent years due to my rigorous work schedule while scoring, but the current one was started with very close friends and we're moving very quickly with the project.We're still in the writing/rehearsing phase but we'll be hitting the live concert scene in the next month or so and starting to record around the same time.

What is your dream project?

Ideally, I would like to be able to score a few films in different genres so that I can explore and showcase various styles of music.Although there were underlying themes & motifs for Expedition Bismarck and Aliens of the Deep, the documentary format lent itself to a much more diverse set of music than that of a regular feature film.This was true thematically as well as stylistically.I thoroughly enjoyed the freedom I had in creating new music for every phase of the exploration, but I'd like to take a step back from that approach and take on the other challenge of unifying the style and theme throughout a film, while retaining the diversity solely through orchestration and arrangement.In this manner, I'd love to score several films that differ entirely from one another, that would enable me to write an epic score, an action score, a quirky score, and a melancholy score, not necessarily in that order of preference.


Special thanks Jeehun Hwang and Eric Griffin at Brand X Management for their help with this interview. For more on Jeehun Hwang's music, please visit his website at www.jeehunhwang.com