An Interview with Zaalen Tallis by John Mansell ©2012
Composer, musician Zaalen Tallis, was born in Perth, Western Australia. Amongst other things Zaalen is a composer of film music and has worked on numerous shorts and features. He writes scripts, takes an active role in making movies and also plays in bands; he is an individual who lives for the world of creativity. He became involved in the world of music at a very early age and his career led him into the film music composition arena where he remains very busy and productive. Over the past four years Zaalen has been nominated for ‘Best Original Music’ at the West Australian Screen Awards and has also written music for projects from China and the United States. In 2004 he received the ‘Western Australian Swan District Education Award’ for ‘Excellence In Music’. He is also the co-company director of Symphonic Pictures, a creative production company that he co-founded in 2008.
You are very much into everything to do with film. You have written scripts and provided numerous projects with musical scores. When did you decide to write music for film?
I was around the age of 12 when I knew that I wanted to compose music for films, however I always had a passion for film scores before then and I always had melodies going on my head from since I can remember.
One of your latest projects is PANTHEON. This is an epic sounding score. It, for me, is very much like the scores that were written during the 1970s and 1980s. It’s rich and luxurious with sweeping strings and kind of proud sounding brass. Was this something you set out to do right from the start on this project? I think what I am saying it’s a soundtrack that’s got actual themes, its hard hitting in a very similar way to what Goldsmith or Bernstein or even Poledouris would have done?
PANTHEON is a science fiction adventure with an epic, mature story and I felt it deserved strong themes accompanied by a large sound with lots of gusto and right from the start I set out to create that. I didn’t want any cheesiness in the score. I wanted to provide an adrenalin packed score that packs a punch, but is thematic as much as possible.
What musical education did you receive?
I only studied music in a formal way from the age of 10 until about the age of 14. I also did some sound engineering in my early 20s but that’s about it. I’m a hand’s on kind of guy. I want to get in there and play around with my equipment, notes, sounds and instruments and figure out for myself what methods work best for me and my ideas.
The best education in music I have ever had though is from my Dad who brought me up on listening and respecting all genres of music from all kinds of cultural backgrounds.
You played in bands. What sort of music did you play?
Well a good mix of music. Classical and jazz bands in high school school, a cover band that played funk, pop, rock, rnb and most enjoyably, jam sessions with my family. I’m definitely not the most talented player in the world that’s for sure but I love making a bit of noise.
Do you come from a family background that is musical?
Yes I do. My Dad’s a drummer, my oldest brother is a drummer and drum teacher and my other brother plays guitar and sings. I’m lucky enough to have a family that is extremely creative, not just in music but with anything that involves using your imagination and building ideas. It’s a part of the Z Clan DNA I think.
What composers or artists would you say have either inspired you or maybe influenced you in the way you write for film?
Hans Zimmer, John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Miklos Rozsa, James Newton Howard, John Powell, Basil Poledouris, Joe Hisaishi… All these amazing composers, and there are so many I haven’t listed, have all played a role in inspiring and influencing me. There are also heaps of bands and artists that have inspired ideas for my music.
What size orchestra did you use for PANTHEON. It sounds pretty large but I know that sometimes with modern tech. etc this is not always the case, so was it fully or partly orchestral?
Oh how I wish I had a real orchestra to record with. Pantheon was done from my little music room with software plug-ins. A lot of hours go into tweaking the plug-ins so I can get the instruments sounding as realistic as they can and also the way I want them to. If I were able to record it with an orchestra, I would’ve assembled the biggest string, brass, percussion and choir sections ever! I really wanted this score to be epic and bold in its themes and sound.
Do you perform on any of your scores?
Everything you hear on a score of mine up to now is all me, but I look forward to working with musicians who are playing my compositions and bringing a whole new life to them in the near future.
Orchestration I think is quite an important part of the composing process. Do you perform all your own orchestrations, or at times is it not possible to do this?
I perform all my orchestrations. I don’t know why at any time it couldn’t be possible to do so, but there’s nothing wrong with having an orchestrator come in to help out on that process.
Do you conduct at all?
If I were ever given the chance to, I’d definitely do it. Maybe one day that chance will come. It would be a fantastic experience.
The score for PANTHEON has been released on iTunes; did you have a hand in compiling what music would be released?
