Alvin Wee discuss his big break, career aspirations and the magic of Encanto
Grace Phillips/Tracey Mattingly
There’s a great deal to talk about Encanto. Apart from the celebration of cultural variety and diversity, its mesmerizing soundtrack captured the hearts of audiences everywhere, with one particular song We Don’t Talk About Bruno securing a spot on the US Billboard’s highest-charting. The animated musical earned critical acclaim and won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. It goes without saying that numerous talents were behind the Columbian-set film’s success, and one of them is Alvin Wee.
Alvin was credited as the score mixer of the sound mixing team, and he won the Outstanding Achievement in Sound Mixing Award for his work in Disney’s animated feature film, Encanto, making him the first Malaysian to win a Cinema Audio Society (CAS) Award in Hollywood.
Internationally, Alvin has also worked on Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014), the live-action drama film Mulan (2020), and No Time to Die (2021), among others. That being said, he has also contributed to several Malaysian based projects, including the Malaysia Day song in 2020, Malaysia Prihatin and the Sarawak Day song in 2021, Sarawak Gemilang.
As a mixer and sound engineer, he has been credited with work in games such as PUBG Mobile and Uncharted: A Thief’s End, while as a music producer, he has been credited with work in Beyond Driven, American Exist and Top Gun: Maverick.
So yeah, there’s a lot to say about Alvin in this feature. Read our conversation as we celebrate precision in music, timekeeping, and beyond, in conjunction with Bell & Ross.
Tell us about your childhood in Kuching, Sarawak. Was music something you always wanted to pursue?
Well, I got that bug when I was really young. However, like every kid, the reality is that you don’t know what you want. The great thing was that my parents were really supportive of whatever I wanted to do. They would send me to music classes, where I got to formally learn classical piano and guitar. I also remember, back then, I wanted to be a rock star. So, I started playing the electric guitar for several bands, from a hip hop group to a heavy metal band. At one point, I was even in a Chinese orchestral band.
And you experienced all these while growing up in your hometown?
Yes! It was never “you have to do this; you have to do that” with my parents. As I said, they were 100% with me and supported me as far as most loving Asian parenting goes. Of course, it would be better from their perspective if I went down a path that was tested and true, like becoming a doctor, lawyer, and all. Or even becoming a businessman like my late father.
Asian parents are known to worry too much. They just want the best they can offer you.
So true. And they offered me their continued support in everything I do. It was what carried me throughout my childhood. My mom was always like “you have a choice” and I know that for them, it was scary to let me choose my own path. But they believe that by letting me choose what I think is best for myself, I can be the best version of myself. And when I’m the best version of myself, I can then go to a different level in what I’m doing. Because I know myself better.
“I knew this industry is all about creating relationships, so I focused heavily on that, pursuing places I’m most accepted and figuring out where I’m not.”
And you chose music.
Well, I actually started with a very different career when I was younger, working with computers and all. I was a coder. But at the same time, I never gave up on music. I really love working with artists. I don’t sing, but I play multiple instruments, not excellently, but well enough to communicate my ideas. I remember when I was 15, I bought this recording arranging software, and when it arrived two weeks later, I was just so excited. I then started to arrange and produce music. My friends who were in the music scene noticed what I was doing and told me that I had a knack for this. So in 2011, I got my parents’ blessing to pursue music at Berklee College of Music and I flew to Boston. But yeah, the answer to your question is, I have a fairly regular upbringing but very supportive parents and friends. It is because of them that I am able to do what I’m doing now.
After graduation, what made you head to Los Angeles?
After Berklee, I knew I had to go to the big cities. When I was in Boston, the school really walked us through our options. So, the most popular choice was to either head to New York or Los Angeles. Apart from the weather, my theory was that all forms of music slash media will eventually go through L.A.—whether it is film, marketing, record or licensing. Because most of the big studios are here! There is Warner Bros. Studio, Universal Studio, Capitol Studio, Disney Studio, and Sony Pictures Studio, just to name a few — all of them are out here in California. And I want to be where the hub is. So during my one-year OPT visa, I have to decide whether I want to stay here or not. I ended up staying because the city is kind of cool. The people here are nice, the weather is perfect, and it is near the beach. And coming from Malaysia, I am a big food person, and in L.A., there is a big food scene. So yeah, here I am!
As a Malaysian, what was the journey like navigating your career as a fresh graduate in Los Angeles?
To be honest, discrimination was something I was concerned about when I decided to stay in the U.S. But like in any big metropolitan city, people here are generally more accepting. Of course, there are some places that are harder to assimilate, but like the saying goes, “When in Rome, you do as the Romans do.” You’d agree that most East Asians are pretty good at keeping their heads down because when we have a goal, we aim to work through it earnestly. Other things don’t generally bother us. Even if it does, we tend to disengage quickly [laughs]. The same goes for me. I had a mission, which was to figure out how to stay in the country within a year. There are so many talents already out here, and on top of that, I was fighting against 15,000 fresh graduates moving into the city each year.
