When one thinks of Edgar Allan Poe, they probably remember him as a respected poet, novelist, and literary critic. He is also often credited as inventing detective fiction and inspiring the growth of both science fiction and horror literature in America. An area of his life that is not always talked about is his early years when he first excelled and then was expelled from United States Military Academy West Point.
This is when Christopher Hatton’s new supernatural mystery, Raven’s Hollow, takes place. Just released on Shudder, the film follows West Point cadet Edgar Allan Poe and four other cadets on a training exercise in upstate New York as they are drawn by a gruesome discovery into a forgotten community where they find a township guarding a frightening secret.
There are many aspects of the film that stand out, the film’s ominous score by Robert Ellis-Geiger being one of them. We wanted to learn more about Robert’s work on the film, so we spoke to him about everything from what instruments make the most menacing sounds to approaching jump scares. Read the exclusive interview below.
You can listen to Volume One of Robert’s Raven’s Hollow score here: https://music.apple.com/us/album/ravens-hollow-vol-1-original-motion-picture-soundtrack/1646235115
Chris Miller: What did you do to prepare for your work on Raven’s Hollow?
Robert Ellis-Geiger: Around one year before shooting began (Nov. 2021) and long before I had a locked script, I began sketching musical ideas from the promotion deck that contained illustrations of the creature (The Raven) and Raven’s Hollow. Most of these sketches never ended up in the finished soundtrack, but the “monster piece” as I initially called it ended up being placed in the movie where the Raven is fully revealed. This early sketching of music and sonic ideas helped form a language of communication between myself and director (Christopher Hatton). Additionally, a number of early sketches were used by the film editor as temporary score during the editing process.
CM: Creative process: taking control of the technology and not having it control you…
REG: Parallel to the sketching of ideas on my Mac Book Pro, I was building a new super computer (Windows) that ended up allowing me to have one Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) Cubase project containing all seven reels (20min reels) and previous music sketches. I linked Cubase internally on the same computer to Vienna Ensemble Pro, which held all of the virtual acoustic and electronic modelled instruments. It took me around 3-4 months to curate instruments that I thought might be useful. During the curating process I would sketch ideas, send them to Chris for feedback, which would then inform the score and master instrument temple.
Once the master instrument temple was established, it allowed me to work across the entire canvas of the movie, from the start through to the end. This process is similar to how a painter arranges their colour palette before the brush touches the canvas. My DAW software, Cubase (www.Steinberg.net), is used by Hans Zimmer, who played a pivotal role in shaping the development of Cubase for soundtrack creation and many of Cubase scoring feature are not available on other DAW platforms.
CM: When you first met with Raven’s Hollow director Christopher Hatton, how did he convey how he wanted the score to sound?
REG: I was introduced to Chris in Singapore July 3 2016, by a close mutual friend Gisli Snaer, and Chris later sent a promotion deck to illustrate his ideas for main characters and the visual atmosphere of Raven’s Hollow. Once I began work on the score and soundscape design, Chris was very clear what he didn’t want. Chris wanted a score that was not the typical approach to gothic, thriller and or horror.
No big themes, Chris was specific with the mood and feeling that the music should evoke, and described them as:
Starkness of the world, the dread instilled by the usually unseen Raven.
Otherworldly, viscerally disturbing, haunting, strange and eerie.
Mythic, will never know what is real.
Raven’s theme – primal pagan, ancient.
Dark fairy tale, fantasy world, organic primal supernatural, leaning on the horrific.
CM: Did you score the film in chronological order? Or did you save the most intricate scenes for last, after you were fully emersed?
REG: You are the first to ask this question in this way. After was had our spotting session, Chris wanted to go through the movie from the start through to the end. Initially I tortured myself with the opening of the movie, which was a huge challenge, from opening titles with a slow burn to the big climax at Mary Keene’s death, then bursting into the title of movie appearing. I spent weeks trying to figure out a way to open but had to give up and insist that I move onto the next scene. It wasn’t until the entire score was completed that I then went back to the opening. It turned out that this was the best discussion to make.
