The Cinematic Soundscape of Dustin Lau
Speaking to LBB’s Tom Loudon, Heckler Sound composer Dustin Lau discusses his musical journey, composing for film and advertising, and the creative process behind the score.
First published on LBB Online:
Q1. Have you always been a musically oriented person, even as a child?
Yes, I had somewhat of a musical family. My Grandpa was an amazing self-taught musician and for as long as I can remember, he would sit at the piano to play and tell stories. He would bring out his accordion and mandolin, instruments that he brought back from Italy after WW2, which I now have in my studio today.
My mom was a piano teacher growing up. I tried to sit still and take lessons but could never really focus on learning to read music or play properly. So, I would just memorise songs by ear to perform at piano recitals. In high school, my dad bought me a flea-market electric guitar and I fell in love with writing my own songs, playing in bands into college.
Q2. Can you tell us about your journey into music composition and how you got started in the industry?
I was a touring musician for about 10 years and got to travel the world. On one recording,
I brought in Adam, one of my best friends from high school, to record some guitar. We got to talking about what he’d been up to, making music for indie film projects and ads. He told me about music licensing and that filmmakers would pay to have your music in their films. I knew film composing was a profession, but I’d figured these people were maestros like John Williams or Hans Zimmer. This was a real turning point for me; I had a moment when I realised this is what I wanted to dedicate the next chapter of my life to. My friend Adam went on to score movies and TV shows like Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu and has been a constant encourager and mentor in my journey.
Q3. You’ve worked on a diverse range of projects, from scoring documentaries to ad spots for major brands. How do you approach composing for different mediums and genres?
For me it starts the same way, no matter what the project is. Capturing the story and trying to find an empathetic approach to it. In ad campaigns, the heart and story must be told in such a short amount of time, so it’s important to me to really get my head in there with the director and those who’ve been passionate about the project since they first started conceptualising the idea.
I want to hear the story they’re trying to tell in their own words, the experiences they’ve had while on location, struggles, moments that brought out all the emotions, people they’ve met along the way etc. Also getting to know what inspires the project creators musically. I’ll then take all of what I’ve ingested about the project and come up with a sound palette to work with, while trying to push boundaries and not be ‘typical’ in the musical approach. For longer form film projects, it’s the same approach. There are just more details to the story than a two-minute ad spots.
Q4. “The Right to Race” premiered at Cannes and screened on TV across Europe with your original score. Can you share the creative process behind composing the music for this film and how it complemented the narrative?
It was such a huge privilege to work on that film. This was my second collaboration with Hungry Man UK/Revolver Australia director Richard Bullock, the first being film Black Ice.
View Black Ice:
I really love his approach to story for film and his huge heart for the people whose lives he’s getting to document. We had talked about the music for this film being pretty minimal. When I started getting some images and edits, I began writing themes on the piano. I was recording it with the mics super close to the piano strings so you can hear the intimate details of the hammers hitting the felt and the fingers hitting the keys, which was minimal and percussive. That approach was feeling really good against picture, almost bringing out the elegance of running and just the purity and joy Dominic Lobalu brings to his training and races.
However, I also wanted to find textures and instrumentation to bring awareness to his struggle and story as a refugee. One of the first scenes I wrote to was Dominic sharing his story about being born in South Sudan and having to leave his home to seek refuge in Kenya at 9 years old, after losing his parents to war. It opens with just my 100-year-old accordion inherited from Grandpa. Something about that sound felt unsure, fragile, and alone. And then the scene shortly after, where we first see him running, I introduce a piano motif. For the rest of the film the piano, to me, represents running – with hope, healing, and determination.
For the end of the film, it was fun to change it up and write a song to wrap up the story.
The director really wanted this kind of classic old-school gospel song sound, which was a nod to Dominic’s faith, along with a soundscape that carried his story of brokenness and overcoming. So, I wrote a song and had a talented friend of mine, Carmina Garcia, sing it with tons of soul and grit. “Glory, glory I’ve been broke down but not destroyed. Glory, glory I crossed a bridge over troubled waters. Hallelujah, I’m still running”.
