I’m Harm Esterhuizen, a 30-year-old composer and sound designer based in South Africa. I started Zing Audio in 2017 and worked directly with international animation studios and production companies, creating original music and sound design for all visual media types. What gets me going in the morning is starting the process of finding the right sounds and music to compliment each unique film.
When Did You Become Interested In Your Field And What Is Your Educational Background?
Since a young age, I have been interested in music and grew up in a household where there was always music playing in the background. My mother gave piano lessons at home, and because of this, she exposed us to so many different music genres. Although hearing piano scales every day made me slightly hate a piano’s sound (I’m over it now), this pushed me towards discovering many other instruments. I fell in love with classical guitar and have never looked back. After studying illustration and design for a year, I took a short detour to figure out what I really wanted to do. I packed up and lived in the mountains for a while doing manual labor, which led me to decide to go back to university and study a Bachelor of Musicology (Bmus) at the University of South Africa. While studying music, I became increasingly interested in sound design and the audio post-production process. Once you see people recording coconuts shells to mimic horses galloping, it’s hard not to get sucked into the wonderful world of sound design.
Why Did You Choose A Career In This Field?
I started working on set with my brother, a filmmaker, where I basically discovered the world of sound. I helped him out as a location sound recordist (the most underrated person on a film set, holding the microphone on a boom pole while their back goes into spasm). This exposed me to the audio post-production side of filmmaking and where I really became interested in sound design and music for animation and film. The problem with most small video productions is that they don’t necessarily have a budget for sound design, and most of the time, they license a song. This got me thinking about animations and the sounds that accompany them, as every sound you hear in animation has been created in post-production. I soon discovered that most animators and animation studios really value good sound design and original music that bring their films to life, which collectively brought together my love for music and sound design. I immediately knew this was the field I wanted to specialize in. Since 2017, most of my work and collaborations have been with animators and animation studios, and most of my work still stems from animators.
What Was Your First Job Or Nuggets From Jobs You Had That Helped You Get To Where You Are Today?
Once I decided I want to create sounds for animations, I contacted different freelance animators and asked them if I could add some sounds to their older animations. I did not charge the animators anything. Instead, I just wanted to share the work on social media and use it in my showreel. At this point, I had no idea if there was actually enough work in this field, but I kept doing collaborations. At some point, I got a few longer films that I worked on with animators, and those films got Vimeo staff picks, with added attention on social media. Once this happened, I got more requests from animation studios, and more paid work came my way, which is how I started Zing Audio. Sometimes, I can’t believe I get paid to create silly sounds for moving pictures!
How Do You Feel Bout Doing Pro-Bono Work In Exchange For Exposure?
As I mentioned, I did a lot of “free work” for exposure when I started. However, none of these collaborations were for clients, and there was never a budget. These films were passion projects that animators created in their spare time. Our industry has a kind of symbiotic relationship with animators and filmmakers where we help each other out. I still do a lot of paid work with the animators I started out collaborating with and actually made some amazing friends worldwide during the whole process. Be sure to manage the amount of collaborations you choose to do and check to see if someone is not trying to take advantage of your willingness to collaborate without a budget. Whenever there is a client involved, I would never do free work for exposure. This mentality does quite a bit of damage to the industry and should be avoided even when you start in any industry.
What is your experience working with international clients and dealing with challenges such as time differences, language barriers, and cultural differences?
A significant part of my industry can work with people worldwide, although this can get a bit challenging when you have clients in America and China. Being in South Africa, I am about 6 hours ahead of the US, and 6 hours behind China, which means I might need to get up early to meet with a Chinese studio and stay up late to accommodate the US studio. In general, I must admit that most studios are so used to working with different time zones that they are happy to schedule things around your schedule. I get to meet so many talented people worldwide. During each project, you become colleagues with everyone involved, and your “Slack” channel becomes the studio space you work in together. In fact, I have made some great friends over these last few years. One of my early collaborations was with an animator from Slovenia, where over time, we became such good friends he even attended my wedding in South Africa 2 years ago.
Globalization has created a culture around the world that makes it easier to work together, whether this is actually a good thing or not. Working with studios in the western world feels very similar to working with local studios, but obviously, there are still plenty of countries with cultural differences and language barriers. I have worked with translators before but have found that cultural differences are the biggest barriers. Discussing musical elements such as “softer or louder volume, build-up, climax, emotions, rhythm, etc.,” can be extremely challenging because a direct translation of “louder” can mean something completely different in another language. Although once you can overcome this barrier and deliver music successfully, it is very satisfying to think that your music is playing in another part of the world where the audience might not understand your language but can still appreciate it and transcend language barriers in a sense.
Things are changing very fast in the industry; how do you keep yourself updated. Please list techniques or newsletters, podcasts, events, etc.
The best way for me to keep up with the industry trends is to watch (and listen!) newly released films and series (great excuse not to work, right?). It is also important to follow my industry’s trends and see what animation studios are putting out there and what my favorite audio studios are working on. Following these animation studios on Instagram is a great way to stay updated with the newest and most inspiring animations out there.
For music software and news about composers, I follow companies such as Spitfire Audio (https://www.spitfireaudio.com/) who is a leading company in sampling libraries and doing great interviews with film composers.
One excellent podcast and website to follow is Soundworks Collection (https://soundworkscollection.com/). Here they have discussions with the composers and sound designers of newly released film. Definitely, a must-listen if you are working in the audio industry!
Pro Sound Effects blog (https://blog.prosoundeffects.com/) is another good source of information for sound design trends and new technology.
Any advice about CVs?
Working with animation or video production studios, I have never come across a client that asked for my CV or educational background; all they want to see is your portfolio or a showreel. However, if you are applying to work at a studio, it would be a great idea to have an organized CV with all your relevant experience and qualifications set out on one piece of paper. Even then, they will be more interested in your showreel and work you have done. So focus most of your energy on creating a fantastic showreel that displays your different skills. Also, having a website with all your work could be the difference between you and another applicant.
Advice for someone looking to start out as a composer or sound designer?
The most important aspect is figuring out what part of the industry you would like to work, as the audio visual industry is so diverse. There are many fun specializations such as game audio, foley, field recording, dialogue editing, final mix, film music, app sound design, audio for commercials, trailers, etc. Many of these fields are overlapping, and you can work in several areas, but it is an excellent idea to start with one and try to specialize in it. I find works best for me: I specialize in audio for animations, and even though I work on video productions and other non-animation works, I focus mainly on animations. I find there is a great network to tap into once you find your feet in the industry.
So choose one field and start developing a portfolio with different work examples and create a showreel that will show potential clients what they want to see and hear.