Thessalus & Medea wins Best Music Score

Chen Wissotsky, sound designer and composer won the award for Best Music Score at Southampton Film Festival 2018.

“We are very happy for Chen. As a composer, his dramatic score added the perfect soundtrack for ‘Thessalus & Medea’ and without his sound design expertise, we would never have had the confidence to shoot in the difficult but atmospheric location that we used for the set.”  Producer, Massimo Barbato. Here’s an interview with Chen.

Q. What attracted you to working on Thessalus & Medea?

Greek mythology was my personal early encounter with fantasy. I discovered the Iliad and the Odyssey long before I was given the first ‘Hobbit’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ to read. I was first hired to be the on-set mixer, although I primarily work as a composer and sound designer. I met Jan and Massimo when they invited me to take some samples at the location and was impressed with their professional attitude and vision. Being on location and reading the script gave me an immediate feel for the sound that this film may need. I also felt that I would have the freedom to explore and enhance the vision of the writer/ director.

Q. What was the inspiration for the music score to Thessalus & Medea? 

Being on location had a big factor in the initial feel for the sounds and colours that the film needed. We spent most of the production underground in big hollow spaces, almost like a maze of rooms.  I was also inspired by the powerful imagery created by the DP, Simon Rowling, and the almost theatrical acting. It felt to me like a throwback to old BBC period dramas.

Q. How would you describe the music?

The music is designed to be eternal. Just like the story. It serves as the backdrop to the theatrical dramatic feel that the film has. But it is also made to feel not too contemporary and not too historic leaning. I guess I was trying to come up with something that would feel out of time. I wanted to include fantasy elements but also portray reality. The music serves as the Greek chorus of the play, enhancing the words of the heroes, repeating them and commenting on the unfolding drama.

Q. Explain your creative process and the choices you made.

Attending the shoot gave me the feel for the environment, the striking images, the acting. After that the process was quite straightforward. I received the rough cut and started colouring in the first few minutes, getting feedback for some of the melodies, instruments and sound effects that may work. Then I sent a draft to Jan, received his feedback and he also sent me a musical piece that helped with understanding the mood and direction he was aiming for. I took it in, adjusted what I had and continued to paint the world with sounds and melodies, bouncing form the drama unfolding. I sent another few drafts to Jan and finally we were settling on the correct cues and tones. I feel it is important to realise when silence rules, (the music between the sounds). Music can have much more impact when it creeps up on you after a period of silence. The rough cut that Jan sent me included an old Armenian lullaby. I re-recorded the song using the talented Clara Vazquez on lead vocals and decided to weave in the main melody as part of the score. It became one of the symbolic elements in the film.

Q. What was the most challenging part of creating the score? Designing the sound? 

Every project has a unique challenge. The audience does not realise how it feels to sit in front of a blanc canvas, a rough sounding dialogue and trying to re-imagine the world in front of you using sounds and music. Trying to feel what the actor is feeling and then convey that feeling to the audience. This particular film is unique due to its theatrical feel. The challenge was to try and enhance that without overpowering the actor. Letting the actors play their emotions without over emphasising to the audience what they were supposed to feel. Keeping a mythological world tied to reality.

Q. As a composer / sound designer, what is the most important aspect of your work? 

I will say painting the film in unique colours, giving each work of art its own personally tailored sound.  Also putting your ego aside – it’s important to realise that you are a team player working towards the creation of a work of art. Realising the vision of other people but not abounding your own voice. It’s a balancing act that is achieved by effective communication.

Q. How did you get started in your profession?

My journey into films was through the B roads. I started as a working musician, writing and producing mainly for my own projects, touring and performing live music in the UK and Europe. I studied music early in life and in school, as well as audio engineering and production in London at the SAE.  But scrap that, my journey started when I started listening. I’ve always been fascinated with the role of music and sound in films, and I can remember experimenting with my favourite films early on. I would close my eyes and listen to Ennio Morricone’s scores during important scenes, trying to figure out what was happening only from the sound. I would then reverse that and watch a film without sound and try to feel my own score in my head. I slowly progressed into building my own studio and as the music and production I was involved in always had a cinematic flavour, I was asked to contribute to student films. I started learning the craft of telling a story with music and sound and have never stopped learning since.

Q. What advice would you give someone starting out in your field?

Communication is key. I start every project talking to the directors/ producers, trying to understand their vision, their personal taste. As a composer I am there to serve the film. In most cases the film is a vision of the director, so I am employed as part of a team. But also find your own voice. There are many people who know the craft well and can imitate most sounding scores, but very few who can innovate and apply their own vision. Learn to spot – understand the story. Learn where the music should be and most importantly where it shouldn’t be. Challenge yourself. Music and sound is a vast, complex world, so listen as much as possible to as many styles as possible. Diversity in your ability to create different types of music is one of the keys to survival in this business.

Q. Where can people find out more about your work?

My website is in development; however, people can contact me through Facebook and vimeo  . There is also imdb and my email if you would like to approach me for work.

Watch ‘Thessalus & Medea’ on Amazon Prime.