From the start, I knew this industry is all about creating relationships, so I focused heavily on that, pursuing places I’m most accepted and figuring out where I’m not. I’m glad that Boston has equipped me with the necessary tools and platforms for me to navigate my career, especially at the beginning. My first job was introduced by a friend whom I helped back in school. He told me that a producer was looking for an assistant and asked if I’d be interested. I was like, “Hell, yes!” And when I got to the office, it was none other than Steve Lindsey. And that was sort of my “in” to the industry. I’m really grateful to all the people I’ve met and who have helped me along the way. It has been a really great journey.
Talking about relationships, how did you know Germaine Franco?
You know what, that is a true testament to how you foster relationships over years. When I was coming into the industry, Germaine was also, at that point, coming out of her mentorship with John Powell and was exploring the idea of making her own film. It was nearing the end of the year, and she had this film that was to be submitted for the Sundance Film Festival. She was looking for a mixer to help her, and my friend introduced me to Germaine. So, we met and chatted; she told me what she needed support with, and I was ready to go. I remember it was on Christmas Day when I was working on it and the submission deadline was on the 29th of the month. Thankfully, it was during the break, and I wasn’t assisting my mentor at that time. By the way, the film’s title is Dope (2015), starring Shameik Moore, Zoë Kravitz, and ASAP Rocky. The film was significant for her because it marked her first foray into a solo career. After the project, we crossed paths a couple of times. She also called me on other projects like Tag (2018), which starred Jeremy Renner. When she got Encanto, she asked if I wanted to collaborate with her again. But that’s the kind of long and short story with Germaine.
“What I do is more about feelings; I deal with the emotional space in the piece of music. If it sounds comfortable to you, I did my job.”
Disney is everyone’s childhood. What was your feeling when you heard you were going to work on Encanto?
I grew up with Disney’s The Lion King and Aladdin. So, it was a big deal for me, but at the same time, I know that I can’t mess this up. I set my mind to supporting Germaine and all that comes with it. I made sure that her music was properly translated, and I did some research into the type of music that was needed to bring the score to life. Months after the film came out, I still can’t believe I did all that!
It’s really amazing what you do, and we, for one, really appreciate all the hard work you put into it. What are some things you would like the audience to know about when it comes to score mixing?
You know what, I appreciate this question a lot! I think as a mixer, if you tell me the song sounds awesome, I know I have done my job. What I do is more about feelings; I deal with the emotional space in the piece of music. If it sounds comfortable to you, I did my job. As a mixer, my goal is to direct the right amount of attention to the appropriate instrument at the right time. In short, if you feel the music has touched your heart, then I’ve done my job.
It feels a lot like those unsung heroes in that, world peace exists without anyone knowing it’s because of them.
Yes! So, my job is to keep the peace in the music – to keep the balance. I really like what I do. As a sound mixer, we don’t have to worry about writing the song. We just need to focus on translating the song into the world.
“The one that really tied all my roles together, would be Ola Bola that I worked closely with Zee Avi. It was not just a movie, it was something many Malaysians are proud of as it imbued a sense of unity and hope.”
Apart from Encanto, what other projects are you most proud of?
Even though I have been in this industry for about 8 years now, I still find every project I have done fascinating. Especially with Top Gun coming out, I’m so honored to be part of that. Oh, and I can’t exclude No Time To Die, which has become a very big part of me. I’m still really proud of Dope as it meant a lot to me. But if I were to choose, the one that really tied all my roles together, would be Ola Bola that I worked closely with Zee Avi. It was not just a movie, it was something many Malaysians are proud of as it imbued a sense of unity and hope. And this is my happy place. I don’t think I’ve had a project I’m not proud of. And if there is, I would spend time figuring out how to recalibrate.
Speaking of recalibrating, do you need to calibrate differently when you are mixing for a film, a soundtrack or a video game?
Yea, I do. For example, if you watch a movie, your first focus is not on the music, but it’s there to support what you’re watching. So there is a different understanding of music requirements for each medium. If you look at video games, there aren’t any static pictures. What the gamer does or uses affects how the music changes. There is a kind of interaction to it. And in this era, interaction is everything when it comes to technology. Even when I’m working on a podcast, I would need to know if it’s scripted or unscripted. So, in short, I let the medium dictate what I’m working on.
And what’s next for you?
Honestly, I don’t know where my next move is. But I do know what I want to be doing. I have a wish list [laughs]. Example, being part of Disney was my childhood dream and it came true through Encanto. There are other franchises that I hope to be able to collaborate with. If Marvel or DC Comics were to call me, I’m hopping straight in. Currently, I’m working on something with DreamWorksTV. It’s still in the works so I can’t share much information with you. I’m really excited about which is coming out soon. Oh, and I would love to work on something within the Star Wars realm – I’m a big Star Wars kid. The other one I would love to get into is Transformers – these are all on top of my bucket list. If I can get any of that, I’d be super happy. In terms of what I’m working on, I do have a couple of short and indie films. If you follow my social media, you will see a glimpse of what I’m doing. And I’m really excited to see where it is going. Once the project is solidified, I will definitely share it with you.