Filipina Denise Santos on life before the Emmy win 2
Filipina film composer Denise Santos with her dog named Biscuit in Big Bear Lake, California. Photo courtesy of Denise Santos

The advice that set Filipina Denise Santos on a path to winning an Emmy

Before moving to the US, the future film composer sought the guidance of some of local music’s best, among them the great Nonong Buencamino
RHIA GRANA | Oct 12 2021

It’s been days since the Emmys but Filipina film composer Denise Santos is still clearly on cloud nine. Santos’ work for the BBC documentary “Primates” bagged the “Outstanding Music Composition” award at the 42nd Annual News and Documentary Emmy Awards. She was honored with her scoring partner Adam Lukas. 

“It’s surreal,” she says with a bright smile on her face, describing the victory. She recalls the day she found out about the nomination. “I just woke up and was doing my social media routine. I knew that the Emmy nominations will be announced around that period, but I didn’t know what date exactly.” While browsing Twitter, she couldn’t believe what she saw—their work got the nom for Outstanding Music Composition.

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“I took a screenshot and called Adam. ‘Am I seeing this right? Did we just get nominated?’” After checking on the official awards website, he got back to Denise with the news that, yes, “I think we got nominated.” 

“And we started crying,” continues Denise. Overwhelmed, Denise woke up her husband, composer Josh Atchley. She also called her boss. “It was a good hour of me telling people to double check for me. Is this really happening?” the Filipina film composer tells ANCX.

So you can just imagine the duo’s reaction when they actually won the award. Well, no need to imagine because a video of them during the virtual awarding is posted on Denise’s Instagram. Adam’s voice was clearly breaking as he delivered his speech while Denise couldn’t help but shed tears of joy.

What Emmy means

“I think it’s really because of the support and the love that I feel,” Denise tells ANCX when asked why the recognition is special to her. “Even though Adam and I collaborated, for the most part, we were doing our work by ourselves eight hours of the day,” she recalls. “It somehow makes us feel isolated.”

On the day of the awards, their bosses were with them albeit off-cam, giving moral support and sharing their joy. “Knowing that they really helped us get thru this, knowing that we have these people by our side—that’s what it really means to me more than the accomplishment side of it,” she says. “I think anyone who is a film composer is accomplished, because it’s such a hard thing to do.”

Denise, Adam, and Score Producer Russell Emanuel
Denise and Adam with score producer Russell Emanuel

Denise has been writing music for films for about a decade now. In all those years, she admits to have experienced a lot of rejections and self-doubt. “So this award is a validation for me,” she says.

She is thankful she belongs to a very supportive group. For the past six years, she’s been working at Bleeding Fingers Music, a company founded by Hans Zimmer, Russell Emmanuel, and Steve Kofsky, all notable musicians. Zimmer has won an Oscar for his work on “The Lion King” and nominated for his original scores for “Dunkirk,” “Interstellar,” and “Inception.” 

Denise and Adam are part of Bleeding Fingers’ roster of composers. “Everyone here is very, very helpful. I have so many people to ask if I’m stuck on a cue or I feel like I’m not creative enough. They have the best inputs and they’re also very encouraging,” says Denise.

Denise Santos with Adam Santos
It was Denise’s first time to be paired with Adam, and although they were pressed for time, work was a lot of fun. “We would just laugh all the time and do a lot of stupid pranks to each other,” the Pinay composer recalls. 

Scoring ‘Primates’

Denise and Adam did the score for each of the three episodes of “Primates.” The extra challenge was that they needed to finish it in three months, so they had essentially a month to work on each installment. “First of all, composing is always difficult,” she says. “But being part of a team definitely makes it easier.” 

What she and Adam did was tap into each other’s strengths. His expertise is traditional, orchestral style of music. He’s also good with melodies. “He did a lot of the sweeping landscape type of cues,” shares Denise who took charge of the upbeat and comedic parts, since she comes from a more pop background. She’s also good with emotional cues, so those went to her, too. “One of my favorite cues is this really sweet, tender scene of a gorilla and his kids. It’s not necessarily upbeat, but I took it.”

Denise Santos and Adam Lukas
Denise says her roots naturally influence what she brings to the table. The advantage of being a Filipino, she says, is being inherently musical and expressive.

It was Denise’s first time to be paired with Adam, and although they were pressed for time, work was a lot of fun. “We would just laugh all the time and do a lot of stupid pranks to each other,” the Pinay composer recalls. 

Denise says her roots naturally influence what she brings to the table. The advantage of being a Filipino, she says, is being inherently musical and expressive. She is aware this is also her strength—understanding the complexity of emotions, being able to connect and tell a story. “We’re the type of people who always look for connections, and that’s what filmmaking really is. It’s about being able to tell someone’s story,” says Denise.

