How Music Can Help Define Your Filmmaking Voice

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Field Notes Interview #22: Aaron Tharpe // Filmmaker

The short films by 31Films and Film Lab are finely-tuned examples of stories well told. Everything from compelling characters, good pacing, interesting settings, and engaging soundtracks exist in their work. A lot of this has to do with allowing time to cultivate their own storytelling voice and not forcing it.

Collaboration plays an integral role in all of their films, as well as working on badass projects with our friends at Story & Heart. The pairing of music to picture also plays a vital role in their creative decision making.

We chatted with Aaron Tharpe, the Creative Director at 31Films and Film Lab, on his personal creative process and the way that music has played a large role in how he shaped his unique take on filmmaking.


M: When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?

AT: This one is hard for me to pin down. I spent most of my teen years assuming I would be a be a music producer/engineer or maybe a photographer. I was always drawn to the arts, and storytelling, but for some reason - filmmaking just seemed like this mystic profession that wasn’t even in the realm of possibility. My senior year in high-school, I was nominated to make our “Class film.” I thought to myself: “What would Quentin Tarantino do?” and proceeded to fail miserably at that lofty aspiration. I did absolutely love the process and the challenge though, and that stuck with me. A few years later, Joey (who was a fellow band-mate and the best man at my wedding) asked me to take on an editing role at 31Films. 

M: What's your favorite moment of the filmmaking process?

AT: Every project has its own moments, but nothing beats a client who is just ecstatic over what you’ve created or are creating for them. We spend so much time caring for the films we create, that it’s the ultimate payoff when you see how worth it the hard work really was. We’re also a super collaborative group. On that same line of thought-  with 6 of us full-time, we run every project through each set of hands and eyes for different stages of the process. When we get to that finishing process, and everyone is just standing around the preview monitor with excitement in their eyes because it’s all come together - it’s pretty magical too.

M: What do you think defines a filmmakers' "voice”?

AT: I think the definition of an filmmakers “voice" is different for everyone. For some, their voice is in a consistent message or tone that’s in their work - whether that message is of hope, despair, self-reflection, love, or awareness. Other’s find their voice in their visual style, like the amazing Wes Anderson (God bless him) or the infamous Michael Bay (Heaven help him). All-in-all, it’s just about finding that thing that IS unique to you. That thing that you seemingly care about or focus on more than anyone else in the industry. The thing that viewers connect with in your films. You can try to force a different voice onto your work, but you’ll find that when you do, the work will not connect with viewers and will come across as disingenuous. Just embrace what works for you, it might be the thing that defines your voice.

M: How did Filmlab and 31Films come into fruition?

AT: Joey started 31Films back in 2002. He had a full time job at the time, but was wanting to get into filmmaking and documentaries. I was playing music with him in that era, but 31Films was only Natalie (his wife) and him at the time. After they did some weddings for friends-of-friends, and made some connections - he had enough volume of work to move into it full time. As the business (and his family) grew, he brought me on to allow for Natalie to focus more on the kids. We worked together for a couple of years with the help of a few key people (including my wife - who also, eventually retired into motherhood) and things really started taking off. Since 2009 or so, we’ve been filming about 40-50 weddings a year, which means we had to start bringing on more crew to maintain the work and keep the quality up. Around 2011, we also realized that we had been picking up quite a bit of commercial work through 31Films, but we didn’t necessarily want that brand to become a catch-all for just "video work"- because we really valued having a focus on weddings. That’s when the decision to launch Film Lab Creative came about. With that, we were able to bring on some additional (super-talented) crew who could help us take our production abilities to the next level and grow the commercial side, while also wholly focusing on our weddings with the 31Films brand. At this point, our work balances around 40% weddings and 60% commercial, which is very much a balance that we’re happy with going forward.

M: Do you always have a clear vision in mind when filming? Or do you allow things to unfold?

AT: It’s always a delicate balance of both. We have found that our best work comes when we have a focussed vision and clear outline, but while also allowing room to react and let things happen naturally. If you’re too formulaic or stuck to a shot-list, you might find that your work feels sterile. On the flip-side, if you just go in with instincts and no game-plan, you might strike gold, but you’ll more than likely just strike out. 

M: Favorite moment off the screen?

AT: The moment my coffee is ready to drink. Seriously - we take our beans, grind and brewing methods very seriously over here. It’s the life-blood of our creative process! 

M: Are there ever any happy accidents when filming?

AT: Almost always. Some of my favorite moments and the most magical shots we have in our portfolio involved “happy accidents” of sorts. I don’t think that discredits anything we do as filmmakers though. We have to set the stage and be prepared to capture those moments when they arise. It’s that whole “luck is where hard work meets opportunity” scenario every day on set.

M: What role do you feel music has in film?

AT: A massive one. Often, when a film just doesn’t feel right, it comes down directly to the music. It’s often that factor that even helps a filmmaker define their voice. We believe here that sound (and sometimes the lack of) is at least 60-65% of the viewing experience for a film, so it’s a big focus for us. I’d gladly watch a story with great natural audio and a beautiful soundtrack, all filmed on a terrible camera - before I’d want to watch beautiful cinematography set to a terrible soundbed and bad music.

M: When do you know that you have something ready to show the world?

AT: For me…it’s typically, when someone smacks me in the face and says “ENOUGH, AARON! IT’S DONE!” Every creative struggles with finding the moment your work is “complete enough” to show the world, because with time, we could ALWAYS tweak and change things. Honestly, the key to being a professional creative, is knowing how to set limitations and timelines that you hold yourself to, as well as those around you. You can’t let your emotion or inspiration be the only factor in when you work, how you work, and why you work. It’s a process of training your mind to create, and being able to recognize when the work is done. Tight deadlines from clients sometimes help force out the best work. You don’t have time to over-think it. You can’t live your life creating that way, but we love the occasional challenge to make something great in a short amount of time. It is, however, a different feeling of gratification than when you’ve babied something for months and months and it finally comes together. They’re both amazing feelings, and they both have their place in the creative process. No two projects will flow or feel the same. The key is being able to create something stellar in either case.

M: How do you feel music is misused in projects?

AT: I think a common area of mis-use is when people force their personal music taste onto a project. The art of scoring a film, is being able to recognize exactly what the project calls for at that moment, and what feelings that song will prompt in the viewer. Does that emotion line up with the direction of the film, as well as the cinematography and natural audio? Marmoset has been an incredible resource for us in this department. When we’re stuck, unable to find the score that hits what we need, we can always count on the music supervision team to absolutely knock it out of the park for us!

M: What's coming up?

AT: 2015 is shaping up to be a really exciting year! So many new things are on the horizon between our Story & Heart partnership, education/mentorship opportunities, 31Films and Film Lab branding refreshes, some super exciting commercial and documentary projects, a slew of beautiful wedding destinations, and an endless mound of Coava, Stumptown and Greenway coffee beans shipped to our door each week. Overall, we’re just pumped about taking on whatever this year has to offer.