Composer and ScreenSkills ambassador Nainita Desai

@ Saffron Tech Dissect/Lee Kirby

Music was one of Nainita’s first loves – but it took a detour through a maths degree and work as a sound designer to bring her to her dream role of film and TV composer, with credits including the acclaimed For Sama and David Attenborough’s Wildlife on One 

She studied Indian classical instruments as a child, such as the sitar and tabla, learned to play the violin and piano, sang in three different choirs and had her own pop group. But her desire to perform was somewhat stifled by stage fright and a conservative Indian family heritage that meant she could not study music at GCSE or A-level. She focused on maths instead, including as a degree. 

“I felt like I’d fallen under peer and cultural pressures to have something to fall back on, but it was music that was my true passion. That and film,” Nainita says. “I took short courses and evening classes in photography and 16mm filmmaking, while studying at university, and joined the student paper as a film critic.” 

This - combined with the fact she was a “geek in technology” - proved to be the perfect platform for Nainita’s career ahead. She set up her own recording studio at home, programming drums and synthesisers, and writing and recording her own music. She also made a useful connection in the singer-songwriter Peter Gabriel while studying for her maths degree. He paid a visit to campus when she was writing her thesis on the wave equation and was so impressed by software she was working on, he told her to look him up when she graduated. 

In fact, she won a scholarship to study sound design for film at the National Film and Television School instead which proved to be her entry point into the industry.  

“I was very fortunate that I talked my way into working for a big team on Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha (1993),” she says. “The supervising sound engineer invited me to work as an intern for a month, but because I made myself indispensable, they kept me on for six months.” 

This was at the beginning of using digital audio workstations and computers to edit sound and effects, moving away from analogue. Nainita picked it up quickly and was soon training sound editors who only knew the old-fashioned methods. 

She became a digital sound editor and worked her way up in the industry, including time as a foley artist and editor at a recording post-production facility in Munich, Germany. This is where she came into contact with the great director Werner Herzog.  

“I worked with him on his film Lessons of Darkness. That was a great experience. I got a good grounding in what all the different roles required, as I worked as a foley artist, foley editor, sound effects editor, and eventually became a sound designer. 

“The words sound designer were very different then. It was something where you were creatively manipulating sound and creating hyper-realistic sounds from scratch. Whereas nowadays people use the term very flippantly, saying they’re sound designers, but actually they’re a sound effects editor really.” 

As a sound designer, she worked on projects including Anthony Hopkins’ August, Ian Softley’s Backbeat and Hackers, starring Angelina Jolie. “I worked on science fiction films, created monster effects and spaceships, things like that. Had huge fun, but got as high as I could and never lost sight of my ambition to create music,” she explains.  

Upon returning to the UK, she remembered what Peter Gabriel had said, so contacted his studios, Real World Records, in Bath. She was invited in to meet with the manager and soon talked her way in as his assistant music engineer.  

“I got to work with some of the world’s greatest engineers, producers and world music artists,” she says. “World music was my roots, having learned the sitar and the tabla, so this was a real treat. I did that for a while and learned so much about how to work with teams of people and the psychology of working with musicians, not just on the technical side. So, I had created a grounding in film sound, alongside a love of narrative story telling through film, and on the music side of things, got to grips with writing, engineering, and working with technology. All of these skillsets were invaluable for me to become a film composer.” 

It was time for her to create her own music and she secured a break to write the music for a Lonely Planet travel series on Channel 4. It was the first time she was being paid to write music, which was daunting - especially as she had an imposter syndrome from not having studied music. 

“It was a baptism of fire, but I like to put myself in uncomfortable situations. I will take on a project not necessarily knowing what I’m doing then work my way up from there and embrace it. It’s often when I do my best work,” she laughs. 

She soon worked out how to synchronise pictures with music, to hit points in the images, tell the right story, and get the right mood and emotion for each scene. “I must have been doing something right because the film company offered me another job, then another, and it grew from there,” she says. 

That was 20 years ago. Since then, she has scored hundreds of documentaries and TV series for all the major broadcasters. She is especially proud to have worked for the BBC’s world-renowned Natural History unit. “It was my ambition to work with David Attenborough and got to do so on a series called Wildlife on One,” she says. “I had to pitch for the job, which meant I had to write a sample of music for the film director. She liked the fact it was fusion music – a cross between world music influence and western sounds and sensibilities.” 

She has flittered between many different genres, including writing music for video games and the odd commercial, too, although her main focus has been the long form - for projects of at least 60 minutes. 

