A different beat: Cristobal Tapia de Veer on creating music for film and TV

Cristobal Tapia de Veer creates strange and compelling soundtracks for film and television. We spoke to the Chilean born, Montreal-based musician about his work for Channel 4’s Humans, Utopia and National Treasure and feature film The Girl With All The Gifts

Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s music will stick in your mind long after you’ve heard it. His scores are a far cry from the orchestral music often used in film and TV. They are distinctive, experimental and often, downright strange – an eclectic mix of musical styles and ominous sounds that will give you shivers.

De Veer is the composer behind some of the most memorable soundtracks on TV in the past three years. He worked with director Marc Munden to create the music for Dennis Kelly’s sci-fi series, Utopia, and National Treasure, a four-part drama about a TV entertainer accused of rape. He also created the music for Channel 4 and AMC series Humans and this year earned comparisons with renowned composer Mica Levi for his work on The Girl With All The Gifts, a zombie drama based on the book by MR Carey.

The Girl With All the Gifts © Gift Girl Limited/The British Film Institute 2016. © 2016 Warner Bros. Ent. All Rights Reserved.
Above and top: Stills by Aimee Spinks from The Girl With All the Gifts © Gift Girl Limited/The British Film Institute 2016. © 2016 Warner Bros. Ent. All Rights Reserved

The film is set in a near future where the world’s population has been infected by a fungal disease that turns people into flesh-eating ‘hungries’. The only hope for humanity is a group of children that crave human flesh but still have free will.

Its haunting opening track is reminiscent of Inuit chanting and throat singing. Low murmurs combine with high-pitched wails to create something that feels eerie, moving and almost otherworldly – not at all what you might expect from a film packed with gore, guns and the undead. Writing in the Guardian, film critic Mark Kermode described de Veer’s score as “superb … a shimmering soundscape that is every bit as integral to the film’s uncanny power as Mica Levi’s groundbreaking work in Under the Skin”.

De Veer says he wanted to encourage viewers to empathise with the film’s main character, a young girl named Melanie. “I wanted to build a connection with her, because there’s something really moving about her and her relationship with her teacher [played by Gemma Arterton],” he explains. “I don’t really care about zombies and explosions – that’s not really interesting to me – so it had to be about how she perceives what’s happening.”

De Veer was born in Chile in 1973, during the military coup d’etat. He was fascinated with music as a child and could often be found playing his family’s Spanish guitar or making his own drum kits out of boxes.

He later moved to Quebec and spent nine years studying classical music at the Conservatoire de Musique, where he majored in percussion. After graduating, he co-founded the pop dance group One Ton and had a top 10 hit in Canada in 2002 with the track Supersex World.

He went on to produce albums for pop, rock and indie musicians and, in 2008, created the music for Ubisoft’s bestselling computer game Shaun White Snowboarding. His first TV commission was for Munden’s adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel, The Crimson Petal and the White, which aired on BBC 2 in 2011.

Munden came across his work while searching for musicians based in Canada, where parts of the show were filmed. “I had always liked the idea of creating ambience for images, but I didn’t know how the TV and film world worked,” explains de Veer. “When I was working in pop music, we [One Ton] had an agent and I was always asking if we could pitch stuff for TV and cinema … but it’s a very mysterious world to enter and make contacts [in],” he adds.

A year later, Munden asked de Veer to work on Utopia: a six-part series about a group of people who are hunted by an organisation known as The Network after discovering a rare manuscript of a graphic novel called The Utopia Experiments.

The show was a cult hit, not just because of Kelly’s gripping writing and some stand out performances from its cast, but also because of its distinctive sound and aesthetic. Super-saturated colours and beautiful cinematography were combined with a brilliantly unusual soundtrack to create a show that looked – and sounded – like nothing else on TV.

De Veer’s music perfectly captured the programme’s offbeat tone and its mix of darkness, humour and style. His soundtrack combined shrill bells and whistles with darker bass lines, ghostly voices, fast-paced electronic and reggae-inspired beats.

With the show’s violent scenes and eye-popping visuals, there was little need to enhance the drama on screen. Instead, de Veer says the aim was to bring “a new perspective” to what was happening.

“Often, we’d put fast-paced b or funny music in moments that were really dark and it was quite fascinating because it didn’t make the scene any lighter,” he explains. “It didn’t take away from it: if anything, it would make it even creepier.” There was a sadness to certain tracks, helping emphasise the inner turmoil of some of its more troubled characters, but as de Veer points out, “[the music] was never depressing – it was never bringing you down.”

He created a similarly off-kilter soundtrack for National Treasure – another collaboration with Munden, whom he credits with giving him a great deal of creative freedom and scope to “bring something different to a production”.

