Listening to the almost score-like sensibility in Tim Prebble’s work for the screen, it’s no surprise that he comes from a musical family. He and his siblings all had piano lessons from an early age.
Prebble's awareness of the world was shaped by what he heard as much as what he saw. He grew up on a farm in South Canterbury, by the mouth of the Rangitata River. All my early memories are sound related”, he says, “waking up before the birds and waiting for the dawn chorus, and creating thunder by playing in empty grain silos.
It was a natural progression for Prebble to start messing about with bands. He played bass for an outfit called The Unknown. The choice of monicker would prove prescient, but they were initially successful enough to get an Arts Council grant to record and release a cassette. The band rented a four track reel-to-reel tape recorder, a bunch of microphones and a mixing desk, and turned their flat into a studio for a weekend. Prebble was fascinated by the recording process. I loved the potential for manipulating sound, and slowly became more interested in recording and mixing music than playing in bands”.
Prebble’s path to working on film and TV soundtracks was not a foregone conclusion. He says he has Wim Wenders to thank. He was studying Electrical Engineering at Canterbury University, but had grown to loathe it. An art school friend invited him to a screening of Wings of Desire. It was a Damascus experience. “Until then, film for me just meant Hollywood, but that picture altered me permanently and sparked a love of art films and more poetic forms of story telling”.
An early mentor was veteran sound designer John McKay, who gave Prebble his first opportunity to work as a sound designer. Through McKay, he met Chris Burt and Mike Hopkins. “Those three definitely inspired me, and also became dear friends”.
Prebble also notes the experience of working with Hollywood sound effects guru Randy Thom on The Frighteners (1995) as being particularly enlightening; but in general he cites the directors and picture editors he has worked with as the people he has learned most from.
Prebble values any personal element he can find in a project. “Growing up on a farm meant it was fun to work on The Price of Milk by Harry Sinclair, and Black Sheep by Jonathan King” (Prebble won an award for his role on the latter). Opportunities for open collaboration are also important to him. He singles out Taika Waititi’s film Boy as a creative joy to work on.
Prebble’s creative inclinations have led him into exploring territory often inhabited by traditional composers. His attitude about this is cheerfully pragmatic: “There is a boundary between sound design and music, but at times it can be a blurry boundary — it really depends on the project and its needs. In many circumstances sound is supporting the reality of the situation while music is reinforcing emotion, but it is hard to generalise about. If I was a cynic I would say it’s divided by who gets royalties and who doesn’t (music does, sound design doesn’t)”.
Prebble’s elegant and sensual use of audio is showcased most eloquently in his award-winning work for The Orator - O Le Tulafale (2011). Prebble’s deliberate blurring of boundaries between sound design and music contributes to a sublimely effective immersion in the world of the story.
It is a film which he recalls with pride and pleasure. “I absolutely loved working on that with director Tusi Tamsese and producer Catherine Fitzgerald,” he explains. “For me it felt like coming around full circle, as I created the sound design and score for the film. And with their support I got to experience some of Samoan culture, and to collaborate with some great Samoan musicians”.
More recently, a pair of independently produced documentaries — Antarctica: A Year On Ice (2013) and Voices of the Land (2014) — offer further evidence of Prebble’s considerable skills, and his ability to interpret and help filmmakers express their stories.
But increasingly, Prebble says, his interests lean towards originating his own creative projects. He has developed a viable online business creating and licensing his sound libraries, HISS and a ROAR; and is pursuing photography and synaesthetic (multi-sensory) filmmaking. His blog Music of Sound demonstrates the depth of his philosophical and practical reflections on a range of topics. Says Prebble: “As with all art forms, the more you learn and experience the more you realise it just gets deeper.”