Award-Winning Hollywood Composer Draws On Asian Heritage To Create Memorable Moments in Film & TV

Composer Sherri Chung. Image by Angela Marklew

When you watch your favorite film or TV show, creating an emotional connection to the characters and storyline is imperative. Dialog and acting does a lot of the work here, but music and scoring is a major component that elevates a scene or an entire production to the next level. Music scores have helped some of the world’s most recognizable characters, movies and TV series become iconic, simply by humming a few bars of that tune. Think of the theme for ‘Indiana Jones’, ‘Jurassic Park’, ‘Frozen’, ‘James Bond’, for example.

Music is an indelible layer of making that “magic” we so often think of when it comes to Hollywood. It can also transport us to a memorable time in our lives, make us feel good, and create connections with other fans who were also drawn in to the music that beckoned us to become heavily invested in the lead character and their journey.

Wanting to learn more about this beautiful craft, we had the chance to speak with award-winning composer and artist Sherri Chung, who recently composed the animated series ‘Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai’ on MAX as well as Kaley Cuoco’s new comedy thriller, ‘Based On a True Story’.

Image courtesy of WB/MAX

Sherri composed the music for ‘Based on a True Story’, the hilarious new thriller that dropped on Peacock on June 8th, starring Kaley Cuoco and Tom Bateman. The thriller comedy centers around a couple in financial difficulties who take the opportunity to collaborate on a true-crime podcast series with their serial killer neighbor. 

Sherri’s score for ‘Gremlins’: Secret of the Mogwai’ is fully orchestral and features all original music, but she also was tasked with paying tribute to the franchise’s roots with the use of themes created by iconic composer Jerry Goldsmith. Furthermore, drawing on her Asian-American identity, she incorporates Asian elements and instruments, showcasing her versatility as a composer and dedication to creating authentic music for the projects she works on.

As a pianist, vocalist, performer, and songwriter, Sherri’s work on ‘Gremlins’ is just one of the many highlights of her illustrious career. She has scored numerous feature films, documentaries, and commercials, as well as notable television series such as ‘Batwoman’, ‘Riverdale’, and ‘The Red Line’. Recent film credits include Warner Bros Studio’s ‘Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase’, and ‘The Lost Husband’, which garnered her a Society of Composers and Lyricists nomination for Best Score for an Independent Studio Film.

Sherri also serves as the Governor of the Music Branch of the Academy and is an active member of the Composers’ Diversity Committee and spoke with us about the importance of diversity, what it is really like to break into the music composition world, and why the industry needs more creators from different backgrounds joining the Academy.

Can you tell us where your love of music began, and what inspired you to pursue a music career?

My love of music began at a very young age. I was about four or five, and I just really wanted to play the piano. I started studying piano at age five with a more classical approach. From there, I just remained heavily involved in music through my schools, in church groups, in church activities, and in-band camps. Yes…I went to band camps! 

As I started to grow up, I realized I was really interested in writing music, so I started to write some songs. Then, I saw a movie called “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” with a score by Michael Kamen. It was really the first time that I was incredibly moved by movie music. And that’s when I realized what I wanted to do. And so from then on, I pursued studies with the goal of becoming a composer in mind, including getting an undergraduate degree in film composition and theory, followed by graduate work in composition for film and television.

Who were some of your biggest inspirations in the industry as you began your career?

Jerry Goldsmith has always been a huge influence for me in terms of my approach to scoring. When I went to grad school, I met a composer who was teaching there at the time, Blake Neely, who became a very important mentor and collaborator for me. His approach to scoring had always been something that really resonated with me. I also love the scores of Alexandre Desplat, John Powell, and Christopher Beck. These are all composers who really moved me and inspired me in my own composing journey.

Tell us about composing for the animated series ‘Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai’. What was your creative process for each episode?

The process for scoring “Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai” was really streamlined. Each episode started out with a spotting session with me, the creators, the showrunners, and some other producers. We watched the episode together and talked about certain story points or key ideas that they really wanted the music to help elevate. I would ask questions if I needed clarification, take some notes, leave and then get to work! 

I would then compose the music, and after that, we would meet again and all watch together what I had done. Then we discussed the things that were working for them, as well as things that maybe needed a little bit of a rethink or tweaking. From there, I made changes and fixes, and then I took it to the scoring stage.

