SXSW Interview: We talk with Sage Lewis, the composer of Operator

This year’s SXSW was filled with lots of fascinating and original films, but Logan KibensOperator was one that stuck out among the crowd.

A romantic dramedy following Joe (Martin Starr), a programmer working on cutting-edge digital customer service software and his wife Emily (Mae Whitman), a hotel concierge who moonlights in a local comedy troupe, the film really impressed us – as did its soundtrack.

Fergus caught up with the film’s composer Sage Lewis to talk about the processes that went into the film and how they created a soundtrack capable of both the pulsating joyousness and skittering intensity that the subject material demanded.

Fergus: So Operator – How did you become involved with the film?

Sage: I’ve been friends with the director, Logan Kibens, since we were in school together at CalArts. She gave me a script and asked me to score the film a year or more before it was shot in Chicago. She and I have a lot in common artistically and so it was a great collaboration.

I enjoyed the way the film was scored, how did you approach such an interesting, and contemporary, film like it? 

The score was very conceptual. Every instrument, sound, and musical theme had a clear narrative purpose. Figuring out this sonic symbolism happened through many conversations with Logan and her co-writer / producer Sharon Greene. I also had my own musical team including Brendan Byrnes who came in as my assistant, guitarist, and wrote a handful of cues. I worked with a modular synthesist named Computo who recreated all my software synthesizers from scratch with analogue gear. And I worked with a number of session musicians too.

Through our collaboration we developed a group brain that thought deeply about what the film means and how to musically evoke the many philosophical, emotional, and aesthetic questions that it asks. As we started to connect the dots, we realized additional scenes where music could be part of the story telling and flow of the film. So the score started out small but grew into becoming something big. Scoring a film is like putting a puzzle together, you start by figuring out where a few of the pieces go, and then it expands and eventually all comes together as one clear image.

I noticed in the film that the Emily and Joe each had their own ‘sound’, can you talk about how you approached creating that effect? 

Emily and Joe’s ‘sound’ is a good example of how music helped flesh out the characters and tell the story. Joe is a character that gets stressed out and has frequent panic attacks. He’s afraid of the world. He tries to use his various technologies to measure his physical and emotional data to help him better understand himself and stay balanced. When I was first figuring out how to score his scenes I accidentally bumped an audio cable on my speaker and it made a feedback noise that was sent through an Eventide Space reverb. It sounded perfect so I recorded more of it.

I later understood why it fit so beautifully when I was talking with Sharon Greene (co-writer, producer). She explained to me that she and Logan had researched the psychology of panic attacks and learned that a panic attack is a psycho-emotional feedback loop where one bad thought leads to even worse thoughts cycling into a downward spiral of exponentially dark and irrational perceptions of reality.

This is exactly what happens in an audio feedback loop: A small sound gets stuck between a microphone and a speaker creating an amplitude that quickly cycles out of control inducing the feeling of panic. So when this discovery was made we understood how to evoke Joe’s psychological state through the score. I got together with Brendan and we spent all night recording different kinds of audio feedbacks with guitars, synthesizers, microphones, amplifiers, distortion pedals, reverb pedals, delays, etc. This gave us a wide and colourful palate of analogue noise that I could use musically to express Joe’s range of stress.

Emily’s musical theme was created with a singing bowl. This fit for her character because she is the calming empathetic side to Joe’s panic. Singing bowls are used in Tibetan Buddhism to focus the mind with a simple natural sine wave. We called it Emily’s “super power sound” because she would bring Joe’s panic back into balance with her calming empathetic powers. This musical theme is also heard when she calms her angry clients at the hotel through her thoughtful listening and helpful suggestions to their complaints. But when Joe programmed the virtual replica of Emily for his client, we created an electronic double of a natural singing bowl with an analogue modular synthesizer. And this became the sound of “IVR Emily” as she was brought into existence by Joe’s Frankenstein project of replicating his wife into a robo-service algorithm.

Was this something you collaborated with the director and writer of the film to develop or did emerge more naturally?

The concepts were developed naturally through an ongoing discussion that started with Logan a year before making the film and continued through our sessions while I was scoring the movie. When a director spends a lot of time with her/his composer it pays off for everyone.

As a composer, you’ve worked in a number of different areas (Film, games, branded-content), which of these do you find most creatively fulfilling? Which do you think generates your best work?

I like to work in a variety of media because it keeps me thinking in new ways about how to approach each project. I’ve been lucky to have this diversity of scoring opportunities and I hope that it continues in this way.

Congratulations on your Innovation Award, can you tell us about the possibilities that attract you to working in the relatively new fields of VR and AR scoring?

Virtual Reality is exciting because it is an emerging field that needs innovative people to figure out how to design impactful experiences. It brings many new challenges that I don’t think anyone has figured out the answers too yet. Film scoring is a codified form where you stand on the shoulders of giants but there isn’t as much space to be original. VR gives more opportunities to invent something entirely new. It brings amazing new ways of telling stories that immerse the user into a convincing new environment. Since VR and AR haven’t really gone to market yet, there is not a lot of access to how other artists are approaching the challenges. So everyone needs to figure it out on our own. It’s similar to the way the film industry was 100 years ago.

Another interesting thing about scoring VR and AR is that there can be a shift in perspective. Since VR/AR is so immersive the score can take more of a first-person perspective where you are actually a character inside of the story. The user experiences himself/herself as a character within that world. Film can be more of a third-person voyeurism where you are passively observing other characters from the outside.

Where can audiences impressed by your work in Operator look for more of your work? Are you involved with any other film project at present?

The best collection of my music is on my website or SoundCloud. We are also hoping to release the soundtrack of Operator on vinyl and digital download at some point this year. My next big project is composing music for a large permanent light show in the Middle East, but I can’t release any more details about that yet.  Sign up for my newsletter if you would like more updates.  

Check out our review of Operator here.

To find out more about Operator, check the SXSW website here.


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