Giona Ostinelli & Sonya Belousova

Two very busy film and TV composers discuss their work
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Practically every musician I know has, at one time or another, dreamed of scoring films for a living. Thanks to the proliferation of made-for-streaming movies and television series, demand for music soundtracks is greater than ever. To meet that demand, a new generation of exceptionally talented and well-trained composers is emerging. Electronic musical instruments and software are among the most essential elements in their timbral toolboxes.

Los Angeles-based composers Giona Ostinelli and Sonya Belousova are perfect examples of this phenomenon. Originally from Switzerland, Ostinelli earned his degree in film scoring from Berklee College of Music. He continued his studies at the University of Southern California, where he studied Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television and created soundtracks for more than 30 films in nine months. Since then, he has scored literally dozens of films and television shows, making him one of the industry’s most prolific composers.

Sonya Belousova first gained recognition as a child prodigy in her native Russia, where she earned degrees in music composition and piano performance. She’s now the driving force behind a popular YouTube channel called Player Piano. Belousova has also racked up credits for composing and performing for ballet and on numerous films. Two of her most acclaimed projects are the result of collaborating with Ostinelli.

I recently spoke with both composers about their scores for the television series The Mist and the film M.F.A. and asked about their approach to using electronic instrumentation.

I’ve noticed synthesizers are integral to a lot of your music. Do you always program and play them yourselves?

GO: The majority of the time, we do it ourselves. We use a combination of hardware synthesizers and plug-ins. Before we start any project, we spend days or maybe a week just creating interesting sounds, interesting textures that we think that we can use for a specific project. We record them, we store them, and then we start playing with them once we receive picture, and we see how it goes. So the majority of the time with synthesizers, it’s just us in the studio messing around for long hours until we can come up with something cool.

SB: With The Mist, before we even started working on the show, we spent probably around two weeks just messing around with different instruments, different synthesizers, creating interesting textures that we could potentially use.

GO: The thing that we like the least to do, with both types of synths, is to use presets and that’s it, because then you sound like [everybody] else.

SB: So many scores, when you hear them, you’re like, “Oh, I know this sound. This is a sound from Omnisphere or this is from….”

GO: What we do is we come up with our sounds. “This is something that we like and no one else has it, and it’s much better.” You also spend way less time. One big frustration for me is [having] a library of so many sounds that you spend, maybe, three hours looking for something and you can’t find it. It’s much better to just create what you hear in your head. It takes way less time, and you’re way more satisfied.

Your music makes extensive use of sampling, too. Do you use Kontakt, or do you record directly into a DAW?

SB: It’s a little bit of both. Before The Mist, for example, we recorded a lot of different pianos. We detuned them, and we sampled the detuned piano. We wanted to experiment and create the sounds, using the piano not in a traditional way just hitting the keys, but create a tension-building element. So we bowed it with different bows. We scraped the strings with coins. We threw batteries on the piano strings and recorded the resonance of that. We recorded everything you could even think of out of that piano. We recorded the piano bench as a percussion instrument. We recorded it with different mallets, and we sampled that.

GO: Tibetan bowls, string quartet, we also recorded. And then we basically used this as a sandbox. We take all this material we recorded prior to starting a project, we put it into Kontakt, and then we started messing around creating. Some stuff we record, we keep it as we record it.

SB: Like a lot of the string quartet, obviously, stayed as a string quartet. And a lot of these sounds, we transform them, we process them, we apply various effects, we reverse them—we do all these different things—to achieve interesting sounds.

We also recorded different vocal effects, different breaths and rhythmic patterns that became a percussive instrument. And we applied a lot of different effects on that, and that was used as a percussion instrument throughout the whole score for The Mist.

GO: We like very much creating sound and a type of texture from organic, touchable instruments and transforming them into something that you don’t think is an organic instrument, but still has that organic texture that makes it lively.

You must know Kontakt very well.

GO: [Laughs.] We do know Kontakt very well. Also with this piano for The Mist, we wanted a very broken type of sound. We didn’t want to use any type of perfect sampled piano library. So we basically sampled the piano and created our piano library, which is a detuned piano that no one else has, and it’s not perfect.

SB: In The Mist, our characters are imperfect. When we were recording different sounds, we didn’t want to use just the perfectly tuned piano, because that just wasn’t the right sound for that. So we recorded the detuned piano, then we sampled it in Kontakt, and we detuned it even more in Kontakt, and then that’s how it basically portrays our broken characters in the show.

