Music for Short Films: An Interview with Tom Schlagkamp

by Ilaria Mangiardi and Kate Cieslar



distorted image of party
distorted image of party
distorted image of party

You don’t need much to be impressed by Berlin-based director Tom Schlagkamp. One minute and twenty seconds are enough: that’s how much time you need to watch his breakthrough film ‘The Rock ‘n’ Roll Manifesto’, which won first place at the Cannes Young Director Awards a few years ago.

Driven by his fascination with intense imagery and thrilling storytelling, Tom nurtured his passion for film at RTL Germany, where he learned editing and motion graphics. A few commercials and music videos in his pocket and he was already pegged as a rising director. His latest work ‘Dysconnected’ premiered a few days ago at L.A. Shorts International Film Festival, one of the most prestigious and largest international short film festivals in the world.

So when he asked MassiveMusic to support the narrative from a musical perspective, we couldn’t resist. ‘Dysconnected’ is the story of a millennial who goes by the name of Roxy. She’s on the lookout for likes, instant gratification and, eventually, herself but gets lost in the mayhem of social media.

The 10-min movie shows the ugly side with no judgement, silently questioning the viewers on their main takeaway. Because of its length – longer than the average campaign we usually work on, we had to approach it in a different way.

As explained by Job Poels and Philip Oomen, respectively Music Producer and Music Researcher at MassiveMusic: “The main character goes through a rollercoaster of emotions so we wanted to reflect the state she is in and translate it into music. That’s why the score changes with her perspective, yet it still keeps a consistent and recognisable theme.”

The result is a mix of dramatic and impactful music composition, which sees sound design as an unavoidable complementary element, as well as licensing, with ‘Carry You’ by Welsh multi-instrumentalist Novo Amor as ending track.

We sat down with Tom Schlagkamp to know a bit more about ‘Dysconnected’ and his passion for film craft and music.

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Log in. Start video call. Connected. Tom is in Berlin. His living room is filled with natural light, which immediately makes us wonder about this nonsense July cloudiness in Amsterdam. He smiles at us, excited to talk about his latest project.

(KC) With ‘Dysconnected’ you felt the necessity to cover a hot topic: the impact of social media and AI on our lives. What triggered it?

‘Dysconnected’ takes place in the near future: millennials are trying to get the attention almost exclusively on social media but they’re not trying too hard to find their place in the real world. With this movie, I didn’t want to judge their behaviour, I wanted to observe it and leave it open for discussion.

Way too often social media has been depicted as something with a negative connotation. Dark, hopeless, irreversible. Many films focus only on the negative aspects that new technology has on us, with the new generation seen as lazy or not capable of interacting in real life.

Yet, there are so many great opportunities that come with that. It can’t be something absolute: life is not black or white. That’s the message I wanted to convey. I wanted to treat it like many musicians treat their lyrics: they leave them open to interpretation. I wanted to inspire people to stop and think: what is a healthy balance?

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    people on roof

(KC) As for you, what do you use social media for?

Mainly as a tool to show my work as a director – and it proved to work. I also have some personal stuff in there. Ok, let’s say it’s semi-professional. But again, I try to make the most out of it without letting it become an addiction. Generally speaking, I love getting inspired, discovering something new and embracing new technology.

(IM) How did you decide to approach the project?

I mostly work on commercials where everything is strictly planned. With ‘Dysconnected’ I had to take a different approach. The topic itself is always evolving. So, to get into the right mindset, I decided to interview a few social media influencers. I still remember one of them telling me: “Instagram made me famous but then things got weird..” A lot of people think influencers don’t reflect on what they do or what they post. Truth is, they do know where the attention is coming from, most of them are perfectly aware. I can see the good in it and there’s a lot we can learn from. They found their own way of communicating with people from all over the world. A lot of good content is out there, not just selfies at the gym.

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(IM) Let’s go back to what you briefly mentioned before: commercials vs short movies. What are the main differences?

Actually, the first thing I shot was a short movie. I didn’t plan to focus on commercials. It happened thanks to my academy professor: he encouraged me as he thought I was made for it. What I got to love is telling the story in such a short timeframe, creating that intense feeling in 30 seconds or so.

