Making Tracks: what a killer soundtrack can add to a film

17 August, 2012 by Amanda Diaz

This article originally appeared in IF Magazine #145 (Feb-March).

Successful soundtracks are few and far between in Australia. Following the success of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (the soundtrack was the highest selling CD on the ARIA charts in 2001), the only local soundtrack albums to have made a mark sales-wise have been compilations from TV’s Packed to the Rafters.


“The problem with most local films is that too few people see them to fall in love with and then buy the music,” says Sandcastle Studios chief executive, Chris Cudlipp.

The most notable exception to the rule last year was Red Dog, which grossed $21.3 million during its theatrical run. With a score by composer Cezary Skubiszewski and a collection of 70s rock, the music is often considered one of the stand out aspects of the film.

The result – a collaboration between the film’s producer and music supervisor, Nelson Woss, and director, Kriv Stenders – actually began as a mix tape.
“All the tracks that we chose were favourite tracks of Kriv and I,” he says. “It’s our favourite mix tape, the music we grew up to when we were kids.”

Woss approached a number of record companies shortly before the film’s release about the possibility of creating a soundtrack, but every label passed on the offer.

“Because we were so keen to do it, I thought what I’d do is master a soundtrack and do it as a gift to family and friends, cast and crew,” says Woss.

And so the music was licensed and a recording was mastered. (Members of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra recorded the score in a three-hour window before a concert.) Two-and-a-half weeks into the film’s theatrical run (after it had already become the highest grossing Australian film of the year), Woss was approached by a number of labels that admitted they may have been too hasty in their rejection.

By this point, Woss and music supervisor Kim Green were already working with Roadshow’s music division. With a recording already in existence, releasing the soundtrack album in stores and through iTunes was relatively straightforward. Since its release in October, the album has sold well both on and offline.

“A lot of love went into the making of the CD,” says Woss. “We just wanted something to celebrate Cezary’s score and the great songs we grew up with.”
For films that don’t perform as well as Red Dog, producing physical copies of the album often isn’t viable.

As one of the composers of the Tasmanian-set drama The Hunter – which picked up an AACTA Award for Best Original Score – Sonar Music’s Andrew Lancaster says that the demand for a soundtrack doesn’t necessarily have to be overwhelming, particularly if it’s being released online. Sonar has created soundtracks for most of their recent film and television projects, including The Slap and Rake.

“It can be good just to have a nice version of it so that the few people that really want to listen to it can download it,” says Lancaster. “To make it available as a download is quite easy, but you don’t expect to cash in on it.”

Conspiracy 365 producer Linda Klejus follows the same line of thinking. “Our composer Richard Pleasance did an incredible job on the soundtrack – he’s given it this extra dimension of edginess,” she says. “If there’s interest in it, then we’ll release it. These days you have to put it online; it’s where everybody does everything. But we’ll see what the demand is after we’ve got a couple of episodes out there.”

“It’s never going to be a big form of revenue,” says Cudlipp, noting that TV soundtracks are generally more successful than their film counterparts because of the bigger budgets and greater audience reach. “Australian producers often seriously under-budget sound and music for film.”

Working with a budget that was not conducive to a full orchestral score, Lancaster and fellow composers Matteo Zingales and Michael Lira used a six-piece string section and layered it many times, as well as drawing from a string sample library of orchestras recorded around the world. Synth pads and guitars were also worked in.

As is the case with most score-based soundtracks, the music heard in the film differs slightly to what can be heard on the album.

“You edit it together to make more easy listening,” explains Lancaster. “It’s the music without any of those distractions like dialogue and pictures.”

Studio Ripple composer, Dan Baker adds: “A lot of the cues that are used in films are only thirty seconds or a minute long. You can’t just have an album of 50 tracks of 30 seconds each. It’s not too user-friendly, so you either stitch the tracks together or rewrite them so they’re two to three minute pieces.”

Hopes are high for music-oriented films The Sapphires and Goddess and the potential for the soundtrack to make a comeback.

“A good soundtrack might save a bad film, but you can’t make a good film without good music,” says composer Loic Valmy. “The best films have the best soundtracks.”