View The Right To Race:
- Music has the power to evoke emotions and enhance storytelling. When you’re composing for a film or an ad, what are the key elements you consider to ensure your music aligns with the intended message?
I need a really good understanding of the story. If I can get to know the story well, I can start to throw sounds and ideas at it with a good sense of whether the music is distracting from the narrative so as not to get in the way. That doesn’t have to mean the music is plain or minimal, or else that would be distracting too.
I’ve worked on some projects where the music is nuts and complex with tons of textures and experimentation, yet it fits with what’s happening on screen and what may be going through a character’s head. Or conversely the director’s head with the story they’re telling. With the endless number of options for instruments and sounds I could use for any given project; story is everything and I can easily start to eliminate what sounds and instruments I’m not going to use once I can understand it.
- Collaboration is often crucial in the creative industry. How do you work with directors, producers, and other creative professionals to bring your musical vision to life in a project?
I’ve come to really rely on directors, producers, and editors to inform my decisions. Without their input I have an endless number of options, because music to picture can be so subjective. This is also something that I’ve had to learn over the last several years, because before film scoring, I produced music just for myself. In that sense, I’ve had to really learn to lean into other’s ideas and thoughts about what the music should do. I can honestly say I’m constantly surprised at results after collaborations because of the ideas I wouldn’t have had without them.
- Are there any particular musical genres or styles that you find most inspiring or enjoy working with the most?
Anything that is not normal or that I can experiment with. When I have the opportunity, I try to always make my own sampled instruments to play and incorporate into a project. Like sampling toys in a toyshop and processing it into weird sounds and textures that I can play with on a keyboard. Or sampling the human voice and turning it into a playable instrument.
I find I can get away with that in more narrative-based films like drama. I can explore space a little more and find there are less ‘rules’ to follow. Or maybe more rules I can break haha.
- As a composer, how do you stay inspired and keep your creative juices flowing, especially when working on multiple projects?
By constantly listening, writing, and experimenting — even if there isn’t a current project to work on. There is so much music to make, and so many ways to approach making it, that all it takes is to show up every day.
In the same way, there are so many ways to tell a story through film, and so many different decisions creatives make in the process, that no two films are ever the same. It’s everyone’s unique ingredient that makes the project. That’s inspiring to me; to be able to approach every project differently because they ARE different.
- You’ve had the opportunity to work on projects with major brands like Adidas, Citibank, and New Balance. What unique challenges or opportunities arise when composing music for well-known brands?
With every brand project, it’s always a challenge to make sure to represent the brand.
While collaborating, the constant communication about the hope the brand has for a particular campaign is key for me. Especially if they’ve had a successful run in the past with other ads in their series; it’s got to hit harder than the last while maintaining the brand integrity.
When working on bigger brand content pieces, I do find opportunities to hire other musicians to take projects to the next level. On Toyota and Audi, I had my friends Keith Tutt and Matthew O’Rane play cello and violin. They are insanely good and wrote some parts that really blew my mind and had a lasting impression on the creatives at the brand agencies. I still get messages about those campaigns today.
View Audi campaign:
- What advice do you have for aspiring composers and music producers who want to establish themselves in the industry?
I would say that everyone’s path is going to be completely different so avoid getting stuck in the comparison trap. You’ve got to know that there is room at the table for you and your unique sound, so don’t be afraid to be completely different than what you’ve heard. I have that conversation with myself all the time haha.
Keep showing up and creating and learning. Music licensing is a good way to practice writing to see what sticks with film makers. It gives you a focus on creating your own sound and setting some goals. It could also be a good way to make some income while you’re learning how it all works.
- Are you excited to continue your collaboration with Heckler Sound?
Absolutely. I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of some totally unique and diverse projects that come through the Heckler Sound doors. They have a solid team of talent that push the boundaries every time and it’s really inspiring to be a part of a wider team of incredibly creative people making amazing content.