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April 25, 2002 Chris Crilley composes new sounds for hit Inuit film



Chris Crilley

Chris Crilly with a poster for the movie Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner.

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by Austin Webb

One night last February, Chris Crilly got home to 20 messages of congratulation from friends and family. He had just been awarded the Genie, Canada’s version of the Oscar, for best original music for his work on Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner.

Although he says only one of the messages was work-related, that should change with the highly-touted film’s American and international release this summer.

Crilly, who teaches sound at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema and in the Communications Studies Department, is an accomplished composer whose career as a soundtrack artist began almost by chance.

“I was working as a cameraman at the NFB [National Film Board of Canada] when one day I had lunch with someone I’d studied with at Loyola,” said Crilly last week. “He said ‘I’ve got $6,000. Would you like to score my film?’ I walked out of one craft and right into another.”

Prolific music maker

Since then, Crilly has written over 100 scores for documentaries, shorts and animated films, often in conjunction with the National Film Board. He’s also worked with folk and roots music artists like Barde and Stan Rogers.

It was his reputation in the field of folk and ethnic music that Crilly believes landed him the job scoring Atanarjuat. The film is the first full-length feature to be written, directed and acted solely by Inuit. Based on oral storytelling traditions, it follows a story of family conflict and revenge over two generations. The film has been widely praised, winning six Genies as well as the Camera d’Or for best first feature at the Cannes Film Festival.

Crilly began by researching various types of Inuit music. “I found it basically breaks up into three groups: throat singing, drumming, and the types of [narrative] songs you hear in the film.” But since the film already featured a lot of drumming and singing, Crilly was forced to use some musical license to come up with an engaging score.

“The problem was not to sound hackneyed,” he said, “so by the time I ended up sitting down to write, I had decided to pull out all the stops — to make it as abstract as possible.”

The result is a pastiche of sounds and instruments from around the world, used sparingly and played mostly by Crilly. Some of the most striking scenes feature a blend of Australian didgeridoo, Indian percussion and jew’s harp. Crilly’s sparse compositions work to accentuate both the stark landscape and the sounds of feet squeaking on snow and howling sled-dogs (also

Crilly’s work as sound supervisor) that dominate the film.
As Crilly demonstrates, the creative process of a soundtrack artist often owes much to serendipity.

“There’s always one cue that you just can’t get. In this film it was the big scene where the lovers are reunited. It was four in the morning and I just wanted to play some music; so I picked up my viola and just started playing — and that’s the tune that went into the film.”

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner is now playing at the AMC Forum in downtown Montreal.