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Composer brings sound design expertise to music and cinema programs

Filipe Leitão—an award-winning Brazilian-born composer, music producer, sound designer and orchestrator—recently joined the VCUarts Department of Music as an assistant professor. He will focus on composition and sound design for cinema, games and motion media, and will also teach for the Cinema program.

In the following Q&A, Leitão talks about his experience in composition and film scoring, and what to expect in his classes this fall.

How would you describe your composition style?

Generally, my style is more orchestral. It’s a lot of work to make a digital computer score sound like an orchestra, but that’s something I really love to make.

My job is to make the music work for the film or the game or whatever the visual medium is. If a filmmaker or game producer wants something country, even though I don’t have much experience with country music, I need to learn how to do that.

Tell us about some of the films and games you’ve scored.

In one film, Grounded, I collaborated with a filmmaker in California, who was doing animation. I found the trailer online and reached out to the director and said, “I’d love to score your animation.” He told me to score the trailer and send it back, and I got the job. I did the entire score and sound for that film. The film has no dialogue from actors, so I had to communicate feelings through music.

I also did a puzzle game that was a collaboration with a guy in California. He found me online and he thought my tracks matched the mood he wanted for that game. What’s different for games is, I don’t have visuals. I’m not scoring to the picture. I’m scoring for something that could work for 10 seconds or 5 minutes.

How do you approach composing a score?

In film, I try to evoke emotions. If I see the character is sad, what can I do in my music or in my orchestration to evoke that feeling? Or if it’s more adventurous, how can I evoke that through music? I need to think about orchestration as well. What kind of instrument am I going to use? Should I use a trumpet? Or should I use a flute? If you think about the Indiana Jones theme, with the trumpet playing, can you imagine that played by a flute? It’s not going to sound right.

In animation, without dialogue, I need to evoke and communicate through the score. In live action with dialogue, I need to be more careful to not over-score and compete with the dialogue. I have to think not only about the orchestration, but the sonic spaces. If I have a couple speaking, I should use some instruments above or below that range.

What interested you in VCUarts?

I have a doctorate focusing on composition, but I always loved to do film. When I saw the position at VCUarts, I thought I could apply everything I love to do and also share a little bit of my knowledge with students and give that to a new generation of composers.

What classes are you teaching this fall?

I’m going to teach an introduction to composition class. It will be a general class for everybody interested in composition; I’m not restricting that to any style.

I’m also going to teach Music Education Technology and Arranging class. That’s something I’m excited about, because that involves computers and learning how to use music notation and sequencing software, like Logic or GarageBand. And how to use those as a tool for music education. That’s the kind of course I taught in Brazil, before I came to the U.S.

Besides that, I’m going to teach a course in the Cinema program that’s going to be a survey of film music history. That’s a new course about how music and sound have evolved since the beginning of the last century to today.

Read more about Leitão and listen to his work at filipeleitao.com.

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