“Don’t let what you hear deter you. I had no role models. It’s ok to be afraid. You have to want it more than you are afraid.”
Sherri Chung is a film and television composer. Her work on the CW’s Kung Fu made her the first Asian American female composer of a network television series. Sherri is the rarest artist in our archive. According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, 94% of film and television composers are male. I was unable to find a breakdown of the 6% of female film and television composers by race. Sherri may be the only female Asian American film and television composer working today.
A classically trained pianist, she was inspired to become a composer after listening to the music of Michael Kamen. Sherri was the only woman in her undergraduate class for Music Composition and Theory at Jacksonville University and one of two women in her graduate class for Motion Picture and Television Scoring at USC. Her advice for other women who want to pursue a composing career is, “Don’t take things personally, it is not a reflection of your worth or ability. Don’t let what you hear deter you. I had no role models. It’s ok to be afraid. You have to want it more than you are afraid.”
USC laid the foundation for a career spanning over a decade. “It was one of the best things I ever did for myself. Many of the advisors and professors are working in the industry. It’s a very well-designed program,” says Sherri. While attending USC, she met composer Blake Neely (Blindspot, The Flash, Riverdale) who was an instructor. After graduating, Blake continued to mentor Sherri and they have since collaborated on many shows.
The process for creating a score is different with each project. Composers will watch sizzle reels, trailers, rough cuts, and read scripts for inspiration. This cross-departmental partnership is how Sherri met Kung Fu Showrunner, Christina M. Kim. Christina was a writer for NBC’s Blindspot and Sherri composed the score for the series with Blake. Relationships like this are the foundation for many composing opportunities. “Most job opportunities in composing are built through personal connections than through an agent. Usually, if you’re an actor or writer the first thing you do is find an agent. In the composing world, it happens several years later. For me, it happened 9-10 years into my career,” she says.
Composing is one of the most challenging positions in the entertainment industry. Unlike other talent protected by the Screen Actors Guild, composers are not permitted into the union. Without union contracts and collective bargaining, it is very difficult to make a living. Sheri explains, “No union means there are no standardized rates. You end up taking jobs that don’t pay enough, so you have to work more. You have to put 100% of your life into this.” Belonging to the union provides additional benefits such as; health care, pension, and retirement. Sherri believes these inequities contribute to deterring women from this field, especially if they have a family. “The women who can have a career and a family are goddesses,” says Sherri.
Many times, studios do not allot budget for composing equipment and additionally needed musical talent. Sherri elaborates, “Composing is a very expensive craft. When you hire someone to do wardrobe on a project the studio will pay for the clothes, fabrics, a seamstress- that is all in the budget. In many situations when I am hired, I have to provide my own computer systems and hire musicians. Composing is one of the only fields in the entertainment industry where we have to provide our own materials.”
Despite the challenges, Sherri expresses gratitude for how supportive the small community of film composers is, “There are resources now that I didn’t have when I started; the Alliance for Women Film Composers and the Composers Diversity Collective. I have noticed a lot more inclusivity. I think it’s important to bring awareness to these issues in our field.”
Sherri’s first composing job was performing the score from Lon Chaney’s Phantom of The Opera, for a local museum. “If you want to compose you can do it. Find a filmmaker who needs music, a student project, a museum, just do it. Do the best job that you can. Do your best work with what is in front of you. Don’t think about the project you really want. The only way to get what you want is to learn from where you are. This is an industry that takes time. The door is open to good work, talent, and people who are persistent.”
Watch Kung Fu on the CW.
Photo courtesy of Sherri Chung