Emer Kinsella

Scannain talks In Orbit and composing with Emer Kinsella

Ahead of its screening at the Gaze International LGBT Film Festival on August 4th Scannain caught up with composer Emer Kinsella to talk about her involvement in Katie McNeice’s debut short film In Orbit, and about the art of composing in general.

You’re Irish but live in the States. How did that come about?

I’m from Malahide in Dublin and was very focused on music and playing the violin while growing up.  At the age of 18, I applied to classical conservatoires, ending up at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. The adventurer in me wanted to explore new cultures and music led me to other countries such as Germany and Austria, where I lived and studied for a few years in Vienna. I always wanted to live in the States and after transitioning into film composing, I was accepted into the MFA program in music composition for the screen at Columbia College Chicago. That’s what brought me out here and how I ended up in LA. I’ve just hit my 5 year anniversary of living in the States.

Where does your love of film come from? And what makes you want to compose for film?

I was drawn to film from a young age. I spent a lot of time watching and absorbing films and would re-watch taped recordings endlessly as a child. Stories have always captivated me. I began to notice that the music I heard in a film would stay in my memory instantly, much longer than music I’d experienced without picture. The two combine to fully and emotionally engage my senses. Responding to visuals and emotions is what I love about composing music to film. 

What are the challenges in composing for a short film like In Orbit?

I knew from reading the script that In Orbit had a lot of depth and emotional layers that could really be complemented by music.  I think the challenge was developing material that reflected the internal messages in the film and condensing it into a shorter format. Making sure the moment in the scene hit the right tone and evoked the emotional direction we were going for but also just long enough to support the short but meaningful glimpses into the main characters’ lives. Katie was very descriptive with the initial words she gave me in order to understand the main concepts in the film and that made it much easier to jump into the music and explore ideas while still giving me creative freedom to access them from a personal perspective.

At what stage in the process did Katie get you involved and how?

Katie involved me early on in the pre-production script stage. I’ve often joined films in the final editing stages and this was a nice change to be brought into the conversation much earlier. This allowed me to delve purely into the concepts and take tonal ideas from images/test shoots that existed of the film and then began to write a Suite that became the backbone of the score. I think it’s good to detach yourself at first from the picture and understand what the film is really saying and then see how the material responds to different scenes, sculpting and refining it over time.

What do you enjoy most about the collaborative process of working on a film?

Working with Katie was a great collaborative experience. I’ve noticed that the stronger the director-composer relationship and understanding is, the better the scores are that I write. Being able to have back and forth conversations about the scenes intentions, and then seeing how each interaction can help grow and transform the score in new ways is a rewarding process.  Katie has a great appreciation of music and understanding of the emotional value that it can add to a film and it’s always great to work with a director like that.

I think we really connected on topics of internalized emotions, aspects that I love to explore through music, such as the quest to belong but also the struggle to emerge transformed and more connected to others. My personal music projects also touch on these topics. I am currently organizing an immersive experiential concert experience that explores intrinsic human emotions and provides a space for connection with the self and others to take place in an unusual concert setting. This next concert is called Intrinsic Strings, and will take place in Los Angeles at the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook on August 24th with live instrumentalists performing music from various film composers including myself, integrating virtual reality insight stories, showing glimpses of people’s lives in the city.

Is it important to you to do work with Irish filmmakers? Is it about keeping the connection to home?

I think it’s great to get to work with Irish filmmakers. The unique stories and perspectives that Irish artists have to share is extremely valuable to the industry. It’s great to see more films coming out of Ireland and connecting with filmmakers who have experienced a similar background as me growing up can lead to exciting collaborations. It’s amazing to be able to live so far away but be able to connect so easily over video chat and still get to know the filmmaker on a real personal level. I think no matter where we live away from home, it’s great to support each other and be able to make high quality projects through our connected understanding of our personal life experiences. I recently had the opportunity to take one of my film scores and turn it into a performance installation piece that was played at the launch of the Contemporary Irish Arts Center in Los Angeles last month in collaboration with Irish performance artist Amanda Coogan on her installation ‘The Ladder is Always There’. It’s interesting to see how the music I develop takes on different perspectives by working with different people.

Are there particular genres of film that you like composing for?

I am drawn towards stories relating to the human experience, and that encourage people to look deeper into themselves and their surroundings. I really enjoy working on Dramas, Psychological thrillers. Also horror can be great to be experimental with, but I can access a story no matter what the genre as it’s great to try out new things and present new ideas with music.

The percentage of female film composers in the industry is still very small, do you see that changing?

We’re still a small percentage in the industry and I think things are slowly changing but it’s a long climb and it starts with others recognizing that female voices need to be heard. I’ve noticed over the last year that there’s been a growth in female directors telling real and impactful stories reaching out to me to score their films. This summer I had a few films premiering at festivals, all with female directors.Two short films that I wrote music to just premiered at the LA Shorts International film festival. One was the film Mothers, directed by Leslie Murphy. The film looks at the roles by which we define ourselves, the importance of challenging accepted expectations and the process of letting go of the past in order to be part of the future, whatever that may lead. Another was the film Just a Drill, by Julianne Donelle. In Orbit by Katie McNeice premiered at the Galway Film Fleadh and is showing at the Gaze film festival in Dublin this month.

The Soundtrack to In Orbit is available on all major streaming platforms, including Spotify and Apple Music.

You can find out more about Emer Kinsella and her music at emerkinsella.com, Soundcloud, Facebook, and Twitter.