dBs Music Composition for Film & Television student John Kerton is coming towards the end of his final year with us, so we caught up with him to discuss his experience at dBs, his work with professional filmmaker Paul Zinder and his Plato-inspired Innovation in Sound project...
At dBs, we place a huge emphasis on ensuring our students are given ample opportunities to work while they study. We aim to kickstart our student's careers before they leave by connecting them with industry professionals and giving them paid opportunities within the creative industries. It's one of the reasons why we think that studying with a specialist institute, like dBs, is the best choice for those looking to forge specialist careers in the creative industries. Music Composition for Film & Television student John Kerton is just one member of the dBs community who has benefited from these industry connections; working with professional filmmaker Paul Zinder on the score for his documentary 'Some Stiff Competition’. We caught up with John to discuss his work on the documentary, how dBs has helped him hone his skills and his Plato-inspired project for Innovation in Sound.
First of all, introduce yourself! What are you studying at dBs, where are you in the course and what is your background generally in music and sound?
I'm John and I'm in the third year of the Music Composition for Film & Television degree. I should be finished but I'm continuing to summer. Before dBs, I studied Music Performance at college. I was mostly interested in performing and playing in bands and stuff. Then I did a media course and got interested in film quite a bit and it sort of made sense to merge the two things together. That's how I ended up doing this course. There were only two universities in the South of England that did a specific music for film course at bachelor degree level. It was either dBs or UCA in Farnham. Obviously, I ended up picking dBs as seemed like a better place. Bristol is much more interesting than where I'm from.
I learned a whole bunch being at dBs. I don't think I really knew that much when I came here in terms of sound and production or any of that stuff. I probably didn't even know what a saw wave was! I've learned a whole bunch, for sure. My tastes in terms of film music were more towards orchestral stuff. Ennio Morricone was probably my one inspiration. That's obviously widened now. Whereas, when I arrived, I was like, "I like this one film guy, I can do music and I like films.”
So what has your experience at dBs been like? Any highlights?
I think every exhibition at the end of the year is one of the highlights. Seeing how far everyone has come in their work. Another highlight was in the second year when I got the opportunity to work with the filmmaker Paul Zinder on the documentary 'Some Stiff Competition'. That wasn’t a student film, so that felt like a big deal - to be working on something that other professionals are working on. That's just coming out now. It's taken a while for it to be ready. I couldn't show any of it for my exhibition in the second year. I've got a trailer for it, but I'm not really allowed to show people that either. That was definitely a highlight.
I think this year, doing the Innovation module with Emmanuel Spinelli was awesome. We started seeing Emmanuel in the second year and he just blew our minds open with all the sound art stuff. The exhibition for Innovation that we had was really awesome. I did an installation for that which was a booth that you sat in and I created a Max patch that took the signal from your heart and put it through a generative programme that turned it into music. It turned it into MIDI, essentially. Then I took all those MIDI from about 20 people and then put that into one composition.
The concept of the project was based on a quote from Plato, "Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back." The idea was what would it be like if people's hearts were literally singing songs. What would the harmony and disharmony that are created sound like? That's what I was trying to create with the composition. That was definitely a highlight for me - doing something that wasn't necessarily to do with film, but it just felt quite creative.
That sounds like a really cool project. How did the different heartbeats manifest themselves? Were there many variations in the sound that was created?
The variation that was directly affected by the heartbeat was the velocity of the melody notes. You could tell when there was a spike in the signal because you get a really loud velocity, but that also creates a sense of musicality to the melody as well. Everything in terms of the chord sequences and the harmony was all built into the generative aspect of it. So that wasn't necessarily interactive, it was more just being triggered and the velocity itself was the interactive aspect of it. That's where you could kind of hear the differences between people. I think there was one point where it just stopped working, and I was like, "Oh, God, has his heart stopped?" The project was really fun. Lots of people said they could hear their own heartbeat when they were in the booth listening, which was kind of funky.
Lots of the students really enjoy Emmanuel’s Innovation module. Did you find it interesting?
Yeah definitely. I think because he comes from such a sound art background. There’s lots of experimental stuff which is a bit left-field for a lot of people that don't know about it when they first learn about this stuff but it's very inspiring. He's a great teacher and a super cool guy.