His music captured the show’s drama and intrigue as well as the sadness of a family torn apart by allegations of abuse. It also served to heighten viewers’ uncertainty surrounding the guilt of its main character, played by Robbie Coltrane. Tinkling piano keys were combined with darker notes to establish a sense of unease from the outset.

“I guess it was trying to convey the complexity of what was happening, and how everyone is feeling, without giving anything away,” explains de Veer. “When the police first come to get this guy and the shit hits the fan [Coltrane’s character is taken to a police station for questioning in episode one], we needed to feel that the world is falling apart around him. At the same time, this could have been really depressing – we tried some stuff that was a real downer and after the first episode you just felt depressed, like you didn’t have the energy to watch the rest … so I guess it needed to have an energy to it, to keep people interested.”

De Veer likes to compose music from a cabin-cum-studio out in the woods near Montreal, but will sometimes move to where a show is being filmed. (He spent several months in London working on Humans and Utopia).

Still from National Treasure, starring Robbie Coltrane and Julie Walters (pictured). Image courtesy of Channel 4
Still from National Treasure, starring Robbie Coltrane and Julie Walters (pictured). Image courtesy of Channel 4

He will often begin creating music for a show before it is filmed, based on conversations with a director or producers about the mood or tone of the series and its main characters. This isn’t always the case, however – for The Girl With All The Gifts, he was given a copy of the film once it was finished and had just four months to create the score.

“You might feel more comfortable doing something [when you have a lot of time to prepare], but it’s not necessarily the best way to achieve quality,” he says.

“It can be nice to know about something [in advance] and have a long time to think about it, because it might bring more mature ideas at the end of it, but then, [The Girl With All The Gifts] was very last minute and I’m extremely happy with the results.” He also created a track for Humans, titled Meant to Feel, using just a laptop while working at his father’s house in Paris.

Scenes from Channel 4 drama Utopia, directed by Marc Munden and written by Dennis Kelly, and starring Alexandra Roach, Adeel Akhtar, Fiona O’Shaughnessy and Oliver Woollford
Scenes from Channel 4 drama Utopia, directed by Marc Munden and written by Dennis Kelly, and starring Alexandra Roach and Adeel Akhtar (pictured), Fiona O’Shaughnessy and Oliver Woollford

There are some recurring themes in de Veer’s work. There’s often an eeriness, a strangeness or an unusual use of human voices, for example, but each of his scores has a unique and memorable sound. He also experiments with unusual instruments: he used a trumpet made out of bamboo and horse intestine and a drum made out of rhino faeces for the Utopia soundtrack, and draws on a diverse range of musical styles. He likens being a musician to being a scientist carrying out experiments in a lab – his other dream job as a child.

Music should give personality to a project. It should make [a movie or TV show] recognisable

“I like doing projects with different people and changing styles,” he says. “When I was producing music, I could be working on free jazz one day, then experimenting with African or Mexican or Swedish music the next. Scoring felt very natural because I could reset myself with each new project, and for me, it is much more interesting than being in a band, where every day I had to play the same songs that people expected to hear. Touring could easily feel like a job … but with each TV show or movie, it’s like a microcosm. You’re completely involved in it and then it goes away and you enter another one.”

De Veer enjoys working on films and TV shows where people aren’t afraid to do things a little differently. Utopia and National Treasure were both broadcast on Channel 4 at peak times, but they were daring and ambitious pieces of drama with a distinctive voice, rather than projects made to appeal to the masses. Munden also gave him the freedom to create something unexpected.

He counts Levi and Polish composer Krzysztof Komeda among his inspirations (composers known for their distinctive and unsettling scores), and is critical of what he describes as “transparent music”, preferring instead to create something “with character”.

“I think music should give personality to a project. It should make [a movie or TV show] recognisable, in the same way that you recognise a Michael Jackson song on the radio or whatever. It’s like a colour palette,” he explains.

This is still a fairly unusual approach in film and TV. Major blockbusters often rely on familiar techniques: rousing strings for emotional crescendos, for example, or deep bass notes to add suspense. These can be effective at heightening the sense of drama in a scene, but are often forgettable or go largely unnoticed by audiences.

A still from Humans. Photograph courtesy of Channel 4
Still from Humans. Photograph courtesy of Channel 4

“Very often, everyone just uses this orchestral score and it’s like everyone is sharing the same language, sharing the same instrument, just to help the film along here and there. To me, that’s not using all the tools you have to make a movie with character,” says de Veer.

De Veer has just finished working on Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, a BBC America and Netflix series based on Douglas Adams’ novels of the same name. And with his score for The Girl With All the Gifts receiving widespread praise, it’s likely we’ll be hearing a lot more of his work in the near future.


Listen to Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s work at soundcloud.com/cristobal-tapia-de-veer

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