The always-inspiring Tom Hoover over at Saga Flight Entertainment, who produced Pantheon, chose the tracks for the album together with myself. I don’t think I could let other people compile an album of my music and release it without my input and final ok.
TIL 3 KNOCKS was a short film that you scored in 2007/8, and you were nominated for an award for this. How did you become involved on this project? Your score was quite sparse – what made you decide to score it in this way?
I was lucky enough to become friends with the producer and sound designer of TIL 3 KNOCKS, Wendy Graham and she introduced me to her partner Noah Norton who was the director and writer of the film. The both of them are incredibly creative and talented and just wonderful people and we hit it off straight away.
As far as scoring the film, they told me the story and tone of the film and I went and wrote about a 15 minute suite of music for it before seeing any footage. I felt that the music should have of a tone of mystery, subtle beauty and sorrow about it. The suite turned out to be pretty close to what they were after and worked well with the early edits of the film and with some tweaks and stripping and adding of layers the final score was finished.
ROSE’S PORTRAIT is a movie that I think is pretty profound and maybe slightly dark. Your score worked wonderfully although it was in no way like the subject matter of the film what size orchestra did you use for this?
I used a very small orchestra in my little room. The budgets with almost every short independent film simply don’t allow much room to go and get musicians and record them and also the time frames are very tight. It was just myself alone with a couple of instruments and plug-ins, tweaking and tweaking them to get them as close to the sound I want. I felt a small ensemble of instruments, each assigned to a character was the way to go and being a silent film with virtually no dialogue, I felt the connection of an instrument and theme to a character was important to individualize each of them and help project their personalities and emotions to the audience.
As I have said, you are involved in filmmaking as well as writing film scores. Let’s say you were to make a movie, direct etc, do you think that you would score it or maybe employ a composer to write the score?
I’d compose it. That’s one big reason why I want to make my own films. I’ve always wanted to create my own films and put my own score to them. It’s a huge task, but I’m up for it.
How many times do you like to see a movie before you begin to write the score?
I like to start scoring a film long before seeing any footage. A good director will have a musical tone at least in mind before he or she even starts filming and they will find a composer early on. I like the director to come to me early within the process and tell me about the characters and the journey they are on then let me use my imagination to find the right themes and tone for the film. I think that’s a part of a film composer’s job and the creative journey is so much more fun. It allows for ideas to come out that might never have been thought of. You might be on the money or be way off, but there will be something that hits the right chord and then off you go.
Do you agree with the practice that some filmmakers have of attaching a temp track to a movie to give the composer an idea of what music they want for their film – is it something that you have encountered and if so, was it helpful or maybe a little distracting?
Temp scores are mainly used for getting the timing of cuts for a scene, however I’m not a fan because a director can get hooked on the temp score and that can turn the composer’s job into a bit of a nightmare. If the director gets hooked, it takes away a lot of creative freedom and discussion and for me, I want to create music unique and individual for every project I do. I have refused to do projects because the director has wanted a tweaked version of the temp score. That’s something I will never do. So yes, temp scores are distracting and I do prefer no temp score, but I think its just part of the process for many directors these days.
What do you utilize to work out your musical ideas – piano, keyboard or something more technical?
The keyboard is my main source of playing out my ideas, but also plenty of humming melodies while in the shower. The shower is truly a great place to get ideas going.
SO PRETTY is a short which runs for under 10 minutes, I have not seen it but it is getting some positive reviews some calling it an anti-TWILIGHT film because it goes back to the old vampire stories etc for its inspiration. When scoring a short is it more difficult for you as a composer to underline the action on screen and develop the score because of the time factor?
It isn’t more difficult to develop the score. It just sometimes doesn’t allow you to develop the score as much as you’d like to because the characters journeys are much shorter. The great thing is that from every score I write there are ideas within them that I might really like and I can try to work on them in another score.
What would you say is the purpose of music in film?
I think the purpose of music in film is to help us connect with the emotional core of the characters and world they are in.
I understand that you are working on a number of animated projects at the moment. For you, how does the scoring process differ between live action and animation?
I actually don’t find any difference at all. I approach animated projects the same as I do live action films. I want to find the soul of the characters and the world they are in and try to capture all of that in the music.
Many thanks for your time…
It’s been a pleasure, thank you John.