Tell me a bit more about Some Stiff Competition. How did the opportunity come about and when were you working on it?
I finished that in the second year. I got a message from Ben [Philcox] at one point. He messaged a couple of other people and put us all in a group on Facebook, and was just like, “Is anyone interested in this?” I got in contact with him and he sent us an email about what Paul was looking for in terms of music. He was looking for a classical piano-style piece. So I made my own sketch and send that to Paul and I think he really liked it so I started making more sketches for him. Eventually, we had a meeting over Zoom and he showed me bits of the film and where it was at that point. We just started talking about his ideas for music. It was quite different from anything I've done before because, normally, you get an edit sent to you and you just score over it; synchronising the music to the edit in logic or something. He wanted me to watch the edit with him, write bits of music and then he gave it to his editor to put in the film.
That was quite a weird way of working for me, to be honest. I think he was quite protective over it because I was a student but that was the process we went with. He understood exactly where he wanted music. I think he finished the film, with my music, at some point last summer and then start putting it out to festivals. I got in contact with him recently to get the trailer and he mentioned that the premiere was in California at a documentary film festival there, which is kind of cool. I've never even been to America, so it's weird to think that there are people listening to my music over there.
That's really cool. I know you can’t say too much, but what’s the basic premise of the film?
It’s based in an English village and it's based on a 'teddy bear parachute'. Do you know what that is? A teddy bear parachute?
No, I can't say I do...
It's for kids. It's a contest where they pick a Teddy and make a parachute for it and chuck it off the church spire. There are lots of people there and there are judges that watch and see how far the teddy bear gets and then there's a winner. It's pretty mental, to be honest. But it's really quite funny and charming at the same time. The film follows two rival families. I won't spoil the ending.
What was the experience of working on the project like?
Yeah, it was really good! I think it is nice to work on something where people are really professional. You feel like you can rely more on people. I think that makes you up your game a little bit as well. Not that I'm lazy when I do student films, but I think just the idea of working with professionals and being paid a little bit of money as well, feeds the idea that this really needs to be very good. I just felt it was a really good collaboration. I got on really well with Paul. He's a really cool guy. I had lots of chats about the music with him. I would send him lots of different sketches to see what his ideas were. I'd always give him more than one option for every tune.
Were you the only composer on the project?
Yeah, I was creating the score, there wasn't anyone else working on the music. My role was to make music samples for Paul, that fit his idea of what the music should be at certain points in the film. A lot of it was also my own ideas. I think it was only towards the end that he actually sent me an edit because he wanted something more specific in terms of when the music was synchronised with the visuals. Before that, I was literally just watching the video link and then playing the track out of logic and trying to like start at the same time. The rest was just little musical segments that were written.
What other projects have you been working on since this documentary?
I had a kind of dry spell last semester. Then this semester, I literally had two student films that I've just done. They always give them to you like two days before the deadline. It was last weekend I had two films to do in two days. One of them I'd already written quite a lot of conceptual music for and it was just a case of trying to get everything to work to the edit out of what I had. The other one was a story of a post girl in a village and her day going and delivering things. She needs to deliver this package on time or she loses her job and she's there with her brother. It was quite sort of English countryside-y and light, so I just did some folk-style guitar for it. I literally watched it with my guitar and recorded it really roughly through my Mac speakers with a guitar track over it and then, later, I recorded everything properly and arranged and mixed it. That was probably the quickest I've ever done a score, to be honest! It was crazy, man. My brain hurt after that weekend.
I guess working at that high speed is quite useful for preparing you for the industry when you graduate, though?
Yeah, I think especially in film scores. It's always the last thing that gets done before the final dubbing stage. Time gets taken from the production for things that happen before you get to the music, so you could have very little time left to do the music. With any project, the music always comes last so yeah, I think it’s definitely good training.
Finally, do you think that dBs has helped prepare you for working in the industry?
Absolutely. Every year we've done something that's about business or is industry-related; learning and researching. This final year we've created our own websites and been cultivating our professional persona online. I feel way more prepared having studied at dBs for three years. I’ve learned a lot and I feel like I've gotten so much out of it. I would have been lost without dBs.
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At dBs, we always aim to replicate the experience John has had by introducing our students to industry professionals to ease their journey from education to employment. Find out more about our courses and how you can apply. Clearing 2022 is now open.