French composer Raphaelle Thibaut is part of a new class of up-and-coming composers, forging her own career path in the world of film, television, and video game scoring. 2021 has been a landmark year for her after scoring the Disney+/National Geographic nature docuseries “Secrets of the Whales,” produced by James Cameron and narrated by award-winning actress and conservationist Sigourney Weaver. A cinematic, live-in-concert symphony orchestra experience for the series around the world is also forthcoming. Her other scoring credits include the 2021 feature documentary “Introducing, Selma Blair” about the award-winning actress’ personal journey with multiple sclerosis, which was honored with special jury recognition for “Exceptional Intimacy in Storytelling” at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival; as well as the upcoming “Tomb Hunter” docuseries for Smithsonian Channel.
Thibaut was enrolled in piano lessons from an early age, and throughout her youth the music of composers such as Ennio Morricone, Jerry Goldsmith, and Francois de Roubaix inspired her talent. She graduated from the music conservatory of Lille, France in 2002 and eventually landed a marketing position with Google, which she left in 2015 after a chance visit to the famous Abbey Road Studios, which inspired her to pursue her lifelong passion for music and film scoring. In just a few short years, her music has been featured in a diverse set of projects and mediums.
Tara Karajica talks to Raphaelle Thibaut about her work on Disney+’s “Secrets of the Whales” and the documentary “Introducing, Selma Blair,” as well as her composing career so far and who she would love to work with in the future among other topics.
Can you talk about the move from your marketing job at Google to film composing? Why did you choose this particular field?
Raphaelle Thibaut: I had classical training and played the piano starting at age 4. I ended up in Tech in my twenties after being told that if I wasn’t interested in being a professional pianist, I had nothing to do in a conservatory of music. In 2015, I was invited to a Google corporate event in Abbey Road Studios in London. The engineers took me through the process of recording for a movie in Studio 2’s mixing room, and had me listen to samples of Steven Price’s score to Fury. Although I had only a slight idea of how these cables, monitors and consoles all fit together, this beautiful mess was the only thing that made complete sense to me. Two weeks after, I quit my job to become a full-time composer and it was the best decision of my life.
If I understand correctly, you had partial deafness when you were young. Can you talk about that – overcoming it and how it plays into your composing?
R.T.: I had many issues with my ears when I was a kid; multiple infections that indeed led to one-sided deafness for a while. That’s why my parents chose the piano for me and I am glad they did because this is where everything starts when I compose. It is not an issue at all for me anymore, thanks to great doctors and maybe a little bit my intense piano training too.
How do you tap into what music makes you feel in order to find the perfect sound to accompany the images and the special moments that transport us to another place, another time and even another world? How do you get in the zone and does your creative process differ from project to project?
R.T.: I usually make sure I have my piano with me when watching the pictures of a film for the first time. I like to see how I react to them, the same way the audience would in the future, and how I instinctively convey my emotions through music. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it will end up being the score, but I like the idea of letting the creative juices flow at the beginning. Once I’ve done that, I usually get into a more “scientific” process, and start infusing ideas by analyzing narratives and creating themes. It’s hard for me to talk about specific processes though, because it always feels very instinctive and changes with every project.
How did you get on board Secrets of the Whales, a collaboration between Disney+ and National Geographic, produced by James Cameron and narrated by Sigourney Weaver?
R.T.: I was approached by two agents very early on in my career as a composer. They believed in me from the very beginning and still are my agents for the UK today. A while ago, they met Brian Armstrong at Red Rock productions, who apparently remembered my work the following year when they were looking for a composer for Secrets of the Whales. Initially, they were looking to hire multiple composers, but I ended up scoring the four episodes, so I was thrilled about that!
Can you talk about that collaborative process and your work on it?
R.T.: I was involved right after they were done filming and I started writing in March last year. I continued throughout the pandemic and felt incredibly lucky to do so. I worked closely with the production team at Red Rock Films and more specifically with directors Brian Armstrong and Andy Mitchell. My experience working with them was fantastic. Very empowering. I was able to come up with my own ideas and this allowed me to let go and get my creative juices flowing.
Can you talk about scoring a completely different documentary, Introducing, Selma Blair? What were your creative choices when it comes to such an intimate story?
