IU composer draws on Hollywood, networking


Senior Danny Olson will be composing music for the feature film "Only Human." Ryan Dorgan Buy Photos

Under the Christmas tree is where senior Danny Olson decided to turn his love for writing film scores into his major.

Well, kind of.

“That’s how you know you’re really in love with something,” Olson said. “When you do it ... it’s like your Christmas presents and birthday presents turn into things that are going to make you better at your craft.”

Olson originally came to IU to major in theater, but later switched to composition and sound design with an emphasis in film as part of the Individualized Major Program.  He is now using his skills as the composer of the score for “Only Human,” the largest independent student film to ever be shot at IU.

Olson said he decided to create his major two years ago because he knew he wanted to compose. But after talking to a few professors in the composing department of the Jacobs School of Music, he learned he didn’t fit the mold of the typical composition student.

“They write classical or really, really new contemporary experimental music, and I’d say that’s in a completely different realm of film music,” said Olson.

Olson has two faculty advisors for his individualized program, and he takes a combination of classes mainly from the Jacobs School and the Department of Telecommunications.

Because of his interest in film, one of Olson’s professors forwarded him an e-mail from senior Kevin Domer, one of the producers behind “Only Human,” looking for a composer. Olson interviewed for the position and was chosen from about 12 applicants, Domer said, because he and the other directors noticed Olson’s “traditional Hollywood style.”

“What Dan is studying is exactly the position we needed to have filled,” Domer said.
Olson has been involved in the film’s production process, which is rare for a composer, but helpful since the majority of the students involved are making a film for the first time. 

“Normally what would happen is the composer would be given the footage when the movie’s completely done,” Olson said.

But instead, Olson and the directors have been meeting to decide where music should go scene-by-scene, a process called spotting.

Olson, who is also the vice president of Sigma Nu fraternity, converted his office in the fraternity into a studio. It houses a Mac Pro desktop computer, two flat-screen monitors and a keyboard. There he uses a sequencing program to write music in “patches.”

“I’ll have samples that will be just strings, and then I’ll play along on the piano, and what I’ll hear back in my headphones is just strings,” Olson said. “Then I’ll add something on top of that and you record them in layers, so pretty soon you have an entire orchestra and it’s all digital.”

Olson said he plans to use the digital samples for most of the actual score instead of a live orchestra, which would be out of the film’s budget. He does, however, want to use a real piano player since the film is based on an IU student who is a prodigious pianist.

When the film is over, Olson said he will use the musical score to apply for grad school, specifically his dream school, the University of Southern California. His ultimate goal is to have his own studio in California, freelancing and employing other composers to help.

And to Eric Lindsay, a doctoral composition student  who has given Olson private lessons, Olson could be that guy.

“He’s definitely got a lot of the main things you need if you’re going to be a film composer,” said Lindsay about Olson’s love for movies and his ability to network.
But while Olson said he knows movie-making is a competitive industry, he still wants to be the guy film producers call first, even if he realized that a bit late. 

“A lot of kids will be like, ‘My parents started me off at age three, and I was writing music by age 10,’ but not really me,” Olson said. “I’m fairly new to this, but I’m trying as hard as I can to keep up.”

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