Ana Krstajic, film and gaming score composer – Interview

Ana Krstajic is a composer from Belgrade, Serbia. She is composing music for Films, TV, Video Games and concert commissions. Her music has been performed all over Europe, Russia and the USA. She graduated from the Faculty of Music Art in Belgrade and Berklee College of Music M.M. Scoring for Film, TV and Video Games department. She won several awards for her compositions such as the 1st prize at the Women’s Works Young composer competition (Ithaca, NY) in 2015, the 2nd prize at De Bach au Jazz Contemporary Music Competition (Paris, FR) in 2016, the 1st Prize at “The Best Musical Mind” International Music Competition in 2016 (Belgrade, RS) and Honorary Mention at Soundtrack Cologne European Talent Award in 2018 (Cologne, GE).


You graduated from Belgrade Music Academy where there is no department for film and video game music composing. What got you interested in this kind of composing?

While I was studying Composition at the Faculty of Music Art in Belgrade I was always eager to collaborate with young theatre, film and TV directors and also game developers. Since there is no program such as Scoring for Film, TV and Video Games in Belgrade, I had to learn how to create incidental music on the go. As much as I love hearing my music at a concert venue, working for the motion pictures gave me a totally different perspective on how to compose music. One of the few reasons for being interested in working for film, theatre and games is my desire to be a part of the creative team, since composing concert music is a pretty solitary “job”. I love meeting talented artists and these kinds of collaborations made that possible. During my studies in Belgrade, I realized that I would love to keep on writing music for picture and theatre and at the same time compose music for concert performances as well.


What motivated you to enroll at Berklee College of Music and did it meet your expectations?

Getting into Berklee College of Music happened quite unplanned to me. During my last year of  Bachelor degree at the Faculty of Music Art in Belgrade, I was not that sure where I would continue my studies. At that time I decided to try to earn a spot at Hans Eisler Music Academy in Berlin at their Master’s program in Composition. At the same time, I applied for a music competition in Belgrade, The Best Musical Mind, founded by the organization Multikultivator, which is sponsored by Berklee College of Music. Fortunately, I won the competition and the award was a full scholarship for the Summer Performance Program at Berklee College of Music, Valencia Campus, in Spain. Even after winning this award, my mind was still set on the Hans Eisler school. Knowing how expensive Berklee tuition was, I couldn’t even think about applying for a Master’s degree programme there. Again I was lucky enough to be selected to attend the audition during the Summer Performance Program in Valencia, for another Berklee scholarship, this time the scholarship for the Bachelor degree. Since the jury was informed that I was, at the time, graduating from my Bachelor Composition degree in Belgrade, they offered me a scholarship for Master of Music in Scoring for Film, TV and Video Games at Berklee Valencia Campus. Fortunately, the scholarship covered 80% of the tuition, which made my studies possible.


You make music for movies and games equally. Which of these two give more freedom and which is more demanding?

Although film and game music have some similarities, the approach to composing is totally different. Let’s start with the most stressful aspect in the scoring business – deadlines. During a film production process, most of the time, the composer is hired at the very end of the production line. After the editing is locked (hopefully), photography and sound are done, the composer starts working on the music for the film. At the same time, there is almost always very little time left before the film is due to be released. On the other side, with video games, the composer gets involved at the very early stage of game development, which creates less stressful and more creative environment for the composer. While the film music has to be, to a large extent, very synchronized to picture, apart from cut scenes or cinematics, in video game, there is a totally different approach. Composer for games has to be able to create chunks of music which are in a perfect loop, to be able to use techniques such as layering, brunching, writing stingers or transitional cues, etc. Even though it seems like there are more technical requirements for composing music for games I feel that working for games can give you more freedom in developing certain atmosphere and being musical within it, since the music doesn’t need to be synchronized with every frame of the picture. The only part which has to be synchronized, apart from cut scenes, is the overall emotion of the mode the game player is in, such as, exploration, battle and the different levels within those states.

I immensely enjoy working for both media because of the different challenges they impose.


What’s the difference in the purpose of music in movies and games? Is the music more important for film or games?

I would say that the music is equally important in games and films. In movies music complements the picture most of the time, trying to deliver the emotion which is already there or not, painting the emotions of the main character, situation and audience reaction. It can also express the colour of the environment, or even have the role of an invisible character in the movie. In games the main goal is to create a specific atmosphere of a certain game, to set an environment for the game player, to increase the tension of a battle mode or the exploration one and to express the overall sound of the world that game is set in.