But I also love to combine it with other elements, such as music and sound. It’s so powerful. People tend to underestimate it. It gets in the subconscious. It’s quite rare that someone objectively pays attention to it. Music plays a big role in ‘Dysconnected’ – and it does that throughout the whole movie, but there’s a specific scene where there’s this dichotomy between the two main characters: they come closer and pull each other away. You can hear it happening in the music too. It gets louder and fades away to white noise.

(KC) Let’s talk about it. MassiveMusic supported the narrative with a mix of music composition, production and supervision. How did you experience it?

I wanted to emphasise the different stages Roxy is going through. I worked closely with Job and Philip to discuss how music could elevate the message for each scene. To give you an example, I wanted the music to convey that ‘next dopamine fix’ vibe, similarly to the one that kicks in when you use social media and receive one ‘like’ after the other.

The music transitions were also really important: even with a conversation going on, I still wanted to hear sound in the background. Again, something that not everybody actively pays attention to. But I dare you would notice if there was no sound at all. It really makes a difference.

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    man and woman sitting on roof

(KC) We love when directors are so music-minded. How would you define your personal relationship with music?

Believe it or not, my Plan A was to become a musician. But you know, life gets in the way, plans change. Music is essential to me. It shouldn’t be overlooked.

(IM) Which is definitely what you didn’t do in The Rock ‘n’ Roll Manifesto.

It’s still such an important project to me. I wanted to show how it is to be a musician. It’s a misconception that it’s all sunshine and rainbows. It doesn’t surprise me that mental health is such a common topic among artists. There are so many things that are happening behind closed curtains, ups and downs that no one knows. To express you own art and share it with the whole world, feeling vulnerable and all: it’s fulfilling and draining at the same time. Everyone should know that music is created with blood, sweat and tears.

(KC) Any artists nowadays, in the broadest sense of the word, that you really admire?

Terrence Malick and Darren Aronofsky. Their movies are fascinating. They really inspire me.

(IM) You also got inspired by Los Angeles as you moved there to shoot ‘Dysconnected’. How was your experience?

I lived there for 6 months or so. I loved it. The vibe is really something else. There are a lot of people from all over the world who want to fulfill their dreams. It’s a bittersweet contrast though: there are tons of opportunities but it’s very competitive. Yet, everyone I asked to work with was in for it: the people I met were optimistic and open-minded, like Pär M. Ekberg, the DoP. He was so passionate about it, totally on the same wavelength. The vision for the movie was there already but we left enough room for improvisation. The whole cast was from L.A. too.

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    woman in front of computer

(KC) In ‘Dysconnected’ Roxy has an AI therapist.

Played by me, even if you don’t see me. That’s one of the anecdotes of the movie. We pretended it was an AI therapy session but it was filmed as a normal video call. Exactly like the one we’re having right now.

(KC) So, who knows, maybe we will make a cameo appearance in ‘Dysconnected 2’. How does technology influence our mental health?

There are so many ways we can benefit from AI and it’s not so far in the future as we may think. Researchers are already working on very sophisticated projects. For instance, they could potentially analyse social media with an AI algorithm to pick out linguistic cues that might predict depression.

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    people next to car

(IM) Maybe I paid attention to it because copywriting is my daily bread, but I guess the ‘y’ in ‘Dysconnected’ is not random, is it?

Good observation. It’s definitely there for a reason. I wanted to play with the word and hints at ‘dystopia’. You normally wouldn’t spell ‘disconnected’ with a ‘y’ but I did it on purpose so that, when you read it, you immediately perceive that something is not right.

(KC) Something that you learned as a director?

Because of the structure and timings in advertising, sometimes you might feel as if there’s no space to fully open your mind, to let yourself go completely. But I always push myself to broaden my horizons. You can also make a conscious decision and decide if that specific scene needs a closed mind or an open one.

(IM) A quest for compromise. Guess we have a pattern here.

Indeed. In the end, it’s all a question of balance.

Want more? Our Music Producer Job Poels and our Music Researcher Philip Oomen discuss working on the music in this fun fact interview on LBB.