Today we’d like to introduce you to Ajeng Canyarasmi.
Ajeng, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
My full name is Ajeng Canyarasmi although I go by Jay since I moved to Los Angeles four years ago. Ajeng is a very common Indonesian name, but I have been blessed to live an uncommon life as an Indonesian artist to this day.
I lived in Bandung, a smaller city near Jakarta for the most part of my life. I grew up watching movies, many of which are Disney classics and American blockbusters. I got inspired by the messages that these movies brought to my young self, and I was always impressed by how well-executed every detail in them was; l still am actually. I would remember watching Lion King when I was very young and watching my younger brother adorably roaring as Simba, and of course, I had my share of asking my dad if he can give his children more wisdom as Mufasa did. I practically learned how to speak English by watching movies with my family almost every day of my childhood.
On my senior year of high school, I realized how much I enjoy doing art and technology – I was very good with computer and a little bit of machinery, I thought to myself, why don’t I pursue my career as a filmmaker? It is a line of job about art and technology, plus who doesn’t love movies? Four years ago, I came to the States with nothing but a pinch of hope, an acceptance letter from USC School of Cinematic Arts, and an enormous dream of becoming a Hollywood filmmaker.
At first, I wanted to be a director. But as I learned more of the filmmaking craft, I realized that the industry is massively creative; every inch and second on what you see and hear on the screen is purposefully created and designed by departments of artists who have dealt with that workmanship for years. The more I dive into film sets and labs, the further I understand that concept, as I stumbled upon the subtle art of post-production sound with which I fell in love.
During my education, I devoted my time to strengthen my knowledge and harness my skills in Sound Design and Re-recording Mixing. With abundant of hard work and perseverance, I eventually graduated with a Master of Fine Arts degree from USC’s Film Production program. I am currently working as an independent contractor sound designer and re-recording mixer. My clients consist of some of the most talented individual film and media-makers in Los Angeles to bigger institutions such as USC, my alma mater.
We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Well, as my mom said, if it’s an easy path, everyone would have done it. As an international artist, pursuing a career in the biggest entertainment industry in the world is certainly not a walk in the park. I was coming from a middle-lower class family of six in one of the poorest developing countries in the world. As the oldest, there was an expectation pressuring me to have a great career with a steady income like a corporate worker or an engineer to support my family when my father is no longer able. Looking at the nature of my job, it is almost impossible to find stability and certainty to always get a project one after another, making it more challenging to press forward in my career.
The craft produced in this industry is also strongly tied to how much resources you are willing to spare from production to post-production, financially and creatively. Therefore, it is not always a guarantee that you will get to work on projects that were fairly budgeted for post-production sound work. Additionally, the fact that this industry is saturated with multitudes of talented filmmakers who have an early start, getting to work on the next Hollywood projects becomes a matter of where you are in “the line”. The only thing we as young artists can do is to thrive and constantly show our best performance in hope to get acknowledged as “the right person at the right time”.
The benefit of being an independent contractor is you can shape your own schedule and pick the projects that reflect your interest and skill the best. The trick however, is you have to be wise with your choices and work management as no one else would do it for you (unless you have a manager). Certain times of the year may be packed with projects, but other times may not; not to mention the festival route each year may be slightly different from each other. The ability to strategize your work is essential to cover your bases as a filmmaker and expand network which is key to your career, and sometimes it’s difficult to plan that.
Despite the effort made to raise Hollywood’s diversity, I have not heard of any Southeast Asian sound women working in the industry (I would love to be proven wrong, though). In general, there are already lesser females compared to male sound designers or supervising sound editors, and the number shrinks even more significantly for female re-recording mixers. If we put Southeast Asian back into the equation, you will be surprised that you never heard any who are actively working in the industry at the moment. It is not just a matter of equal opportunity; the craft of post-production sound itself is more technical and equipment-specific compared to other jobs in creating motion picture, therefore takes much more time to get a full grasp. As part of representing Southeast Asian women in this industry, I have to constantly bring my A-game of sound to get the most out of the time given working in Hollywood. It can be tough sometimes, especially when I’m also trying to be your own person and identity and my colleagues not understanding where my creative decision is coming from.
Despite all that, thanks to my parents who never discriminate on what I can do based on who I am and my gender, I was never afraid to speak up my mind and pour my heart and soul into what I’m passionate about. My fascination with sound has made it as my passion for the last couple of years. I was highly motivated to swiftly grasp post-production sound technical and artistry aspects, making me one of the youngest qualifying re-recording mixers and most employed, one and only female Southeast Asian sound designers amongst my peers. I am often sought for consultation amongst my fellow filmmakers for advice regarding the best sound approach for their films because they believe in my expertise and artistic judgment, disregarding my origin and gender.
