For UK alum A.J. Hochhalter, simply attending the 2013 Sundance Film Festival was a thrill. He helped compose the music for the documentary Blood Brother, a contender in the U.S. Documentary category.
"I didn't expect for the film to even be in the Sundance because that's an honor in itself just to be entered," Hochhalter said.
But as the ceremony began, his elation grew as Blood Brother won the Audience Award for U.S. Documentary.
"When it won that one first, honestly for me that one was more exciting because more people were voting, and I considered that as a better like-barometer of how the world was seeing this film and reacting to it," Hochhalter said.
"It's still kind of unbelievable," Hochhalter said. "It's exciting for me because the recent awards mean a lot of people will see it!"
The Louisville native composes film and commercial music from Listen Design Studio, the business he started in downtown Lexington after graduating from UK's Gatton College of Business and Economics with a marketing degree in 2010.
"I earned a marketing degree because I thought ― you could be the best musician in the world or the best film composer, but if you don't understand the environment you are going to put yourself into then you're just going to stay in the basement being the best film composer that ever lived, and no one's going to hear about you." said Hochhalter.
Armed with a business background, he realized after college his passion rested with a hobby he started in high school. As a student at Louisville Christian Academy, he would spend hours playing and recording music.
"I kind of grew up in a time where computers were coming out where you didn't have to go to a big a studio," Hochhalter said. "You could do it in your bedroom, so I always messed around with recording music."
But he says those who heard his recordings lamented that they sounded
"too much like the movies, too intense."
During his time on campus, he remembered the comment that seemed like a negative back when he was in high school.
"I met people at UK who started nonprofits and worked on documentaries either at my church or in class, and they would always put some 'Pirates of the Caribbean' music in it, but then they could never use it," he said. "They were looking for people to just take a crack at it, and I remembered back to high school when people told me my stuff sounded like a film. So, I decided to at least give it a try. I picked it up and I really enjoyed it."
Hochhalter composed for free, just trying to get his name out there and developing a portfolio.
"I would ask people to let me write music for their movie trailers, and eventually I met the right people that kept calling back ― directors that ended up falling in love with my sound," he said. "By that time I had a pretty large portfolio of stuff I'd done so from there people could kind of hear my potential."
Hochhalter says his time at UK working on a business degree helped him put his best foot forward as he made connections in the film industry.
"I felt very prepared and I knew what to expect, I knew the lingo," said Hochhalter. "If you're new to it, just to learn even what some of these words mean is tough, but if you have studied them you can jump right in and talk confidently with a producer who runs on more of a business brain because he's talking about scheduling and budgets and money and meetings."
All of those connections led him to the opportunity to work on Blood Brother, a documentary that captured a young American's experience working at an orphanage for children infected with HIV in India. From the beginning, the film was unique because the director and producer could not pay what other films pay because they wanted money from the documentary to go toward efforts in India.
"As soon as I saw the film ― no matter if they wanted it for free ― I was going to say 'of course,' because it was moving, and I was just happy to have music in it," said Hochhalter. "It was very much a community collaborative because there are three other people that donated their music writing, so we all just kind of put our talents together and got it done."
Beyond the award, he says the relationships he developed with those working on the film have already paved the way to future business.
"At the time I had no idea, but because of my work, it has turned into them calling me and saying, 'Hey, we have a big name client and we need music for this commercial.'" Hochhalter said. "Because of our relationship, I've been the one they come to, so it's been good."
The husband and father of one doesn't plan on leaving Lexington for his career.
"Lexington is the perfect place for what I am doing, but when I tell people what I do, they are surprised I live in Lexington. They think I should be in LA or in New York, but because of technology, it's easy to work from here," Hochhalter said. "In the past few years, Lexington has changed and there's an artistic feel to it. I have learned that this is the perfect place to be."
He hopes more documentary work is in his future, too.
"I like documentaries … because they're true stories and something inherently powerful when you know it's true, and the music is a little closer to the actual story." Hochhalter said.
But fame and money are not what motivates this young composer.
"There are a lot of people in the world that are oppressed or struggling and don't have the life or luxury that I have," Hochhalter said. "I've been blessed with this ability to be able to help and use it as a tool and weapon to fight against these awful things that happen to people, so that's my underlying motivation."