Shattering the Glass Ceiling with Sound: An Interview with Film Composer Lauren Comele Morris
According to Independent Women: Behind-the-Scenes Employment on Festival Films in 2013-14 by Martha M. Lauzen, Ph.D, one of the most disturbing statistics reveal a whopping 2% of women worked as composers on top grossing films last year. With such a deplorable number of opportunities, it is especially crucial we seek out, support, and hire talented female composers. Maybe next year we can maybe make it up to 3%?
Working to shatter this glass ceiling and no stranger to the fight to be heard is Austin, Texas-based Lauren Comele Morris, a superstar sound designer and film composer and owner of Scorpion Sound Design. Lauren has worked on 18 films and numerous TV productions, including such indie heavyweights as Circus of the Dead and The Reincarnation of Jesse Belle. She was gracious enough to talk to Ax Wound about her work ethic, passion for sound, and industry hurdles as well as offer some inspiration for aspiring sound designers.
Tonija Atomic: Tell us a little about what you do at Scorpion Sound Design.
Lauren Comele Morris: We produce music, foley, sound design, mixing and mastering for film and television productions. We are in Austin so we have the unique opportunity to work with Grammy winning talent and have world class musicians with great sounding instruments making for great core sounds and performances. We use virtual software passionately in our productions and that provides us with a lot of power to produce anything we want. It’s an amazing time to be making music. We are most often a one stop shop for our film scores. We start with the dialog edit and enhancement, work the field audio, write original music and sound design, mix, and master if we have to.
Tonija: What first drew you to audio engineering?
Lauren: I’ve loved sound since I was a young Catholic girl ringing the tower bell. I loved the drone and the reflection. I had many influences musically but my Celtic roots are strong and you can hear that sociobiology in my music. I produced two Celtic music CDs with my band Celticana in California and when I moved to Austin, I knew I couldn’t really recreate what I had with my band. I would have to rely on others to produce and it would be expensive. I had stuff in my head that there was just no way I could make happen in the traditional sense. I decided to spend my money on empowering myself. I bought studio equipment, went to Berklee [College of Music] to study recording for a couple of years and maniacally fell in love with the virtual world and became a producer. What I didn’t expect was that I would love the mix so much that it would entirely consume me. I discovered how incredible the digital world is and the power of the virtual instruments devoured me. I am a studio cat now. Due to my roots, strange music and sound comes quite natural to me and engineering it is an artistry that is both challenging and the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done.
Tonija: What are some of the challenges that you face running your own studio?
Lauren: Keeping up with updating operating systems is expensive. It’s fun to spend money if you have it. Frustrating if you don’t. Finding projects that are truly unique and creative that pay adequately for my time, and getting people who are new to the process to understand how time consuming it is. We are kind of in a world where people tend to not budget adequately for sound in film and they want it yesterday. It’s not possible.
Music for film provides a substantial part of art and is a huge investment of time and resources. So if you only have X amount of dollars and I’m spending hundreds of hours making it good, I’m an investor. We often get forgotten in that regard. I’m an artist, not a tool, even though I have a pretty badass toolbox. So probably working with people who are new to working with a composer and a sound person in the indie world is the biggest challenge I face. Time and understanding.
Tonija: Last year a report came out that only 2% of major films were composed by women. Have you struggled or feel that difficult barrier at all in your career? Why do you think this number is so especially low?
Lauren: Yes it is a barrier. While there are more and more women working in sound design at higher levels, for instance the sound designer for Game of Thrones is a woman, it sometimes takes a special kind of man to look beyond gender. I think they typically feel they can trust a man more even though that is not always the case. I think they just think a guy can get the job done. Plus, I also think maybe it just isn’t cool to hire a woman in the good ‘ol boys club. Breaking through in a man’s world of nepotism is extremely difficult. Us women end up being novelties. However, we are out there, and you just have to look harder because there are so few of us. Here is another thing: guys don’t often want a woman in the workplace to be smarter, funnier, or better at the job than they are. It’s an ego thing. They want to control the outcome, or smear paint over the top of it or otherwise fuck with it someway.
Lauren: I’ve been composing for films since 2005 and I’ve been a musician since I was 12 so I’ve been at it for decades. I try to bring seasoned, mature choices, and is one of the reasons I like to use some of the live talent I have access to here in Austin. Look at the credits on Circus of the Dead and you’ll see quite an eclectic and surprising mix of talent from my farm animals to Grammy winners.