We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
I am an independent contractor re-recording mixer and sound designer both in audio and motion picture production. For the last couple of years, I have worked on numerous projects in a span of mediums: narrative, documentary, TV series to podcast episodes, all of which are coming in various genres, from drama to crime and horror to comedy. I am grateful to say that many of my works have been widely acclaimed in screening platforms and festivals for their visual and sonic craftsmanship.
I have worked closely with people who worked in the major studios such as Warner Bros. Studio, Disney, 20th Century Fox, Skywalker Sound (George Lucas’ post-production company who is responsible for Star Wars franchise’s sound), Pixar, and HBO to name a few. For three years, I had the honor to work to collaborate with Stephen Flick, the sound designer of the award-winning Robocop (1987) and Speed (1994). Under the wing of the people in the industry, I have adapted the best tips and tricks in the sound design and re-recording mixing business and the creative ears on what’s aesthetically pleasing to general audience.
As I briefly mentioned, I am the type of artist who lets my work speaks on behalf of my craftsmanship, work ethic, taste and quality; and so far, it has not let me down. I do not discriminate genres and mediums to put my sound work into, although I always have a soft spot for horror/thriller and fantasy. One of the projects that I worked on is called “Say After Me”. It is a tale of a heartbroken man who is trapped amidst an eerie situation in his Bed & Breakfast house. It’s a bittersweet horror-drama short directed and written by the talented Luying Zhang. There are some the fun sonic opportunities that I got to contribute into this project: the subtle, creepy creaks from the old B&B place roaring against the breath of the young man’s conflict as he tries to solve the case of the house, and how the quiet seclusion transitions into the afterlife and the deceased wife’s monstrous scream. Say After Me has received multiple recognitions including a Gold winner of Best Mystery Short category in Independent Shorts Awards and a Semi-Finalist on FirstGlance Film Festival Philadelphia.
Another memorable project that I worked on is a sci-fi film by the title “Perfectly Natural”. It was directed by Victor Alonso-Berbel, written by Sam Hobson, and produced by Roy Arwas and Tiffany Kontoyiannis. The premise starts in a distant future where parents no longer need to physically care for their child but instead would allow a machine produced by Future Families, a high tech company of the future, to raise them for working convenience. The movie started with the first-time parents being excited to receive their first Future Families machine in their house, which is the first sonic touch of technology in the middle of nature embraced environment. It was challenging yet exciting when I had to sound design for the Future Families cradle: it is designed to produce warm and infant friendly sounds while giving a modern and sophisticated user interface to show how intuitive and wonderful this technology is for the parents and the audience.
We had a group of wonderful and skilled cast and crew on Perfectly Natural, and it has been internationally praised and acknowledged for the fine work everyone put in. Perfectly Natural is currently being distributed through Dust, a sci-fi content channel with over 3.8 million views on YouTube while receiving multitude other awards worldwide such as being an Official Selection at Catalina Film Festival in California, USA, Bio-Fiction Science Art Film Festival in Vienna, Austria, and International Independent Film Festival of Mexico City, Mexico.
All things considered, I am honored to be one of the pioneering female Southeast Asian sound designer and re-recording mixer in Hollywood. With my take on sound from my distinct life experience and perspective growing up as a Southeast Asian woman, I would love to expand my circle of filmmaking collaborators and continue with them in the biggest film industry in the world.
So, what’s next? Any big plans?
Right now, I am planning to stay in Los Angeles and continue my work in sound design and re-recording mixing. I am perpetually meeting new people whom I would love to collaborate with and to learn from as I keep harnessing my sonic craft. Joe Earle, a re-recording mixer for many award-winning shows such as Glee and The People v. O.J Simpson: American Crime Story, and one of my industry mentors once told me that despite the years he has put into the craft, there are always things you can learn from the art, and that is always exciting. For instance, with the current situation, I am discovering how to do re-recording mixing process at home while maintaining the quality as close as possible to when we are mixing in an actual re-recording stage facility.
I consider myself lucky that I am still receiving work despite the current worldwide phenomenon, but that does not slow me down or reduce the quality of my work. The only difference is all of us have to be extra vigilant, keep open communication with our collaborators, and keep that couch comfortable as we will spend hours working on it –at least I will.
Benjamin Sagaser, Benjamin Scholz, Luying Zhang, Pratyush Dubey, Nina Guzman