How does your process of creating music look like and is there a difference in the process when composing for film and games?

As soon as I get the picture from a movie, I usually get temp music too. For me, communication with the director is the most important part of the creation process. Sometimes, spending more time talking and discussing the film and the role of the music with the director can generate a clear idea of what kind of music is perfect for the film, therefore spending less time creating it.  During this time, I like to present some reference music to the director, whether it’s mine or by another composer, trying to decide which style and colour are best for the movie. As soon as we agree about the reference music and finish the spotting session, the creative part can start. Until the very end of the process, I tend to keep a close relationship with the director and show him/her my music as often as I can. With games, the process is very similar; I just need to include more technical requirements related to musical form while composing.


How do you decide which emotions will be carried by the music?

This question should be solved during the spotting process and while talking with the director and this is the most important part of the creation process as I mentioned. Imagine if you didn’t get to know the director’s idea because of the lack of communication.  It would be much more difficult to adapt your music to his vision later on instead of creating from the start something he truly wanted. As a film composer, you always have to remind yourself that the most important things in film are the picture, the director and his vision. Music is just one link in the chain of the whole production. I also think that you should always be honest while talking to the director even in case you don’t agree with him/her and even if sometimes your musical ideas can truly be right for the movie and the director could be wrong. Nonetheless, you should never insist if he or she firmly disagrees.


How do directors understand the importance of music in the movie? Is there a difference between European and Hollywood directors?

During my career so far I’ve had a chance to encounter only a few directors who understood musical terms or had knowledge about music theory. Most of the directors don’t know that much about musical terms actually, so the best way of communicating with the director is talking about emotions and the role of music. Using terms such as minor major chord, this instrument or that one is not that helpful. Most of the directors know exactly what kind of emotion they want music to fulfil and that’s the most important thing. Good directors are aware of how music can totally change the emotion and energy of the movie. I have noticed that there is a difference between directors who are making movies which are more focused on a deeper emotion, subject or message and the ones which are making films for entertainment. I would not make a distinction between European and Hollywood movies, even though movies made in Hollywood are more commercial. What`s crucial is the director and his vision. Regarding music, I have to say that most of the directors who do arty movies don’t like big orchestral scores while the commercial movies almost always require big sound.


You made music for movies, theatre and games. Which projects would you set aside and why?

Lately, I’ve been working a lot for theatre too, which I really enjoy doing. What I like about working for a theatre play is the fact that I participate in the process with the entire crew. I have to be at the rehearsals and work with actors and musicians. I feel much more alive and as a part of the whole project while working for theatres. It’s really nice when you have to leave the studio after being stuck in it for weeks, to go to rehearsals, to communicate with actors and musicians and to be engaged in the rehearsals. During every theatre project, I had a chance to meet the costume designer, scenographer and playwright and it really thrills me to meet those creative and talented people.  Most of the plays I did are with young Serbian director Natasa Radulovic and working with her in different theatre houses was a truly amazing experience. I couldn’t set aside a specific project since everything I did was quite different from each other and every one of them was quite dear to me.


To be able to record in a music studio while conducting an orchestra is an amazing opportunity for every aspiring composer. How did it feel to you?

It felt so scary, honestly. It was not enjoyable at all, as I was thinking what I would do if something went wrong the entire time, since I only had 18 minutes to record for a 3-minute cue.  Bearing in mind that this was my first time in front of such a large orchestra, my goal is to try to relax the next time and really enjoy the moment. Fortunately, our professors at Berklee were producing and the crew in Air studios was impressive, very fast and organized. I had never seen such a fast manipulation of the recording session ever. But as I sad, those 18 minutes on the conductor’s podium were scary as hell. Only after I had finished the recording and started editing and mixing my music, was I able to enjoy it.


You worked with Nordeus on SpellSouls: Duel of Legends. Can you tell us what that cooperation was like and what were the challenges during the creating process?

