Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed film score composer and film director Nicole Russin-McFarland about her creative career, what inspires her work, her latest projects, and her goals for the future.
What is your latest music released, and what inspired it?
My new music releases are radio plays acted out by professional actors, mostly from the UK, over my original music. Prior to this, I felt very typecast by people as “that chick who only makes cute cartoon music.” The people starring in my plays were as hungry for acting in great dramas as I am for scoring films and material that isn’t only animated films for youth. Not that there is anything wrong with animation because I love it, but we have a huge problem when people think all you can do is one thing, and it’s said kind of mockingly. Much of what I write on my own can be naturally very dark, so why not reach into that part of my heart?
My first play released so far is the album, The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe, acted out by Christopher Andrew Norris. Chris gives the reading a very olden days BBC Radio performance, and it would be a dream come true if someday soon any of these radio plays were airing on radio, including BBC Radio. Everything old deserves to be new again!
For my second radio play themed album, The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe, acted by Samantha V. Hutton, a friend of mine who is an outstanding voiceover commercial actress having done advertisements for Burberry, Spotify and Coca-Cola, I am overjoyed to say this was my first project I was really looking forward to. It is the first project of mine using UJAM Instruments products! For the two orchestral instrumental tracks on the album, I only used UJAM Striiiings, and yes, that’s really how it is spelled, with lots of letter i’s.
So basically what it is, UJAM creates all of these professionally recorded sound samples where the big Hollywood film scores are created. But unlike much of what is out there that doesn’t sound as good either, the software is much cheaper, and you can use it if you are experienced or inexperienced with music. You can actually compose any genre of music using anything they make, so you could make a Taylor Swift pop song or a gritty film score. Because it’s called UJAM so “you jam,” wanting you to decide what you want rather than copy another person’s style, I personally wanted something out of the 19th century romantic era, my fav time ever in instrumental music. And I got it using just one product. That’s amazing. There’s also a piano tune on the album I made using the free piano tool that comes with both GarageBand and Logic Pro on all MacBook Apple computers.
Much of what I do is shaped around making music accessible to people who ordinarily wouldn’t care about it. For many people, music is the background sound they hear as they commute to work, or the single sound off a commercial between the sporting event live coverage, nothing more. And I want to make it accessible to those who want to make music. I am always happy to tell people how I made a piece of music using something that is inexpensive compared to other products, or something free with your computer.
But really, it doesn’t end there. The goal for some of the upcoming radio plays is extending into bringing other genres and styles into the classical style that I love.
People focus so much on the obsession for working for other people, they don’t stop to realise, “I can create opportunities for myself and my friends. Changing my future is possible right now.” So if you don’t have a movie to score, release material anyway to be a working composer or music producer. Nobody can stop you from releasing as much music as possible.
When you start out, you experience people unfairly comparing your work to a blockbuster movie’s studio film score with a huge orchestra. Who has the financial means to hire musicians for many orchestra sessions until you get it right when you start out? This is why I am so grateful for the new tech products coming out like UJAM, the free music libraries online, the free samples that come with computer and everything created by big companies that make it affordable for young people and people of every age who are transitioning into music production and/or film score music.
What instruments do you play?
The most rock ’n’ roll instrument ever built. The flute! OK, it isn’t the coolest instrument ever. The flute is great for learning how to write for duets, trios and quartets because so many flute pieces you play are written for several flute parts. That skill translates into writing for any genre of music, from pop to classical. I do know how to play the piano, but primarily I only do it for writing equivalents of tongue twister riddles for instrumental music and film music. Flute is my first pick.
Do you keep to a theme with your music, or just go where the mood strikes?
Something special happens when you take your computer outside in the fresh air, writing as you sit by the beach or on the grass. As sometimes I hide out in the Midwest of the USA or places without any beach nearby, the best I can do is take an apple and peanut butter out with me as I sit and write music by the bustling sounds of downtown or a nice grassy spot in a park or a backyard. I select the “musical typing” option on the laptop, and the rest goes awesomely.
You can be at a restaurant eating breakfast and get a great idea, or out at Nordstrom in downtown Chicago. Have your iPad or laptop ready to take down your ideas! There’s a pandemic going on in the world right now, so being locked away within your own mind can be a good thing, as much as the lack of socialisation makes me extremely sad lately.
What is the first piece of advice you would give to anyone inspired to write music?
