With a double major in music and economics from Oberlin College and a master's degree in music from the Royal College of Music in the United Kingdom, composer, sound designer, Graded lifer, and IB Film legend AJ Churchill '09 made his way to Los Angeles to pursue a career in film music.
Through a mutual friend, he met Victor Lee '13, who had moved to Los Angeles to begin a new job. During college at NYU, Victor had organized the United States’ largest-ever student-led conference on the Brazilian entertainment industry. Following graduation, he worked in business development, social media, employer branding, and data analytics.
In 2019, AJ and Victor, along with Nicholas Prufer, founded The Lunar Company, an LA-based audio production company with a mission to "explore uncharted paths into new media, and dare to go where no one has before." Earth Eclipsed, their debut audio series, competed for the inaugural Best Fiction Podcast Award at the Tribeca Festival 2021. The series was born from their interests in science fiction, world-building, sound design, and music.
In this month's edition of the Graded Gazette, AJ and Victor discuss their experiences - both during and after their time at Graded - that ultimately brought them together in LA and led to the creation of The Lunar Company.
Victor and AJ at the Tribeca Festival 2021.
1. What years did you attend Graded, and what at Graded did you value most?
AJ: I attended Graded from Kindergarten until graduation in 2009. I'm a Graded lifer! I value the lifelong friendships I made, school trips, and the incredible teachers who helped shape me into who I am today.
Victor: I attended Graded from 2010 to 2013 after transferring from a Brazilian school. It was a huge shift for me because I was used to a curriculum solely focused on academics and entirely based upon mastering the Vestibular [exam]. At Graded, I had the opportunity to discover other academic and extra-curricular interests. I engaged in filmmaking and the arts, participated in community service projects, and discovered new parts of Brazil. At Graded, I quickly realized that education goes well beyond one's grades. The experiences that stuck with me through college and beyond all occurred outside of the classroom.
2. What Graded clubs and activities were you involved in?
AJ: After-school activities played a significant role in my Graded experience. I participated in several theater productions, worked as entertainment editor for The Talon, played softball (poorly), and competed in forensics, Knowledge Bowl, and Destination Imagination.
Victor: I really liked storytelling and often used my filmmaking skills to document events at Graded. I made FIFA Tournament commercials for Graded Entrepreneurship Enterprise (GEE), a couple of short films for The Talon, and a documentary for Graded's Friendship and Language Acquisition (FALA) Program.
AJ (right) pictured with his 2008-2009 Knowledge Bowl team.
3. How and when did you discover your passion for the film and music industry?
AJ: Mr. Lewis, my grade 6 English teacher and senior year IB Film teacher, ran an after-school club called Graded TV. He drafted me into the club and introduced me to filmmaking in a more "professional" environment. I grew up making short movies with my friends and my brother Arthur '12. We shot films with a camcorder and made stop-motion Lego movies. While those experiences got our creative juices flowing, I honed the craft while making IB films for the Film Festival and producing Graded TV.
Victor: I have been making videos since grade 5, when my parents gave me an old camera for school projects. I have always been a bit shy, especially in class. It was much easier for me to create videos to fully express my ideas than to deliver a PowerPoint presentation, which made me very nervous! I transferred to Graded because of its IB Film Program, and I feel very fortunate to have had such an enriching experience in high school.
Victor (middle) pictured with his fellow IB Film classmates at the 2013 Film Festival.
4. Despite your common interests, you had quite distinct college experiences and lived in very different places! AJ, how was your transition from São Paulo to Oberlin?
AJ: The first time I set foot in Oberlin, Ohio, a town of a few thousand people surrounded by cornfields, was during my first-year orientation week. I had not visited before then, so I dove headfirst, blindfolded! For me, going to college in a small town like Oberlin was an invaluable experience. I loved how everything centered around the college and how different it was from São Paulo. The town allowed me to live the residential college life the US is known for. Were there times I wished I were somewhere less remote? Sure. But leaving for fall, spring, and summer breaks gave me more than enough city life to satisfy that need before returning to the cornfields.
Directly from the 2008 yearbook superlatives: AJ was "Most likely to win an Academy Award."
5. Victor, you moved from the bustling city of São Paulo to New York, the city that never sleeps. What did you study at NYU, and how did the city impact your studies?
