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.

Final post day on Tupilak

Last weekend saw the Tupilak team’s final day of postproduction workflow with genius editor Ashley Hughes and maestro composer Jordan Dobbins joining me in London for a combined grading and mixing session.

We were delighted with the film as we had screened it in the amazing basement space of The Hoxton Cabin back in February, when we had graded for the projector down there and mixed the sound on the morning of the screening to exactly match the acoustics of the room and speaker rig. Our initial plan had been a rapid turnaround of that cut to get it online. That was before Covid-19 happened, and since then we have all been working at a distance (and around the clock on our other jobs) which is a challenge on a film edit. One unanticipated lesson we have learned is the huge difference in colour range and saturation between monitors even within the same product family: a grade done by Ashley and watched by Jordan and me remotely looked completely different on each screen. We knew there would be some variance, but this was something we only truly appreciated when finally able to work on monitors side-by-side.

The postproduction day reminded me why I love this part of the filmmaking process. Another opportunity to revisit the story and source material, a reminder that we have full control over the direction and mood of the story through the edit, the power of the score and what you can do with sound. For a few hours, Ashley worked in one room of my apartment on the visuals while Jordan worked on the audio in another, and it was great being able to watch both work their magic.

Jordan also pulled together a Spotify playlist of the soundtracks he has been using for inspiration, which you can check out below.

You’ll find the film up here tomorrow, and we’re hoping to follow it soon with some commentary on the score, the shoot and more. Enjoy.

Making Tupilak

Almost two years to the day since we wrapped The Beachcomber on a windy beach in Devon, Ashley, Lily and I were back on location — this time in Snowdonia, to shoot our most ambitious short film to date, Tupilak. We were joined on set by Alex Newton, one of the creators behind Citric Acid, and together spent five days hiking up the mountains of the Idwal Valley laden with iron pans, spears, fish and furs to create a settlement for the last of the Norse Greenlanders, Saga, as she struggled to come to terms with her people’s disappearance.

We had been inspired by an article from the amazing Ernest journal about the mysterious spiritual totems carved by the Inuit people of Greenland to ward off foes, and the disappearance around 1500 AD of the seemingly stable community of Norse Greenlanders. Lily led our deeper research into their unexplained disappearance without trace after a history of rich storytelling and crafting, which was invaluable in pinning our abstract script into reality, the mythology and the remaining artefacts that are all we have left of the Greenlanders.

Shooting in a remote location (and for the purposes of filmmaking, I’d say remote is anywhere that isn’t an urban centre) creates additional challenges, and doing so at dusk even more so. There were a lot of snap decisions to make; the vast majority of them I am happy with, some (as always) I awaited nervously in the edit, but I owe an awful lot to the whole team for their input in the month before and on every long day of the shoot, and to the very long lead-in process with Ashley which has been absolutely lifesaving. Ashley and I first talked about a tupilak-oriented film very shortly after wrapping The Beachcomber (I think we discussed the article which inspired it while setting up for our first London preview in my apartment at the time) and subsequently spent the better part of a year on drafts of the script, and a further six months on the shot list and other logistical points. Not only did this mean the same film existed in both of our heads, but that we had already worked through many of the issues that we expected the location to throw at us, so when indeed we were confronted with difficulties we had already discussed the compromises that would be available.

Shooting digitally on a serious project has brought with it a new workflow. While I loved the experience and discipline of shooting on film (as we did on The Beachcomber), if I am honest I preferred being able to see the frame in real-time, while keeping as much of the restraint and long-take approach that we had learned from 8mm. It shows in the cut: watching the rushes back, we could already see that we had the material we had envisioned when preparing the shot list, rather than buckets of footage we had shot because it looked good. The lesson learned back on James was that over-shooting feels liberating, but it makes the edit very challenging. Once we had the footage up on the screen, I felt the familiar sense (which never gets old) of rediscovering the film from scratch. Assembly was first done remotely between London and Paris, a tricky process in itself, but I hope this gave Ashley the space he needed to take a fresh and radical approach to editing. When we were reunited in London, we finished the loose ends and the trickiest scenes together, and even three weeks out from screening were still tinkering on sequences that finally came together as what we had intended.

