We were lucky enough to speak with the award-winning and world-renowned music composer/sound designer Peter Zongting Li. He kindly lets us in on the particularly impressive visionary process behind his success with Roller Coaster, life in Hollywood, what it’s like to win such sought-after accomplishments and his future vision.
Llewelyn: Firstly, many congrats on winning Best Soundtrack and Best Sound Design at New York International Film Awards and Oniros Film Awards for your scoring efforts for Roller Coaster. What’s it like to win something so prestigious?
Peter: Thank you very much! I am truly honored to receive these awards. It is one of the best experiences in my professional career that both my music and sound from one film won awards in their respective categories in different film festivals. This is the best recognition for me and makes my three months of hard work worthwhile. I will continue composing more good music and doing more detailed sound design for more films with this encouragement.
Llewelyn: Please tell us more about the David Geffen Theater, Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on May 3, 2023. This was a special moment. It must feel good right and surely push you to even greater heights?
Peter: Yes. I was so honored to have my film selected by the 2023 Producers’ Show and premiered in this prestigious theater. David Geffen Theater, Academy Museum is one of the most prestigious Dolby Atmos theaters in Los Angeles. This theater was built with 966 seats as a grand presentation space for major films screened. Watching the film with my music and sound in this Dolby Atmos surround sound system was also a very enjoyable experience.
Llewelyn: How do you both: a music composer and a sound designer? You must have some sort of superpowers right?
Peter: Thank you for saying that! To be honest with you, switching hats between a music composer and a sound designer is not easy. But I have been enjoying doing this since 2018. Especially for an animation like Roller Coaster, it required both music and sound to be very accurate and precise on the spot and hit certain moments. I had to make many decisions as both a music composer and sound designer.
For the storytelling purpose, I constantly switched my concentration when I felt like certain moments should be carried either by music or by sound, or both. But as we all know, when both music and sound hit something together, it also can be very busy for our ears. Then I had to dive deeper to see if I can have both at the same time but using different frequencies to separate them (Vertically), or if I can hit one thing slightly different in time (Horizontally). For example, at the moment when Katen (the girl who had magic power) pulled Mill (the main character) to run to the terrace of the train station, I stopped the last tonic note of music right before the railing hit sound so that they were not getting in the way of each other. Overall, it is all about finding the correct rhythm for the story.
Llewelyn: We might have some readers who are super keen to be a composer. What is the workflow like?
Peter: The workflow can be very different based on the directors and the type of project. This film Roller Coaster is the fourth film that my director Sapphira Chen hired me as her composer and sound designer. We have established our standard workflow during the 5 years of our collaboration since 2018.
To be specific about workflow, I got a rough animatic for the whole film in which the first half picture had been down with all the details. So I first worked on the sound design to give all the hard effects, foley, and ambiance. During the time I worked on the first half of the sound, Sapphira was doing the second half of the picture which is where the roller coaster was transformed into a dragon. Then when the second half pictures were done and I finished all the sounds for the first half, Sapphira began to review them and gave me notes for revision.
The next step was Sapphira adding the detailed frames between all the keyframes and colored everything while I was composing the music for the second half as well as doing sound design. Because the roller coaster as the title name is the main theme of this story. So I decided to compose music for it as my priority.
There were many back and force, revisions, and conforming. But in the end, we got all the sound and music that we are both satisfied with.
Llewelyn: What do you feel comes easy to you and which skills are rather difficult to master?
Peter: I feel easy when my director trusts me. Trust is everything. Surely the director can make all the decisions. But the trust from a director like Sapphira who has been working with me for 5 years together, is the most priceless thing ever. She would let me make many decisions by myself because she trusted my instinct.
For the difficult part, I would say the “sleep on” issues. A lot of music ideas and sound designs can be created in a short time. But if we put too much time eyeballing them frame by frame, sometimes our brain can sleep on them and they don’t seem to make sense anymore. For example, if there are 5 different takes of ADR for the effort sound such as a sigh and it’s your 6th hour of the day working on this thing, I doubt whether or not you can still distinguish the best sign sound you should use. In this case, I will leave it alone and come back to check it the next day or the next couple of days if it is a musical idea. You will be surprised that many times our first instinct is better than the revisions. Sometimes after we revised till the 4th or 5th version, there still be cases where we went back to the original version in the end. But it is part of the process in post-production where we tested many things out. I always believe these revisions are worthwhile.
Llewelyn: Also, how do you get into this field? It must be massively competitive.
Peter: Yes, film scoring is a very competitive field. Especially living in Los Angeles, where the most talented composers and sound designers from all over the world gather in the film/TV industry, is very challenging. I still keep grinding my skills daily to match the growth of new technologies in this industry.
I got into this field because I always love using music to tell a story. I studied music since young. I was also mentored by many great composers and music editors in the industry such as Peter Golub, Kubilay Uner, and Shie Rozow. During my years in LA, I also established my connections with many producers/directors who always come back to me with their next projects.
It is all about getting connections and being responsible to your clients.
Llewelyn: Last, what is the vision for the future and where do you see your career headed? Any big plans to reveal or should we keep glued to your socials for more news?
Peter: I see myself heading to music and sound lead roles for films and animations. I am a huge fan of making animations because my favorite activity when I was a kid was watching cartoons after school. My future goal is to join a big studio team such as Pixar or Dreamworks to work on more top-tier projects and use my skills to help more projects have the best music and sound outcome.
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