PHOTO: Angela Marklew
Meet Sherri Chung, The Score Composer Shaking Up The Television Academy
Take a peek behind the Hollywood curtain to learn how composer Sherri Chung makes music within the confines of visual media: "It's a really specific pairing of creation and craft."
You might not know who Sherri Chung is, but you have probably heard her music.
A composer for film and television, Chung has written the scores for shows including "Riverdale," "Blindspot," "The Red Line," "Batwoman" and "Kung Fu." She’s currently penning tracks for HBO Max’s new "Gremlins" series, and she just made history by being elected the first female governor of the Television Academy’s music branch.
Chung’s work requires her to set moods that contribute to the stories being told on screen. She can create drama with a piano and romance with a beat, but also has to keep her clients in mind. Her work must creatively serve their story, often working within rigorous limitations of time, budget, and phrasing. As she explains, “It's creation, but within the confines and parameters that are much more specific and set out for you."
Somehow, Chung manages to work miracles, crafting distinctly different sounds for all of her projects and creating whole worlds out of her small studio. She’s a sonic scene-setter, a talented musician, and an important part of the creative process.
GRAMMY.com sat down with Chung for a glimpse behind the Hollywood curtain.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
How did you get into composing? It's not one of those careers that most people really realize is an option; most kids want to be veterinarians or astronauts, not composers.
Most kids don't, but I did. I was 12 or 13 when I saw Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves and fell in love with Michael Kaman's score. I had grown up in music. I was a classically trained pianist and I was doing a lot of music with the church, playing piano and playing in a jazz band… but that kind of music was obviously very different from film or television music.
When I saw Robin Hood... I don't know what it was, because I'd seen movies with excellent music before, but I just saw this movie and was so moved by Michael Kaman's score and how it all worked with the picture. It was just like, "I don't know what that job is, but I want to do that." That music just moved me so much. It was orchestral like I was sort of studying, but it was also very, very dramatic storytelling music.
I did my undergrad in straight up composition and then I actually came out to the University Of Southern California for their graduate program for film and TV scoring.
Is there a traditional path to becoming a film composer, or maybe an accepted way to get into the business?
Well, there's definitely a formal-ish way. For me, I'd go to get my education and then put yourself out there doing film stuff, especially if you put yourself in a city like Los Angeles. I made a lot of connections that way through the graduate program and that's just what it's designed to do. It puts you in the thick of it.
Then I became an assistant, which is a solid way to get to where you want to go. You assist another composer, or you could even go work in all different kinds of other jobs that are all part of composing for film and television. You could work in a copy office where they're preparing the music for recording.
There are also the other completely unconventional ways of getting into the industry. Some people just fall into it, or maybe they're coming from the band world and they just randomly do their friend's film and that film happens to do really, really well at festivals.
There are so many different ways to do it, but I would say that definitely going the assistant route, which is what I did...That's a good way to learn the ropes and the skills and get into it.
Say you get hired onto a new project. What comes next? How do you do your job?
Without getting too into the weeds, composing for film and TV has two very different sides that, when you can do them together really well…makes people into successful composers.
There's the artistic side where you're doing the actual composing and writing and creating of music, and then there's the... I don't want to say the administrative side, but it's a little less creative and more on the technical side of things. For that, you're not just creating music, but you're creating music within a very specific set of parameters, like "We need a very specific vibe or tone here, but it needs to be only be the length of this scene or the length of the sequence." Or "I would really love it if we could just touch upon that look that the actor gives," or "When that door opens, we want to feel something there."
It's creation, but within the confines and parameters that are much more specific and set out for you as dictated. You are creating something based on something that already exists that, in general, cannot change. It is the length of time they want it to be, and it has the look.
In terms of how I do my job, I am very much influenced visually, so I'll definitely look at the picture. If there's no picture, maybe I'll just read a script or read a story, or maybe just have a conversation. From there, on a logistical sense, I start mapping out the work. I do have to think about the time that I'm given to do a project — whether it's however long or however many minutes of music, or someone saying, "We really have tight deadlines here because we have a test screening," or "We really want to see what your ideas are here." You have to work backwards from there and then you have to go in and create within a time limit.
I like to write away from picture first, just to conceptualize some things and to take out the parameters. I mean, there will always be parameters, but I do it so that I can be in an editable and producible situation where I'm slowly creating and playing and having fun. Even if none of those ideas ever make it into the project, I like having that time to explore.
What makes a project connect with you? Is there a throughline in the work that you're most proud of?
It's two things. It's a really good story, or a story being told in a way that I feel is relatable and resonates — and I know that's subjective. It's that pairing along with the trust from the filmmaker or producer or director, whoever it is. That they have the trust to say, "I really would love to hear your take on this and what you really want to do." Then you can go from there.
I think it's a little bit more fun and more effective, honestly, as an artist, when someone says, "I've heard your work, I've heard your music. I know who you are. We talked and we get along, so let's do everything together." It's really about the collaboration and getting permission, if you will, to have a point of view.
In that sense, how important are relationships within the industry?
That's pretty much the basis of everything.
People always say it's about who you know, and the connotation to that is that you have to know somebody important or famous, or somebody who's really, really successful. That's actually not really the case.
It's really about knowing a person who's maybe doing some project that you want to know more about. Maybe they're an editor on a project that's looking for a composer, and they say "Hey, I know a composer that I think would be really good for this project" and they give the creators your name. That editor might not be the most household name editor that you've ever heard of, but they just happen to be on this project and they submit your name.
