From Script to Score, Double Exposure is Pure Collaborative Cinema at IU

February 22, 2019
views at the iu cinema enjoying a horror movie

“What a fulfilling group project” is not a sentiment that gets thrown around college campuses too often. But once in a blue moon, students get a shot at some truly collaborative, hands-on work, like with Indiana University’s Double Exposure program and film festival.

Double Exposure is a course in IU’s Media School that pairs student filmmakers with student composers in the Jacobs School of Music; the former writes, directs and shoots a short film, which is then handed off to the latter to score it. Then, it’s all shown on the big screen with live musical accompaniment at the Indiana University Cinema.

Thirteen films have been produced for this year’s program.

Throughout Double Exposure, film students are guided by IU Media School Senior Lecturer Susanne Schwibs while Jacobs School composers work under Larry Groupé, the professor of composition for Music Scoring for Visual Media. The two departments work in tandem over the course of the school year.

“The exercise becomes, in part, how can I communicate invisible things and make them visible?” Schwibs said.

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“Because the films have to be essentially silent, the music shapes how the film is perceived,” said sophomore filmmaker Sabra Binder.

Her short film, The Death of Venus, sees a modern-day interpretation of the Roman goddess get tangled up in the love she’s meant to embody and the death that follows in its wake. “It’s just intriguing to me that she’s this representation of love, but she doesn’t really get to experience that herself,” Binder said.

“[The collaboration] is definitely very involved,” said Bristal Hadley-Mautino, a senior in Cinema Production and Studies and the filmmaker behind Girlhood. “It’s most beneficial, I think, if you’re constantly in contact with them, just letting them know your process.”

Girlhood is an experimental film that features collages of old, archived footage of women and girls through the years. Hadley-Mautino spent 40 to 50 hours combing through around 100 hours of footage to put it together.

The filmmaking students spend the fall semester working on their short films: nailing down the story, pitching it to the rest of the class, working through a production schedule, etc. About a third of the way into the semester, the filmmakers meet the musicians for a round of “speed-dating.”

“You’re meeting all these different composers and seeing who, in a word, you vibe with,” Binder said. “It’s surprising how the basic way you think and get along will impact your work.”

Filmmakers are given only five minutes with each composer to pitch their concept and gauge if their ideas for the score mesh with the composer’s.

“It was hard, because you come from giving this big, long pitch, and you pitch your heart out to the filmmakers’ class, and then all of a sudden it’s like an elevator pitch,” Hadley-Mautino said.

Each party lists a few preferred candidates, and the professors pair them up.

The rest of the fall sees the students preparing rough cuts of their films. Then in the spring, the composers finally get their hands on the projects.

“If another composer was attached to this film or I was attached to another film, I think the music would ultimately be drastically different,” said Craig Michael Davis, the composer of the Death of Venus and a doctoral student in the Jacobs composition program. “We’re going to have some really out-there compositions, and some more conservative, classical pieces. I think we’ll have the whole spectrum.”

Groupé, a composer with a long list of credits in film and television, guides the Jacobs students during the composition process. And for many students, Double Exposure their first experience with scoring film; this allows him to impart what he’s learned on the job.

“In film scoring, the first thing we do is watch the movie, and we don’t talk about music,” Groupé said. “What is the emotional content of the film?”

From that discussion, Groupé and his students will draw an “emotional map” of the beats they want to hit in their scores. If this is done correctly, he said, you should be able to put the movie back on later and have something close to what you want.

poster displaying double exposure's information
Teaser poster for Double Exposure 2019. (Image: Susanne Schwibs and Jim Krause)

The hectic few weeks leading up to the premiere see the filmmakers adding their final tweaks to their films while the composers deliver scores to the conductors for rehearsals and sound designers mix the end products.

Because most of the films are silent, the sound designers are met with a unique challenge.

“Since there aren’t other sound elements going on, it’ll be important that we get the mix just right, and that it helps to amplify the composer and filmmaker’s ideas,” said Jozef Caldwell, the sound designer on Girlhood.