This was my first film project featuring serious costume, and I learned a valuable lesson: that costume is essential, even if your project is contemporary and your characters relatable to your own lives. Why settle for ‘wear whatever you normally do’, when as you can make a valuable directorial decision about a character that also gives the actor space to distinguish between themselves and their role? And no post on this film would be complete without discussing our fantastic props and giving a huge thank you to Rebecca Taylor for sourcing an amazing array of antique material in a very short space of time. We definitely invested more energy into production design for this project than any other, partly again because of the period, but we quickly learned that obtaining vintage daggers, iron cooking tools and rusting lanterns was not going to be easy.

Acquiring a tupilak carved by a Greenland-based craftsperson was one of the key artistic decisions we made for the production. I thought it was important to have a daily reminder on location of the powerful history and wicked intent that was bound up in these objects, echoing the RSC’s use of a real skull in its traditional Hamlet stagings. We had previously stumbled across an Inuit art gallery on Paris’ Right Bank which sold a range of carved figures including replica tupilaks, but although we certainly hope that ours is no more real in the ominous sense, I felt that getting one from Greenland was important. In an age of lazy cultural appropriation, I thought the very least we could do was strive to work with authentic source material.

Bringing Saga’s story to life was a saga indeed, but it was one of the most rewarding projects I have worked on, and I’m delighted with what the team has built. I couldn’t be more proud to have directed it.

 

Announcing: Tupilak

 

For 500 years the Norse Greenlanders made their home in the wilderness. In 1450, they disappeared without a trace.

 

But what if there was one left? The mystery of the Norse people first caught my attention in 2016 when I read an article by an Ernest writer on the tupilak, the haunting, cursed figurines that were crafted from bones and awful things to bring wickedness on the enemies of the inuit. The rich, written and illustrated mythology of the Norse made their sudden disappearance – without serious archaeological evidence as to any reason why – even more compelling as a story. And so began a two year project of researching and drafting. The challenge was in telling a story with only one character and a bleak winter landscape, that was on the one hand compelling and on the other avoided the wilderness porn of an SUV advert.

So I’m thrilled to announce the launch of Tupilak, our latest, longest and most ambitious short film yet, starring Lily Taylor (Beachcomber, Plenty, James) and Alex Newton (Citric Acid, Jerusalem), shot and edited by Ashley Hughes (who has worked his visual magic on eight films with me from 2017’s Beachcomber back to 2011’s Tantamount to Treason), and featuring a stunning score from the musical genius of Beachcomber, Jordan Dobbins. Matt Ceo’s striking poster design plunges us straight into the crucible in which our protagonist, Saga, finds herself. Haunted by demons and the wilderness, how will the last of the Norse Greenlander’s survive?

We were delighted to hold our first screening among friends and family in London’s wonderful Hoxton Cabin bar and events space at the end of January. Thirty guests joined us to watch the film, which we finished (in typical fashion) just a couple of hours before, working through the night on the final mix. Since then, the team has been working hard on festival submissions and preparations for some ‘deep dive’ exploration into our process, the history behind the film, and our responses to the Greenlanders’ plight. We’re excited to be launching podcast episodes as well as more posts here in the very near future.

Watch this space for more details.

www.andrewhall.org/tupilak

A creative year

As promised in my last post, I spent the last year trying to pursue something of a creative and career reset, and I’m proud and happy to say it seems to have paid off. In addition to rejoining an old client here in London, and starting a Masters degree (goodbye sleep!) in a field that I love, last year gave me the chance to make real progress on some of the creative projects I had been hoping I could deliver for a long time.