Every project is different but I commonly work on a scene-by-scene basis. I draw inspiration from the images and that translates into the textures and instruments I choose. I get inspiration from the directors for what they like and I try to give them what they want. I do however have my own style and I think you can definitely feel my presence in the landscapes. I like for my films to sound composed, meaning a consistency throughout. So many films now are choosing music from different sources and this is a trend where we are loosing consistency and I like to bring that consistency back into what I do. It’s important that it doesn’t sound like something just thrown in there. Everything has to be mixed. The dialog, the field audio, the foley, the sound design and the music all have to be done well. There is artistry on the output channel and in the film. The music should be, as Danny Elfman has said, “Marching proudly all the way through.” It is a substantial part of the film. It is a “character and should be perceived as a character.”
Tonija: What is your favorite part of the process?
Lauren: When a new piece comes out and it’s outstanding. I like to write heavy, grooving blasty stuff with weird textures and interesting instruments and it’s fun to combine sounds and have them make an interesting piece of music. I also like getting good reactions from my listeners. It feels good to be recognized for my work and appreciated. When I’m on my game and have a vision that is being manifested, it’s an epic otherworldly experience and very satisfying.
Tonija: Aside from film scoring, do you create other music?
Lauren: Well, being in Austin is incredible. The talent here is ridiculous. I have a couple of songwriters I work with in the studio and we are all players so we bash it out and make a lot of noise from time to time. We go to festivals and drum around the fire all night twice a year for Beltane and Samhain.
I also play with the legendary Rosie Flores and I get out and run live sound for bands. I record foley for my library. There is plenty to do in the way of collaborating, mentoring, and teaching. I published a book on rock singing called A Singer’s Journey, A Guide to Finding Your Best Vocal. It’s a handbook-roadmap geared for helping the singer/songwriter get a good vocal on original material. And I am constantly writing new music and playing with my virtual instruments and mixing.
Lauren: I have to take a break after some long hours at the board. I am very protective about my ears and work at the proper volume levels under the best conditions. Having some down time is not only important to my ears and health but crucial to the production. Most experienced pro audio people will tell you that the audio part of film work is the most time consuming part of filmmaking. You probably shouldn’t just churn it out on a short time table. Trent Reznor requires a year for each film he works on and it’s longer for Hans [Zimmer]. During the creative process you need to step back for a few days and then go back in with a fresh perspective or you’ll miss things, especially if you are doing it all yourself like we do here at Scorpion Sound.
Tonija: What is the strangest situation you’ve come across while doing foley sound work?
Lauren: Well because I love sound so much, foley is simply a play land. It is such a blast and I guess strange to me would mean the sounds in the natural world like insects, critters, my farm animals which I love to record, lightening, anything. It’s a noisy world. Working with frequencies, taking the sounds of the mechanical world and using those for other purposes is fun. I like to take the sounds I get and turn them into something else. I guess I’m strange in that regard.
Tonija: What have been some of the highlights in your career?
Lauren: Working with people like John Moyer of Disturbed, Redd Volkaert one of the best guitarists in the world, and Texas Tornadoes drummer Ernie Durawa, among others here in Austin. My husband is a great musician and he always has great ideas. The musicians that come around are priceless and I’m happy to call them friends. They think I’m crazy for doing horror films but they really like my sound. I’ve had many successes, but attending Berklee was a huge highlight. They made me and gave me the keys to the kingdom. Having the tools I have at my fingertips is like plugging a quarter inch into my head. Everything I can hear in my head, I can produce. What’s better than that for a musician?
Tonija: What are you working on currently?
Lauren: I’m beginning work on Star Trek Renegades with Justin Durban. I’m scoring the second feature for Will Scoville called Swinging at Shadows and working with Christopher Cooksey on his Quantum Terror flick now at the indiegogo stage. That also features Jenna Green of Face Off. I’m also going to be the mix engineer for William Instone’s film Among the Dead.
Tonija: Lastly, do you have any advice for newcomers that may be interested in breaking into the field?
Lauren: Learn as much as you can. Know your stuff, study, make the sacrifices you have to make, be patient, work at it, don’t get ego-ed out because there are plenty of people out there ready to rip your face off. Don’t be a dick, a hijacker, or a shark. Stay humble, work very hard, be kind, generous and grateful and have a brutal work ethic and always exercise The Four Agreements.