A Berklee graduate in Film Scoring with an MP&E minor, Victoria Ruggiero is on a different path than she ever thought she’d be. After spending years as a child debating between a career in classical piano or songwriting, she’s discovered that her passion lies in music editing for films and TV shows. Ruggiero is the assistant to veteran music editor Nick South; together they worked on Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner, Jon S. Baird’s Stan & Ollie, and Sia’s Music. Now the head music editor for Netflix’s smash-hit Spanish TV drama Elite, Ruggiero talked with editor-in-chief Ceskie about the precision of music editing, letting the things you love drive you and guide your career, and how to win battles with time management.
Interviewed by Ceskie
Looking back on your transition from Berklee to Los Angeles what advice would you give yourself?
I feel like I was really lucky, because I came into working in LA with the mindset of “I have no idea what I’m gonna end up doing here.” I wasn’t set on being a composer’s assistant for sure. Coming out of film scoring, that’s the thing I wanted to do, but I had prepared my mindset enough to say that whatever happens, happens. I treated every single person that I met - whether a Berklee student or a hopeful contact - as someone that I could help, and as someone that could help me. I was never going into meetings looking for something from somebody.
I would say to never overlook anybody that you get the chance to talk with, whether it’s a fellow student or a recent alum. Everybody is connected out here. I’ve seen people that I didn’t spend a lot of time with at Berklee who are doing so wonderfully, and you just never know. You never know who’s gonna do what. So just be kind to everybody and never take advantage of a person that you get to talk to. But I would also tell people that it’s really helpful not to move forward with a specific idea of exactly what you want to do, and not take any other jobs except that thing. You don’t know what you don’t know - you have no idea if there’s a job that you’re going to be in love with that you don’t even know exists, because you haven’t heard about it in school and you don’t know what it’s really like.
What exactly do you do?
I am an assistant music editor for short films, feature films, and if the opportunity ever arises, TV. For a feature film, my boss (the head music editor) and I come on right at the beginning and work with the director and the editor. We see the cuts of the film and where it’s going, and then when the composer comes on, we convey the ideas that the director and editor have been talking about and let them write the music. Afterward we’re responsible for changing the music - like if the film gets edited and cues need changing, or if the director wants to add a piece of music to a place that needs it, we create cues for new sections out of what’s already been scored. It’s a long job with a lot of little responsibilities; it’s basically overseeing all the music for a feature film. Music editors often work a lot differently than each other though. So the experiences I have aren’t exactly the same as what another music editor, or another assistant would experience. You need to be really adaptable to each project and set of people involved to best fit their musical needs.
What’s the most fun part of the job for you?
I have the most fun when the director says “hey, we haven’t written a cue for this section, and this music has already been mixed in 5:1, and the mixer is done with his job.” Then there’s no choice but for us to listen to all the cues in the movie and decide whether or not we can create something with three stems from one cue and three stems from another, and make a new piece of music for this one section. It’s especially fun if it’s two days before we’re supposed to be done and the director suddenly needs a new cue.
In other words you’re a film scoring DJ?
Basically! I always describe music editing as a puzzle we have to solve - we need this, this, this, and this, and we have this amount of material. We do musical puzzles all day, and it’s so much fun.
In an ideal world, what would be the highlight of your career?
If I ever had the opportunity, I would love to do what my boss does and be my own music editor. Right now, the director relays information to my boss and they have creative discussions, and then my boss relays the information to me. For a head editor there are lots of talks; you get to talk to really interesting directors and editors, and you get to head the creative decisions. I would love one day to be my own music editor so I could have those kinds of discussions and figure out that stuff.
Can you explain the difference between a music editor and a composer?
The composer is responsible for writing and sequencing the music, coming up with the themes, deciding the best way to convey the emotions of the scenes through music. The music editor is the firefighter who comes in and fixes the problems. If there’s an utter disaster, the composer will write a cue for a new part, but it’s mostly discussing in-and-out times or doing temp scores. Maybe the director can’t decide what kind of vibe they want for a shot, so we kind of check out all the options, and the composer comes in with a fresh idea of what they want to do with the score. It’s in no way hindering or influencing what the composer wants to do creatively; it just gets everybody on the same page so that there’s as little clashing as possible, and so the ideas can be communicated to the composer clearly and efficiently when they join the project. And if there are problems at the end, we take something that the composer wrote and figure out how to create something new that keeps the continuity. It has to be frame-accurate and extremely creative.
It sounds like the perfect job if you love details and perfectionism - what kinds of work do you do within the job?
