“I’m humbled and I’m proud,” Professor Emeritus of Film Studies Dr. Larry Benaquist said when asked about the career of Keene State College Class of 1993 graduate Jennifer Dunnington. An IMDB (Internet Movie Database) professional resume that spans nearly 20 years and boasts 41 titles, a Primetime Emmy, three Golden Reel Awards and five nominations stand on the pantheon of Keene State College graduate achievement. But when they’re from a student you taught, in the academic department you hatched, humbled may seem the only appropriate reaction. However, Benaquist knows Jennifer Dunnington owes her success neither to himself nor to KSC–as the particular field she’s landed in is strange to the students who first took a Benaquist film class in 1971, and even to her own graduating class of 1993—but to the instruments that support her black framed glasses: her ears.
“This is all self-taught; we weren’t able to teach any of this stuff,” Benaquist said. Dunnington is a music editor. Since her start as an apprentice sound editor on Ken Burns’ nine-part TV series “Baseball” in 1994, Dunnington has built an impressive resume. She has most recently worked as supervising music editor on Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” She has also worked on Martin Scorsese films such as “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan” and “Shutter Island.” Before 1994, she was just another KSC Owl, completing degrees in both film and dance.
Dunnington visited campus on Tuesday, March 26, and delivered two lectures: one to mostly film and music students and a culminating reception at 7 p.m., both in the Centennial Hall of the Alumni Center. She demonstrated some of her work and the modes behind it, also sharing her personal experiences and knowledge with film students, faculty and the public.
“I think she provides a really interesting perspective because it’s such a specific job that she has that you don’t normally think about,” senior and film critical analysis student Chris Ruble said.
“It’s often tough to get students to realize the value of not only meeting with alum, but someone who is as successful as Jen is,” Film Professor Tom Cook said. Dunnington began her early lecture by showing the students a scene from “Amelia,” a 2009 film about pilot Amelia Earhart. She explained that “the music can’t start in an arbitrary place,” and editors can look for emotion and movement as cues to begin music. In this particular scene, she chooses a hand gesture as the visual starting gun.
In “Amelia,” Dunnington put together a “temp” soundtrack, which, she explained, serves to help the picture editors and the director “get a sense of what the music could do.” She said she picks scores from other films, then edits this music to abate or elongate a particular section—think of a DJ cutting and looping two separate tracks, in essence, creating one. Despite the work that goes into this “temp” music, it’s just that: temporary. It’s usually replaced once the actual score is composed.
However, Dunnington said this temporary score can still serve a purpose—that also helps her with another intrinsic part of her work, which is to facilitate director-composer communication. As she explains throughout her lecture about the careful path that must be treaded during these interactions, her job begins to take on a diplomatic context.
“It’s hard for a director to say to a composer ‘this sucks,’” she said. “It’s connections, it’s being in the right place at the right time, it’s meeting people,” Dunnington explained to the room filled with undergraduate film students and faculty. Today, she works as a freelance music editor. The advent of digital editing systems has created a kind of open-source format where she often now works from her house. Unlike when she started in the business, the large studios are mostly gone.
“The building that we used to work in just closed recently,” she said, referencing a New York studio she worked in during the start of her career in the mid-1990s, “It’s actually kind of a big blow for New York because it was one big building that was multiple floors where they did pretty much all the big feature films.”
Gone with them are the “water cooler conversations” and opportunities they presented to meet and form relationships, which Dunnington credits greatly for her success. “It is harder for young people to get into the business now,” she said. “I think the absolute number one thing is contacts,” Tom Cook said, “which is how I got my first job.” Fresh out of college, his first job came from a professor he was a teaching assistant for.
Cook recalled another successful KSC film student, Josh LeBlanc, Class of 1998, who has worked with Ken Burns as well as Steven Spielberg. “Josh got his connection to Spielberg because Spielberg called Burns up and said ‘Hey, we need somebody to cut this’ and Josh happened to be there.”
In the case sound/music editing, the decreasing physical space for those hoping to work in the profession re-magnifies the importance of these networking skills. This message was not lost on senior Caleb McCandless. “Not only did we get to learn a lot about this process of movie making but how she got there and the resources she used from the college,” he said. Regardless of the changes with new software, and techniques that occur over time in the industry, one thing has remained a constant for Jennifer Dunnington. “A lot of it is intuition. I just feel like I do what feels right to the music. I think that’s why it’s worked so far for me,” she said.
Jake Williams can be contacted at