Published on March 16th, 2020 | by gareth0
Talking Composing With Nainita Desai
Recently I spoke with Composer , Nainita Desai. She has has worked in British television for over two decades scoring countless BAFTA, Oscar and Emmy- acclaimed productions. She was highly praised for her score for the interactive video game Telling Lies and she won the prize for Best Original Music for a Video Game Trailer at the Music+Sound Awards 2019.
Nainita’s 2019 feature releases include For Sama which won 35 top prizes including Best Documentary Feature at SXSW and Cannes Film Festival.
How did you get into composing and what are some of the past games and projects you have done?
I learnt the violin and piano as a child and am self taught on other instruments such as guitars, but I was also very interested in technology, film and sound as a teenager. The magical power of the combination of film & music is something that I always wanted to be a part of from a young age. I went to film school to study sound and became a sound designer on feature films.
I then moved into music engineering for Peter Gabriel at Real World studios where I got to work with some of the world’s top engineers, producers and artists.
With composing, I actually started off by creating sound effects and music for games working as a freelancer for Empire Interactive, a major UK games publisher, working on games such as Pro Pinball, Sheep, Monopoly World Cup, Stratego, Mig Alley, and Flying Corps.
I then got my first opportunity to write the music for a TV show and my career just grew from then on and I moved mainly wrinting for film & TV. Some of my recent films include the Oscar nominated For Sama, Extraordinary Rituals for the BBC, WW2 period drama Enemy Within, supernatural thriller Darkness Visible, and natural history feature Untamed Romania.
2How does scoring a game compare and differ with other forms of composing and which do you prefer?
I like scoring for both film, TV and for games. I think the current exciting creative space lies in the middle somewhere. The lines are becoming more and more blurred between the mediums.
With Telling Lies, there is a difference between composing to reflect or enhance the on-screen action for film, vs. here where it’s more atmospheric and deliberately dissonant, exposing the subtext and the ‘bigger picture’. We are scoring the player’s experience and understanding, rather than what’s happening on screen – I feel that can be much more potent in allowing the player to get to the heart of the characters.
Regardless of whether I’m writing music for film or games, when it comes to musical story telling, you have to capture the essence of what is REALLY going on in the story, bringing out the sub-text of the narrative. The music is like another character in the story so I’m bringing out what’s hidden and not being brought out by the actors on screen. In that respect, there is not much difference between them.
I like the technical challenges of writing for games, where the music is much more adaptive and integral with the game play. The non-linear nature of gaming creates a much more immersive experience. So within those constraints, it can be more challenging to create a fluid emotional experience for the player.
Linear scoring for film and TV is more static, but at the same time, offers up huge potential for a powerful emotional experience and journey for the viewer.
What led you to composing for video games?
It was a huge treat to go to my best friend’s house after school to play Space Invaders on her Atari Console. I was hooked, and moved onto PC and Playstation with Sonic the Hedgehog, Lara Croft Tomb Raider, the Sims, Populous – games alongside feature films were a creative escape for me. I realised the strong effect that both film and games music had on me.
I used to read Mondo, the cyber culture magazine, and was into ‘cyberspace’.
I’m now fascinated by the idea that the future of entertainment will be a hybrid between traditional linear film and forms of FMV non-linear storytelling. There is a real demand for greater agency and we have become much more demanding and active as opposed to passive in the way we consume entertainment.
In many ways, Telling Lies combines the oldest forms of entertainment with the newest ways we communicate – like a play that plays out over video chat. It’s a very cool space to work in.
Where do you find your inspiration when composing?
I’m a very visually-inspired person, I love film and I always think of myself as a storyteller and in my own humble way, a filmmaker.
The director may give me a brief of what they like or dislike. We will have discussions about things that inspire us and gradually out of those conversations, an approach will emerge.
When writing, ideas may form when I am doing the least musical activity such as shopping or taking a shower !
Telling Lies, the game is about covert, spy, NSA agents working undercover, so I watched a lot of related films for inspiration. Sam the developer-director, gave me a few references, like Steve McQueen’s Shame, and Sex, Lies and Videotape. But I also have a fascination and love for films about spying, hacking and political scandals… I’m really into Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and the Three Colors trilogy, 70s films like Chinatown, All the President’s Men, Klute, those kinds of films were inspirational as are their soundtracks.
We knew that we didn’t want the music to be influenced by any one particular score though. Sam and I would create endless playlists of music that inspired us. He sent me some of the music he was listening to when he was writing the script, and I would be listening to a lot of different scores and modern classical music as well…between us, we found music that would enable me to represent each character. What’s great is that the music I wrote also ended up influencing Sam while writing the script too!
