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Exclusive Insights: First Singaporean Film Composer Scored for 2 Emmy Nominated Documentaries

Premise TV got in touch with Singaporean award winning film composer Tay Chee Wei to find out the ups and downs of his career.

All of us filmmakers, film composers, editors and everyone in the film / television industry, would have at least joked about winning the Oscars, Emmys and Golden Palm Awards etc,

but it’s always over coffee, or to put it in the context of Singapore: ‘The late-night Prata meet up’. Those conversations were usually very casual or in a semi joking manner, because these awards seem so high up in the stratosphere of the industry!

But to find out that I’ve composed for two of the three Emmy Nominated NOVA Documentaries felt and seemed unreal.

 


(1) What was your first reaction when you found out that your works had been nominated for two Emmy awards?

Honestly, it was a plethora of emotions. Firstly, I was surprised, as it was really unexpected (for me at least), especially so for “Decoding the Weather Machine”!

I actually submitted this documentary to other festivals and it didn’t even make it through to the ‘selection’ stage, so we (the producer, director, editor and I) had already moved on to other endeavours.

Then we were informed by the Network that this film had been nominated for: Outstanding Science Documentary for the Emmy Awards!

I am also ecstatic, specifically due to the fact that the “global warming/climate change” documentary got that nomination. There is so much controversy around this subject, I see this as a real existential threat to everyone! I feel this is something that we, as a species need to bring to the forefront of our daily narrative right now, and fix it. Just in case you are wondering; Yes, we can fix it!

Watch the documentary on Netflix to find out how!

As for “Black Hole Apocalypse”, I wasn’t even aware that the network submitted it for the Emmys.

Rushmore Denooyer, the writer/director has always been known to be a brilliant writer/director and this is not his first Emmy Nomination.

It is my first collaboration with Rushmore and I’m very humbled and honoured to be a part of the team that’s helping to ‘tell his story’ and also for “Black Hole Apocalypse” to be my first very extremely challenging score about ‘outer space’.

 

(2) What are some of the struggles you faced as a composer?

The Disapproval and lack of support from my parents earlier in my life to pursue music was a huge challenge. I was offered a place at Georgia College & State University and at the University of Southern California, even though I applied for it with a ‘very average’ GCE “O” level grades and an audition tape.

Receiving the offer letter from those universities was one of the happiest moments of my life especially so because

I was actually accepted even though I was technically academically under-qualified, but was very quickly plunged to the lowest moments from the family’s disapproval.

It was also virtually impossible for me to get any form of financial aid, bursary or scholarship anyway locally because my “O” level grades weren’t outstanding and my family’s finances weren’t low enough for me to apply for other forms of financial aid.

The director of the school of music even tried to talk to his board to get me a scholarship, but unfortunately, the scholarships were only reserved for American citizens. I was really crushed when he told me,

“If you are an American Citizen, I would have been able to get you a few scholarship awards to cover your full tuition and living expenses.”

In fact, prior to that, I actually applied to be enrolled into Film and Media Studies at Ngee Ann Polytechnic and was rejected! I was mysteriously posted into “building management”, a course which mysteriously wasn’t in any of my course choices! So, I too, became a mysterious student and never showed up!

So, most of the things I learned with the exception of playing the piano, are self-taught.

The then director of the school of music in Georgia college later became my mentor and gave me free lessons on whatever I asked him about whenever I had a chance to visit. Following that, trying to financially stay afloat as a musician in Singapore (or anywhere in the world for that matter) was really very challenging.

It’s wasn’t that nobody wanted me to do music, it was more like everybody wanted the music, but they wanted it for free!

 

(3) How did you get started in the sound design and film composing industry?

I started off working with music for Karaoke albums, school songs, school musicals and the few occasional short films. The very first short film I composed for was, “Son” directed by Royston Tan. It was supposed to be my last project before quitting music and going back to the I.T. industry.

(Credits: letterboxd.com)

“Son” then swept most of the awards in the Singapore Film Festival. A couple of production companies took notice and asked me if would like to compose theme music for their local television shows. The first one was a food series called “Food Glorious Food”. Meanwhile, throughout the next few years of the ‘grind’, I got to work on the music for several other short films including Sun Koh’s “The Secret Heaven”, Tia Quah’s “Conversation”, Anthony Chen’s “G-23” and “Ah-Ma”. All of them won major awards at various film festivals around the world.

A few years later i got the opportunity to work on my first regional TV show for Discovery channel, which then slowly spread to other shows like: Animal Planet, National Geographic channel, then eventually PBS (America) and even more recently HBO.

The ‘grind’ has been 20 years so far and ‘counting’ (I’m not actually consciously keeping track of it though).

 

(4) Share with us a few tips on how you manage to stay relevant in the industry?