One of the most powerful and emotional films she worked on recently was the Oscar-nominated Syrian civil war drama For Sama. “That was a unique project and a very different way of working on a documentary,” she explains. “I was brought on from the beginning of the edit. The film is about a woman in her early 20s (Waad Al-Kateab) who filmed the Syrian uprising over a five-year period, getting over 500 hours of footage. It took a long time for the team to find the true narrative and voice of the film.” 

The original brief from the directors, Al-Kateeb and Edward Watts, was to write a very rich, Hollywood cinematic score to capture the angst, fear, tragedy and hope present in the film. She wrote more than 80 themes in the first phase. But then the direction of the film changed as the focus moved to the relationship between Waad and her daughter. 

“It became an intimate love letter between mother and daughter where she explains why she stayed in Aleppo during the war. So the edit and music completely changed, and we stripped it back to basics,” explains Nainita. “We didn’t want to over-manipulate the audience or dominate the scenes with music because they were already very powerful. So it became more understated and minimalist, with one of the distinctive elements being raw, gritty music from a Syrian violinist, which represented the landscape of this broken city and the true heart of Aleppo.” 

She fused and blended minimalist music with the shelling and bombing, and blended it with the sound effects as well. Her days working as a sound designer certainly helped on that front, crafting soundscapes using sound effects and music to tell a story.  

“As much as the visuals and voiceover are taking the viewer on an emotional journey, the job of the music is to also take you on an emotional journey as you’re watching the film,” Nainita insists.  

Ultimately, composing is about serving the film’s needs and the director’s vision,  Nainita says. Her approach differs depending on when she is brought on to a project. With For Sama, she worked for 18 months, but for the Channel 4 series Walking with Elephants, it was a much tighter schedule, where she had less than a week to score each episode. 

“With something like, working to a tight schedule/budget, I don’t have time to bring in an orchestra etc, so have to do everything myself - write, programme, compose, mix, engineer everything in my home studio. But this is typical of the way most media composers work. Fortunately, I have a nice garden building with a fast broadband connection, so can handle all the music sent to me from clients around the world.” 

She is often sent the visuals at the beginning of the edit to give her time to come up with musical ideas and temp tracks. The director and editor will often continue editing the series or film, laying music in temporarily from other sources, such as library or production music. “I also have my own back catalogue of music they can access, just to give them an idea of tone, pacing, and emotion through the edit,” Nainita explains.  

Meanwhile, they will be sending her rough cuts and sequences to compose music to. “It’s a constant dialogue, backwards and forwards until we reach picture lock. The composer, director and editor are the holy trinity.” 

Her 2020 projects include the Quibi/BBC Studios series Fierce Queens, the Netflix Original series Bad Boy Billionaires and feature film The Reason I Jump about autistic people’s experiences, which won the Sundance world cinema doc audience award. 

“For The Reason I JumpI created a piece of music that was like a jigsaw puzzle, little fragments of musical elements that would come together as the picture was formed. All the characters are non-verbal, so I wanted to give them a musical voice. I had to create a conceptual score, blending found sound with music and human voice. So my skills as a singer as a child were used because I used my voice as a musical instrument,” Nainita says. 

Nainita enjoys experimenting with her work and being creative. “Sometimes we go down a path that doesn’t always end up working, but I love going on a journey with the director and editor, until we find the authentic and true heart of the film or series.” 

Top tips: 

If you’re looking to get into being a media and film composer, got and watch a lot of film and TV and study the use of music and how it’s making you feel.  

Learn about the industry, find out about every role, in terms of craft, teams, executives etc. Going to film school was so invaluable for me because I got to learn what every member of the team does, including the gaffer, grip etc.  

Develop strong communication and collaborative skills. You have to be part of a team. If I wanted to write music for myself, I wouldn’t be a film and TV composer. You have to serve the director’s vision and the film’s needs, not your own creative ego. 

Be part of a community and network. Get to know other musicians and composers, and get to grips the technology and embrace it. 

Keep yourself inspired. Write music all the time, even just for yourself. Set up your own keyboard, laptop and some software and just start writing. You never stop learning. I’m still learning. Every project is a new challenge. I like to push myself into areas creatively and musically that I’ve never worked in before. 

Establish good communication with the director. Learn to speak the language of film. I don’t expect film makers to talk to me in musical ways, because they’re often not composers and musicians, so I need to understand their language. Speak in terms of emotions, moods and what you’re trying to convey.”