I left my Paris-based law firm in February and spent March in Lima, Peru, where I sat on a rooftop for a month and turned my ideas for Robert Armitage into the better part of a novel. Sitting in the sunshine without a care in the world, in a city with amazing food and lovely people, was bliss and I very nearly stayed out there. The change of scene helped my writing, not so much by way of reference (the novel is set in London and Paris), but by giving me some physical distance from the memories of work, commitment, and depressing weather. It is easy to write 3000 words a day when the sun is beaming, you have a cold pitcher of orange cold brew beside you, and you can see the ocean from your perch on the roof.

From one adventure to another, I returned to the UK in April and was immediately off to Snowdonia with Ashley and Lily (Beachcomber) and Alex (Citric Acid) to shoot our latest film. Adapting to the change in climate was a battle but the challenges of the shoot were so rewarding (with hindsight) and it was amazing to see a project that has been two or three years in the writing come to fruition. Over the past few months, we have secretly been squirrelling away on the edit and the score with the amazing Jordan Dobbins (Beachcomber) and I am so proud of what we’ve achieved. We’re starting to launch our material this weekend, so watch this space for more.

I recently started preparatory work on my next script, while also chipping away at the final couple of chapters of Robert Armitage in moments between classes and work. It’s a struggle some days to find the headspace to do creative work, particularly in the hustle of London, but it is always rewarding. So did I succeed in a creative reset? I think I did, and if I ever find myself detached from creativity again in the future (though I really hope I don’t), I’d do the same thing in a heartbeat.

Developing a script

Ashley and I spent five hours in our favourite bar earlier this week thrashing out the plot and basic shot list for what will be our eighth film project together (more on that very soon). After it was over I saw the symmetry between this scripting session and many, many others before, and thought it would be interesting to talk about how we develop a project, partly as a sanity-checking exercise: I want to know that we’re not alone in working the way that we do.

Every film we have made started with some source material that wasn’t film-related. Tantamount was possibly the closest to being developed in the traditional way, growing out of a screenplay for an online video advert for a printing company that never got made. Red Ribbon | Blue Suit, Beauty and Acceptance and Dare I Say were all born of snippets of short stories I had written, the former based around an article I had read about urban architecture imposing ever more rigidly on the way in which we live our lives, and the others just musings on characters I liked. James, I suppose, was written as a script from the get-go, but drawn in spirit from a deep knowledge of and love for Ian Fleming’s novels. And The Beachcomber grew out of Virginia Woolf’s enchanted vision of the sea.

So every time we sit down with a new project in mind, we tend to have about ten or twenty lines of text at the most, and we are aiming to get to a rough list of scenes – or oftentimes a list of individual shots. It is an intense process – we are hard on each other. I take the view that arguing for or against every shot is important at this stage, when we can be at our most flexible with changes, in order to create a film in which every moment is justified. Doubtless the process would have to be different on a longer production, where I subscribe strongly to Darren Aronofsky’s view that your job as director is to give your creative team the world, and allow them to use their skills to fill it. But on a short film, where every single shot is a piece of story in itself, I like to know that we finish a planning session with complete faith in every frame – if we don’t, it will have been argued about for half an hour, and dropped.

Sometimes I like the idea that we should adopt a different working approach, that preproduction can all be about relaxed cocktails and coffees and that abstract ideas will coalesce into a tight shot list when you are confronted with a set and actors. But I know it isn’t true; Ashley is one of those great people who will fight for his moments just as strongly as I fight for mine, and that is why we enjoy writing together. What I am really excited about, and what I want to change for our next project (which we will be exploring in the spring, after a November shoot on our current film) is working with an outside writer, someone who has given us a complete film’s worth of material, where we can take the energy we currently spend on plotting and inject it all into direction, mood, design and style.

For now, I’m delighted we have pulled together a draft of something new, inspired by the wilderness and our fear of it, and I look forward to announcing it soon.

Take a look at Ashley’s work at www.ashleyhughesfilm.com.

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