For our final project at Berklee College of Music, we had a chance to record in the famous Air Studios in London, with the full symphony orchestra. At the same time, we had the liberty to find whatever video we wanted to write the music for. The only requirement was that it can’t last over 3 minutes. Since we had this huge ensemble for a recording session, scoring a scene from a low budget, independent movie would have had a weird effect at the end because this huge orchestra sound required a high production picture. I was trying to find the video game cinematics since my plan had been to score a big epic cue. I reached out to Nordeus and hoped that they would have something which fits this form. I was very lucky to receive an email from Darko Andonov, one of the managers, saying that they are just finishing the cinematic for their game SpellSouls: Duel of Legends, which was very epic fantasy like, and it looked fantastic production wise! After we had exchanged a few emails, Darko sent me the final version with the sound only, which was perfect, and I could start composing. The game cinematic was more trailer-like in terms of narrative line. It was very tense with a lot of action and battles, constantly switching from character to a character. It was really challenging to score this video, but working with such a beautiful game, wonderful and imaginative characters inspired me a lot.



The animated film Twice Upon A Time has been awarded 24 times so far. How did the collaboration on this film come about?

It was a very similar situation like the one with Nordeus company. During my studies at Berklee, we had a chance to record our music with the Budapest Art Orchestra. For this assignment, we had to score a comedy video which we had to provide. I found out about Vojin Vasovic, Serbian animator, through my friend. I asked him if he could help me with this assignment and send me some of his work. After watching his animated short Twice Upon a Time, I fell in love with it. He sent me the trailer with sound only which perfectly fit the assignment requirements. We met in person after I graduated and came back to Serbia and I am very happy that the movie is being screened on festivals worldwide.


What are your favourite film composers and why?

My favourite one is Thomas Newman. I love his unique style and his ability to create such amazing atmospheres and themes with minimal elements which always work with picture perfectly. But classical composers had the biggest influence on me and I listen to their music quite often. My favourite are Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bartok, Ligeti, Messiaen, Tchaikovsky, Chopin and many others.


What software do you use and what for specifically?

I use Cubase, Pro Tools and Digital Performer. My first software was Nuendo which I rarely use now since I switched to Cubase which I really love. I usually use Pro Tools for audio mixing or editing. Sometimes I mix in Cubase, but only when the deadline is really close. I started using Digital Performer while I was at Berklee. Although DP has a few interesting features related to tempo map and chunks feature, I am not using it quite often know, mainly because the interface is not that pretty and I started wearing glasses because of it.


What would you suggest to those who would like to compose music for movies and games?

I think everybody should learn all the technical skills they need for scoring if they really want to start composing for media. I made a mistake not realizing this sooner, so now I bear the consequences of having to learn on the go all the tech stuff I didn’t devote my time to before. On the other hand, without the knowledge of music history, genres, orchestration and all the skills that one composer has to have, the technical skills would never be enough. I had a chance to work with young composers who know a lot about software, samples, etc, but don’t know the basics of harmony, counterpoint and other musical elements which are crucial for creating interesting and really good music. Most of the great film composers nowadays possess both musical and technical knowledge. In my case, Berklee Master’s helped me a lot to learn all the technical skills that I was missing. I would say that if you can’t afford a scoring degree at great colleges such as Berklee or USC you need to sit and learn everything by yourself. Today that is quite possible because there are a lot of tutorials available online and actually most of the successful film and game composers of today did that.


What is your Top 5 movie scores playlist?

Thomas Newman’s Shawshank Redemption, Revolutionary Road, Meet Joe Black, American Beauty and Prokofiev’s Aleksandar Nevski, which is also a film score… Yes it is.


Do you compose music as you walk along the streets of Belgrade? Which street has the best melody in your mind?

Most of the time, while I am standing on the window, watching the streets and thinking about the score some melody comes up to my mind. Regarding the street with the best melody, it has to be Skadarlija.


If it’s not a secret, could you tell us what we can expect from you in the future?

I’ve recently finished my first TV series Zmurke as an additional composer and it was broadcast on national TV in Serbia. Right now I am working on a documentary and a feature by two incredibly talented young directors from Serbia, Nikola Polic and Goran Nikolic and a theatre play by Darijan Mihajlovic which is going to be premiered in Berlin soon. At the same time, I am working on the biggest project so far and probably the most important one for me, a contemporary ballet. It will be premiered in the fall this year in Serbia. I am very excited about this one! I am planning to move to LA in a few months so most of my future projects are going to happen there.  My goal is to keep on creating both classical and music for TV, Films and Video Games. Even though I am moving to LA I will definitely keep in touch with artists in Serbia since my country has so many young, talented and creative people and it always brings me such joy to work with them.








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