Accomplished Music Editor Harsha Thangirala on the World of Music Editing for Nature Documentaries

Posted by Mike Schumacher

Accomplished music editor Harsha Thangirala has had an enviable career in the music tech industry. After studying at Berklee College of Music, Harsha moved to Los Angeles and began working at Bleeding Fingers Music, a collective of composers co-founded by Oscar winner Hans Zimmer. There, Harsha skillfully assists composing legends in finalizing and solidifying their sounds. He has helped realize scores for massive clients like Netflix, National Geographic, and the BBC and has an impressive list of credits to his name, such as Growing Up Animal, Eden: Untamed Planet, 2020 Chaos and Hope, and Island of the Sea Wolves.

Recently, Harsha served as the supremely-talented music editor for Frozen Planet II, a breathtaking six-part series from the BBC voiced by Sir David Attenborough. Harsha was instrumental in actualizing the musical vision of composers Hans Zimmer, Adam Lukas, James Everingham, and Anže Rozman. 

We had the chance to speak with Harsha about his extensive career as a music editor, his unique approach to both narrative and documentary work, and his recent work on Frozen Planet II. 

Your credits include a number of high-profile and fan-favorite projects. Can you tell us about your background and how you became a music editor at Bleeding Fingers Music?

Thank you! I’m originally from India, but I was born in Hong Kong and raised in Singapore. I left Singapore to go to Berklee College of Music in Boston to study film scoring and electronic production and upon graduating moved to LA, quickly finding a place at Bleeding Fingers. It was here that I got the opportunity to work on many of these successful projects and rise quite quickly in the field of music editing. Through my work on these different projects, where I was able to work with almost every composer in the company, I showed a level of skill and musicality in my music editing that definitely seemed to impress not only those I worked with but even those whom I had yet to collaborate with. With so many top-tier projects coming through Bleeding Fingers, I seemed to be the first person in mind when it came to finding someone to take over the coveted music editor position—the only one of its kind at the company.

You’ve built a name for yourself as a top music editor for wildlife and nature documentaries such as Frozen Planet II, Growing Up Animal, Eden: Untamed Planet, and Island of the Sea Wolves. What skills do you think are essential for a music editor working in this realm?

I think that first and foremost, a love of the content that you’re working on is a key part of doing the best work possible. I grew up on nature documentaries such as Planet Earth and Blue Planet, and it’s an absolute dream to be working on these projects not only with some of the biggest names in music such as Hans Zimmer, but the biggest name in nature documentaries: David Attenborough.

Outside of a passion for the material, I think a strong sense of drama and the dramatic arc is really quite important as these are fundamentally dramatic stories that deal with primal and visceral emotions such as love, anger, and pride. In order to best edit music to the scenes portrayed in these stories, you really have to know where the emotion at the heart of the scene is and what music best illustrates that, all without overdoing it.

Harsha Thangirala

Then there are the more obvious technical skills, such as a thorough understanding and fluency in Pro Tools (the industry standard for music editors) and having the musical senses and instincts to know where a bar or section of music should be cut and how it can be rearranged to work in a scene as though it was written specifically for that moment.

Can you walk us through your process of editing music for a project?

Of course. The first part of the process is oftentimes working with the composers, directors, and producers of the show to figure out exactly where the music is actually going to start and end in a scene, which is not always as straightforward as you might think. Then, once that is settled, either I or the picture editor will put together a temp score with the assistance of the producers and directors which consists of music from other projects that are cut into the scenes to provide a guide for the composers in terms of tone and style. Once the composers are then well onto writing for a project, oftentimes deadlines will start to get pushed up and things will begin to get crunchy and it will be on me to step in and take the music that the composers have been writing and conform, edit and repurpose them for new and different scenes. This is probably the most creative and biggest part of the job as it is where you really show your talent and skill in order to stand out as a high-quality music editor. If there are any picture changes after the music has been written it often also falls on me to get the cues confirmed and working as they should with the new cut. All of this makes a music editor an absolutely critical part of the team when it comes to putting the music together for a project as oftentimes we are the key component that helps the composers meet the tight deadlines and short schedules that these projects tend to have.

How do you approach editing music for documentaries versus other types of projects such as films or television shows?

I think that the main difference between these formats is actually the amount of music used. Especially nowadays, many narrative, scripted films and TV shows have started leaning more towards having less music and fewer cues to allow the performances to shine in the storytelling, whereas documentaries tend to have much more music as it helps drive the stories forward and often maintains the pace in the drama of the documentary.

In this way, documentaries allow for the full gamut of emotions and styles of music to shine meaning that the approach is more about finding what works best for each scene, and while there is a dramatic arc to each episode of a series like Growing Up Animal, many of the cues focus on the moment and react to the animals’ immediate actions. However, with films or TV shows, the process is more about figuring out where the music will be and how it will reflect the overarching narrative in each scene that it plays rather than necessarily reacting to the characters at that moment. As well as those creative differences, there is the technical difference of, especially with films, longer production schedules, often meaning that there is more time to dial in the sound for the project, as well as the ability to sometimes start working with a script before anything has been shot.

Of course, I could go on about the many-minute differences, but I think the essential creative process is often very similar between both documentaries and film or TV shows as both tell stories through audio and visuals, supported by music that aids the narrative. 

Harsha Thangirala frozen planet ii

Frozen Planet II is full of dramatic moments. How did you work with the composers to capture the emotions of the scenes through music?

I think that because of the abundance of drama and really interesting dramatic moments throughout the series, music editing on this project was made a lot easier as there was less inference work to be done on what the emotion of the moment was and the scenes themselves were very clear on what was happening. Most of my work with the composers was in deciding exactly what sounds would go well with any given scene as the emotion and drama were all there, but each location and animal were so different that figuring out between us what sonic palette to use in each scene I was editing was instrumental in getting a cohesive and unified end result for the music for the whole series.

How do you stay up-to-date with the latest industry trends and new technology in music editing?

As a music editor, I need to stay up to date with the new software and hardware on the market to stay competitive and be able to use any tool both virtual and physical to produce top-quality results. I always keep an eye out for new plug-ins, gear, and software, either through online magazines or through recommendations from friends and colleagues. Oftentimes on any new project I get, I usually speak with the composers about what libraries and plug-ins they are using so I can as seamlessly as possible blend their sound for the project.

What’s next for you?

Coming up in the immediate future is season two of the critically acclaimed Prehistoric Planet which will be streaming on AppleTV+ on May 22nd. It’s a show that I’m incredibly excited about and have worked very hard over the last few months to get over the finish line so I can’t wait to share its absolute brilliance with the world. I’m sure, just like season one, this second season will be a huge hit.

As the only music editor here at Bleeding Fingers, I tend to be across most of the projects that we work on so to stay up to date with all of the new and exciting projects I’m working on I’d highly suggest following our Instagram @bleedingfingersmusic!

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