TAEM- One of the most important components in a great film is a great musical score. The Arts and Entertainment Magazine has seen many well thought of productions created for the silver screen fall by the wayside from their outset because the music created for it was of poor quality. A good example of this was two films starring the same well known actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Both films had the same theme and made in the same genre, but Red Sonja rated a distant second compared to Conan the Barbarian as a result of poor music composition.
With Music students, among the Students of the Arts, who follow our publication for educational insight we would like to share our interview with French film composer Charles-Henri Avelange. Charles-Henri please tell our readers about the learning process for your career that you undertook as a student in your own country.
CHA- I started making music at the age of nine. By the age of sixteen I was already making my own compositions. After I graduated high school, I was received at the ESRA Nice Côte d’Azur — one of the best film school in France — where I graduated with honors in sound engineering, sound design, acoustic science and music production.
CHA- I was born on the French Riviera. I grew up a stone’s throw from the Festival du Film de Cannes. My dad was a colonel in the French Army and later on switched to the French Secret Services. Because of that, my family and I ended up living three years in Saudi Arabia, the last year of which was the beginning of the first Gulf War. I went to school carrying a little bag containing a gas mask, in case of chemical attacks. At night, I was awakened by city sirens, jet fighters flying low in the sky etc… When we returned to France, the next seven years of my life I spent in a thousand-year-old medieval Knight Templar castle in Southwest France. The castle at the time turned out to be home of the last species of giant bats in Europe, and got classified in the European Registry of Historical Monuments. It is there that I started showing a huge interest in music. The castle was very remote from civilization; going to school in itself was hard, and I spent a few years in boarding school for this reason, coming back home only for the weekends. Due to these challenges, my burgeoning passion for music was largely ignored: it would have required hours of driving to go to any piano lessons and while French public schools do offer general music classes in junior high, the programs are usually really poor and the exposure to music really basic. In other words, I was pretty much on my own and I had to learn music by myself using the only digital keyboard available in the house at the time, a Yamaha DSR-1000. I learned music by ear, reproducing the melodies from my favorite music, and a lot of them turned out to be film music. I would spend sometimes six hours per day just playing on the keyboard, discovering new techniques every day. During my high school years we came back permanently in my native French Riviera and when it came time for university, the thought of going to music school inspired more fear than confidence within my family. Being a musician/composer was not considered a “real job.” The best compromise that came from months of arguments between my parents and I was to go learn everything technical behind music: recording techniques, music mastering, music production etc… “Sound Engineer” has the word “engineer” in it, so it had to be more legitimate than “musician.”
TAEM- Just after your university studies you were urged to come to the United States where you could use your talent to its full potential. Tell us about your first contacts and your initial project that launched your career here.
CHA- One of my mentors, Gilles Tinayre , who was at the time the president of the French film composer association , suggested after listening to my work that should the opportunity come my way, I should not hesitate to go to the United States. He warned me of a French film industry in decline, where budgets for music were consistently shrinking year after year. I kind of always knew that I was going to leave France one day, but now it no longer was an option. The same year, a cousin of my mother heard about my desire to go to the US and reached out to me, telling me that she would be willing to welcome me three months at her place so that I can give a try to life in America. I quit my job as manager in research and development of mobile ringtones in Paris. I purchased non-refundable tickets and three months later I was landing in Seattle, WA. Everyone thought I was crazy: I was barely speaking English when I arrived, and besides my cousin, Laurence, and her two daughters, no one was really waiting for me in America. I had to learn to create my own opportunity. Fate had it that the first community I became involved in was of firefighters, soldiers, and their families. I was welcomed with such warmth that it inspired me to create my first symphony titled, “The Age of Heroes,” which I wanted to dedicate to all American heroes. Those days were a life changing experience and this is what you can hear in the music. I composed the whole album in three months. People loved it so much it grew into a fundraiser for the Washington State Council of Firefighters, and Chris Gregoire, at the time Washington State governor, formally thanked me for the help my music was bringing to the firemen and women of her State. A great honor! And so my work gained exposure, leading to gigs with companies such as Microsoft. “The Age of Heroes” was performed live by The Everett Symphony as part of a concert to honor Veterans, in which my music was chosen to be played alongside some of composer John Williams’ most famous themes. We had a hundred piece orchestra and chorale, featuring solo bagpipes and vocals, which I believe at the time made me the only Seattle-based film composer to be performing live at such large ensemble. The thrill of hearing your music come to life is unparalleled.