CM: What is your philosophy when it comes to jump scares? When is less, more?
REG: This was the first time that I had to construct jump scares and I had to quickly study movies that Chris gave reference to, as well as my own collection of thriller/horror movies.
Throughout the movie I subject the audience to subtle and in-your-face feelings of tension and release, which made it easier for me to add in jump scares as the audience was constantly kept on edge, even is quite moments there is something disturbing going on in the soundtrack.
In terms of when less is more, the horrific scene in the church where Poe has a mental breakdown after seeing her fellow cadet turned inside out is a good example of less is more. The music cue contained only two musical parts played by two synth layers, but there is a lot going on with how the synthesizers tone changes over time. This scene is one of the most impactful to many, as it gets inside your head, which is quite scary and actually made me a little bit sick in creating it.
CM: You live in Hong Kong. Because of this, do you think you have a different approach when scoring projects, as opposed to composers who live in the U.S?
REG: Verbal language is often a challenge when working with filmmakers from Hong Kong and Mainland China. I developed a unique process of sketching music ideas and having the director give feedback and potential direction for the score. Additionally, research into Chinese instruments was part of my composition process when I scored Hong Kong and Mainland movies and documentaries. I developed my own style of blending Oriental and Western musical instruments, including those from the far-east. Within reel-1 of Raven’s Hollow, at the rack scene, I am using Mongolian Throat Singers with flute multi-phonics and whistle tones combines with woodwinds and female choir.
CM: There is a lot of background music in Raven’s Hollow. How do you decide when the score should be more present, or just lingering in the background?
REG: Chris and I had detailed spotting sessions via Zoom, which I recorded. I later watched the 5-6 hours of Zoom videos and made notes. Within my Cubase master project, I placed in and out points for each cue and marker notes at these points. For each music cue I would render it out and lay it onto the scene, make a QuickTime movie and send a link to Chris to download. Chris often gave feedback via email and or voice messages and we later during the final stages had Zoom meeting to discuss each cue. This was an iterative process that allowed us to perfect every aspect of each music cue.
CM: Did you find scoring a horror film more challenging or easier than a comedy?
REG: This is my first thriller/horror and was a huge challenge in terms of how to develop evolving jump-scares and how best to develop tension and release within a scene that can carry over to following scenes. As a key movie reference, Insidious (2010) was very inspiring in terms of how to build tension and release within a scene and Chris gave the following important score references:
Cosmic horror and Under the Skin (2013), Color Out of Space (2019), Blade Runner (1982), The Witch (2015), Hereditary (2018), Dunkirk (2017), Doctor Sleep (2019).
CM: When scoring a film in the horror genre, do you tend to use one instrument more than another?
REG: For Raven’s Hollow I used unique contemporary woodwinds sample libraries that allowed for amazing expression using MIDI controllers, real flutist performing multiphones and whistle tones, Cimbalom, bowed tunned percussion and cymbals throughout as the main basis for the score interwoven with customized synthesizer textures that I created for each successive dramatic build. Chris didn’t want the score to have traditional themes, but I did developed motifs (small themes) based around the key unique instruments and sounds mentioned.
CM: What instrument made the most menacing sounds in Raven’s Hollow?
REG: I would have to say the synthesizers Skanner XT and Reaktor 6 by Native Instruments. It takes a while to learn how to design your own unique sounds, both are a little unpredictable, but the results were extremely scary. Chris called it my “magic boxes”.
CM: There are many horror subgenres: psychological, supernatural, slasher etcetera. Is there another subgenre you would like to score for?
REG: In future I would love to work on a supernatural movie and also try my hand at different science fiction subgenres.
Raven’s Hollow is available to stream on Shudder.
Chris Miller | Twitter: @musiclover_8
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