Don’t care about what other people think. Care about the structure of your song, or anything else but that. A long time ago, Marilyn Monroe’s hairdresser, without me when he was alive ever once telling me that fact, I learned after he died, told me he thought I would end up being a movie star at a time in my life because I didn’t look like other people. I needed to quit dying my hair jet black and have auburn hair. This is true to music. Quit trying to be other people. Your music writing style is unique to you. You can improve on it and make it a better version of your style, but please, don’t copy other people. Make the people you admire look to you as the future of the music industry by being yourself!
What was your toughest experience in your filmmaking career?
Self animating a feature length movie as long as anything out theatrically, by this I mean my movie that was released in November 2021, The Homework’s Revenge: Esther in Wonderland. Emotionally draining is saying it mildly. I felt like I was losing touch with humanity over this movie because whenever someone wanted to have a conversation with me, and if it were during the latter half of the day, I had to cut it short because I was animating every weekday. Imagine doing this as someone who never trained in art and started doing it so I could hire myself as the film score composer, getting myself some IMDb credits for music and acting.
I always described myself as “an outgoing loner” until I got so deeply into self animating the movie that I said, “Am I really that? I miss conversations with people and going out to fabulous soirees. A phone call I cut short. Why did I do that? I cannot wait to get back to texting people! E-mails! Calling them.” Because I can pick and choose when to be outgoing. Being alone and texting someone when you finish being wrapped up in your project, or being alone and forced to only speak to your project because it is so time consuming beyond regular time consuming things is quite different.
Animating things doesn’t come naturally to me. With over 200 amazing actors in it, I had to finish what i started and could not let anyone down. The Wonderland film is an experience I am never going to have again and in full honest, I hope to never have again. I love film directing, really, I do. My goal is to be an A-list film score composer who breaks from that world to direct blockbuster live action films in the style of Peter Jackson and Weta Digital special effects. Those big adventures like The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which inspires me so much to this day. And if ever I get to star in a film like The Terminator series or anything similar to some of Sandra Bullock’s action movies, that would be fantastic.
Really, I am not an animator. It’s one thing to as a director like some of the men I have been lucky to know, direct a huge crew of people bringing your vision to life, and an entirely different story sitting there by yourself until you know you would go crazy if you spent six more months on this project. The directors I love sketch things at times, but they aren’t sitting there doing every ounce of CGI on big movies or animation on animated films. Because this isn’t my first film either, you can imagine how before I released any short films, I messed up a lot on trial and error, very DIY, self taught animation.
Sometimes, like people who train for the Olympics, you have to make sacrifices to get where you want to go. For people to see that I am serious about film scoring and film directing, I went so far outside of a music person’s comfort zone, I wound up on Mars, metaphorically, with having to learn how to use a part of my brain I never touched.
After this, any future length animated film I ever solo animate is going to be likely 60 minutes or under, probably mostly around 45 to 50 minutes, and I may after releasing a few of those stick to shorts again until I can work with a team on animating a feature. I have found I really do love art and drawing on my iPad and laptop, but I want to in the future restrict it to things like how I translate what is inside my head to a team of people who have been doing that all of their lives with the passion I have for music but they have for art.
What are you working on right now?
Getting more radio plays onto Spotify and streaming providers! This is a passion project of mine because I create work for actors to expand their CVs and get more work, I create work for myself to add onto my composer credits, we bring back old literature and make it fresh for audiences of all ages, and it’s plain fun, very healing to the soul.
For filmmaking, I am wrapping up an animated feature film called Miss Shaguna’s Chickens, starring actress Mari Sherkin. Mari has been hard at work for months acting on camera on a real life farm for her footage to be converted into animation. Of course, I am scoring this movie, obviously. My big acting role? You don’t see me at all! I voice a character called The Early Bird who shows up at the farmhouse door telling everyone to wake up. The film is geared for a children’s audience. Ideally, we hope to release it onto Amazon and other services via the independent film distributor FilmHub. The movie should be ready to send to the distributor by sometime in January 2022.
What’s something you never expected about writing music? What have you learned that surprised you?
How much people give up easily, presuming because they haven’t seen very many people who look like them, or because they have had people being mean to them when they try to excel, that it represents, “You will never achieve greatness in the music profession.” Stubbornness can be a great thing in your career if you use it correctly in the sense of never going away. I want to see a world where people of any educational background level, ethnicity, race, gender, body sizes, nationality, and so on feel nothing is holding them back.