Once everything comes together at the premiere, Davis says the live setting can still offer a sense of precariousness for the composer.

“It’s fun to feel that element of risk,” he said. “Because it’s a film, you have to hit certain scene changes, and if the conductor misses that, or if a musician breaks a string or if something happens, it could easily unravel.”

Even so, Davis says he’s in good hands. “The Jacobs School has some of the best musicians in the nation…Even if you just showed them the score the day of, they’d be able to sight-read it cold – not that we’re going to do that,” he joked.

musicians in the pit playing the movie score
A look into the pit at a previous Double Exposure premiere. (Photo: James Brother)

Double Exposure showcases student creativity across multiple fields at IU, but it’s the brainchild of Jon Vickers, the founding director at the IU Cinema. Borrowing ideas from IU’s since-ended Hammer & Nail program, which paired contemporary dance students with student composers, Vickers floated the concept for Double Exposure to Schwibs in 2011. The first premiere event debuted in 2012.

“It’s not that uncommon for a student filmmaker to ask a student composer to do something for their film. But it seems like it’s more of an afterthought,” Vickers said. “[Double Exposure] was intended to have the creative vision of the work be collaborated.”

What began as a joint effort among Vickers, Schwibs, the Student Composer Association and John Gibson from the Jacobs School has transformed into its own class. Film students now take Double Exposure as a semester-long course, with the program serving as a volunteer opportunity for Jacobs students and a way for Recording Arts students to meet class hour requirements.

Vickers added that Double Exposure is still the only program of its kind that culminates in a premiere event with a live orchestra.

The success of Double Exposure goes beyond a yearly film festival – it’s taken film scoring at IU from an area of interest to a minor, and now it’s set to become a full degree program next fall, headed up by Groupé.

“What I’m trying to do at IU is make us a very good alternative choice, as opposed to the other two schools that are known for this, University of Southern California and Berklee College of Music in Boston,” Groupé said.

He’s currently building a full program for media scoring that includes a master’s program, a doctoral minor and two certificate programs.

“For us to think that a movie theater has the ability to change the curriculum of a major research one university and one of the best music schools in the country boggles my mind,” Vickers said. “What I think that really shows is the power of collaboration and the power of innovation.”

“It’s like a chicken-and-egg thing: There was an interest by students to score for films, and this was a way to showcase it,” Schwibs said.

While Double Exposure has been a big draw to prospective film scoring students in Indiana, Schwibs said word of the program has been making its way past outside the Midwest. She’s already been contacted about Double Exposure by a professor from Paris-Sorbonne University.

“It’s become an institution, and it’s exciting to have had a hand in it,” Schwibs said.

musicians rehearsing for live performance
Students rehearse for the 2018 Double Exposure event. (Photo: Susanne Schwibs)

Naturally, this year’s teams have some advice for anyone taking on the project next year.

“Start as early as possible, Hadley-Mautino said. She added that several of this year’s filmmakers went into the program with grandiose ideas for what they wanted to shoot that ended up not being feasible. But regarding her own work, she said that working with musicians and audio engineers at the top of their crafts has pushed her to put out her best material.

Binder encouraged future filmmakers to allow their composers room to experiment and try new things. Often, the filmmakers can fall into the rut of sticking with the temporary track on the film and not wanting to deviate; but she said the directors can benefit by allowing their projects to change.

“Double Exposure is a good opportunity for someone in my field because when you’re mixing for a movie, often times sound is not the most important thing, unlike in music,” Caldwell said. “I have to remember that my mixes and the music are serving the picture and helping to tell the story.”

That influence by each team member is a big takeaway Groupé wants for Double Exposure.

“When it finally happens at the IU Cinema and they hear the performance, they feel what all film composers feel when something works: ‘Wow, I’m actually kind of steering the movie. I’m adding all this emotional content like an offstage actor,’” he said.

To see and hear these efforts come together, you can check out the Double Exposure premiere when it comes to IU Cinema Sunday, March 3. The event is free, but ticketed. To find out more, you can head to the IU Cinema’s website.

Featured photo by James Brother, courtesy of Susanne Schwibs.