For season one it was recorded in Budapest, Hungary. The score would go to an orchestrator, followed by the music preparation team who would print out the parts for each instrumentalist. We would do the scoring session at around 5:30 or 6:00am, our time in Los Angeles. Finally, I would work with my mixer or the score mixer to get all the files back from the recording and create the score. It was a very rinse-and-repeat process for the ten episodes. And then we quickly began working on season 2 as well.

How different is composing music for a series as opposed to a film? Do you create certain music beats that are repeated for certain types of scenes or characters? 

In my experience, the difference between scoring for film or television lies more in the direction and information that you receive, or don’t receive. Overall, my approach is the same. But the information that I get and what I’m being asked to do is sometimes different in a film, where you see the beginning, the middle, and the ending all at once. So, when I create themes in a movie setting for a film, I can plan ahead a bit to ensure it works across all of the settings and beats, because I can see everything.

In a series, oftentimes I can’t see everything. I can get scripts, but it doesn’t necessarily inform everything. Scripts change, editing happens, and sometimes an entire story can really change. So I might create a theme for the first episode that I’m hoping is going to work for these characters throughout the entire series. Sometimes it does and sometimes there are situations where I have to just kind of make it work. But sometimes it can be exciting and unexpected, where I’m thinking, “Oh, wow, that worked out better than I ever thought it could have.”

In ‘Gremlins’ you also drew upon your Asian-American heritage in your compositions. Can you tell us more about this, and pay homage to iconic composer Jerry Goldsmith? 

The score was paying homage to Jerry Goldsmith but it was also set in 1920’s Shanghai. So doing a synth score, as Jerry had done for the first one, wasn’t necessarily going to be the right fit and the right approach for the score like this. 

Jerry’s music is very lyrical and very thematic, and that was definitely something that I tried to put in this series as well. I created themes, motifs, and other musical easter eggs that could come back, help the audience along, and be a source of comfort when we really needed to feel the characters were safe. 

There was also the added element of it being in Shanghai, and being Chinese myself, I wanted to make sure there was a cultural specificity in the music. One prominent instrument I used in particular is the erhu, which is akin to our Western violin. It’s a two-stringed instrument that is very commonly used in Asian and Chinese music. I had a wonderful erhu player who taught me a lot about how to write for the instrument named Karen Han.

Along with Chinese percussion instruments and Chinese bamboo flutes, it was a way to bring some of the Chinese culture and authenticity to the sound of the score. I was also able to keep the score relatively within our western harmonic language, to make it approachable and accessible, while also leaning into Chinese culture. This was just another way to help contribute to the depth, scope and sense of adventure that permeates the series. The full orchestral sound makes it a lot more cinematic and takes it to the next level.

You also composed the music for the Peacock series ‘Based on a True Story’ which we love! What is your process of composing for a live-action series vs. animated?

Most of my experience is actually in live-action! I think one of the great things about scoring live-action is that it’s not what I would call a “closed course.” And by that, I mean live action series are a less static and controlled environment. When you’re in animation, you’re working in a very controlled environment. In contrast, in live action, you might be getting the wrong take or the wrong lighting, or they had to change a location because the other location fell through.

So now they had to change the story because they couldn’t lock in this or that. In animation, it’s a lot tighter based on the script and animatics. We already know what it’s going to look like, and how it’s going to be. The only thing that might change might be the coloring. Once I see the animatics, and then I see the tone board and the mood board, that is what informs my start and overall approach.

In live-action, everything can change. Maybe they didn’t get quite the right take or maybe they have to extend a shot or shrink it, and so there are a lot of timing changes that will often happen. Both of these shows actually were taking place during the pandemic and so there were a lot of constraints in that way as well. These constraints impacted recording the scores a little bit, but also truncated the overall schedules because things had to slow down and they had to pause. 

In live action, you have options because the expression of the characters can be very different, and you have options across takes. In animation, the expression is what the animators have drawn. In live action, there are a lot more data points for me to say, “Oh wow, I didn’t expect you to make that sound or that voice or that look.” There are a lot of ways to be additionally influenced when I’m scoring a picture for live-action, and things can change throughout the production process!

