Composer Darren Fung watched the weirdly stretched-out sea lions swimming across a screen and imagined the music that would best suit them. In mid-November, he’d signed on to work with filmmaker Adam Ravetch on a virtual-reality short, filmed underwater. Viewers would feel like they were swimming with the puppies of the sea–but for now, Fung was stuck with the flat, warped image on a regular video screen, trying to put himself in his audience’s shoes.
What would he feel, what did the filmmaker want the audience to feel, and what would the audience feel on their own? His music needed to nudge, and augment, those limbic responses.
Emotionally scoring the natural world, and human study of it, is something Fung has become expert in. Recently, Fung–who composed the Canadian Screen Award-winning soundtrack for the anthropological miniseries The Great Human Odyssey and is currently musicalizing Equus, a project about how horses have changed history–has somewhat accidentally found himself swimming in such science documentaries.
And although he at first didn’t know how his music could interact with this genre, he now hears the soundtracks that swell behind science films like any others. Scientific topics, like love triangles or bank heists, are all about drama, emotions, and humans–centuries of claims of dispassionate objectivity notwithstanding–and that’s what the chords and chromatics are all about.
It took a while for Fung’s love of music to crescendo into a career composing for films. At McGill University, Fung found that students and teachers tended toward “avant-garde, artsy-fartsy, academic music.” For a while he did, too. But he soon realized he wanted to write more accessible music for movies–big, soaring melodies that can make your chest feel like it’s full of fire while at the same time you hardly notice them.
After college, he offered his services to the film student artistes. He and his college buddies would go to the university’s concert hall at midnight and record the scores. “We were going and doing these short films with these big scores,” Fung says. “It got to the point where I went to a party one night and one of my friends said, ‘Oh shit, it’s Darren. He’s going to ask us to play for free again.’ I gave them pizza and beer.”
Soon, small paying gigs turned into indie feature films turned into television turned into a move to Los Angeles, five years ago. And then came the science. The projects are different—the pizza and beer and camaraderie have stayed the same.
In 2011, Fung worked on Lost Years, a documentary that uses the story of Chinese-Canadian Kenda Gee’s family to explore racism and the Chinese diaspora. Its co-director Tom Radford ran a production company with anthropologist and documentarian Niobe Thompson–who was a fan of the notes undergirding Lost Years. “He heard my work and said, ‘Holy shit, that’s really good,'” says Fung, who likes to say “shit.”
Thompson was working on a project called The Great Human Odyssey, a three-part series about how humans came to be and then keep being and then take over the planet, and he asked Fung to compose the score. Fung was hesitant at first. He’d never done a science documentary. “How do you translate that into cinematic film-score world?” he wondered. Usually, when he met with a director to talk music, he asked the filmmaker what he wanted to audience to feel. “When you think about it for science, where is the emotion in that?” he remembers thinking.
But when he learned more about the actual great human odyssey, he realized something: The swings of this scientific plot were no different from those of any other twisting and turning narrative. “You talk about how humans have survived through all this adversity through all the years,” he says. “There were some a pretty shitty things humans had to go through. That whole ice age was pretty crappy.” (True story, dude.)
Fung watched people free-diving, jumping across ice floes, migrating from Africa to Europe–footage that had been filmed over the course of 18 months with ultraHD 4K cameras. This documentary seemed to have it all: “Wonderment, adversity, despair: That’s what makes a soundtrack,” he says. “You’re not scoring science. You’re not scoring DNA structures. You’re not scoring evolution. You’re scoring the emotions that are behind that.”
And in that scoring, he had to try to match the awesome timbre of the natural environment: up in the air, down in the ocean, in a genetics lab. According to the Canadian Screen Awards committee, he did a good job. Hear for yourself.
The tone of his new VR project–headed up by Adam Ravetch, who’d been an underwater cinematographer on Odyssey–will likely sound a bit different. As Fung watched the ocean puppies careering about and considered which audience emotions he wanted to bolster, he knew he had options. “Looking at these sea lions playing around, you could play it in a lot of different ways,” he says.
Playful, though, won out. Ravetch did, after all, give the project the working title Dogs in Rubber Suits.
While composing, Fung had to remember that viewers would have an extra dimension of perception, so his music should, too. It should surround them, and feel like it was organic to that fully realized underwater world, not superimposed. Dolby Atmos–which helps sound sound like it’s coming from three dimensions when it bursts from speakers–helps.
“Multisensory technology is really changing how we work in music,” he says. And in fact, most composition tech has changed since Fung’s early days, when he had to physically draw the stems of his own notes and top them with neat, dark ovals, instead of composing on the computer. His subject matter and style have evolved, too. But one thing hasn’t: The power of a live orchestra, playing notes he put together one way or another, to pull your feelings out of you and then turn up their volume.