CHA- Director Rick Stevenson was commissioned by the Seattle International Film Festival to produce and direct a 20 min film to be included as part of a tribute to the festival’s 35th anniversary. I had met Rick about a year before in his house in Richmond Beach, and he had always kept me in mind after being impressed by my work. One day I received a phone call from him telling me about the film and asking me if I wanted to score it. But here was the trick: I had only 2 days to come up with the 20 min score! This film was kind of a big deal, it was going to premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival’s Grand Opening Night, which is one of the hottest events of the year in Seattle. And it was featuring all of Seattle luminaries such as actor Tom Skerritt, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, weatherman Steve Pool, Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, director Dan Ireland and so many more! It took me exactly 2 days and
3 nights of non-stop work to come up with the score but I did it. The film was a huge success and people loved the score. SIFF’s artistic director Carl Spence really enjoyed it and approached me to discuss the idea of creating original music for the ceremony itself. So for the following year, I developed the first SIFF Official Music Theme. It was a big success as well and this is how the idea of having a live orchestra performing at the event came on the table. Starting in 2011 SIFF was to hold its ceremony at the Seattle Opera House, McCaw Hall. The stage happens to have an orchestra pit; it was a sign! Everyone thought it was a crazy idea, the financing, the planning, rehearsing, sound and equipment… but hey, at this point, my life was filled with crazy all-or-nothing ideas so I was determined to make it happen! I put together a successful Kickstarter campaign and sure enough, SIFF became the first event outside of the Oscars to open with a live 60 piece orchestra for its opening night. It was fantastic. Through this, I ended up meeting a lot of the film directors that I was later on going to work with.
TAEM- During the next two years you created music for the video game, BattleCell™ and three short films, Arthur, Spinning, and So This Priest Walks Into A Bar. How did these initial projects add to your confidence towards music composition for films?
CHA- “BattleCell” was a revolutionary project that was supposed to combine multiple-massively-online (MMO) games with social media and video webseries. I was approached to provide all the musical cues and sounds FX for the game. It was a new thing for me and definitely an enriching experience.
“Arthur” was a 10 min short film designed to showcase the best that could be made on all levels of filmmaking in the Pacific Northwest. I was first introduced to director John Jacobsen via Rick Stevenson. Both of them are co-founders of TheFilmSchool in Seattle. John pitched “Arthur” to me during the SIFF Opening Night and a few weeks later called to tell me that the film was ready to be scored, but here was the trick: I had only one week.
The first 3 days were horrible, I felt like I wasn’t able to come up with the right mood and I was going nuts looking at the clock ticking… in cases like this, I usually go find my inspiration by listening to the Masters. Strangely, it is in Mozart’s Requiem that I found it. I came with the full score in time and John loved it. The film ended up winning 5 awards in the film festival circuit, 2 of them for the score alone. So it definitely made me more confident.
“Spinning” was John’s next film after “Arthur.” It was a very different story and John’s notes for the music were, “think Thomas Newman meets Vivaldi.” It proved a challenging score to make. But the artistic challenge it represented was the driving force for me. One of the reason I particularly enjoy working with John Jacobsen.
I met Mark Lundsten, director of “So This Priest Walks Into a Bar” at the premiere of “Arthur.” Mark is an alumnus of TheFilmsSchool. He loved the score I made on ‘Arthur” and proposed to me to score his first film. The film is about a prank and is a comedy/drama. The orchestration I came up with was mostly built around Asian instruments. Which I remember scared the producers a little… “Asian instruments for a protestant priest walking into an Irish pub?” they asked. But everyone agreed that once put on picture, the music was working incredibly, and according to Mark Lundsten, went well beyond his expectations.
