Canada’s Michael Shlafman talks importance of music in documentaries

Always a musician, Canada’s Michael Shlafman found himself drawn into the world of composing and orchestrating for film and television because of its limitless possibilities. There are almost no creative boundaries when working in the medium outside of what is dictated by the needs of the project. He can go from working on a score that features a jazz trio one day to a symphony orchestra the next, and that is what excites him; he simply aims to make authentic and sincere music, with endless flexibility and an eagerness and willingness to always be learning and growing.

“I like to think that my style of composing is whatever it needs to be for a given project – after all, that’s what I love so much about working in this medium in the first place. Though I really love to write music that combines traditional acoustic instruments with electronic elements such as recorded and manipulated sound effects, synthesizers, etc. into a hybrid sound that blends sound design with more traditional styles of music,” he said.

Throughout his esteemed career, Shlafman has become an internationally sought-after composer and orchestrator. Millions around the world have heard his work, whether in the multi-million dollar movie Pet Sematary (orchestrator) or the television shows LARPs: The Series (composer) and Best. Worst. Weekend. Ever. (additional music). He has also worked on several acclaimed documentaries, like La Guerra, My Indiana Muse, Botero, and more, knowing just how music can enhance the genre though it needs to be done with a little more care and respect than may be required for a fictional story.

“I think there’s a really interesting distinction to be made between working on documentaries versus working in fiction, especially regarding the music. For starters, documentaries are real. They’re about real people/events, and as such they require a slightly different treatment that is perhaps more careful and respectful. When you’re working on a movie based on a fictional story, of course you still need to be tasteful and respectful, but the characters in the film are never going to watch it. I feel that there’s a lot of pressure to do right by the subjects of a documentary, as there should be. You can’t just throw any music over some painful moment of someone’s life that was caught on camera as though it were a soap opera, it needs to be handled delicately,” said Shlafman.

Music can be a very manipulative tool in documentaries if not used responsibly, and Shlafman always makes sure to do the film’s subject justice when he works. Music changes how an audience reacts emotionally to a piece of film, and for a documentary, where the filmmaker’s job is to present fact and truth as cleanly as possible, music can sometimes be too leading. Shlafman makes sure not to taint the story through the music and does his best to help the director present a perspective as unbiased as possible.

“Music can also really help with the pacing of documentaries. No matter how interesting the subject is, sitting through over an hour of interviews or ‘talking heads’ can get tiresome, and music can help make it feel faster,” he said

David Bertok’s score for Botero, which Shlafman orchestrated,is a perfect example of how a score can set the pace of a documentary. The film is a poetic documentary profile of Colombian artist Fernando Botero and provides a behind-the-scenes chronicle of the life and art of this painter and sculptor – the world’s most recognized living artist.

“I wanted to work on Botero because it’s a very engaging and thrilling story about a world-renowned artist, Fernando Botero. I think it’s important to share these stories so that they’re not forgotten and so that their legacy lives on,” he said.

As an orchestrator on the film, Shlafman played a pivotal role in the post-production process. When a composer creates a mockup on a computer, it is designed to sound as convincing and realistic as possible. The issue then lies in translating that data to a piece of paper that a musician can perform from and achieving a better version of the intended sound through the use of professional musicians with decades of experience. That translation is at the crux of what an orchestrator does, and his role with this project was to help take the data from the mockups and create scores that could be read by the musicians, fulfilling the composer’s vision of the score. In the end, they had a live string orchestra, and with Shlafman’s dedicated work, it turned out beautifully.

These thoughts were echoed by critics, as Botero went on to win several awards at festivals all around the world. Shlafman is proud to have been part of the film, especially one that tells the story of such an iconic artist.

“It’s always a good feeling to know that something you worked on was successful, and even more so when you really believe in the importance of the story. I think it’s important to honor great artists, and this is an excellent way to help preserve Botero’s legacy,” he concluded.

 

By John Michaels
Photo by Erin Ramirez

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