Watching those films helped me draw a mental picture of the musical world that I had to represent. I worked with these organic textures, for example, the dark beauty that would suit the overall vibe of the game, and sharing music worked as a great communicator. We found the core of what we wanted to say, emotionally, about the characters. This kind of sharing of ideas works well with film makers too.
Regards my creative process, my main instrument is the keyboard and my main software of choice is Logic Pro. These days, film composers pretty much have the same tools and we all have access to the same sound libraries, so we have to find ways of standing out from the crowd and creating a unique score.
I like to be brought onto a project as early as possible and do as much research as I can around the subject before the edit starts if possible. Finding a conceptual approach in collaboration with the director helps me get to the heart of the story.
I’ll occasionally write ideas from the script or at least away from the visuals, which can be quite a liberating way of writing. Allowing for the process of experimentation, I experience at times what I call “happy accidents”- when you write music away from the visuals and lay it against a scene for which it wasn’t originally intended, you gain a different connection and outlook on the story, and it brings out a hidden sub-text and meaning that can be a pleasant surprise.
But I’m also brought on often just when the edit has started so have to work under a lot of time pressure. I will get sent rough scenes and cuts and so the pace, tone, style and look of a film will immediately inspire me and I go backwards and forwards with the team up until the final mix.
What sorts of composers inspire you? Are there any composers in particular you listen to when preparing for a film or series?
I have been inspired so by many different artists and composers. Often what I’m listening to will depend on the project and the brief from the director. Sometimes, they will be specific when it comes to reference tracks, though ideally, I like to write original ideas that inspire the team which end up being used as the temp tracks.
Some artists that have inspired me over the years include Peter Gabriel, Daniel Lanois, Kate Bush, Thomas Newman, John Barry, Barbra Streisand, Laurie Anderson, Kate Bush, Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno, Bjork, Debussy, Bach, Michael Brook, Vaughan Williams, Max Richter… the list is endless !
How much leeway do you have with the creation of the score or did the games producers give you the framework that you had to work in or was it more of a collaboration?
If the team have strong ideas then I am led by them and their vision. But I also take creative lead if they are not sure about what they want, and I come up with a strong concept myself. Sam was incredibly supportive and open minded of my ideas.
The idea we came up with was to write a theme for each character. As human beings, we’re very complex and multi-layered, we have good sides and bad sides to our personalities. And so, how do you sum up someone’s life in one piece of music? The only way I could represent each person was to use just pure, acoustic, raw and organic sounds. No electronics, no deception in that regard, it was just pure emotion told through pure acoustic sounds. I used the London Contemporary Orchestra because there’s a lot of visceral edginess to their play. There’s a lot of intimacy in the game: when you’re playing it, you’re actually seeing just one side of a 2-way conversation. Someone is talking to someone else, but you don’t hear what the other person is saying, so there’s a lot of teasing and mystery. There are Machiavellian plans, and everyone’s lying to everyone. You’re listening to private conversations that you’re not really meant to be listening to. So, with the music, I wanted there to be an intimacy and a detail in the actual playing, where you actually hear the relationship between the musicians and their instruments, where you hear the sound of the bow hitting the strings. It’s not only what they were playing as much as the sound that they were making that was important to me, to help me translate that intimacy between the characters in the game. That’s why I chose the London Contemporary Orchestra, because they have a very distinct sound that I’ve heard in their playing before, and also they’re very creative collaborators.
What do you like to do when you’re not composing?
I love travelling and experiencing other cultures and places – it gets me away from the sedentary life style of being in the studio. I also attend industry conferences, film festivals and events.
Walking, reading, live music, going to the cinema, restaurants, art exhibitions.
I also enjoy spending time with my partner, my friends and my cat !
What else do you have coming up that the readers can look forward to?
A few very varied projects !
My latest feature is The Reason I Jump that world premiered at Sundance Film Festival and won the audience award prize. It will be coming to cinemas in the UK later this year. The film is based on the best-selling book that was written about twelve years ago by Naoki Higashida, a Japanese boy who is non-verbal autistic. It’s a very immersive film that makes the audience feels what Naoki experiences as an autistic boy. The soundscape was mixed in Dolby Atmos / 360 sound and is a blend of sound design, found sounds, raw acoustic instruments and the human voice.
I have scored Fierce Queens, a 15 part natural history series for QUIBI, a new streaming platform made specifically for mobile devices and created by Dreamworks co-founder and former Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg that launched in April.
Each film is 10mins long focussing on a different female species in the animal kingdom.
Bad Boy Billionaires is a Netflix Original series coming soon about the scams that some notorious famous billionaires carried out for years, conning millions of people out of their money. It’s exciting, dynamic, slick and quite a story !
I find that I stay creatively fresh by writing in different musical styles across various genres and not repeating myself. I just relish telling stories in fresh ways collaborating with creative teams.