In 2017, Julian Lee was only 21 years old, n but was on his way to become a small part of history. Sitting in his aunt’s garage in Cape Town, South Africa, Julian would be busy tweaking a piece of music he had already created for a ‘client’. A few gruelling weeks, a bit of to-and-fro and voila, the outcome made him jubilant. Julian’s music had featured in the trailer of Black Panther.

For many cinephiles, the joy of going to the theatres to watch a film is as much about watching the trailers as it is about watching the film — at times, the former even takes precedence over the latter. And yet, what often makes or breaks a trailer is not just the visual used, but also the music. The more there is the sense of the dramatic, the higher is curiosity around the film.

Julian belongs to that niche group of composers who work with music publishers that are employed by agencies that create trailers for films, TV shows and games. Thus far, the 27-year-old has worked on music for labels under Universal Production Music, Warner Chappell Production Music, BMG Production Music, APM Music, among others.

But how did music come to him? From his father Lee Byung Hyun who, in Julian’s own words, has been a “multi-instrumentalist” in that he can play the guitar and saxophone as effortlessly as piano. But as a youngster born and raised in South Korea, his parents insisted that he stay with his aunt in South Africa and learn English along the way. At this point, Julian was neither interested in studies nor did he care much about music. Not until he was 15 years old and a friend introduced him to a program that could create music.

Technology and Gen-Z go together, they say. In Julian’s case, technology became an entry point into an art that would define his life. “I began spending more time on learning how to make music. YouTube had a lot of tutorials on it. At that time, however, I was composing electronic music because I was surrounded by it,” says Julian, who moved to Dubai last year in the hope of creating his own music and striking creative collaborations, but continues to work for music publishers on trailer music.

One day, he chanced upon a trailer music by Hans Zimmer on YouTube and discovered a playlist called ‘Epic Music’. That moment would change Julian’s life forever. “I was instantly hooked. The music sounded cinematic, epic and over-the-top. That is what drew me to it, along with the fact that I could sit at home and compose music and could hope to earn a living from it. Seemed like a perfect job for me,” he says.

To most of us, trailer music is one we hear when a teaser is being played on the big or small screen. Julian, however, describes it as “music on steroids”. He explains it saying that in trailer music literally everything is over-the-top because it is essentially trying to sell excitement to the viewer.

"There are many things that go into a trailer music that make it a trailer song. For example, there are sound effects called low booms, risers, sub drops, hits and many others that are always present in a trailer music. Every trailer music is different but sound design trailer music, which is something I specialise in, is essentially a collection of sound effects that work together to build suspense and tension to what’s happening on screen,” says Julian. “It follows trends usually. For example, after Dunkirk released, you heard more ticking and clock sounds in film trailers.”

The way the business works, says Julian, is that a music publisher first sends out a brief (“for example, they can say they are working on an action album”) for the sound album, and at other times, there is a more customised brief. For example, Julian recalls a time when he was tasked with composing trailer music for a video game and all he had in front of him was a blank screen with certain lines on it describing what was to happen in that scene.

“A lot of times, I am not sure how the song will end up sounding or where it will end up. So, it takes a lot of experiments and trying out a bunch of ideas until I find that one sound that I think is interesting enough to build the music around,” says Julian.

“On other occasions, I do my due diligence by Googling or going on IMDb and searching movies that will be released a year or two later, and try to think what kind of music they are most likely going to use. Then I work on more tracks in that style, hoping it will get used in the future.”

In the gaming space, says Julian, there are greater opportunities to be experimental in terms of trailer music. However, in films, particularly the popular franchises, the trailer music often features themes that have become synonymous with the film, the James Bond franchise, Harry Potter series, Indiana Jones films, to name a few.

“Another interesting aspect of trailer music is what we call ‘trailerisation’, which is where the client sends us a well-known song and asks us to rework it to make it sound more fitting for a trailer. This usually has the composer adding more drums, sound effects, and rearranging the track to make the sound more intense.”

Thus far, Julian has worked as a composer for music publishers that created iconic trailer music of Black Panther (Absolute Zero) and Spider-Man: Far From Home (Headsplitter), but the nature of the job is such that it doesn’t afford visibility to those who evoke curiosity that leads people to buy tickets and head to the theatres. “Well, we do get paid handsomely,” he jokes. “It actually depends on the publisher. Some of them don’t like to mention anything. When I started out in this business, I was so proud of my work that I wanted to share everything,” he says. “But if you really enjoy music, it does not matter.”

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