GO: The cool thing is we went in and we sampled the full piano, key-by-key, and different velocity layers. But then in Kontakt, you find out some things, like you stretch some notes over multiple keys and it becomes more imperfect. It’s like, oh, this is a cool sound. It has more imperfection in it.

SB: You do this more, and it becomes a very rich and dark sound, and it sounds very interesting.

GO: You cannot achieve it just recording a piano and then going straight to the final product. You cannot even achieve it with a sample library, because it doesn’t really have it. It’s not imperfect. So, yeah, we do a lot of our own samples, and a lot of time is spent on that. We know how to use Kontakt very well.

What other software do you use a lot?

SB: As the main DAW, we use [MOTU] Digital Performer.

GO: We have a fairly sophisticated system. We have a six-computer studio. One computer is dedicated to Digital Performer for writing. However, this computer doesn’t host any samples or any plug-ins whatsoever.

SB: For me personally, Digital Performer is the one software that gives me the most flexibility than all the other software.

GO: And then on another Mac Pro we have Pro Tools HDX3, which we use basically just as a tape machine. All the music goes into Pro Tools.

SB: We print all the audio there.

GO: Yeah, we print everything there, and we run it all to picture so it’s perfect. And then we have four computers full of samples. One computer is dedicated to just strings, one is just for brass and woodwinds, one just for percussion, and then the fourth computer is synthesizers, pianos, and all the weird things that are not classical.

What about percussion? Do you ever start with sampled loops and use them all the way through to the finished score?

GO: I started playing drums when I was five, so percussion for me, it’s like piano for Sonya. Whenever we can, I record the percussion [myself ]. But, of course, when there’s some big ethnic percussion, like taikos or surdo stuff that we don’t have, we program it first and then we go and replace it, or it will end up being a combination of our samples together with the live stuff. It depends. But we do a lot in the studio.

SB: It’s always much more creative when you’re able to do it yourself, because the end result is just so much better, rather than you just get a sample library, you play one note, and you hear the loop. So that’s never our case.

GO: It helps being a drummer. We have the electronic drum kit, so we just quickly lay out the drums. And then either we keep those, we have another drummer replace it, or a combination of the two.

I’m continually amazed and surprised at how emotionally evocative your sounds are. What’s your workflow for, say, transforming the sound of someone breathing into something that musically enhances a scene?

SB: We used that a lot in the score for M.F.A. We recorded me breathing, and there are various breaths like short, long, violent, aggressive, soft, inhale, exhale—everything.

GO: With the breathing, it was very straightforward. We just record a song basically and then we took those recordings, treated them as samples, and put them into Kontakt.

We put some delay, some filtering on top. And then it builds from there, basically, just playing around in Kontakt and seeing how you can build a cue just out of breath.

SB: The score for M.F.A. was very interesting, because there are basically two main elements of that score. One element is the breathing. That becomes the core of the whole soundtrack. And then the other element is, we sampled Francesca Eastwood’s lines from the production dialogue and we put them in Kontakt, we processed them, we played different effects, we reversed the phrases, and then the phrases become the second important element in that score. So basically, it’s a combination of different breaths and her lines that creates the core of the score.

When you’re working together, what’s your usual division of labor? Who does what?

GO: It’s very mixed, because we [each] have a very different background.

SB: I come from more of a classical world, because I originally received a great classical education in Russia.

GO: I also played piano, classical piano, but not at the level of Sonya. I was more into the jazz, rock, all that stuff, and playing in bands. So when we write, it’s very complementary.

SB: It’s not specifically divided like, “You do this.” We complement each other.

GO: Like, I’ll write something, and she says, “Oh, we can make it more interesting. Let’s change this, this, this.”

SB: We just find creative ways much more beneficial, and the final result is much more interesting. For example, Giona would come up with ideas that I wouldn’t necessarily come up with and vice versa.

What were some of the more difficult challenges of composing for The Mist or for M.F.A?

SB: It’s different for every project because I think your job as a composer is to make every score different and unique, and we never want to repeat ourselves. So, to me, it’s finding that unique voice in the early stages. And this is also why we love coming on board from very early on, like with The Mist. Our initial conversation with Christian Torpe happened probably around June, and then, I think, in August of last year, we were already onboard. Basically, as soon as the editor started doing the cuts, we were already forming those cuts. In this case, the final product is so much more creative. I find you need to find a unique voice right away from the early stages.

GO: Also, like with M.F.A., we started working on it before they even shot the film.

