​Spotlight on Slaight Music Residency Alumni

By Janet Ho ● February 17, 2017 09:20

The Canadian Film Centre (CFC) recently announced the renewal of funding for The Slaight Family Music Lab, a program that has helped to cultivate and promote Canadian musical talent in onscreen media. Since its inception in 2012, alumni of its residency program have gone on to gain critical recognition, earning nominations and awards in Canada and the world stage. Most recent notable alumni achievements include Michael Peter Olsen’s work on Drake’s 2016 Grammy-nominated Views album, as well as the February 2017 premiere of Erica Procunier’s score for the animated film, DAM! The Story of Kit, commissioned by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) and TIFF.

The Slaight Music Residency, chaired by Academy Award-winning film composer Mychael Danna and Juno Award-winning singer-songwriter Marc Jordan, is a part-time nine-month creative and business initiative that enables Canadian composers and songwriters to expand their skills and professional opportunities. It begins with an intensive bootcamp consisting of workshops with top music and onscreen professionals, as well as business and technical experts. Residents work with acclaimed composers, songwriters, directors and producers to discover new ways of storytelling through various visual and musical perspectives, all while developing their own unique talents.

With the nominations for the 2017 Slaight Music Residency now open to new applicants, past alumni shared how the program has shaped their professional careers.

On the biggest takeaways

“Composing music is so often a solitary craft, so one of the things I’m most grateful for was being able to pick the brains of so many talented artists and filmmakers who so generously share their knowledge with residents of the program, often in a setting that's conducive to free-flow conversations and a genuine back-and-forth. But without a doubt the biggest takeaway for me was the relationships forged with the other emerging filmmakers at the CFC, collaborators I’ve continued to make films with and whom I hope to keep working for years to come.” – Ben Fox

Headshot of Robyn Dell’Unto

“My biggest takeaway was that I had the resources, external and internal, to do anything that was thrown at me. My application piece was the first thing I ever composed, and I remember feeling like my mentors and administrators were sensitive to the fact that this was a very new landscape for me and some of my fellow residents, while still challenging us to become worthy competitors. That combo of pressure and support encouraged many 4:00 a.m. “How do I do this ridiculously technical thing?” YouTube self-education sessions – and lots of research and listening and pushing through the fear. I credit the program to making me realize, admit and own that I wanted to be a music producer professionally, a title I felt I would never have lived up to prior to my experience in the program.” – Robyn Dell’Unto 

“I felt my biggest takeaway from the Residency was the realization that Canadian music talent can compete anywhere in the world it wants to. We just need the confidence.” – Michael Peter Olsen

After 15 years of playing shows and making records, music was starting to feel like just one side of the story. I've loved movies and television since I was a child, but the Internet has made video such a central part of day-to-day life for everyone, it just seemed to be the direction we're all headed. I started editing music videos and working with the Prism Prize, and those things gave way to doing some scoring, which led me to the Residency. The CFC has really helped to blow open all the possibilities available for integrating music and video.” – Neil Haverty 

Headshot of Erica Procunier

“I really wanted to become an integral part of the movie magic. Ever since I started composing, I found myself intrigued by music's mysterious power to captivate the audience and to completely immerse them in the film world. Out of any music genre, soundtracks communicate extremely vast and diverse ranges of emotion, and I've always loved the challenge of creating those indescribable emotional moments for others.” – Erica Procunier

On the benefits of collaborating and working closely with CFC partners, mentors and fellow Slaight residents

“It was insanely transformational—pitching a song to a screenwriter or director, explaining to them how you interpreted their script, and convincing them that you are the right person to serve it. Those kinds of meetings were so thrilling and terrifying. Music as a ‘service’ was a very new and incredible concept to me. The director or writer has this thing, their baby, and your job is to serve it, bring your own heart to the table and add to its power. I quickly realized it was not about me at all at that point, which was really humbling and integral for me at that point in my career.” – Robyn Dell’Unto

Ben Fox accepting award

“I think the range of projects I was able to work on at the Residency really pushed me to expand the boundaries of my comfort zone. Outside of actually writing music, working so closely with residents from the other CFC programs certainly made me a better collaborator, a better teammate and reliable ally for the filmmakers I work with – which is a huge part of the job of being a composer.” – Ben Fox