TAEM- What style of music were you becoming known for at this point in your career ?
CHA- Definitely orchestral music. Seattle’s music scene is very rich, but like Rick Stevenson once said, I was the orchestral complement to all the indie, rock, folk, and grunge music that was available in the area for film.
TAEM- During the next year your career really took off as you became the music composer for thirty episodes of the television series Official Best of Fest and the television animated movie, Jingle All the Way. You established your name for the television and silver screen markets with these endeavors. Tell us about the confidence that you now must have felt and what elation that you had from this success.
CHA- Official Best of Fest is a talk show presenting the best independent short films made in the world, airing on PBS. My job as a composer was to make the main opening and ending themes and incidental music while the hosts were presenting the films of the week. So as far as work goes, once I had figured out the main theme, the biggest part was done. But the show was aired nationally on over 160 TV stations across the country and that was definitely a big deal at the time. And some of my short films were featured on the show!
It gave me the credential necessary to move on to more television projects such as “Jingle All The Way,” Hallmark’s exciting flagship blending retail to on-air, digital and social media. It was the first time they were producing a full length film based on one of their classic Christmas figures. The film came with the “Interactive Storybook & Story Buddy, TM” a plush toy that responded to audio cues from the film and book. It was also my first collaboration with director Chel White and his Portland-based animation studio Bent Image Lab. There was a lot of pressure in scoring Jingle but Chel new exactly what he wanted and was trusting my ability to do it. The score is truly the result of this collaboration.
Jingle is stop motion animation, which presents two challenges: first, the music has to accomplish essential mood and character development at all times; there are virtually no spots without music. Second, like a ballet, the orchestration must sync precisely with the action and expressions of the characters, even help define them, but often I only had storyboards to work from. From the outset, my confidence was highly challenged. I had to have everyone agreeing on the main theme: it had to be timeless, like the classic Frosty The Snowman, but relevant to kids today. After three revisions, it comes to a point where you start thinking the worse: “What if I never come up with something they love?” Fortunately, Chel has a talent for distilling out the most important details the producers were looking for that made me get their vision. The next theme I came up with was the right one. The feedback was great.
From there I was able to move on to the rest of the film score, complete with new challenges to overcome. I had to adjust to the fact that it was a film for kids. Most of what I had scored at this point was kind of dark or intense. In “Jingle” it had to be warm. But the danger was to be able to convey warmth without being too cheesy. It was a fine balance to find. Then there was the interactive plush toy that detects particular sentences in film and barks on command. But sometimes instruments in the score were interfering with that process… as a fix, for example I’d have to swap violin melody lines for cellos so the frequencies wouldn’t prevent the toy from barking. Not to mention I was deep into Christmas music in July…
With “Jingle” my work was for the first time eligible for a Primetime Emmy Award. I still keep the letter from the Academy of Television Arts & Science confirming that they have received my score for nomination consideration. The little French teenager barely speaking English had come a long way! I didn’t get any nomination that year, but one cannot always win the first time. The competition was tough and I was up against some very accomplished composers. Jingle was, however, an official selection at the International Animation Film Festival of Annecy, France, one of the most prestigious in the animation world. For the first time, I had worked on a project that was reaching out to my own country. And I think at this point my family was seeing I had chosen the right path! A great moment.
TAEM- The next two years we had seen your work in a number of shorts and a video game and your next television movie, Jingle & Bell’s Christmas Star. Tell us about the music arrangements that you made for them and how they uplifted these productions.
CHA- That year I scored a thriller feature film titled “Shadowed” directed by Joey Johnson. The film won the audience award at the Tacoma Film Festival, and was my first feature film official selection at the Seattle International Film Festival. In that regard, the circle was complete for me. This was a great project that called for a wide range of musical styles: traditional symphonic, ethnic, industrial techno. Living in the Northwest gave me a good feel for a musical backdrop for the sweeping mountain and forest shots, and the Seattle music scene provided excellent source ideas for the themes of a psychologically disturbed villain and his underground crime circuit.
