Soundtrack for success: Jacobs program providing Hollywood experience

A closeup of two hands playing a keyboardView print quality image
The Scoring for Visual Media program teaches students how to create scores for film, television and video games. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

It can be subtle, it can be overt, but it's always purposeful.

Music in cinema delivers the soundtrack for audiences to feel the emotions of optimistic galactic adventures like "Star Wars" or the rising tension and looming doom of a shark attack in "Jaws."

Indiana University Bloomington students are learning this cinematic artform in one of the Jacobs School of Music's newest programs, Scoring for Visual Media.

Launching in the spring 2017 semester and housed inside the Department of Composition, the Scoring for Visual Media program offers a master's degree, undergraduate and doctoral minors, and two certificate degrees. Even in the program's infancy, the only Midwestern program of its kind is proving capable of competing against other top schools in Los Angeles and New York.

Each year, six students from the Scoring for Visual Media program are paired with rising filmmakers to produce the music for their short films through an exclusive partnership with Film Independent's Project Involve, whose goal is to build "a more inclusive and equitable industry by supporting emerging filmmakers from communities underrepresented in film and entertainment."

Project Involve films are frequently successful on independent film festival circuits. The recently announced 2020 short films and the Jacobs students who composed music for the films are:

  • Aron Frank -- "Yūgen."
  • Daroo Lee -- " Hollow."
  • Isaak Liu -- "Blackout."
  • Daniel Nieberg -- "Omolara."
  • Daniel Whitworth -- "Alma y Paz."
  • Yizi Xu -- " Ubuntu."

Distribution has yet to be determined for these films, but HBO has the first rights to air them.

Ryn Jorgensen stands next to a 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' movie poster outside IU Cinema  View print quality image
The 2020 Jon Vickers Film Scoring Award was presented to Ryn Jorgensen in 2019 as a commission to create an orchestral score for "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde" (1920). Photo courtesy of Ryn Jorgensen

2020 graduate Ryn Jorgensen's experience with Project Involve earned them acclaim for their work on "Black Boy Joy," a short film that depicts three generations of black men struggling to juggle the demands of raising a young son with autism after the death of a loved one.

The 17-minute 2019 film is streaming on HBO Max and won the NAACP Image Award for Best Short Film Narrative. Having prominently worked on a film that is available on the prestigious TV studio's streaming service has had a positive impact on Jorgensen's career.

"It has a certain amount of punch to it; it gets people's attention," Jorgensen said. "For better or worse, having your music on something like HBO lends you credibility. It's been helpful in getting new gigs to be able to label part of my demo reel as 'featured on HBO.'"

Jorgensen collaborated with director Martina Lee for an additional short film titled "Little Bobby Connors" and cited their relationship as one of "the best and most artistically fulfilling I've had."

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the six Project Involve students spent the summer in Los Angeles. They worked in Hollywood recording studios with guidance from successful composers Richard Marvin, an IU alum who had the idea for the program, and Larry Groupé, director of the Scoring for Visual Media program.

The six-week intensive experience provided a multifaceted look at the industry.

"It was a chance to produce really high-quality music in an environment where there was guidance available, something I found valuable," Jorgensen said. "Then we were meeting music industry professionals to deepen and broaden our understanding of how our industry works and the many different roles we could play in it."

Jacobs' partnership with Film Independent and Project Involve is made possible due to the generosity of Kaili Peng and her late husband, Ed Myerson, who passed away in 2020. They heard about the program from Marvin and gifted the school with funds to cover the partnership fee and other student expenses for the program's first three years. The partnership will begin its third year with the start of the next academic year.

The gift from Peng and Myerson aided Marvin's idea and Groupé's vision for the Scoring for Visual Media program.

Richard Marvin sits in his recording studioView print quality image
Richard Marvin, an IU alum, had the idea for the Scoring for Visual Media program in the Jacobs School of Music. Photo courtesy of Richard Marvin

Marvin was asked to teach a workshop for Jacobs students in 2015. It was his first time returning to Bloomington since he left in 1978. He met his future wife, Susan, a fellow Jacobs student, in the Willkie dorms, and they both moved to Los Angeles. He quickly found success as a top studio keyboardist and later a composer for TV shows and film.

Coming back to Bloomington for the workshop provided him an overwhelming sense of nostalgia, Marvin said. It's a place responsible for his happy marriage and his successful composing career working on TV shows such as "Six Feet Under," "The O.C." and "Grimm," and films such as "U-571" and "Surrogates."

During conversations with students, Marvin said, he was surprised by their interest in his career path and industry, given Jacobs' reputation and proficiency with classical music. Students asked for advice on how to follow in his footsteps, and he said he was motivated by their uncertainty and nervousness about moving forward in the music world.

"When I met with these young people, their concern for their future in music resonated with me, and I felt very fortunate that I could help them," Marvin said. "With my experience, I made a commitment to help them in any way I could.

"There needed to be a more designated focus on scoring at Jacobs. We have a responsibility to not only teach students but to provide them the tools they need to for the rest of their lives."

Knowing that the industry's need for scoring was increasing, he pitched the program to then Jacobs Dean Gwyn Richards and David Dzubay, professor of music and chair of the Department of Composition, who supported the idea. Dzubay led a national search for the program's leader and tapped Groupé, an Emmy Award-winning composer with credits on films such as "The Outpost," "The Contender" and "Straw Dogs" who was excited at the opportunity to craft the program from scratch.

Larry Groupe works at his computer and keyboard on a movie scoreView print quality image
Larry Groupé, composer and director of the Scoring for Visual Media program, works on a movie score at his home in Bloomington. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

The curriculum was built to provide a comprehensive education on scoring to picture, with adjunct instructors who are all actively working in the industry and specializing in different aspects of the craft.

Ryan Fitch's expertise is in music licensing and helping students navigate the monetization aspects of the industry. Brad Ritchie specializes in orchestration and has credits on a wide range of films, TV shows and video games. Steven Thomas' proficiency is in audio engineering and music technology, and he has his finger on the pulse of technology changes in Hollywood.

"All of them are working professionals in their aspect of the craft," Groupé said. "They know what the demands are now and more importantly how they change."

Simply, this program aims to prepare students for an internship or assistantship that jump-starts their career.

"We really think about how you are going to get a job and how you are going to get through the ups and downs of the industry," Groupé said. "You need to have the confidence and stomach for it, as it's a career choice where you have to succeed. You can't kind of succeed; it's just too difficult."

Enrollment has steadily increased each year as interest in their work grows. After participating in the program's inaugural class, Jorgensen highly recommends the experience for prospective students.

"At IU you will find a group of excellent professors who are looking to help you succeed both as an artist and as a professional," Jorgensen said. "You'll learn all the musical aspects of the job and leave with a great portfolio. You'll gain the technical skills that are essential to both being a composer, and to getting your foot in the door as an assistant, and you'll learn the ins and outs of the industry. With that, you'll be ready for whatever comes next."