Scoring Tupilak

Ever self-critical, Tupilak composer Jordan Dobbins takes us through the challenges and triumphs of scoring our most ambitious film yet.

Learning by Doing: Composing the Score and Recording the Sounds for ‘Tupilak’

My first impression when watching Tupilak in its early form post-shoot was of the ambitious increase of this project’s scope. The film was longer, more ambitious and drew on a broader range of filmic influence than my last collaboration with Andrew and Ashley, The Beachcomber. A couple of years had passed and I had made a certain amount of progress in how I approached composing and recording music. However, being very aware that I was, and still am, deficient in my abilities to make the sounds I want to make, and achieve the quality I want to achieve, the film in front of me was going to involve lots of creative discovery.

It is at this point that I stepped forwards, and set to work. The rewards for doing so I will set out briefly here, including a little along the way with regards some key challenges and some solutions, or lack thereof, that I managed to grasp. Hopefully this will be an encouragement for others who are interested but daunted by a certain creative endeavour to step with your best foot forward. Healthy collaborative environments are rewarding and, most importantly, fun.

Composition and the mystery of Viking music

For The Beachcomber I had immediately set to work unearthing a world of influence that I already knew a fair deal about, specifically early 20th century culture. Virginia Woolf occupied a part of British history that I felt comfortable exploring. Norse culture, however, was not steady ground for me. Through reading several interesting articles and a book or two I managed to get a feel for what might work as a tableau of creative signposts, but, at the heart of it, not much is known about Viking music. Avoiding the pitfall of stereotype or pastiche was going to be difficult, and doubtless I haven’t entirely succeeded in my endeavour to do so.

What I learned in encountering this difficulty, however, was a more honest way of approaching a project. In trying to think what the film was trying to say, rather than understand the world that it draws its creative energies from, I was forced into a different way of creating musical themes and ideas. The main string theme came from several sessions sat at the piano trying to think of chords and movements that had a pre-Western and disjointed strangeness to them. The melody came afterwards, and was fully formed when Alex, on violin, riffed off the main thematic contour to create the countermelody that sits underneath it.

It is also important to note that a lot of my influences came from the genre and cinematic influences that Andrew pointed me in the direction of, many of which can be seen on the short Spotify playlist I have put together for this blog. If I would have been more skilled some of the influences may have been worn less on the sleeve, but as a first experience of really delving into other composers’ corpuses of work, to discover techniques or musical ideas that would work for what I am doing, it was a wonderful and very gratifying experience. 

Battling with Layers and Technology

This is the first project I have worked on which stretched the capabilities of my setup. I had to split my ProTools session into two halves in order to have the number of active tracks I needed (a solution also would have been spending a bit more money, but I frugally avoided that, at least for now). This did, however, restrict my ability to use bussing as effectively as it could have been used. I learned a lot about compression techniques in this time, in trying to get the several layers of strings and sampled/synthesised sounds to mesh well. I was in over my head, but this meant a lot of problem solving as well as a lot of knowing when to say ‘that works well’ even if I couldn’t say ’that is exactly what I envisioned’.

Percussive elements, forged from samples of rocks and nature sounds as well as the occasional banging of an acquired kick drum with a cloth covered ladle, were one of the biggest challenges I encountered. Before this point I had often leaned toward more melodic elements to carry the rhythmic impulse of a score. The textured and earthy strangeness of many of these foundational rhythmic elements really underscored the more pagan elements of the film, and massively paid off when heard in the context of the finished product.

Diegetic sound: An Unforeseen Challenge

A large part of this film relies on the visual texture of the landscape and the painting of an unforgiving relationship between Saga and Greenlandic nature. What I didn’t encounter until over halfway in to the creative process was how difficult it would be to marry the diegetic sound with the score. Letting the story speak both through the sounds we see on screen and the music that supports the narrative was a difficult balance. Working with Ashley specifically, close in time to the premiere in East London, was an important part of this process. I began to understand how foley elements can really help tell the story as convincingly as a melodic non-diegetic part of the score can. 

Much of the foley had to be re-recorded or acquired from samples, whilst some of it was taken from on-location recordings. One particularly notable example of creating the soundscape post-shoot was the two occasions where Lily, the actor who plays Saga in the film, is seen shouting in solitude into the distance. Lily had to re-record her shouts using a field recorder from her house in South London. After I received this raw audio information I took the stereo .WAV files and added in artificial echoes, and doctored the audio using EQ in a way that made it sound authentic and truly from the wilderness. 

It has been another wonderful experience working with everyone involved with Tupilak. I have learnt so much by doing, rather than thinking, and the common energy and goal that we all shared – to make Tupilak as convincing and professional as we could manage – was a wonderful catalyst both for our own individual development and for the finished product of the film itself.

You can watch Tupilak, complete with Jordan’s original score, here.