When it comes to composing K-drama and Korean film soundtracks, composers Kang Mimi, Lee Aram, and Lee Ruri know what’s up. They have worked on many household names like Lawless Lawyer, My Mister, Mother, I’m Not a Robot, The Battleship Island, and She was Pretty, to name a few. Watch the K-drama OST composers’ interview above or read the full excerpt below.
1. How did you meet?
Lee Aram (LA): I met Mimi at a film music festival and studied together. The three of us also studied together at a film music institution to become K-drama OST composers.
2. What attracted you to film music?
Lee RurI (LR): I started dreaming of becoming a film and drama composer in ninth grade. I watched composer Lee Byung Woo’s ‘A Tale of Two Sisters‘ with friends at a theater. Close to the end of film, the protagonist, played by Im Soo Jung, runs out and the music played in that scene was so impressive that it stayed with me. When I realized how film music can touch lives, that’s when I became interested in film music and determined to do it whatever it takes.
LA: We’ve all played it on the piano at the time. It’s a beautiful song.
LR: It’s called ‘Irreversible Steps.’ You’ll recognize it when you listen. You should check it out. You won’t regret it.
Kang Mimi (KM): After I became a music major, in my sophomore year, I watched ‘Seducing Mr. Perfect.’ It was an okay film, but I loved the music, the big band songs, so much that I wanted to compose them. By chance the following year, I had an opportunity to learn from the music director of the film. which attracted me even more to film music, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.
3. Tell us about your favorite musical genres
KM: Usually I listen to folk music or bossa nova.
LA: I’m the only one who studied classical music composition here. so I listen to a lot of classical music. Rock band called Kent was one of the recent favorites. When I first started film composing, I really liked this Spanish film composer, Alberto Iglesias, who inspired me to travel to Spain. so I went and watched flamenco.
4. What is film music?
LR: Composing soundtrack is actually different from regular pop songs that we listen to or a musician’s performances in nature. It’s not a hero, first of all. The music that we make is not a main character, but it supports the film. Regardless, it’s an indispensable component of film. When people watch something, they don’t really listen to the music especially when they’re focused. They might even say, ‘There was music playing in the background?’
People ignore music a lot of the times. But music isn’t actually being ignored. It’s helping people immerse themselves in the film. Music may not be the protagonist, but it makes the audience focus on the film efficiently, as an assistant. And I feel proud to be creating it.
KM: Me too.
LA: When you watch a film and hear the soundtrack, they say that’s not a good film music.
5. How do you compose film music?
KM: For me, working in film music, it varies by teams. In my team, we watch the film or read the scenario first to understand the film’s vibe. The music director gives the K-drama OST composers a theme. We sketch the music based on the theme, which means we create freely using the given theme and vibe: For instance, lyrically, romantically, or comically. We use the theme in different variations. The director listens, puts them where they fit in the film. When they’re approved, we arrange the songs more specifically.
The theme might have two to three sounds. We might change it up a lot. Or use it as is. We might change only the chords or the melody a bit. That’s how we create music with a theme.
LR: In K-dramas, we read the scenario or synopsis, and we find tone and manner. We understand the characters, scenes, or general vibe, and we brainstorm the music that would flow well. Then we find the references using YouTube or you can suggest the songs you’ve heard and liked. We gather the references and decide on the tone of the show. Then we find out what music we need for each scene, and we distribute the references for each.
When my team makes a K-drama soundtrack, we make 80% of the music in advance. When each episode airs, we cut the pre-made music, set the in and out points, and arrange accordingly.
LA: For K-dramas, the duration between working on the music and seeing it on screen is so short. So sometimes we’re rushed, which can also happen in films. For films, production period is much longer. We have more opportunities to see the film while composing.
When we put the music together, the music director does a technical preview, watching the film as it would premiere in the theater, to find errors to edit back in the sound room. We repeat this process a lot before the premiere.
6. How do you create a character through music?
KM: Music can help set up a character in unexpected ways, and move people, even subconsciously, which helps create a character through music.
LA: I have a funny story from work. When I worked on ‘Rude Miss Young-Ae,’ there was a character called Mr. Cho. He’s a vicious, stingy business owner, who’d get angry at his employers for being 5 minutes late. The audience hated him to the point of saying he’s “carcinogenic.” If his theme song reaffirmed his unpleasant character, the audience would be too annoyed to watch him. So we put marching drum beats to avoid him from appearing scary or annoying in all seriousness. We deliberately made his music sound ridiculous. So even when he did something mean, because he was also softhearted, music balanced out his personality. We put happy trumpet sounds or silly percussions to alleviate his problems.