“My Residency colleagues created a support system and taught me so much with their talents. There is such an open, collaborative spirit in the program that is sometimes hard to find. I found it easy to adapt to working on their projects and felt I gained new insight into creating a meaningful score. I can honestly say almost all of the residents in my year in all disciplines are potential collaborators and friends. Already I've worked directly with five to six people. My fellow resident Ben Fox and I are now frequent collaborators and co-writers on many projects as well.” – Michael Peter Olsen

On the professional relationships developed

“My Slaight Music Residency felt like family—there were seven music residents and we got super close really quickly. We all continue to throw work to each other, support each other and collaborate on writing or composing projects. I’ll always know they absolutely have my back, and that really doesn’t happen all that often for me in this industry.” – Robyn Dell’Unto

“They’re invaluable, it really can’t be overstated. I just had a meeting about a new film with a producer who was in my year at the CFC. I think the CFC affords everyone a chance to really get to know each other on a personal level, which I think results in deeper bonds and more comfortable professional collaborations. That’s been my experience.” – Ben Fox

Headshot of Neil Haverty

“The program has us working with a lot of talented emerging filmmakers. It remains to be seen who goes on to make feature films or television pilots, but the close working relationship means that we might be taken along for the ride when that happens. The directors in our year were so strong that I will be shocked if they don't go on to make great films in the near future. Everyone at the CFC is there because they take filmmaking seriously, so by the nature of these collaborations, you're bound to get invested in the projects and the vision of the filmmaker with whom you're working. Beyond that, they've given us access to a number of composers, music supervisors and music biz higher-ups that we wouldn't have had access to otherwise. There are now a bunch of people I could directly contact without having to cold-call, and that feels like a pretty lucky thing to me.” – Neil Haverty

On evolving musical interests

“Since the program, I am less interested in what I “gravitate to” and more interested in how to hone in on a specific vibe or sound, as requested by a client, licensing brief or just because I want to try. I came from an acoustic guitar, singer-songwriter, folky world with no training in composition, so at first I leaned on guitar work —slide guitar, electric swell-y stuff, classical stuff and all that. But during and after the program, I felt prepared to force myself to move towards things that don’t come as naturally: synths, programming, developing my own sample bank. These have become an obsession. I realize now that the styles and sounds that scare you can end up being your best secret weapon.” – Robyn Dell’Unto

“I've done a lot of working outside my comfort zone in the Residency. It seems that every piece I've worked on was slightly different than the last, and my music had to shape-shift every time. Obviously it's always going to come out sounding a bit like me, but I think the variety it offers is one of the most exciting things about scoring. This week, I'm making a post-rock song, an acid jazz song, a kooky TV theme song and a classical guitar song. [The Residency] really shakes up your creative practice.” – Neil Haverty

Headshot of Michael Peter Olsen

“Since my career has involved so many styles of music, the Residency really had the effect of allowed me to discover a more specific personal style within the context of many genres. I have been able to incorporate many music elements that I gravitate to: classical instruments, electronic experimentation, sound engineering manipulation, and acoustic recording. This has begun to emerge as a kind of unified sound for me.” – Michael Peter Olsen

On the practical and creative skills required to be in the business

“I think the biggest non-musical part of the job is having interpersonal skills. Navigating personalities and being a good collaborator is a huge part of the job. You have to have the emotional awareness to read people and support them where they need it. Music is one of the last links in the production of a film, and sometimes a director is completely thrilled with the film they’ve made, but a lot of the time you’re there to solve problems or add a dimension that the director feels they didn’t quite capture on screen. Whatever the case, you have to have sharp people skills to read situations and understand what each project requires.” – Ben Fox

“As a film composer you have to be a one-stop shop. You not only must be a brilliantly original composer who can run the gamut of current trends or time-tested classic sounds, but you must also have the skills of a pro music producer, customer service connoisseur, tech support guru, PR maven, accounting wiz, social media expert and party-hopping socialite. And also you have to be a nice person to work with!” – Erica Procunier

The 2017 Slaight Music Residency is currently open to new applicants, nominations close on March 31.