Sometimes when you watch a bunch of trailers these days you get the feeling that everything in the cinematic world revolves around darkness and about people trying to fight it or getting lost in it. With L.A. and Brooklyn based composer Chris A. Gabriel I now got the opportunity to speak with someone who represents the exact opposite of this trend. I’d therefore like to start with his view on art in general and where he sees himself as a composer especially:
Life is good, life is cool, and I like art that highlights that side of life rather than the other side which we have to deal with in all too real of ways all too much. It’s great to work on the content that pushes back and tries to make people smile, feel good.
Chris got a lot of experience in writing for commercials as well as web series and short films. He now recently scored the documentary Barista, brought to life thanks to Kickstarter and Samuel Goldwyn Films, the production company that is also behind other great indie documentaries like ‘Supersize Me’. When I spoke with Chris, Barista was trending on iTunes as the Number Two documentary in the U.S., so it seems like it definitely found a niche.
But let us get to this later and let us start with a commercial and a short film that both really fit the happy attitude of Chris’ which I got to know very well while we spoke.
From Jim Parsons to secret agents: Crafting the sound of commercials
So who could be a better representative of a joyful life than a main characters of a comedy series? Chris recently scored a commercial starring Jim Parsons a.k.a. Sheldon Cooper in ‘The Big Bang Theory’. Below you find the pretty funny commercial as well as what made it particularly challenging for Chris:
[The ad agency] wanted some old-school hip hop vibe and I was like, “Yeah, that sounds like a lot of fun!” Then I read the brief and it’s only four seconds of music… Four! That was so challenging because four seconds isn’t even enough time to let a typical progression breathe to complete something. I knew that I really had about two measures to get an idea across so that someone can hear the four seconds of music and say „Ok, I can imagine what the rest of the song could have sounded like.“ I needed to find a way that puts something complete, like a complete phrase or a complete idea into four seconds and get across the time it would have been made. That was actually a really fun job.
When I asked Chris if he, by any chance, got to meet Jim Parsons too, he told me that he didn’t have time to even leave his studio but in case he would bump into Jim and told him he scored a commercial of his “he would probably think I was lying.” (“Hey man, I worked with you on a commercial.” He’d be like, “Ah, get away from me!“)
Chris told me how much he loves doing commercials especially because he very much enjoys the challenge of “cramming a lot of information into a small amount of time.”
What’s so cool about commercials is that everytime a new job comes in, the references are completely different. One day I could have to do an old-school hip hop track for a commercial. Then you do a little bit of research, you listen to a whole lot of old-school hip hop, take some notes, find out what they have in common, what makes something sound that way. You spend a day just getting into old-school hip hop so that you can make something convincing. Then the next day I could have to write a cue that’s like blues rock and then very much put on my rock ‘n‘ roll hat, pick on my guitar and dive into that world. So really the fun thing is that me as just one guy has to be a rock band, has to be a hip hop producer or has to be John Williams sometimes and make a really lush, cinematic piece for a commercial. Then recently I demoed for a commercial where the brief had a secret agent man type vibe to it which is fun and I thought, “Oh that is cool, I haven’t done something like that yet.“ You go back and watch these 60s, 70s secret agent films, listen to the soundtracks and then try to write a 30 second piece that sounds like it could have been in one of those films. It’s fun! I love doing stuff like that.
For everyone who has worked at least a bit inside the ad industry or for commercials knows how stressful it can be. When Chris talks about it though it doesn’t sound like it at all, it just sounds like you have the best time in your life working on the short deadline you usually get, which is really something that stood out throughout our entire interview.
About the music in ‘Barista’: Capturing a life style
Speaking about short deadlines it’s time to talk about Barista, which happens to be Chris’ first feature film. Please watch the trailer below to get a feeling of what an intense experience the profession of, excuse my profanity, coffee making can be:
Chris found out that Barista was being made thanks to a friend of his who was doing publicity for the creator’s Kickstarter campaign. He liked the trailer they had put together for the potential backers and arranged a meeting with one of the producers. As it turned out they already had a composer lined up to do it but the meeting still turned out very well and so Chris didn’t want to give up on the project. So he wrote two pieces of music that represented what he thought the film should sound like, sent it to the producer and all he heard was, “this is awesome, this is perfect!” A couple of days later Chris met with Rock Baijnauth, the director, and got the job.
Chris told me how much he is a fan of good coffee himself and what is so special about Barista:
I’m a huge coffee fanatic and still 90 percent of what they are talking about is way over my head. That’s the level of expertise they have. It’s really interesting to watch the movie. It’s a real credit to Rock, the director, for capturing it in a way that doesn’t make you feel stupid while you’re watching it, because really easily it could have come out like that.
Barista really does a good job about showing how being a barista is an art form and how these people have really dedicated themselves to it. It’s also a very overlooked art form. Not many people take it that seriously it seems. So this film really did a nice job of showing you how much of an art form it is; how hard these people work. It definitely pays tribute to them and that’s a really charming thing about the movie.