Then a short directed by Sam Graydon, called Jenny, starring Gary Busey, which needed a lonely, lost feeling. I kept it simple with acoustic guitar, recorded by my wife, Jenny.
Right after that, I got the call that in light of their success with “Jingle,” Hallmark had ordered a second film. Scoring the second film was very smooth. Strong from my experience on the first one, I knew exactly what they wanted. This time I got to play with some calypso music, and there were some scarier action moments that were just my thing, everything just came together. Chel requested only one minor modification on the whole score. And it’s a good thing it went that way, because time was short: it was only two weeks before I was getting married! Even though I did my best to help my poor bride-to-be with wedding preparations, the demands of television timelines are unyielding: I finished scoring the film a few days before their deadline, just days before the wedding ceremony. The funny thing is when we got engaged I was scoring the first Jingle, I was working on the second when we got married, and my wife’s nickname had always been “Jingle” because her name is Jennifer Ingle. Needless to say that we have little “Jingle All The Way” ornaments in our Christmas tree!
TAEM- We had a sample of your musical score for Starship: Rising and we found it unique and dramatic. It was a fabulous creation by you and I know our readership, as well as Hollywood producers, would love to here it. Could you add a link to it for us , and please tell us your thoughts about it during its creation.
CHA- Thank you so much! Absolutely, here it is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_X8FEo4Tk_c
I am actually very excited to announce that the Starship: Rising score just won the WAB/AOF Best Music Score Award at the 2014 Action On Film International Film Festival in LA. Lots of first time here: first Action/Sci-Fi score, first LA feature film, first LA award.
When director Neil Johnson approached me to score his film, he mentioned it was very dark. With “Shadowed” and another feature titled “Serenity Farm” I had scored, I did have experience in thriller scores but not in the Sci-Fi genre. But Sci-Fi being one of my favorite film genres, I was really excited to have the opportunity to come up with such a score for the first time. Scoring Starship was a lot of fun in that regard. Neil had mentioned that he liked deep brass sound but no high pitched horns. So for the most part, trumpets were out of the picture. Bass trombone, Tuba, and French Horns in the low register make up the basis of the score. It’s also a hybrid score, in the sense that it has a lot of electronic elements blended with the massive orchestral sound. Huge percussions, synthesizer bass pulses and even ethnic instruments were part of the score in order to make it sound “out of this world.” At some point Neil even mentioned, “If you open the gates of hell, what would it sounds like?” The quest to go always darker was the challenge for the Starship score. It’s also action-packed. Battle music is hard in the sense that it can require a lot of orchestration to create the right mix and balance with the sound design. And they play loud. 13 hours a day of loud action music for 3 months can be quite exhausting,. The more character driven scenes were often giving me time to catch my breath. Starship Rising has a sequel which is currently in post production, titled “Starship: Apocalypse,” and I look forward to scoring it as well soon.
The Starship Rising Album can be found on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/starship-rising-original-motion/id917806787
and on CDBaby.com: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/charleshenriavelange
TAEM- We also understand that you have seven more productions that you are working on including Nobility for which we have a number of cast and crew members that we are interviewing in our magazine. Can you tell us something about these projects ?
CHA- Absolutely! Nobility is such a great project. EJ de la Pena penned here his first dramedy and the script is really great. I believe it is the quality of the script that attracted the excellent cast we have for this project. I mean, I remember watching Stargate SG-1 when I was in France, and being a fan, or Star Trek, and I used to watch Xena Warrior Princess. So imagine my excitement when I go on set and meet all these wonderful people. Scoring Nobility is like coming home, because the kind of music it requires is what I grew up with, the kind of music that I’ve always had an “itch” for. The process is intuitive and it’s one of these projects that, even though it’s the first time I work on one of its kind, it feels like I’ve done it my whole life. Also, the production is in an ideal set up where I was brought on board right when the ink was still wet on the paper. As a composer, I always prefer to get involved right at the beginning of the project. It allows me to grow with it, to see the script changes, to come on set and see the actors discovering their characters, nurturing them and seeing the whole crew interact with each other. Basically being a witness of all the blood and sweat that goes into making a film. It is all very inspiring and then I go back to my studio, my head filled up with all these emotions which then get translated into the music.