Victor: I attended NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study, which allows students to create their own interdisciplinary curriculum. I was fortunate to take several courses in the film school. My Producing for Film professor also encouraged me to take some business courses to understand the entertainment industry better. Thanks to her recommendation, I realized right away that I wanted to work in the field. The fact that NYU professors are often working professionals in the industry was a huge perk. I took classes with Buzzfeed's president, Oscar-winning producers, and executives from all facets of film production. At NYU, New York is your campus, so I was able to experience all of the cultural wealth it provides.
Victor shooting for an IB film piece.
6. When and why did you move to Los Angeles, and how did the two of you wind up meeting?
AJ: I moved to Los Angeles in 2015 to pursue a career in film music. There are only so many cities in which one can start a career as a screen composer, and LA seemed like the best place to meet filmmakers and begin my professional life. The longer I live in LA, the more I like it.
Victor: I was lucky to find a job in LA at Magnopus, a virtual reality company that agreed to sponsor me as an international candidate. While working there, I met fellow Brazilian Nick Prufer. One weekend, Nick hosted a churrasco at his house, where AJ and I met. It turns out Nick and AJ were childhood friends! The three of us founded The Lunar Company in 2019. I have been living in LA since 2017 and have been gradually falling in love with the city.
7. Where did the idea to establish The Lunar Company come from, and how did you start the company?
AJ: Victor worked on Magnopus' business development team in a new content creation division. He observed trends in the entertainment industry and noted that audio storytelling could grow exponentially in the next couple of years.
Victor: One afternoon, we produced the first episode, which is available now at EarthEclipsed.com, and used that as a proof-of-concept for investors. Fortunately, they bet on us, and we want to continue creating immersive audio stories.
8. What are each of your responsibilities at The Lunar Company?
AJ: I lead the company's audio team and help develop the series' audio identity, composing music and editing the shows. I work closely with two other composers and sound designers, Shane Rutherfoord-Jones and Alessandro Apolloni, both of whom I met at the Royal College of Music, where I earned my master's degree.
Victor: I am responsible for the company's business operations, from bookkeeping to building our pitch decks. I also fulfill most of the producer's responsibilities, from booking talent to coordinating schedules. I like to tell Nick and AJ, the main creative forces at The Lunar Company, that I am there to enable their full creative potential.
9. Your debut podcast, Earth Eclipsed, was nominated for the 2021 Tribeca Festival's inaugural Best Fiction Podcast award. Congratulations! How was the entire experience - from the creation of the podcast to your award nomination?
AJ: Creating the eight-episode series was an epic experience that took a huge amount of work. In 2019, we began conceptualizing the story. We then wrote the pilot, ran more than 1,000 auditions for five roles, and recorded remotely one week after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. We used the pilot to raise funds to produce the rest of the season, after which we decided to hire a writer to draft the remaining seven episodes and give our show and characters a complete story arc.
Victor: In a serendipitous turn of events, by the time we had secured funding for the season and completed the pilot, Tribeca had announced that they were opening up the festival to podcasts for the first time in its history. To enter, we simply had to submit our first episode. While we waited, we produced the remaining episodes. In April 2021, we received the news that our podcast had been selected. Attending the festival in June was the experience of a lifetime because we had the opportunity to meet many talented creators who were working at the top of their game. We have plans to collaborate with them on future shows. The festival opened many doors for us.
AJ (left) and Victor (right) with co-founder Nick Prufer at the Tribeca Festival 2021.
10. What advice would you give to current Graded students?
AJ: Be open to taking paths you never expected to take. Say "yes" to many things, but don't be afraid to say "no" if you don't have the bandwidth or desire to do something. Respond to messages quickly. Be nice to people. Forgive others and forgive yourself.
Victor: I have spent my entire life pursuing the next thing. While I was in high school, I was thinking about college. Then, when in college, I was thinking about my career. During my first full-time job, I was daydreaming about starting a company. And when I looked back, I realized that I hadn't enjoyed going through any of these chapters. I always felt a lot of pressure, both internally and externally, and consequently, I forgot how to live in the present. I always made precise plans for the future, but most things didn't go as planned. I didn't get into NYU’s film school, I failed at the two companies I tried to start before The Lunar Company, and I was disappointed in myself. But life works in mysterious ways… I found my footing in audio fiction, met two of my best friends, Nick and AJ, and married my Graded sweetheart. If I could offer one piece of advice, it would be to enjoy the present moment — it is the only thing that is certain. And don’t put your head down if things don’t go your way. Keep trying, learn from your mistakes, and be open to new paths that life may throw at you.