Mortilla has been working as a professional composer since 1976.
He started writing music for live theater. He worked with dance pioneer Martha Graham, composing music for choreography and dance classes when she was training dancers.
“That’s where I learned to accompany movement,” he said. “Jumping is difficult. There’s so much time that physics allows one to land. With films, one has to stay with the story, so you are always watching.”
In 1986, Mortilla was asked to join the faculty at UC Santa Barbara and eventually composed 150 pieces over a 14-year period, he said.
To supplement his income, he started tuning pianos and through one of his clients got a gig playing for the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
“It just so happened it was the first time they did a silent film and needed a musician,” he said. “I never made the connection I could do that.”
Randy Haberkamp, director of educational programs and special projects for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences, heard him play.
Mortilla helped Haberkamp by suggesting the type of electronic equipment to produce outdoor screenings at the Paramount Ranch in Agoura.
They’ve done silent-film programs in San Francisco, the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, the National Archives and Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and Academy Motion Pictures Arts And Sciences in New York, Haberkamp said.
Mortilla’s expertise is that he puts the film first ahead of his musical accompaniment, Haberkamp said.
“He’s very playful,” he said. “But also I think it’s about what the film is. His music brings out from the film things a viewer might not notice because he’s working with the film to highlight what’s going on on screen.”