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How Filipino Denise Santos composed her way to an Emmy win

Yong Chavez | TFC News Hollywood

Posted at Oct 22 2021 03:59 PM

Adam Lukas and Denise Santos during the News and Documentary Emmy Awards.
Adam Lukas and Denise Santos during the 42nd News & Documentary Emmy Awards.

Denise Santos and her partner Adam Lukas recently won Outstanding Music Composition at the 42nd Annual News & Documentary Emmy Awards for their work in the BBC documentary 'Primates.'

Denise Santos in a band.
Denise Santos joined bands while in college in the Philippines.

Back in college, Santos joined bands where she played keyboards, while studying business in the Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines. She later worked in the corporate world.

"I gave this corporate thing a shot but I don't feel fulfilled. It doesn't light me up. It doesn't get me as excited as if I were to write music," Santos admitted.

Seven years ago, she then left the Philippines to heed the advice of her mentor, Filipino composer Nonong Buencamino. Since Santos was intent on changing her career and becoming a film scorer, Buencamino advised her to study music in school. 

Santos went to the University of California, Los Angeles' continuing education department. After two years, she landed an internship at famed composer Hans Zimmer's studio.

In short order, she was hired by a group that Zimmer cofounded, 'Bleeding Fingers,' which is a highly respected and in-demand composer collective that provides crucial support to new talents.

In 2019, Santos and Lukas began working on Primates. In creating its music, they opted for an intimate and unique sound.

"We realized that primates are the only order of animals that can use their hands. So sige (okay), let's incorporate hands into the score," Santos said. "We did a lot of claps, a lot of snaps - hand sounds to kind of really relate to: what are primates, what makes them special? So, it's a mixture of all of that and we also have a lot of pop influence."

Denise Santos with her mom.
Denise Santos with her mom.

Santos credits her parents for exposing her to different kinds of music growing up and for supporting her career change. But there was no direct path into becoming a film composer so she relied on networking to get jobs.

"I burned CDs of demos, demo tracks that I've done. Every time I went out I had it with me. And then I would go to events, music festivals, and whoever I met that I felt would appreciate the music, I lent it to them and I even left it around on tables and restaurants."

Eventually, she connected with up-and-coming Filipino filmmakers and she made music for their projects. Santos hopes her Emmy win "also gives me a platform to promote Filipino filmmakers and other Filipino composers. I'm not the only one. There's so many composers that came before me or that started at the same time as I did, and they're all amazing."

Santos’ other project, “Eden: Untamed Planet,” is on BBC America. She's also currently drafting music for another upcoming show.

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