SB: Leah McKendrick, who is the producer and the screenwriter for M.F.A., sent us a script. We wrote some music ideas and shared them with Leah and Natalia Leite, the director. And then they went on to shoot the film.

GO: We like being on from the beginning, because I think music is like [the] actors or storytelling, so it has to evolve together with the film. If you’re there from the beginning and you’re tweaking the music ideas and you’re evolving, you have the music evolve together with the picture, [and] you always end up with such a better final product.

SB: Obviously, every project is different. For some projects, you have the luxury of coming onboard early. Other projects you don’t have this luxury, and that’s okay, too. So it’s always different. But I think, for me, it’s finding that particularly unique musical voice. That is the most important element.

Anyone involved with post-production has to work quickly under pressure. Do you ever feel overwhelmed by requests made by film or television directors? How do you deal with that pressure?

GO: We’ll give you an example with The Mist. We had a situation when we had to write 20 minutes of music.

SB: Yeah, there were a couple of times when we had one session at 6 or 7 p.m., and the next day they were already submitting the cut to the network. They wanted us to write as much as we possibly could. So overnight we wrote 20 minutes of music. And the funny thing is, pretty much all of that music actually stayed.

GO: Other times the schedule got really crazy, because between January to April, we were juggling ten episodes at the same time, which when you start thinking about it, it’s like five feature films at the same time, and they’re all wall-to-wall music, pretty much.

SB: Yeah, because every episode has between 35 to 40 minutes of work, which is a lot.

GO: So we ended up finding a really good system where I would maybe work from like 9 a.m. until late night, and then Sonya would start coming into the studio and work from late afternoon and go all the way until the morning. I would leave and then come back in the morning and pick up from her. So we had a 24-hour cycle, which is handy when you’re under pressure.

You work in shifts.

GO: Yeah, you work in shifts. And when you know each other very well, and you’ve been working together for a long time, it’s like being a band. You trust, you talk, and you go for it.

Have either of you had an experience that you now consider your big break into film music?

SB: It’s a hard question. Every project is different. Sometimes you do a project and you go, “Wow, this is going to be big,” and that doesn’t necessarily happen. Or the other way around, you work on a project and you’re like, “Yeah, I’m enjoying this, but….” Then the film comes out and you’re like, “Wow, I totally did not expect this to be so big.” So it’s a very hard question. There are quite a few projects that I think are important for Giona’s career and my career.

GO: I think that if you start thinking, “Oh, you finally made it” and everything, then you stop, in a way, pushing yourself to the limit or always trying to come up with something different. So it’s never now a part of a conversation where we’re like, “Oh, we made it” or “We got there.” We’re always like, “What can we do for something cool? We need to push ourselves and we need to come up with something different we haven’t done before.”

SB: We’re always excited about new projects, and we’re always thinking “What can I do differently here that I haven’t necessarily done before to make this project truly stand out?”

It sounds like you consider your best work ahead of you.

SB: Yeah… I think for you, as a composer, your best work is always your most recent score. I think that is probably true for everyone.

GO: Yeah, unless you’re like, what was I thinking? But you grow, your taste changes, and your perception changes.

SB: You develop as an artist.

GO: Things that you liked before, then you don’t like anymore. I think it’s totally normal.

Scoring films is the ultimate dream for many composers. Do you have any suggestions for someone trying to break into that field?

GO: I think a good idea is always to don’t wait. Just jump in and go with the flow.

SB: Be always ready. Be always active. Always try to look for opportunities. Try to do as many projects as possible, because you never know what this relationship will bring you in the future. If you’re a student, try to do as many student films as possible, because you never know what these student directors will do in a couple of years. Maybe a director with whom you did a student film will do the next Star Wars film. So always, always grab every single opportunity. Do as much as you can, because you never know.

GO: Especially as a film composer, I think you always have to keep broadening your horizon. Always listen to as much music as you can.

SB: Try to make yourself as versatile as possible as an artist. Always keep an open mind. I think another very important element of that is don’t be afraid of rejection because, as an artist, you will have a lot of rejection. You’re not always going to get the gig, not because you’re not good, but just because this is the nature of this business. So always keep an open mind and don’t be afraid, and never stop.

GO: I know for a lot of people especially starting out, it’s always hard when you play the music and you get different feedback than you were expecting. It’s not negative or positive, it’s just normal. Everybody onboard is trying to achieve the best product possible, especially in film. But even when you are writing songs or doing Broadway, you go through many revisions, many changes, and that’s how you perfect the work and you make something really cool.

SB: And you have to be flexible about that, because it’s all about achieving the best final product.