An Interview with Panu Aaltio by John Mansell © 2012
At the age of 30, Panu Aaltio is already an in-demand composer and music producer having worked on projects in his native Finland, many other European countries and in the United States. He has composed music for popular feature films, video games and primetime TV series. A classically trained cellist since the age of 6, as well as an electronic music enthusiast for just as long, his music embodies a unique and fresh mix of contemporary and tradition. Right after finishing high school, Panu went on to study music technology as well as classical composition in Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. In 2005 Panu moved to Los Angeles to study film music at University of Southern California. Upon graduating, he received the Harry Warren Scholarship for Excellence in Film Scoring. Recent films include THE HOME OF DARK BUTTERFLIES, for which Panu received a Best Music nomination at the Jussi Awards in2009, and the horror film SAUNA, released by IFC Entertainment in the United States. He also scored the newly released video game Apache: Air Assault, published by Activision. Recently Panu has scored the fantasy film DAWN OF THE DRAGONSLAYER, the period spy drama HELLA W, and the psychological thriller BODY OF WATER.
You began your musical studies in Helsinki; at the Sibelius Academy what areas of musical studies did you concentrate upon there?
When I graduated from high school, I already knew I wanted to do film music, but there were no university-level film music courses in Finland. So I applied to the Centre for Music & Technology at Sibelius Academy. It seemed like a good mix of all the things that are important in film music, and it combined my two biggest hobbies then, composing and computers.
It ended up being even better than I expected, because the department let me customize my studies quite freely, taking composition, counterpoint and orchestration classes from the composition department, going to film classes in another university, and so on. The internal studies at the CM&T were about recording, mixing, sound synthesis and music production among other things. All in all it was a good foundation for moving into film scoring later.
In 2005 you re-located to the United States to study film music at the University of Southern California. At what stage during your musical studies did you decide to make this move and begin your career as a composer of film music?
I was graduating with a Bachelor of Music from Sibelius Academy at that point. I had also done many student films, so I had some experience working with directors and scoring to picture. But I’d never worked with a full orchestra, so it was obvious I needed to expand my horizons.
I looked up different film scoring programs, and I immediately got interested in USC, because the faculty listed so many people I actually knew from films and TV. And it really was great to have a very practical program after the theory-heavy education I had before.
One of your latest projects, DAWN OF THE DRAGONSLAYER, has just been released on MovieScore Media. When a score you have written is given a compact disc release do you have any input into what music cues will be used etc?
Indeed we’ll always go through the track list together with the record label. On some soundtracks I’ve had to figure it all by myself, but it becomes so much better if someone else does it, because they come at it from a fresh perspective. On both MovieScore Media releases it’s been especially great to have Mikael Carlsson work on the album edit, because he comes up with wonderful ideas that I never would’ve thought of.
DAWN OF THE DRAGONSLAYER for me evokes the epic sound of many vintage film scores but you combine this with elements that are more contemporary, a fusion which I must say works very well. Were there any specific instructions by the film’s producers/director regarding style etc, what size orchestra did you use and how long did the project take to complete from start to finish?
Thank you! We discussed various scores from recent years with the director Anne Black, for example MASTER AND COMMANDER, 13TH WARRIOR, MOLIÈRE, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, MANSFIELD PARK, and choral music by Eric Whitacre. So those sort provide a backdrop for when I’m going through the score in my head.
But in terms of the style of music that becomes the actual score as I’m composing, that’s often sort of an emergent property of my intuition based on my feeling from the film. I’ll gently push myself into different directions to make sure I’m serving the film correctly, but at the same time I’ll try to let myself drift enough that some kind of a unique voice might hopefully come through.
I always like to use as many live players as possible, but on Dragonslayer we were on an especially tight budget, and the amount of music was so huge that it just wasn’t possible to have even a small string section play throughout the score. So I ended up just going with synthesizers on it.
The actual time to score the film was about a month, so with a little over 80 minutes of music it got quite hectic, as I had to do all the synthesizer programming and mixing myself as well.
You have worked on soundtracks for games as well as movies – for you, is there a great deal of difference between the two mediums when it comes to the actual mechanics of scoring them, or do you approach both in a similar fashion?
Often the basic difference is that in a film you’re scoring the drama, but in a game you’re scoring the environment. That has implications beyond the more obvious issues of timing and structure, because you have to approach the emotion of the music differently as well. Game music becomes a more static backdrop that doesn’t try to go on the emotional journey that film music usually does. There are many cinematic games that bridge this difference though, so it’s becoming less divided.
In 2005 you worked on a number of episodes for a TV series entitled DIILI. When working on a series for television, do you re-use any compositions from previous episodes; and I ask this because the schedules on television must be very tight?
Yes, that was actually the Finnish version of THE APPRENTICE. There were four composers on that one; I was one of the three others assisting the lead composer Tuomas Kantelinen. The production company added the music to picture in the editing phase, so we basically built a custom music library for them to use, and they used it for multiple seasons.
In general if it was the kind of TV series where each episode is composed to picture, it’d usually be faster to just adopt the themes to new cues rather than edit old ones to fit.
Do you conduct your film scores at all or do you have a conductor so you can monitor things from the recording booth. Also do you carry out all of your own orchestrations?
I had never conducted before the USC film scoring program, so it’s not a very natural thing for me. I’m much more comfortable in the booth, and I can concentrate on the music better that way.
I do all my own orchestrations typically. The only exception so far has been when doing THE HOME OF DARK BUTTERFLIES, because we ran out of time. Then I had Matt Dunkley, who conducted it as well, orchestrate a few cues. They came out great, and it’s quite nice to get input on your arrangements from incredibly talented people like him.
