Hamilton Film Composer Adrian Ellis

With the 14th Annual Hamilton Film Festival happening from November 2 through 10, Nathan Fleet and company bring the world of film to Hamilton

With the 14th Annual Hamilton Film Festival happening from November 2 through 10, Nathan Fleet and company bring the world of film to Hamilton and even showcase a lot of Hamilton talent. One such recent Hamilton, Adrian Ellis, addition gets not only a feature of his work but also a documentary film with him as the subject.

“Both of my parents are studied and professional musicians and my father ended up following that career and after playing in symphony orchestras in Edmonton and Regina, he ended up finding work in Germany so I spent the next eight years in Germany,” recalls Ellis on his upbringing. “I grew up around classical music with my parents but it was a love of rock music that got me into what I’m doing now. My parents encouraged me to get into all sorts of music but I guess a lot of people like me have stories about finding John Williams and getting really into jazz or the cinematic music but for me, it was “Back To The Future”. When I saw that in the theatres I bought the soundtrack because I liked Huey Lewis and the News but then I got into Alan Silvestri’s amazing score. That hit something in my brain, being able to create music that puts images in people’s minds and take them on an emotional journey — that was really interesting for me.

“We came back to Canada and I was really into visual art and playing in bands and that ended up me travelling eventually landing in Toronto for about fifteen years,” adds Ellis. “The music for the screen came about in a roundabout way putting together the music and the visual art and the storytelling aspect all came together and informed this career I’m now on. Hamilton came in the last five years and we love the arts and music scene. There’s an openness and generosity and amazing spirit in Hamilton with big artistic dreams and that really appealed to both my wife and I.”

Ellis has developed for an in–demand sound designer and Hamilton has been his base for the last five years. With over 60 credits to his name, Adrian’s feature film work includes his hybrid score for The Scarehouse (NBC Universal), the dark orchestral Definition of Fear (directed by James F. Simpson (Merchant of Venice), starring Bollywood superstar Jacqueline Fernandez) and Taken Too Far, directed by Paul Lynch (Star Trek TNG/DS9).  Television credits include themes for Daily Planet (Discovery), huge orchestral cues for The CFL and International Hockey (TSN), as well as music for Canada’s long running national morning show, Canada AM (CTV).  This weekend, our local film festival gets to feature some of the interesting work that Ellis does. 

Last Call is a true single take, split screen film that’s been making waves around the world featuring a soundtrack by Ellis similarly done in one take. The Music of Madness is a 52–minute documentary that follows Ellis scoring Timebox – a cult–hit short film about time–travel and man–hunting. Ellis abandons his usual classical instruments and delves into his basement to create a new instrument out of junk, metal, and power tools. He records the sounds of crowbars and hammer drills, plays tin boxes with violin bows, takes apart his piano and plays it with fishing wire, all in order to make sounds that “are as ugly as the film itself.” The Music of Madness is an over–the–shoulder exploration of the artistic process that goes into creating music for film.

“The assumption is your a classically trained composer and erudite but people like Danny Elfman and Mark Mothersbaugh helped change some of that,” says Ellis. “Interestingly both are visual artists as well — but they know the collaborative process and did things in a sometimes unconventional way. Last Call was a really interesting project and so it’s great that the movie gets a feature at this year’s Hamilton Film Fest but then there’s the documentary. I would not have wanted a film about myself but it happened sort of by accident. In my line of work, it’s usually based on trying to find a way to make something work on zero budgets or credit cards to make a cool piece of art. Tate Young came to me with an idea for a movie and described the plot. I thought it was a really cool idea and was willing to do a bit of a barter. I wanted to do the film in a different way. With a wild outlandish crazy film, I wanted to use no conventional instruments and make all the sounds form unusual sources to come out with something great. He trusted me to bring this to fruition and I suggested to bring a camera and film something for myself as a behind the scenes kind of thing. 

“He ended up filming me for three days and I didn’t think much of it but he called me up later and said, ‘I think we might have a documentary’,” laughs Ellis. “I responded, ‘please don’t’. But we looked at it and I started seeing how this would be great for anyone that knows the artistic struggle. I slowly became convinced of the idea after I got used to seeing myself on screen. We didn’t know if this would even work and that’s what he captures on film and it creates a fun tension in the story of that film.”

Ellis has made music his life in music and the now Hamiltonian is worthy of a feature to display the inventive and creative art he’s adding to the world. His bio suggests that, ‘whether using field recordings, a solo piano, or a 60 piece orchestra, Ellis is always hunting for a sound that is as compelling and unique as the stories he is helping tell’ and in our brief conversation, it warms my heart to know that Ellis has brought his passion to Hamilton.

“Anyone in the creative field might like to see this documentary and understand the process of creating art,” says Ellis. “Musicians, visual artists or anyone that likes documentaries can see something of value in this but it’s still kind of difficult to talk about me but you get to see my Hamilton basement and me working out this soundtrack. We will be doing a question and answer session at these screenings so if there are people that want to learn more, it’s an interesting event.

“I count myself very lucky that I can find collaborators that are talented and ambitious and I do it from here in Hamilton,” adds Ellis. “It’s a challenging industry but I consider myself blessed to be working with the people that I do. The longer I’m here, the more musicians and collaborators and artists of all stripes I meet. It just becomes more and more a rich place and one that I want to do more and more work in. My fantasy is to develop a core of musicians that I can invite to my living room and record these scores at home and be able to say it'’s a top project that’s a hundred percent done in Hamilton. The Film Festival brings a lot of international attention to the city and I’m a big proponent of it. They do such a fantastic job programming and there’s such a wonderful spirit for it. That’s Hamilton — the sprit that says come to Hamilton, we're into working on things together and making great things together.” V

"The Music Of Madness" is featured Saturday Saturday November 9, 3:30pm - 5pm Staircase Theatre, 27 Dundurn St. N, and "Last Call is featured Saturday November 9, 9:30pm at the Staircase. Click on or

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