Creating Scores with Film and Television Composer Ava Momoh

Film and Music are longstanding allies in the business of serving emotions to audiences around the world. While it’s no simple task to piece a film that captures the intricacies of the human condition together, fitting in the right sounds with effective emotive intentions is just as daunting.

Pooling from the timeless compositions of the symphonic cohort of Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, John Wiliams, John Carpenter, Ennio Morricone, to the latest endeavours of Brian Tyler, Ramin Djawadi, Ludwig Goransson et. al, film scores are instrumental (pun intended) in affecting the dramatic underscore of films.

Now, drawing from the reins of the greats is Ava Momoh, a self-named Nigerian film composer, with a burgeoning career spanning over a decade. On both film and TV, Ava has scored for a number of movies and has worked with reputable movie producers and directors. His filmography is constantly expanding, with a repertoire of work done with MNet, Africa magic, Ndani TV and other media platforms.

Ava is the man behind the music for Nollywood movies such as The Millions and 8 bars & A clef. He has also scored for Mnet TV shows – Forbidden, Jemeji and a host of others.

Filmkaku had a chat with Ava Momoh for a glimpse into his immense love for music-in-film:

FilmKaku: Why and How did you get into film scoring?

Ava Momoh: Back in 2003/04 at Unilag, what has now become a flame started as a mere spark for music. I was a music producer but artistes barely paid me any money. At the time, the summation of reviews I got for my music was that it was best suited for film and not mainstream music. Then I moved to Surelere in Lagos State, a town famed for nestling the crème de la crème of Nollywood. For my work, I was open to the earlier versions of fruity loops for producers who only demanded a bunch of sounds for their films, given that scoring for picture at that time was unpopular. After an arduous experience outsourcing vocalists for my sounds to match producers’ demands, I made a decision to devote myself wholly to film scoring. In all, it was quite a humbling beginning for me, an experience that formed my introduction into the industry.

FK: What project did you do to transition into doing proper film scoring?

AM: When I started to score films, I worked majorly with unknown filmmakers. I had my major break when the iconic Emem Isong partnered with me on a few of her many film projects. With her, I was given the films to watch, study and create scores to enhance the stories.

FK: How do you rate the film scoring scene in Nollywood since you started?

AM: Amazing,  I must say. I feel like the craft has slowly gathered some more importance.  There are more players on scene now. Notable mentions are – Grey Jones, Michael Ogunlade, Kolade Morakinyo… With these guys, the future of the craft looks really good. However, I have two major concerns. One is the feeble attention given to the art, because some film practitioners still do not believe in its viability. Two, a lot of movie producers and directors do not regard or respect film scoring. Ergo, they draw up budgets and inadvertently leave out film score, only to revisit it when there’s barely any money to muster. I quite understand the sentiment of producers with lean budgets. However, given the obvious indispensability of film score, if producers prefer actual film scoring to downloading ready-made tracks online, it should be done properly and not be regarded as an afterthought of the post-production process. But I believe as more people come into the scene, these issues will be treated better. 

FK: How do you work on projects? What’s your work-flow like?

AM: Back in the day, it was just about making music. But as time passed, I started to be more meticulous in my dealings with directors and ultimately in the approach to my work. First, I watch the movie and identify the points in the story that require music, then I determine the kind of music best suited to the emotional response expected of the audience. In situations where directors are clueless about choice of music, I consider it a two-way street and try not to let my idea override the director’s. I give suggestions but never try to impose my idea on the director. I do my best to work with their idea.

FK: Interesting, in cases where the director knows his onions, how do you handle creative conflicts?

AM: In such cases, I ask the director if there are musical pieces, as references, to help capture the kind of emotion he’s looking to convey. In very queer, unsettling cases, some directors go ahead and insert temporary music during edit and end up liking the temp-track regardless of the tireless work of the film scorer. What I do is to request the temp-track beforehand and produce a reprise replaceable with the temp-track and hope the director likes it. Sometimes they do.

FK: What’s your most creatively difficult project yet?

AM: I won’t call it difficult, but challenging. Currently, I’m working on a feature animation with Chris Ihidero. Basically, what I do is to finesse African sounds to have cinematic appeal and cover the emotional range of the story. It’s challenging because we do not have distinct sounds here compared to other industries like the Indians and the Chinese with their distinct instruments and sounds.

 FK:Are there projects you really enjoyed working on?

AM: I would reference my experience with Victor Sanchez Aghaowa. Being a rapper back in the day, he listens to a lot of film scores that have overtime informed his rich knowledge of the art. This helped the forming of a seamless relationship. Particularly on the TV show Jemeji, given its multifaceted aspects, it was easy to inculcate the story into a score. The cannonball of African mystery, supernatural, horror and drama elements helped me flex my creative muscle, with Victor providing the creative direction.

FK: How long does it take you to pull off a satisfactory film score?

AM: I’d say two months, at minimum, is ideal. I like to take my time. But sadly, I do not get that much time often working in the industry, so I employ quicker schemes to get the job done and still attain creative fulfillment.

FK:  What film composers do you consider as influences?

AM: In Nigeria, every composer I know inspire me, they are all talented folks doing amazing stuff. Abroad, there’s Thomas Newman (American beauty), Hans Zimmer (Inception), John Williams (Jaws) [my foremost influence], and of course, there’s the recently deceased Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). Notable mentions are John Powell, Steven Pryce and Ramin Djawadi (for his work on Pacific Rim).

 FK: A reverberant line-up you have there. Now, what advice would you give a young composer looking to make film scores for the big screens? How does he learn the craft and the business of film scoring?

AM: Learning the craft is the most important: listen to music a lot, score the music but don’t try to copy, and strive for uniqueness. Then, when you’re certain you have a grip of the craft; meet people. Shockingly, filmmakers are actually groping in the dark for competent film scorers for their films, and a few more are open to paying good money for it. Use the social media as an effective marketing tool, post your work, be visible! However, as I’ve often rebuffed, do not tag the big guns in the industry. Find upcoming filmmakers and partner with them; grow steadily.

FK: Given your body of work so far, how do you handle criticism?

AM: Criticism is part of the job. So long the criticism is constructive, it sits well with me. 

FK: Going left wing now, have you been in situations where you felt a project needed little or no music?

AM: I worked on a short film titled The Audition starring Ade Laoye. There was a particular scene where the actors pulled off a stellar performance that downplayed the need for music. I did not see the need for it. Ideally, the music serves to enhance the emotion of a scene and since the actors produced an overload of emotions, I scrapped it. Also, in the critically acclaimed 12 years a slave, if you noticed, the music was very sparse because the film itself conveyed (to a lilt) the needed emotions.

FK: Alternatively, how do you feel when a film is bedecked with a lot of popular music in virtually every scene?

AM: Frankly, I’m indifferent, if it works for the picture and movie, then it’s all good. So long the film is fun, engaging and the audience love it. Even with 50 songs, it’s fine. I’m not opposed to how people use music, as long as it works for the film. 

FK: We’re rounding up now. What are your candid thoughts on Nollywood as an industry?

AM: I notice a lot of practitioners doing solo runs. I find this disturbing because it does not guarantee growth. In Nollywood too, there’s a lot of undercutting, particularly with pricing. Practitioners should shun it and set a better precedence for the right valuation of skills. This onewill foster uniform growth in all quarters.

FK: Thank you for the time Ava. Good luck.

AM: The pleasure is mine. Thank you too.


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