Don’t copy a music trend- create your own trend, sound and genre! If you really have to copy, make sure you add something else to it and make it better or different!

 

(5) What keeps you going when you are stuck creatively?

Fortunately for me, getting mentally stuck hasn’t happened to me in a long time.
Contrary to many of my peers’ advice on “Take the job first, and then figure out how to do it later”, I tend to do the opposite.

Usually, when I watch a rough cut of a film, I’ll already ‘hear’ the music in my head, so what I have to do is basically record what I hear in my head on my workstation. I call this an ‘intellectual vomit’ for lack of a better description. (sorry for the lack of a better description!! ha!)

However, if my mind is blank after going through the script or rough edits of a film,

I tend to not take on that project – at the end of the day, this is in the best interest of the film!

In fact, I have usually gone even further and actually told the producer or director, “You know, I appreciate you coming to me, I’ve watched through the rough cut of the film, but for this particular film there is this other person that I think you really should approach. This person will do a much better job than myself! Would you like this person’s contact details?”.

On the surface, that may sound like a really dumb thing to do, or a terrible business strategy,

but you have to understand that in this industry, you are only as good as your last project.

So, the risk of messing up someone else’s project with a mediocre score and having your name ‘black listed’ and spread throughout the Film and Television industry is very real!

After all, it is the MEDIA industry that we are in and everyone seems to know everyone else!

You have no idea how many times I’ve heard producers or directors tell me “Who? this person??? Oh no no!! That person did such a terrible job in the music for that other film that it basically destroyed it. The acting was alright, the cinematography and editing was good but the music and bad sound design just killed it!”.

 

(6) Any advice for young composers who are struggling to get work and exposure in this field?

First of all, before I get to answer this question, I want to apologise if I’m being harsh and brutal in the following answer, but the following advice is drawn from my personal experience:

Unless you are already personally financially well-off, you have to be mentally prepared for a very hard and long grind through the first couple of years.

It could take a long time, even decades because at the end of the day you have to understand that a feature film or even TV series costs thousands if not millions of dollars to produce. No serious producers in their right mind are going to hand over a composition project to you which they have invested so much money into without a proven track-record or portfolio from you. This is especially the case for music, because bad music destroys a film! So it can be a very strange ‘chicken or egg’ scenario kind of thing.

With a very low budget production, you are limited to what you can do, for example: you can’t afford to hire a session musician or hire a great sound engineer to give your score that ‘magical touch’. Without it, your score ends up sounding less than how you envisioned it to be and does not stand out enough for the producers dealing with bigger budget projects to take notice.

Without a good portfolio it’ll be difficult to get good projects to work on, but without good projects to work on, it’s also difficult to build up your portfolio and a good profile!

The only other way around this is to start off working on lower budgets with independent films or short films, but even that itself sometimes can pose a challenge! It usually takes many cycles of this same rhetoric process and ends up becoming a long, slow grind.

This long slow grind isn’t for the faint of heart and will likely take a toll on all facets of personal well-being including: emotional, mental, relationships and of course financial.

Respectively there are exceptions to this scenario, but those are the rare cases!

Being a school drop-out and a current student of school-of-hard-knocks, this is what I learnt:

Even if you are the best of the best. There’s always a chance of failure so I think it is important to really like whatever you are doing. If you don’t like it: Life is too short!!!

 

(7) Who do you look up to?

Music personalities: Alexander Desplat, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Rupert Gregson-Williams, Hans Zimmer, Dimitri Shostakovich, Mozart, Metallica (yep! You read that right!).

For personalities that are not music related: Elon Musk ‒ for many bat-sh*t crazy reasons.

 

(8) Anyone you would like to thank if the films do win an Emmy (or two)?

Honestly, I have never even seriously thought of the word “Emmy Nomination”, let alone of WINNING an Emmy! But regardless of whether the films win anything I’m always very grateful to the NOVA team and the directors for entrusting their films with me. Their absolute trust in my musical abilities by giving me the creative freedom to do ‘anything’ I want on their films is empowering.

Regardless of the results, the director, producers and I all feel that the Emmy Nomination for “Decoding the Weather Machine” is an important recognition by the industry that everybody needs to do much more in covering this continuing global issue.

On a personal level, I’m always appreciative of all the session musicians and mix engineers, Doug Brady, Martin Pullan and Lavanath who makes me sound better! My friends who meet up with me for late night supper, my manager, Nira and my mentor Professor Richard Greene, who till this day, still listens to my work when it’s on TV in America, breaks it down, (hopefully not tearing it apart) and gives me very constructive criticism, which is extremely helpful to me!

A well thought out critique of whatever you are doing is as valuable as gold!

 

Connect with CheeWei at www.premise.tv/@taycheewei

 

(Credits: CheeWei’s portraits photography by TeckPeng Lim)

 

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