Coincidentally one of the main subjects of the film, Charles Babinski, owns a coffee shop called Go Get Em Tiger that is two blocks from Chris’ house: “I’m there at least twice a day getting lattes. I can’t get enough.”
Of course I was interested in the music Chris chose for the documentary:
I wanted to stay close to the style of the music that you typically hear when you go into a really cool, trendy coffee shop. There’s always really interesting, sometimes electronic music, but it’s usually very left of center, quirky, independent sounding music. I wanted to stay close to that, so that the audience member is gonna feel the whole time, that they are in the world of the coffee shop or in the world of these baristas. So the sound pallet for Barista is pretty synth based, it’s very electronic but also percussive. I wanted to make it fun, I wanted to keep the audience engaged as much as possible. Even sometimes just like having someone tap their food, what could be a long scene of someone trying to make a latte which could have been very boring. But my main goal was to keep it fun and exciting. So sometimes there are cues in that film that very much just sound like they could be some indie, electronic, groovy tune. But that was done to just evoke that feeling of sitting in a coffee shop waiting for your drink.
In case you are curious and would like to purchase the soundtrack somewhere I unfortunately have to tell you that it is not released yet. It is definitely planned though and we will keep you updated about it. Barista itself you find on iTunes.
Embracing a new medium: How to score a web series
Chris and I also got to talk about his experiences in the field of web series which are popping out everywhere recently and which are often really great to watch. Especially if you want to stay updated about what young filmmakers are up to these days as it gives them a lot of freedom in terms of production.
For the web series Overly Attached Andy Chris picked up his ukelele, his banjo and an 808 drum machine to score it in 2013. He greatly enjoyed making “whacky music” for the series and to just “lock my door in the studio and get super weird.”
When Overly Attached Andy started I wanted thin instrumentation, so the majority of the melodic content is played on a ukelele and a banjo, and then I have an old 808 drum machine for all the percussion. It’s almost 8-bit sounding with a little bit of elevator music in there. I wanted to make it as quirky as possible because it was a really quirky project.
You can watch the first episode of Overly Attached Andy below:
Shortly before our interview Chris also finished We don’t hate it here, a web series that will be out this winter. You can follow the updates on their official website.
We don’t hate it here is a little different. It feels more like a scripted comedy that you would see on a network or on Netflix. There wasn’t quite as much music in that one; besides the title music just a couple of moments that needed some transitional punches for example. I wanted to keep it really simple: You know these street buskers who play the paint buckets? I wanted to do that for the score and keep it really percussive. So a lot of those stings and the transitions are little grooves on paint buckets with some really deep synths plus some mandolin. With a really fast moving web series, where you have a ton of dialogue and which is a very quick format, the music has to be just as quick. It’s all about writing very quick, concise six- to twelve-second cues.
As some background info about his approach when scoring a new web series, Chris told me he usually receives the whole picture locked season, then watches everything and starts scoring. Overly attached Andy he then just scored from the first to the last episode, bringing back themes from the first episode every now and then to make the whole series feel like a cohesive work. With other web series he picks an important moment of the series from any episode and bases his score on that very moment.
Without boundaries: The freedom of being your own producer
The truism of “plenty of fish in the sea” from the first episode of Overly attached Andy was also the topic of a recent short film Chris has worked on, called Go Fish. This brought us to talk about his and his girlfriend’s works.
Renée Felice Smith, Chris’ girlfriend, is known from her over 130 episodes on ‘Navy CIS: L.A.’ as Nell Jones. Renée and Chris started in 2012 producing, writing and directing their own short films as well as a music video to “stay creative and tell the stories that we want to tell.” And that’s how Young(ish) as well as the more recent Go Fish came about:
Young(ish) was our first film and Renée wrote it on her own. It’s a really nice story of an elderly couple who go to a park because there’s a pirate ship playground on the beach. They go to the beach, sit on a bench and wind up going to play on the playground. When they do so, they are temporarily transformed back into the eight year old versions of themselves. They have a day playing on the beach as children and then get picked up by their children who are 40 year old people. They go home and you see them again as who they are as these people in their 80s. It’s a nice story of how life is cyclical and also that youth is a state of mind more than a number, more than an age. And again it gave me a great canvas to make a piece of music that was whimsical and fun and beautiful but also a little bit sad. But it doesn’t feel overly sad, it’s just the understanding that they have aged and they miss being young, being children. It’s more celebrating their life than anything.
And then there’s Go Fish:
Renée and I both wanted to make something that reflected the kind of work that we wanna do and the best way to do that is to just make it yourself. So we, I think, successfully made a short film that showcases that side of what we both do.