It really is about knowing a person and doing a good job so that those relationships can build, because even if you may not work with that person again, they might recommend you to someone else. I think it's about each thing that you do, each task or project or gig or even transaction or conversation... just to try and be as successful and reliable as you possibly can. Success begets success and word of mouth gets around.
There's an element of honesty to it as well, I think. You have to have the ability to also be able to say, "I'm not the right person for this project, but let me point you to someone who is." People respect that humility.
My first and only assistant gig started out that way. There were a couple of people that I knew that were up for an assistant position, but I was talking with the composer who was doing the hiring. I was like, "I would love to do this and I'm a quick learner, but if you really need this thing, you should really talk to that other person."
I got the gig and I've always believed that it maybe came down to my honesty or maybe my openness or maybe just the fact that they said, "I want to work with a person who doesn't necessarily come with their ego."
When you're working on a show like "Kung Fu" or "Gremlins" or "Riverdale," how do those creators relay their vision? How do shows differ in terms of their sonic footprint?
In the case of "Kung Fu," the creator and showrunner Christina M. Kim was a writer and then a producer on a previous show that I have worked on called "Blindspot." When Christina decided to make "Kung Fu," I don't want to say naturally she asked me, because she didn't have to, but I do think what I brought to the table was reliability and some experience. Sometimes you just want to start there.
I know that this was Christina's first show in terms of showrunning and there were a lot of people that she wanted to work with again simply because she'd worked with them before. We have something that we can both reference that we were on before.
"Gremlins" [is] such a wildly different score than any of those other projects. That actually came about through a demo. There was an executive over at the studio that I had worked with on a different project and they put me up as one of the options for this project.
I did a blind demo for "Gremlins," so it was one of those situations where you say, "This is my take on the project and this is what I feel I would bring to it." They hired me just because of that.
How are women doing in the composing world? Is there a "Women In Composing" association?
In terms of the ratio of men to women, it's definitely not 50-50. Depending on who you ask and what their experiences are, you'll hear varying reasons for that — like that women haven't been allowed in, or that it's a man's world. There are a lot of female composers, though, and I'm not certainly not one of the first. Instead, I'm one of many.
My personal take is that it's a difficult career, and it's an expensive one. It's also not a huge moneymaker for a very long time, if ever. I've been very fortunate, but it's something that you have to really want and it takes a lot of hard work.
I don't mean that in a gender specific way, really, but when I did my undergrad, I was the only female studying composition for the entire four years I was there. In graduate school, I was one of two females in the class. I think that has a lot to do with interest. Maybe there are other females out there that just need role models and they haven't seen a lot of female composers out there.
There's been a really big push toward equality lately, though. There's the Alliance For Women Film Composers, and that's helped to make females visible. There's been a lot of other support and outreach, and a lot of studios are really stepping up and saying, "We're going to push for this call for diversity, whether it be ethnic diversity, cultural diversity or gender diversity." At a lot of studios, people have been taking their own stand and saying, "We really want to fill some of these positions with different people and we want to hear some voices that we haven't heard before."
Hollywood has changed a lot in the past 10 or 20 years, with more and more outlets producing more and more work. How has composing changed?
It's really changed. There's more content out there, so there's more need to hire people to make more music. That actually opens up the platform for different kinds of music, and not only just culturally. I mean like, "Now we don't have to necessarily hire someone who does this for a living. We can actually just get a band or we can take chances on this other person." With more opportunity and storytelling, people are taking more chances making their films and making their television shows.
Digitally, there's way more music out there because of the dawn of mp3s however many years ago. That changed everything about the availability and the accessibility of music, because it was just right there. People started saying, "I'll license that" or "I found something I like on YouTube. Who's the composer?" I believe that's how Michael Abels was discovered by Jordan Peele.
There are a lot of international composers, too. There's a lot of film and television being made all over the world. There always was, but I think we always considered L.A. to be the biggest hub; I don't know if that's true anymore. There are people all over the place making so much film, and there's so much opportunity now.
None of that opportunity was there when I started 12 years ago, and people who started 10 years before me would say, "Are you kidding me? It's nothing like when I started."
I think that technology drew a line in the sand for a lot of people before me as well. There were a lot of talented composers, but they weren't necessarily able or willing to keep up with the technology. By that, I mean in terms of being able to demonstrate the music that they could compose and the music that they could write. When [Jaws and Star Wars composer] John Williams first started, Steven Spielberg went to the scoring stage. He'd heard John Williams play his themes maybe only on piano prior to that, but he'd go to the scoring stage and hear this entirely orchestrated piece of what you hear now in the movies. There was no ability to mock up or demo what you would do. There was no fake orchestra or samples. You were it.
It's a different skill set now. The technology has gotten even crazier since I started, too. It just seems like that drew a line in the sand between a lot of the lot of composers who could put pencil to paper and create a gorgeous orchestration, and producers and studios who would say "I need to hear it before we hire you."
You are the first female governor of the music branch of the Television Academy. What does that mean to you and what are your plans there?
It's such an honor to be there. Right now, my co-governor and I are really doing a lot. The Television Academy has been trying to have a call for diversity to make sure that we're representing our community, so…we're just trying to make sure that the Academy is representative of our community, and that the community is represented in the Academy. We have a sort of symbiotic relationship.
I'm trying to be a voice for all of the members of the Television Academy in the music branch. I want to share what the Academy does and how much we're giving back to the community, and how much we're part of the community. I'm still just getting my bearings, but I hope to continue on with the push for inclusivity, diversity, equity and all those wonderful things. It's an amazing organization and I want to keep tapping into how great and intricate and complex it really is.