If you watched television, went to the movies, or listened to the radio in the 80s and 90s, you probably heard the work of Suzanne Ciani, whether you knew it or not.
With 15 solo albums and Grammy nominations decorating her career of more than 30 years, Ciani—an electronic music pioneer and neo-classical recording artist with countless composing credits in commercials, video games, and feature films—has quite a story to tell.
That was the goal of Brett Whitcomb, Bradford Thomason, and Big’s very own Ali Clark with “A Life In Waves”, a documentary on Ciani’s life and career that premiered to a packed Alamo Drafthouse on Sunday—with Ciani herself in attendance—at the South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, one of the country’s largest and most prestigious film festivals.
Fitting, then, that a documentary about a female advertising trailblazer would have its world premiere during Women’s History Month.
“She’s a force of nature,” Ali said. “Being a woman in music and in advertising in the 70s and 80s, it was still very much a boys club and hard to break in. But she didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. She has an amazing drive and she’s a genuinely talented person.”
Ciani is known for all kinds of creations, including the famous Coca-Cola “pop and pour” sound effect and ads for General Electric, ABC, and AT&T among others. She also composed the soundtracks for “The Incredible Shrinking Woman”, the disco version of “Star Wars”, and a few seasons of “One Life To Live”. She’s also a classically trained pianist and an early adopter of the Buchla modular synthesizer.
Ali served as the film’s executive producer and provided additional photography alongside Bradford Thomason, her husband and the film’s writer/editor. But the aspect of the film that Ali had the most real ownership over was the title sequence.
“I was super excited to create the title sequence,” Ali said. “I have a passion for titles, and Brad and Brett gave me a lot of creative freedom.”
The title sequence is a 2D animation that was inspired by a number of things from Ciani’s music and career. The accompanying music is a remastered full-length version of Ciani’s TV jingle for Atari’s classic arcade game Liberator. The main title was inspired by one of Ciani’s old logos—a multi-lined font alluding to sheet music, sound waves, and the wires and patch cables of the synthesizer. And the colors are a throwback to the 80s, with lots of bright and neon tones.
“I wanted to make something bold, colorful, technical, and futuristic, yet beautiful and feminine,” Ali said. “In one of our interviews, someone described Suzanne as a ‘cyborg,’ that she always had these big synthesizers with wires everywhere and she used her voice to make futuristic sounds. That image stuck with me.”
In order to create the title sequence, Ali recruited a fellow Big creative: our Video Director, Brian Curtin. Once the concept was fleshed out, Ali and Brian collaborated by animating different sections of the title sequence and then bouncing them off each other to tweak things.
The finished product isn’t just a nice way to kick off the film—it’s a visual and aural representation of Ciani’s personality and her decades of work.
“A Life In Waves” and the SXSW acceptance are certainly highlights of Ali’s career as a filmmaker, which began back in 2005 as a student at the University of Alabama when she made her first short film. The short screened at Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival, which is currently in its 19th year. (Big is proud to have done branding and video work for Sidewalk two years and counting.)
“Sidewalk is very near and dear to my heart, and it’s truly a Birmingham treasure,” said Ali, who crafted the last two sponsor reels Big created for the festival. “Sidewalk nurtures creativity and provides a venue for film lovers to see films that they might not otherwise have access to.”
Once “A Life In Waves” wraps up its SXSW run—which includes two more screenings on March 14 and March 17—the team will continue a film festival tour for several months and then seek out opportunities for distribution. (One of Brett and Bradford’s previous documentaries, “GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling”, will be available to stream via Netflix on March 31.)
No matter where the film goes from here, Ciani’s influence will be close to Ali’s heart as a female artist and a woman in advertising.
“I found her incredibly inspiring from the very beginning,” Ali said. “She’s so much more than a stunning, talented, and accomplished woman. It’s her positivity, creative confidence, energy, and outlook on life that make her so special.”
Check out the trailer for “A Life In Waves” below.