So Go Fish is a short film that I wrote with her. She then directed it and we produced it together; she’s also in it. It was a really fun project where we wanted to just do something together, of what we had control of and where we could just have fun with. The score for that was really fun for me. It’s quirky and whimsical which is a style that I really like to work in.
It’s about a guy who is going through a break-up and can’t seem to get over his ex. His friend in the very beginning tells him that he should probably get rid of all of her things from his apartment that reminds him of her. So on this journey he’s finding things in the apartment that remind him of her. But when he sees them the viewer actually sees her in his space and she’s talking to him. It seems like she’s a ghost that‘s haunting his home. So it’s basically the physical manifestation of him trying to get over his girlfriend. But it’s done in a funny way. (N.B.: To fully understand it I recommend you to watch this this little clip from the short film.)
But Chris’ and Renée’s collaboration doesn’t end here. Together they also created the pretty entertaining song Yo, Mommy in the vein of The Lonely Island’s Motherlover or schmoyoho’s Sexy Motha. Enjoy!
Yo, Mommy was an idea we came up with to pitch to Funny or Die for Mother’s Day. Mother’s Day was right around the corner and we wanted to try to make something and produce a video. I actually had written that song with a friend of mine years prior. The lyrics were different back then but when we wrote that song back then it was a Mother’s Day gift to our moms. There’s some choice language in there but my mom’s got a good sense of humor so she loved it. So when we reached out to Funny or Die and said we would like to produce this video, we re-recorded the song and I re-wrote the verses for my girlfriend so they were personal for her. Then we recorded her doing it and she did an amazing job as an MC – she’s got a bright future if she wants to be a rapper! Then we shot the music video and she directed it. We rented out a studio and did the whole thing in one day which was a blast.
Creating music for young people with autism: The ‘Up and Away’ theatre play
Coming to an end we also got to talk about a project that is very important for Chris, called Up and Away, which is a theatre play for young people with autism. Please have a look and listen below to understand more about the big scope of the project and how very much important it is for today’s society:
Up and Away was commissioned by Lincoln Center in New York and the Trusty Sidekick Theater Company. They are a theatre company for young audiences and they make really cool high quality work for young audiences. The audience can be around the 12 year old range but sometimes they’ve also done projects for toddlers. The throughline is that the work is always really entertaining and of high quality. They have amazing people that work on both developing and creating art with amazing performers.
Years ago I met Jonathan Shmidt, who is the creative director of Trusty Sidekick, and I’ve worked on almost all of their shows because I love that company so much. But when Up and Away came up and the challenge was to develop a play specifically for young people with the autism spectrum. It was such a challenge and there are so few people who have made work like this. It’s also an audience that needs to be able to go to theatre and experience it. It’s a shame that it is so difficult for these people do regular things that we take for granted like going to see a play. Trusty Sidekick were doing a ton of research. The project was in development for close to two years and one of the things that these kids were responding well to, across the board, was music.
So when I found out about this project of course I wanted to be part of it. I knew it was gonna be a really special project – and it was! It turned into somewhat of a musical as I also wrote original songs for the play that was performed by the cast. It did a 6-week run at Lincoln Center and I got the chance to go back and see it twice. It’s incredible to see these kids to enjoy theatre that’s made specifically for their needs. It was an amazing project to be a part of.
Chris also told me that while it was a personally very special project, it wasn’t special music wise because of the audience. Because of all the research that had been done before it was clear that the young audience with autism would react really well to music in general and so all he had to do was “writing good music, trying to do a good job” and fortunately the audience responded very positively to it.
I’d like to end this article about Chris A. Gabriel with a statement of his that refers to his general view on art. I hope you enjoyed the little glimpse into Chris’ work and find all the links about his work below this quote of his which sums up his whole attitude very well:
Up and Away was definitely really special. When you see a commercial it’s definitely very cool but you don’t really get to see the reaction or your effect on anybody. Seeing Barista was really nice to experience it with a room filled with people. But then topping that was seeing Up and Away with this audience live and the music being performed live by people for these kids. That was definitely the most special experience that I’ve had so far as a composer.
The projects I tend to enjoy the most are the ones where the existing material whether it be a film, a commercial, a web series or a play, is meant to move somebody in a positive way and I can help with that. When I can help somebody have a positive experience or feel joy or excitement. Not that I don’t want to do other work but there is just something really special about adding to somebody’s experience in an uplifting way or helping make somebody laugh. I feel like there is a lot more content that is out there that makes people scared, stressed out, disgusted or uneasy, and that’s a great art as a filmmaker and also as a composer to truly make people feel that way. But I feel like there could be more work out there that makes people feel good or makes people have fun or makes people laugh or feel a sense of wonder. So the projects that I get to work on where that is my main task, I think those are especially important to me.
Chris told me how much he would like to get more into animation and video games too in general. So feel free to contact him via his very enjoyable website! You may also find more of his music on Soundcloud and more info about his projects on IMDb.