R.T.: This film is incredibly raw and intimate. I’ve never seen such a deep portrait of a celebrity. It was not easy to write music for someone who’s giving so much to the audience. I wanted to respect her space so I tried to leave as much room as possible for her intimacy, whilst supporting her story with the emotion it deserves. So, I’ve created a music palette that could evoke deep, complex emotions while staying minimalistic and subdued. I wrote the score throughout the pandemic and multiple lockdowns in 2020. The isolation, in a way, helped my creative process because it almost felt like I was physically alone with her, immersed in her most intimate world, becoming part of it through my music.
You have also worked on trailers. Can you talk about that work process?
R.T.: I ended up writing for trailers a little bit by accident. The trailer world is very unique and demanding. I think I can fairly say that it was also the best school for me. I learned to work fast, under a lot of pressure –sometimes writing three-minute heavy, epic pieces with a forty-minute deadline –. I learned how to manage expectations, and deal with the frustration of losing. And, that’s basically where I learned most of what I can technically do today.
Also, is there any difference between scoring documentaries (about animals and real people) and shorts (narrative, with fictional characters), as well as trailers?
R.T.: Some documentaries like Secrets of The Whales are dramatically structured with strong storylines. The show includes a lot of sequences that are dramatic, sweet and disarming. And when this happens, the emotions I’m trying to convey with my music are very similar to what we could see in a fiction feature. Docs are reflecting real world issues and I believe that the viewer gets very much involved emotionally because they relate more easily. The same thing happens with me when I score it. I can probably relate more to this mother orca carrying her dead calf as a mother myself than any fictional character in a movie.
There are more and more female composers today. Can you talk about being one of them today and who was your inspiration when you decided to become a film composer? What is your take on the situation of women in film today?
R.T.: The numbers are still shocking and make me very sad, because I know how many wonderfully talented women composers are out there. But to be honest, I am optimistic and this is a driving force for me. I believe that there’s a genuine awareness in the industry and that a lot of people are willing to change that number. I believe in role models and education and my deepest wish is to become this role model for the younger versions of myself who mostly had men to look up to. Unfortunately, I believe that part of the reason why I didn’t decide to be a film composer when I left the conservatory at seventeen years old was because none of the film composers I would admire happened to be a woman.
What was the best advice you received when you started out? And, what would you say to a young girl who wants to be a film composer now? What advice would you give her?
R.T.: I don’t remember any specific advice that helped me back then. I just remembered the people who believed in me and understood my choice of switching careers, despite a successful and comfortable situation as a corporate employee. I would tell them to aim to become the persons they don’t see represented. And I’d also tell them what I tell any person wanting to become a film composer: practice relentlessly, learn, fail, repeat. Until someone believes in you.
What would you say your sound is and what would you want your audience to feel when they hear your scores?
R.T.: I don’t think I’m able to define my sound, but I know one thing: if I manage to reach one single person’s heart in any way, I have done a good job.
What is the best film score ever, according to you? And, your favorite one?
R.T.: Another tough question! I have so many favorite scores, it’s impossible to choose. But To Kill a Mockingbird by Elmer Bernstein always comes back to me somehow. It’s complex, incredibly rich and timeless.
Are you a feminist? If so, how does it inform your composing?
R.T.: It would be hard to answer no to this question. As Gloria Steinem said: “Women have always been an equal part of the past. We just haven’t been a part of history.” But things are changing. And as I said, this is an incredibly strong driving force for me. I am very proud to be a woman/mother composer today and I absolutely loved every single one of my recent collaborations with other women.
Do you have a favorite female filmmaker and one you would love to work with?
R.T.: I’m a huge fan of Greta Gerwig and Ava DuVernay’s work. But I would be over the moon to be able to write for Céline Sciamma. She’s French like me and I was completely shaken, blown away by her movie Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Do you have anything in the pipeline?
R.T.: I will soon be writing the score for Mama’s Boy, a feature documentary adaptation of Mama’s Boy: A Story from Our Americas, based on the 2019 memoir by the Oscar-winning Milk scribe Dustin Lance Black.
Photo credits: Farah Assir.