We hear a lot about how hard it is to break into the music industry in general, but what about music composition in film and TV? Is there a lot of gatekeeping and barriers you have to overcome? 

The industry is a difficult one to get into. But to be honest, it’s also a difficult one to stay in, as well. First off, It’s an expensive industry, as composers are having to supply their own computers and their own equipment. Also, oftentimes with the fees that we’re offered to work with, it’s financially almost impossible to do one project at a time. 

On a very positive note, there’s a lot more content being created these days than when I began. And so there are a lot more avenues and pathways and  a lot more windows and doors and cracks where you can kind of get yourself in because there is a need for more composers. There’s a need for newer voices and more opportunities now than I think there ever have been in the past. 

Composing has its ups, and it has its downs. I think it’s a tricky industry because of the way I see it for myself. I’m a composer first, and then I’m a film composer. And I say that because I really believe that film and television composing has this additional layer of a skill set that isn’t necessarily something that you can just learn in school. You have to just learn by doing it.

It’s also a different fit: it’s writing under specific parameters that aren’t the same as just composing music for yourself. You have time constraints and budget constraints and you have creative constraints, so it’s a very different added skill set that I think takes a long time to learn and become seasoned at.

What have been some of your favorite projects you’ve worked on to date, and why? 

Honestly, “Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai” has just been absolutely a joy! A joy and a dream. And so has “Based on a True Story”. They’re very, very different projects. And I’ve really enjoyed the challenges and the payoffs for both of them, as well as creative mindsest that I’ve been able to dive into for each one of them. 

I also did a show recently on CW called “Kung Fu,” which was a reboot of the original David Carradine series. That was such a joy to work on as well. That show allowed me to dive a bit deeper into my Chinese heritage because of its musical needs – and it was such a joy to work on.

One other movie I scored recently was  “Happiness for Beginners,” which is an indie film on Netflix. I think one of the reasons that I really enjoy all these projects is because they’re all very, very different. The stories are different, but I felt some sort of connection with each one of them. When I connect with the story, composing is a lot more of an enjoyable process.

As the Co-Governor of the Music Branch of the TV Academy, what does your role entail, and how are you pushing for more diversity? 

I’m honored to be co-governor of the music branch of the Television Academy. It’s a great way to stay in touch and in tune with my community of other composers, songwriters, lyricists, music directors, and music supervisors, and talk with them about issues and different ideas that we’re all facing in our industry. It’s important that we have that resource and that communication, talking about rules and procedures.

We discuss ways of bettering our Emmy Awards, events, and competitions. Hopefully, we’re normalizing the value of being a part of the Television Academy music community by getting the word out, as having people join the Academy when they’re eligible is really important. Also, because more and more content is being created and newer voices are being given an opportunity, it’s enabled more composers of diverse backgrounds to become eligible to become members of the Television Academy, and ultimately inducted in. It’s a very exciting time in our industry!

For anyone interested in pursuing a composer career like you, what advice would you give them to get started? 

Have patience and persistence. Patience, because it does take time to hone yourself as a composer, and to hone yourself as a craftsperson to learn the industry. Additionally, you have to be persistent because there will be a lot of roadblocks ahead. It’s going to feel like a lot of closed doors. And those are just natural in our industry, because it’s competitive and everyone’s trying to do it and make a name for themselves. But you can do it if you persist!

Come with the confidence that you know you’re bringing something special and unique to collaborations, but also come with humility. You should learn the landscape and really learn what the job is. Ultimately, this is a service industry – so it’s not always about what you want to do. It’s about doing what is necessary for that project, while also bringing your personal touch or ideas to the table.

It’s a mix of staying humble, but also being confident, patient and persistent. If you can come with that balance, your efforts will be a lot more fruitful and manageable. You will have a lot more success and I think you will find it a lot more gratifying. Because, again, art and business are two opposing ideas. If you can get behind that and find that balance, then I think you’ll be very successful.

You can follow Sherri Chung on Instagram to see some really cool footage and audio of her work behind-the-scenes on the shows she has worked on! You can watch ‘Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai‘ on MAX, ‘Kung Fu‘ on the CW, and ‘Based on a True Story’ on Peacock.