Nobility is like a painting. At the beginning you get a real close up of it and what you see is a comedy. But as you step back and get a better idea of the whole picture, you realize that it is a comedy painted on a giant canvas of drama. And this is what I try to convey through the various characters’ light motifs: Melody lines that are recurrent and associated with each of the characters. One day I showed up on set with a theme I had designed for a particular alien race in the story called the “Eujins,” which are wonderfully interpreted by Ellen Dubin, Adrienne Wilkinson and Darren Jacobs. It was just a draft idea which was inspired to me from the previous day’s shoot. I brought small speakers and had Darren and director Neil Johnson listening to it. They both loved it. Darren even requested to get an MP3 so that he can go back home and listen to it to work on his character. It was so great to hear him telling me all about the ways this piece of music inspires him to develop his character. And vice versa, another day I had actors, Cas Anvar and James Kyson, listening to Nobility’s main theme for the first time on set, which later on inspired them to share with me insights on their characters that otherwise I would have never known. I just can’t wait to share more of the music from Nobility.
TAEM- We were pleasantly surprised to learn that you also produced a video game and even added an acting credit to your name. Please tell us about these aspects of your career.
CHA- Yes, “BattleCell” is the project I produced. Even though I was first approached to score it and produce the sound design, Ovid Stavrica – the creator of the project – saw that my expertise was extending way beyond that (as I used to be a hardcore gamer myself ) so I was promoted Executive Producer. As such I was responsible for raising 20% of the total budget to complete the game and produce the video webseries. This was a great learning experience for me. Being a producer, I believe made me a better composer. I understood better the constraints that most producers go through. Understanding the producer’s job makes me able to adapt my job as a composer in a much more flexible manner. I think of myself as a filmmaker in charge of the music department, more than just a musician.
As for acting, yes I did get to be a featured extra in the feature film “Grassroots” directed by Steven Gyllenhaal and starring Jason Biggs, Joel Moore and Lauren Ambrose. I managed to find myself right next to Jason Biggs and Lauren Ambrose in the final scene of the film. I knew almost everyone involved in the film and it was really fun to have a cameo in it. I also have a lot more respects for extras. I mean, we were asked to jump like we were partying for 14 hours straight, in the heat of the summer afternoon in a stuffy dance club. I lost a few pounds that day! It was exhausting but the experience was worth it.
TAEM- What are some of your plans moving ahead, and what other genres of film would you like to work with ?
CHA- I am passionate about science-fiction, fantasy and history. Ever since I arrived in America I have been one way or another involved with the heroes theme. I would love to score a World War I or World War II film. Or a medieval piece, fantasy or historically true. A period piece in general. Or lately I’ve been craving a great love story, in the likes of “Out of Africa.” I like stories that are bigger than life, with a strong message. Something that takes you to the guts. Whether it is in the form of a television series, a feature film or a video game, doesn’t really matter. There hasn’t been a great western either lately, that’s definitely something that I would love to score. My wife and I have been almost 2 years now in Los Angeles, we feel like we are getting used to our new life and more and more thinking of Los Angeles as “home.” And at some point, once I am done working on all these projects maybe we can finally take a vacation!
TAEM- Charles-Henri we have been honored to be able to have this interview with you for our publication and want to thank you for spending this time with us. We also want to wish you much luck in all your future endeavors.
The pleasure was all mine, thank you so much for having me.
Official website: www.charleshenriavelange.com
IMDb page: www.imdb.me/charleshenriavelange
Official Facebook page: www.facebook.com/charleshenriavelangecomposer
Official Twitter: www.twitter.com/charlesavelange @charlesavelange
WAB/AOF Best Music Score Award Speech Acceptance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vXQhxJrBbus
ARTHUR (Full Film) https://vimeo.com/16044773
SPINNING (Full Film) https://vimeo.com/34043966