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Supporting Stories Through Music

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Academy of Art University School of Music Production & Sound Design for Visual Media M.F.A. student Yi Liu. Photo courtesy of Yi Liu.

When first meeting her, Yi Liu’s soft voice and shy demeanor are immediately noticeable, characteristics she is the first to admit about herself. It is through her musical scores on screen where her emotions and artistry really shine.

“I’m not an articulate person. I’m a little shy,” she said.  “It feels good to create a melody. I can really connect my inner-emotions to express to the outside world.”

Liu is discussing her newest project, Her Shoes, a Shanghai-based short film in which she was the sole film composer and sound designer. After graduating with a B.F.A. in music composition from Academy of Art University’s School of Music Production & Sound Design for Visual Media (MUS) in 2015, she is now in the first year of her master’s program.

Even though Liu in the midst of getting her master’s, she is already making waves in the independent film circuit. From the Hollywood Film Competition to the European Cinematography Awards, Liu has scooped up eight awards, including seven for best score and one for best soundtrack.

Born and raised in Shanghai, Liu expressed the close connection she had to Her Shoes. Although she worked remotely, communicating with director Yuanyuan Chen via Skype, Liu was easily able to evoke the ambiance of the film.

Her Shoes follows the life of a young office girl living in the heart of Shanghai who pines for a more flashy, exciting life. She begins to find a new sense of existence when she posts pictures of herself wearing her glamorous roommate's clothes and shoes, only to have the lifestyle backfire.

The first scene opens to the bustling streets of Shanghai as the delicate, dreamlike score fills the audience's ears. Throughout the film, the score takes viewers on a whimsical ride as it perfectly imitates the up-and-down emotions of the characters and story.

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Yi Liu. Photo courtesy of Yi Liu.

“The film is like a dream,” the 25-year-old said. “The main character is constantly dreaming of being someone else. I wanted to create something dreamy and magical.”

As a composer, Liu said her main objectives for the film were to complement the story without taking attention away from the film and, at the same time, closely connecting the viewer’s emotions to that of the characters’.

“The film is very short. Without music, it’s like water, very flat and hard to engage your emotions with the story,” she said. “I wanted to tie the music very tightly with the actors and their emotions. Once the music comes in, you can really see the color and flavor of the story.”

During the month and a half Liu spent at the start of the year working tirelessly on the score and sound design for the short, she learned a lot. The real world, she expressed, is filled with a lot more pressure than school. This is the biggest production she has had the opportunity to work on, but as her instructors predict, this is just the beginning for the young composer.

After watching the film, some of Liu’s instructors were not only impressed, but knew her attentiveness in class had really paid off.

“She made the movie better,” said Mike Axinn, a MUS instructor, who helped edit some of Liu’s work on the film. “She nailed all those moments where sound is essential. The score was beautiful and didn’t pull attention away from the film.”  

In addition to composing the score, Liu was also the sound designer for the film. These roles are usually filled by two people. Her talent for both composing and sound design are exemplified in Her Shoes.  

Dirk Epperson, MUS associate director, said it can be a challenge for students to somewhat disregard their own artistic vision and create entirely for the purpose of the visual media they are producing. Liu’s work stands out for this reason.

“A trap that a lot of scoring students fall into is creating music that doesn’t fit the film or overpowers it,” he said. “She really listens to what the story has to say and supports it.”