What composers or artists have influenced you or inspired you as a composer?
I got interested in film music by listening to Hans Zimmer scores in the 90s, and it sort of awoke in me this passion to combine my two completely separate music hobbies at that point: my classical cello playing and creating electronic music.
On the classical side, there’s almost an infinite amount of orchestral knowledge you can learn from the likes of Ravel and Stravinsky. I wish I had time to just study all the details in those scores endlessly. In the film world, I’ve also been fascinated by the genius of Jerry Goldsmith and how much he transformed from project to project, and the melodic development and dynamism of John Williams. Many others in both categories, of course, but it gets too long to list.
My electronic music background works as an influence as well I’m sure, but it’s harder to draw direct lines from there to anything except hybrid scores. I did listen to an endless amount of The Prodigy, Chemical Brothers and similar artists during grade school and early high school though, so I’m sure it has an effect even in orchestral music on how I perceive timbre, rhythms and movement, for example. And I do like to have a lot of bass!
2008 Was a busy year for you, you worked on a number of projects, one of them was THE HOME OF DARK BUTTERFLIES, how did you become involved on this movie?
I had worked on student films earlier with people from the sound crew, and based on the script they suggested to the director that I might be suited to score this particular film, because they felt I did a good job on short films that had a lot of dialogue. The production company sent me the script saying they were considering a couple of other composers as well, but I could submit a demo if I wished.
I was in Los Angeles at the moment, and had just failed to get a few other gigs, so I almost didn’t bother with this new offer. I figured I could just avoid feeling disappointed by not even trying! But fortunately I decided to try anyway.
So I called the director Dome Karukoski and we talked a little about what the central emotional theme of the film should be. He described it with a Finnish proverb that translates roughly “to success through hardship”. I started thinking of a style of music that would communicate the emotion of that, and after reading the script, my feeling took me into this kind of minimalism of the likes of Michael Nyman. I quickly got inspired to try my take on it, and the demo actually ended up almost unchanged in the final film where I imagined it in the script, just with a live orchestra. It’s the track ‘The Farewell’ on the CD.
Staying with THE HOME OF DARK BUTTERFLIES, did the director adopt a hands on approach regarding the music, i.e.; where it should be placed or what style or sound it should contain?
I was on board early enough that I was able to create around 60 minutes of demos already for the editing phase. So the temp score was almost entirely my music. This way both the director and the editor could be very hands on with the music, and I felt it worked great, because it made the process very collaborative.
Have you a set routine when you are scoring a picture, by this I mean do you begin with a central theme from which you then base other themes upon or do you tackle smaller cues in the first instant and then concentrate on a theme for the movie?
I try to have themes done before I start scoring, because it’s really easy to get lost without having some basic reference points. I might add more thematic elements as I’m scoring if it seems necessary, but most of it will be decided early on. This way I can think on a very abstract level how they might interact and make sure there’s enough contrast in them.
How do facilities differ in Finland from those offered in the United States, by this I mean recording studios and also the availability of musicians orchestras etc?
Finland has great orchestras, but there isn’t a great studio for film scoring. Some people have used concert halls for film scores in Finland, but it hasn’t been practical for the types of scores I’ve been doing.
And it takes a lot more time to set everything up and get the musicians because there’s no Zig contracting agency, so under a tight schedule it’s not even possible.
If you are to score a movie, when is the ideal time for you to become involved, do you like to start with a script or is it better for you to see the rough cut of the movie and how many times do you like to view the movie before you begin to get any fixed ideas about where music will be placed etc?
Ideally I like to be involved with the project early enough that the temp score will already be my original music, because it just makes everything so much easier. Often that means being there from the script stage. The negative effect from this approach is that you’re not able to get a fresh perspective with the finished cut, but so far I’ve felt that it’s been outweighed by the advantages and the added time for developing themes and ideas.
When I watch a film without music, I usually get an idea of where the music should go pretty quickly. I’ll write down the first cue sheet going through the film once, and then make adjustments to that later if necessary.
In your opinion what is the purpose of music in film?
It describes us the world behind the screen, and informs us of the laws that the universe of the film operates under.
You are a classically trained cellist, do you perform on any of your scores and when working on a score how do you arrive at your musical solutions, i.e. do you utilize piano, keyboard or by other means?
I’ve played the cello on some of my own projects, but I play too rarely and hence my lack of technique gets in the way of getting a good performance, so usually I prefer a professional player to play those parts.
When working on a score I’ll develop the themes and their basic harmonies in my head, and then sit on front of the piano and try to see if I can take them to new directions. Most of the project I’ll be in front of my computer and a MIDI keyboard, but I try to only do that after I have a pretty good idea of what I’m going to do.
Do you have a preference for any one orchestra or ensemble of musicians when you work on a project?
Usually if the budget allows, I record in London with the players from Isobel Griffiths because I just enjoy the process there so much and the entire recording always ends up top notch. But I’ve also had great experiences working with the Northwest Sinfonia in Seattle for example, so it really depends on the project.
Do you do anything musically which is not connected to film, games or TV?
We have two electronic music projects with my friends, which we work on from time to time. It’s sort of a continuation of my hobby from my childhood, but also a good counterweight to film scoring. But I’ve noticed without deadlines we really get nothing finished! Occasionally I’ve also composed concert music, mostly for local orchestras.
What is next for you?
I’m working on a feature-length documentary and developing the music to an adventure film that’s going into production this Summer. We’re trying to get live orchestras to both, but both are still at a very early stage.