Denise Santos
Denise and Adam did the score for each of the three episodes of “Primates.”

Growing up with music

Denise, who also plays the guitar, has been into music since she was a little girl. She and her sisters all played piano growing up. Her paternal grandmother, Natividad Santos, is a classical pianist. “She’s already in her 90s now and still plays the piano. She’s so good. She also plays jazz standards.”

Her late uncle (from her mother’s side), Jonas Sebastian, was a beloved musician and theater director. “When I was young, I would consult him as to what great pieces to learn with my piano teacher. We would listen to music together.”

Denise Santos family
Denise with family in Big Bear Lake, California

In her high school years, Denise was already playing for rock bands. Later, she worked with Hidden Nikki, a jazz alternative band; Carlo Lava, who composed a lot of Broadway style songs; and her friend pop-rock artist Kai Honasan. “I like all kinds of music. I did not hesitate joining different kinds of bands,” she tells ANCX.

Despite this, she never really considered landing a career in music and becoming a composer. Which is why she took up a Business course at Ateneo de Manila University. She briefly worked in the business field but did not find the happiness and fulfillment she was looking for. “I was like, I should just probably do music,” the lady recalls.

Denise Santos with Hidden Nikki
Denise at Fete De La Musique with band Hidden Nikki

Her first work as a musical scorer was for a documentary by the young director Samantha Lee entitled “Agos.” It was a film for the surfing community in the Philippines. She scored it with Honasan. “That was my first experience of putting music to picture,” Denise recalls, suddenly realizing she has sort of come full circle. Her first Emmy award-winning project is also a documentary.

She took a lot of music classes here and there, including a theory class at the University of the Philippines and production classes with popular composer, arranger, and music producer, Jimmy Antiporda, former Neocolours keyboardist, the man behind such hits as “Tuloy Pa Rin” and “Say You’ll Never Go.” 

Denise with band Bones Like Snowflakes
Denise with band Bones Like Snowflakes

Denise was already doing a lot of freelance work despite her lack of formal music education. Not particularly sure as to where to take her passion, she reached out to renowned film composer Nonong Buencamino (“Jose Rizal,” “Tanging Yaman,” “Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising”) at a film conference. “He was very generous,” she shares. “[Nonong] listened to my music and he gave me advice. One of the pieces of advice he gave me was to study film scoring, to know more about it.”

She followed the veteran film scorer’s advice. She moved to Los Angeles in May 2014 to take up a certificate course in film scoring at the UCLA Extension. “That was the first formal class in music that I took,” she says.

Denise was planning to come home after two years but after her internship at Hans Zimmer’s studio, she was hired as an assistant. A couple of years later, she got hired as full-time composer. “The opportunities were there and I didn’t want to say no to them. So I just took the challenge—and here we are! It’s been seven years since.”

Denise Santos with Kai Honasan
Denise with singer-songwriter friend Kai Honasan

10 years and counting

By her estimate, Denise has so far created 10 years’ worth of musical compositions. “It’s most likely over 50 projects, because I usually do more than five in a year,” she says. Aside from scoring films, she also does TV and online advertisements. 

Asked about her favorite projects, she says, “It’s the last one I had just finished. That’s why it changes every time.” As of the time of this interview, the one she just wrapped up was a nature documentary also for BBC. It’s called “Eden: Untamed Planet,” a series that will take viewers to the Earth’s few remaining untouched lands. “It’s cool because it was narrated by Helena Bonham Carter and I love her. That was a really fun project to work on. I also have a partner with that one—Austin Hammonds. It’s also thru Bleeding Fingers.”

Denise says she hopes her recognition as a Filipino talent would somehow open doors for other Filipinos in the international music scene. “We, Filipinos, have what it takes; we have the talent. It’s just a matter of making the music industry people aware that we exist, that we are these kinds of people—warm and relatable.”

Denise Santos,  Josh Atchley
Denise with husband Josh Atchley in Running Springs, California

There are of course many challenges one will meet along the way. In her case, the toughest would be meeting the production quality and standard required and getting used to working directly with directors and producers. She admits experiencing a kind of culture shock during her initial years in the US. “I can say that I’m a different person now than when I moved here seven years ago,” she says.

Denise says her “short-term goal” is to simply keep getting better at her craft. “I honestly think I still have a long way to go,” she admits. The award has been a source of encouragement and motivation. She also dreams of being able to record with a full orchestra, and to collaborate with more female directors and producers. She’s already in a good place and is afforded such great opportunities, so she’ll just keep shooting for the stars. “I’m already here, I might as well go for an Oscar,” she says, smiling.

[All photos  courtesy of Denise Santos]