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INTERVIEW: Composer Jano Manzali

Composer Jano Manzali’s versatility as a musician is matched by the diversity of his catalogue — his work can be heard on everything from short films to video games, from thrillers to comedies. Receiving his first screen credit at age twelve, Manzali has gone on to work on a number of impressive projects. I caught up with him to discuss his latest work, his background, future plans and more.


What first got you into music, what instrument did you begin with, and at one point did you start composing your own original songs?

My family was always very musical. There were instruments lying around the house and my parents had a vast album collection featuring music from all over the world. I was encouraged to start piano lessons when I was 12 years old. I began composing very early on and loved writing instrumental songs that told stories. I would relate chord shapes or musical ideas with anything from objects to animals. These relations would evolve into full fledged stories with specialized soundtracks. I was always fascinated by the art of storytelling without words. Later when I was 14, I decided to pick up the guitar which eventually became my primary instrument.

You gained your first scoring credit (for the short critically acclaimed documentary Capivara!) when you were just 12 years old. Can you tell me a little bit about how that came about?

It happened during my first year of piano lessons. I composed a song based on kung fu’s animal fighting styles and performed it in a recorded concert. The director Felipe Sussekind came across the audio recording and realized it was a perfect fit for his documentary. The documentary was screened in a short film festival in Rio de Janeiro and received very positive reviews. And as they say: “the rest is history!”

What inspired you to then change your focus to music and sound design for video games?

I have always loved video games. The interactive factor makes it a completely different beast than writing for film. Since games are based on the player’s decisions, the score will react differently each time the game is played. The composer must make sure that the changes in music sound natural each time the player makes a decision. This extra challenge of treating the score in a nonlinear way really inspires me. The fact that music composition usually comes earlier in the process of game development also makes things more interesting. The score can influence and be a part of the way the game is developed, which rarely happens in film. I enjoy that it allows me to be more integrated in the project.

Do you think that the time you’ve spent focusing on video game music has also changed how you approach the soundtrack to a film?

Absolutely. A big challenge on composing for games is making sure the player won’t get tired of the song even though it is being repeated throughout the level. In order to do that, the composer needs to add variations to keep the player interested. An example could be adding musical layers over the original song. This could be used in a film to add intensity without changing the pre-existing music. I was also introduced to the sound design world while working on video games and have used that knowledge in my film scores. It’s a whole new set of skills that forces you think outside the box and be creative. It can be challenging but it also provides the score with completely new and custom sounds.

How would you describe your creative process? Is there a particular instrument that you usually use to write the music?

I always treat each project as it’s own entity and use different approaches every time. However, some elements tend to stay the same. It usually starts on a meeting with the director where they describe their vision and we discuss ways to achieve it. After knowing which direction to go, I search for the sounds that best fit the project. It could be orchestral instruments, synths, ethnic instruments, big band, etc. I then begin writing, frequently using the keyboard as a main composition tool. Sometimes I write using the guitar, depending on the scene or the movie.

One of the most interesting upcoming projects you have in development is JC, a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which is going to premiere at Cannes this year. Can you tell us a bit about the film and your work on it?

JC is a film that grabs your attention from beginning to end. The mood is overall very intense and it shifts between thriller, drama and action. An important aspect of the film is the contrast between classic and modern. I decided to write a score that also incorporated this concept and used orchestral instruments with synthesizers to represent each idea. I decided to go even a step further and ‘modernize’ some orchestral instruments with sound manipulation. Since the film has little dialogue, the score plays a crucial role in telling the story and giving emotional background.

You’ve also got two other short films coming out in the near future. Could you tell me a bit about them and what the process was like?

There’s a short animation called ‘Journey’ directed by Catalina Khuon. It is based on the traditional Chinese legend ‘Journey to the West’. Like JC, this short also shares a contrast between old and new. In this case I was able to write a score that shifts between traditional Chinese and bossa nova. It was really fun getting to learn more about Chinese traditions and culture. There’s also a short called ‘American Pastime’ directed by Mike Stutz. It’s about the dynamic of a classroom when they find out there’s school shooter on campus. The entire short happens in a classroom and unlike JC, it is dialogue centered. The music’s role was to closely follow each character’s emotional arc while not disturbing the dialogue.

You’re the composer for the anticipated upcoming anthropomorphic heist game Smooth Criminals. Were there any famous crime movies you found yourself drawing inspiration from?

Certainly. Since the beginning it was clear the score would be jazz oriented. Although I composed themes for 4 very distinct characters, the theme I believe best portrays the overall mood of the game was for the feline character “the feet”. The theme was inspired by the classic 1963 ‘Pink Panther’ score by Henry Mancini. It’s jazzy, cool and perfectly matches the stealth nature of the game. I recorded my original score with a full big band, which is essential to achieve this type of sound.

What are some other exciting projects you’ve got coming up?

I’ve got a few more shorts by JC’s director Matt Boatright-Simon coming up. They are still in production so I’m not allowed to talk much about them! There’s also a mobile card game coming up with a very funky score. Overall there’s a lot of exciting projects with many talented creatives coming soon!

by Giorgio Chang

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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