7. Tell us about your recent works
LR: I recently worked on the tvN drama Mother (a.k.a. Call Me Mother). When I worked on its soundtrack, depending which mother or which character’s emotions we were portraying, the songs had to be different bit by bit. Most characters are women. Our main concern was how to distinguish the subtle differences in these women and show that in music.
KM: Most recently, I did ‘Be With You’ (starring So Ji Sub, Son Ye Jin, and Park Seo Joon), ‘Along With the Gods: Two Worlds’ (starring Ha Jung Woo), and a few other movies.
LA: Some of my recent works are on air, but most haven’t aired yet. For dramas I’m doing a morning one called ‘Backflow.’ A new film ‘Negotiation’ will be out soon, starring Son Ye Jin and Hyun Bin. I’m also working on ‘A Strange Family.’ It’s a zombie film, but also a comical family movie. tvN’s ‘Lawless Lawyer,’ starring Lee Joon Ki and scheduled to air in May, is another one I’m working on.
LR: I’m working on the new tvN drama after ‘Mother’ called ‘My Mister’ starring IU. I think she’s challenging herself with a new character. The soundtrack isn’t in your face. Rather we’ve effectively placed it at the right places, which was our concept. We didn’t put a lot of music, but where we placed it, it was absolutely necessary, which might make the music stand out a bit more. It’s calm and simple. I think the music will help you get into this drama.
8. What’s it like meeting the actors?
LA: K-drama OST composers are a part of post-production team, which means we don’t work on the filming set. So the K-drama OST composers don’t have a lot of opportunities to meet the actors. But I’m getting better at asking for photographs. At first I was like, ‘What should I do?’ But I’ve become so smooth, I approach them and say, “Hello, I’m so-and-so from the music team. Is it cool to take a selfie with you?”
LR: For me, it’s the actors. I love seeing them.
LA: Who did you like the best?
LR: I really like actor Yoo Seung Ho. Last winter I worked on ‘I’m Not A Robot,’ and went to the afterparty earlier this year. He’s so polite and so kind that I was so touched.
9. How do you celebrate the end of project?
LR: K-drama afterparties aren’t just where you eat and drink. You watch the last episode together with the actors and staff members on the big screen. It’s more fun than watching alone. At last when the ending credits roll up, we say thanks, clap, hug, shake hands, and take photos. It makes me think, ‘I’ve worked so hard with these people for months.’ I feel so proud.
The afterparty is for the actors, of course, but also for the staff members, like the K-drama OST composers, who’ve been invisible, working behind the scenes.
LA: It’s common to see the actors cry, because they haven’t gotten out of their roles yet. It’s a pretty sight. The actors probably have a harder time than us, because they’ve lived as their characters for months at a time. It’s interesting to see those things at the party.
10. When do you feel proud?
KM: When the scenes I worked on turn out nice, I feel proud. When I realize the audience feel the same way I do about my work, I feel proud as well. It might be beside the point, but when the songs we participate get published, they’re used on reality and variety shows very often. I hear a lot of Aram and Ruri’s songs on TV.
LA: I was eating with Ruri and I was like, “You’re song’s on,” and Ruri was like, “Oh yeah, that’s right.” I feel the most proud when family and friends say “I enjoyed watching it because of you.” I like it when my family likes it.
11. Advice for a student interested in composing film music
LR: Teamwork is so important for K-drama OST composers. You can’t stand out or get behind. You need to have a wide spectrum, be flexible, work fast enough to match the theme, and create the songs that fit the scenes.
LA: You can do music if that’s what you want. If you want to do film music, you need to build your senses around realizing stuff like, ‘They use music in a certain way in this type of scene.’ If you knew these things prior to starting out, it could be easier for you.
KM: It would be the best to enjoy watching a lot of films and dramas. Listening to a variety of music without bias would help a lot. Enjoy it.
12. Any parting words?
LR: I hope this interview would help you enjoy K-dramas even more, and become another source of fun, realizing these people worked on K-drama OSTs. If you would remember just once that there are people working behind the scenes and think of the K-drama OST composers while enjoying the dramas, it would cheer us up and make us proud as K-drama OST composers. Fighting!