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Tim Prebble


Listening to the almost score-like sensibility in Tim Prebble’s work for the screen, it’s no surprise that the sound designer 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 moniker 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 says he has director Wim Wenders to thank for his move into film and TV soundtracks. He was studying electrical engineering at Canterbury University, but had grown to loathe it. An invitation to see Wenders' movie Wings of Desire proved to be 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 storytelling".

Veteran sound designer John McKay was an early mentor; it was 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".

Alos enlightening was the experience of working with Hollywood sound effects guru Randy Thom, on The Frighteners (1995). But in general Prebble 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 the latter). Opportunities for genuine collaboration are also important. 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's 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)".

His elegant and sensual use of audio is showcased especially 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 an 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 Tamasese and producer Catherine Fitzgerald. 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".

Tamasese and Prebble teamed up again in 2017 for feature One Thousand Ropes. The New Zealand-set drama involves a Samoan father whose daughter (Shortland Street's Frankie Adams) returns home, pregnant and badly beaten. Prebble's composing skills won Best Original Music in a Feature Film at the 2017 APRA Silver Scroll Awards.

He was sound designer on a pair of independently produced documentaries — Antarctica: A Year On Ice (2013) and Voices of the Land (2014). They offer further evidence of Prebble’s considerable skills, and his ability to interpret and help filmmakers express their stories. 

But increasingly, Prebble found his interests leaning towards developing his own creative projects. He has developed an online business creating and licensing his sound libraries, called 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."

Profile researched and written by Costa Botes; updated on 31 May 2021

Sources include
Tim Prebble
Tim Prebble website. Accessed 31 May 2021
Music of Sound website. Accessed 31 May 2021
'Tim Prebble' Internet Movie Database website. Accessed Accessed 31 May 2021