According to my boss, there are three different parts in the music editing pie: creative, technical, and political. You start with talking; letting the director know you understand their vision, so that moving forward the musical team is on the same page as the director. The spotting sessions are highly creative; you’re trying to figure out where the music goes and what it’s supposed to feel like. Sometimes you’re responsible for the temp score; you go into Pro Tools and edit three or four different pieces into one cohesive score, so the director can watch as if it was already scored. It’s extremely technical, and creatively you have to choose what music works where. Towards the end, if a scene isn’t working, you have to figure out why and what you can do to fix it, but sometimes the director has a different opinion. So it’s political in the sense that it’s their baby - they care about it so much like it’s their child, and they’re gonna do anything they can to make sure it’s perfect. It’s our job to ask what emotion they’re trying to achieve and figure out if there’s another way you can get around it without spending more money or taking up time.
What did you learn at Berklee that helped you in your job?
I took a music editing class where we learned how to temp, and then I understood how detail-oriented the job was. When I was at school most of my projects would be just good enough, but through making cue sheets, I learned that if I wasn’t frame-accurate, I would get docked points. If 1/24 of a second isn’t in the right place, someone is going to notice. And film scoring taught me creativity. Being a composer helps you be a good music editor, because you understand drama and music, and what has to happen to make them a uniform little soup. I definitely learned the scoring-to-picture idea from Berklee: I don’t really need to know how to program violins for my job, but I do need to know how to score a picture - i.e what things are important to hit on a screen and what things aren’t.
At Berklee, was there something you struggled with that you’re learning to overcome in your career?
Time management. I took a lot of classes in my last year. Out here I’m sometimes on a bunch of different projects at one time, and it’s the same as school. Once I did a movie and a TV show at the same time, but the TV show took place in Spain. So I had to make Spanish time deadlines while having this day job on a feature film. I know I can stay up till 6am because I did it at school, but if I had learned how to manage my time better at Berklee I would have been able to translate that into time management out here.
Is there a habit that helps you manage your time?
I think being in communication with the people I have to work with - being proactive and asking, “Do you expect this to be done right now, or are you expecting it two days from now?” That way I can prioritize. Constant communication about what I’m supposed to deliver and when makes sure that we’re expecting the same things. I’ve been in a situation where I didn’t do that, and I realized just how important it was.
What advice would you give your younger self?
When I was 2 years and 9 months old, my parents saw that I had a thing for music, so they found me a formal teacher. I was able to show him the white and black keys, so he started teaching me, and that was it. I thought I was going to be a classical pianist my whole life. When I was twelve, the angsty pre-teen age, I started writing songs. Then I was between classical piano and songwriting. I applied to Berklee on a whim, saying that if I got in with early admission and a scholarship, I would pull out of all of my conservatory auditions. I made it past the first round in the classical auditions, but I got what I wanted from the Berklee auditions, so I pulled out of the others. Then when I got here, I realized that there was a film scoring major - those were my people because they liked classical music, and I found out I could be modern while sticking to my classical stuff.
I used to be anxious about what I wanted to do with my future, so I would actually give my younger self the same advice as earlier: don’t pigeonhole yourself into being one thing and nothing else. Because I don’t know what I want to do - I’m not married, I don’t have children, I’m not stuck in a place I must live. I can still do things; I can experiment. I know I should really consider any job I get offered, especially because my job right now came through a friend leaving hers. I was still in school and wasn’t interested in music editing, but she asked me to talk to the guy who’s now my boss just in case, so I did. One year later I moved out to LA and was doing a job that I thought would be my dream job, but I didn’t end up liking it. I decided I would try an internship with this editor guy, because he was nice and I didn’t have anything else. I didn’t know I was going to like it so much. Then out of the fates he had a project, and because my friend had gotten a job at Warner Brothers, he needed a new assistant. I took it, and now I’m never going to go back. I would have never been here if I didn’t say, “I guess I’ll meet him.” Even though it wasn’t the path I set for myself, it didn’t hurt.
How do you #getinthegroove?
I thought about my goals for myself - I love talking to people and helping people if possible, so I asked what was going to get me to be able to do that. My skill is music; I can play piano. But what’s going to drive me to go out and get a job? It’s that I want to talk to people and have solid conversations with them about life - it’s what I find the most joy in. I thought, “Is there something I can do in music that’ll let me be able to do that?” Then I started to strive towards those personal goals instead of towards a job, and then because I liked what I was doing, I wanted to keep going. It was a self-propelling boat at that point, because I loved my job and I made money from it. I had two propellers going, and now my boat is moving forward. So prioritising personal goals helped me get in the groove in my work!