As a person who studied flute plenty and took private lessons but doesn’t have a university degree in music, I have dealt with plenty of negativity in the past dismissing me as not being a real composer nor ever having a chance to be one, and I felt like that opened my eyes a lot because a young man of colour from inner city Chicago is going to three times of the negativity I deal with, and that young person is going to give up more easily because he will see that people will tell him, “This is life. Go back to what you know. Do you see many people escaping this? Success is meant for other people. Music is for rich white people who go to the right music schools.” And if that young person never studied music at school and is entirely self taught, imagine him dealing with ten times of the dismissive attitudes from people in the music industry who won’t budge.
This kind of negative thinking is dying out thanks to people who won’t allow it anymore. If everyone bands together who has ever been mistreated or told to go away and work for free for another decade or two, we can force people to change. Speaking out forces that change.
Something I do whenever I see anyone in music portrayed negatively or as stereotypes is I get in touch with the editorial staff of a magazine or the marketing team for a brand, writing a polite, short note saying why I disagree with it. You would be surprised at how many people respond saying they did not realise how they are portraying people. A recent example is I wrote to some people how I felt they need to stop portraying women as only being of interest when discussing having children and being pregnant. Interestingly, lots of men I meet from Z-list to A-list in entertainment and this includes film want to tell the press about raising children, but the media won’t cover that side of them, whereas with women, it’s all people ask about, and women aren’t allowed to have voices about things outside of having children, discussing their careers like men do or hobbies they have.
It extends into body image. I wrote to some different magazine editors and heard back a while ago regarding how they portray very skinny women and larger size women, but I felt like as a reader who is an everyday girl type who works out enough and isn’t particularly one way or another, I was not represented. The average person doesn’t have very many celebrities portrayed in street style or as models. Everything is very extreme. I heard from a few editors who were very pro-change, wanting to help the magazines, and one editor who acted like she didn’t care about what I said.
Tell me something you were surprised by, something you had never realised about being a filmmaker.
How few people really want to put in the work or develop business relationships to have the careers given to someone like a Brad Pitt or Charlize Theron.
With work, so many people who never achieve anything are out for themselves and lazy. I remember trying to start a women’s club to help women cast themselves, surprised how many women don’t want to do things like write material that creates work for women like short audiobooks we place onto Audible that could help women have their first acting jobs. It’s not that all actors are lazy, but that a substantial amount of people of any gender orientation are lazy as can be and want someone like a Bradley Cooper type of director to hire you, without you having more than two substantial acting credits, if you have any at all. Casting yourself in a speaking role in a film with an IMDb credit, an Audible audiobook, anything, is within your reach. I might say as a secondary theme to this first point, people don’t want a team effort. They think you are going to end up somewhere big without ever helping others. Some people may squeeze by being out for themselves, but usually, it doesn’t work in your favour.
With business relationships, things are so long term. If ever you meet someone who is a big time movie star, that person is always gracious and hard working. Those people know that you may work with someone a decade out from now, so in the time being, you don’t insult that person who is today a director with his first studio movie that somehow barely had a budget, or the new corporate person who tomorrow will be the studio head. Some of the foolish newer people think it’s funny being mean to someone until it comes back to haunt them later. Meanness isn’t impressing anyone. Maybe it impresses a few friends now, or your boss today. Tomorrow, whoever you were mean to initially is going to refuse to cast you in a project when that person becomes powerful.
What classes or research did you take to support you in your filmmaking career?
Stan Winston School distance classes! To really get my brain going in a visual direction, I did like how some athletes use weight training and dance to become better on the field. I got into the spirit of things learning how to make assorted practical effects props and working with computer design programs. Everything is all related. Get your brain training!
What is your favourite thing about films?
Watching them in a huge theatrical setting with popcorn and food abound. When it comes to it, my fav things in life are movies and music, followed by food. Eating food at restaurants is a hobby of mine! Recently, I saw Dune, the remake, on HBO Max the American streaming network, and I felt so let down. This is the first time since Lord of the Rings in 2001 that I felt, “This is one of the best movies I have ever seen,” and I saw it on an iPad. Bring back theatrical fun and stinky popcorn!
Do you keep to a theme with your music, or just go where the mood strikes?
I love saying, “I am from another time!” Before, I held back a lot on my old school styles of music. Now, I don’t care and let that old world vibe of music style composition leak into anything I ever do. Can I put it away? Sure, but if you write like you’re a 19th century composer in a time period of people who try to outdo each other sounding all alike, why would you want to quit being yourself? Being the amazing you is the best thing to ever happen.
Pop all your music, website and social media links here so the readers can find you:
Readers who want to compose any genre of music with UJAM Instruments can find Striiiings and other products at UJAM’s official website:
My personal website, CinematNIC:
My music on Spotify:
My music on Apple Music:
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