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Composing Music Magic

Cezary Skubiszewski
Red Dog
The Sapphires
Death Defting Acts
Two Hands
Ande Schurr interviews Polish Australian composer Cezary Skubiszewski, ahead of his workshop at The Big Screen Symposium this month.


It's one thing to learn the technical skills to be a great film creative or technician, it's quite another to have the attitude, feeling and understanding of the project as a whole.

Ande Schurr interviews Polish Australian composer Cezary Skubiszewski, ahead of his workshop at The Big Screen Symposium this month.

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The film composer is the magician who takes the edited film into the realm of emotion and twists, turns and woos us, the audience, into states that are the very reason we come to see films in the first place, to be wholeheartedly moved, if not shocked; to see things in new ways; to feel what we haven't felt before but greatly desired to.

A composer who can enter the film scoring process with a blank mind and produce the appropriate music score to suit the story is what separates the lions from the sheep who might come with a similar stroke to all their work. And yet the composer's personality remains, as it has to, signifying their touch.

This is the case with Cezary Skubiszewski. Not just a master of film scoring but also in the advertising world, both have come to know of him as a master composer and the collaborations have been monumental. Red Dog, The Sapphires, The Wog Boy are but a few of his films and among his commercials, two notable ads are mentioned below.

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How have you spent your 20 years as a composer and what were you doing before that?

During the last 20 years I’ve managed to write numerous film scores and for various types of TV projects. I learnt piano from age six and the first time I played in a band was when I was in high school. I studied veterinary science, composed a Symphony, wrote music for the theatre, ballet, TV and advertising and, in 1991, I created a musical theatre piece, Soundescape.

On the 2012 movie, The Sapphires, how much involvement did you have in reworking the original songs? Does it make the job easier composing on this sort of musical film because the tone is already established?

I was involved in the development of The Sapphires for about two years. Some of my music cues in that film are generic soul music tracks, but I wasn’t involved in the production of the songs. It’s much harder to work on a film with a lot of songs. The score has to provide another emotional dimension to the story, but somehow it has to connect with the tone of the songs.

Your Carlton Draught ad is hilarious and then there's your Beer Bottle Symphony Orchestra (below), which you composed and conducted for Victoria Bitter, an outstanding example of creativity and technical achievement! How did the advertising world find out about you?

I have worked on a number of big budget ads not only in Australia but also in other countries and people in some agencies are aware that I’m not a purist and I like to experiment. Interestingly enough, the musicians from The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra found playing on the beer bottles not only challenging, but also a lot of fun. There was no snobbery there.

Does your feeling or approach differ when composing for a TV ad campaign vs a film? Do you differentiate or have a preference?

Working on a film is usually a long journey, the effect of which sometimes takes a lot out of me emotionally. As the story of the film progresses, the music has to go through changes as well, even if it’s the same melody.

In advertising the original idea is the most important and during the production every frame is analyzed and has some significance.

Working on a film is a very intimate collaborative process between film director and composer, whilst in advertising there are many decision-makers who can influence the work. The biggest challenge is to keep the music flowing despite continuous editing changes, however it doesn’t matter how good an advertising project is, there is something transparent about it and the satisfaction evaporates very quickly.

Do you always use live instruments when composing or can you compose entirely using computer software such as Logic, Protools or Reason etc?

The partituras, or scores, for my early films were written by hand, but even than I used some electronics in the production of the music. Practically every music score I have produced includes some electronic elements and the balance changes depending on the sound I want to create. Interestingly enough – the VB Symphony is the purest ad I’ve done without any technological help, because I believed it was very important for the credentials of the project to make it 100 percent organic. I use Logic for the composing and Pro Tools for editing and mixing.

Does a composer need to be a conductor to get the result they need?

Conducting an orchestra is a particular and complex skill. Often there are changes to be made to the score and always under high pressure because of the cost of every minute in the studio. There is also an art of conducting to the click track and most importantly to have the respect of an orchestra.

The psychological relationship between a conductor and musicians is very important and it has (in my opinion) an effect on how the recording sounds at the end. I conduct only sometimes, because I’m mostly concerned with how the music sounds through the speakers. That sound will be different when I stand in front of the orchestra. By standing in the control room I can address all necessary changes immediately, but when I’m conducting, I have to walk from the recording room to the control room and listen to the piece of music again. It takes time and adds to the cost of the process.

What is the entry point for you when composing for a film? Does the film have to be completely finished? Do you compose scene by scene? Do you compose the 'theme song' first and then create other tracks that support it?

It depends on the project. For example I worked on a number of films where I had to write music before the shoot, because of the dancing or singing sequences. For example I had to write music for scenes with Catherine Zeta Jones dancing in Death Defying Acts. For the film Bootmen, I not only composed and recorded music for the dancing before the shoot, but I was actually writing the music while the dancers were dancing.

On the other hand it happened to me a few times that I had to step in and write the score very quickly. When I start composing for a film, I usually watch the whole film and then try to write a main theme without looking at the pictures. That’s the most important first step. Once this is done, the rest flows quite easily. Next step would be to write the music for the most important scenes in the film, thus establishing a framework within which to develop the score.

Why did you leave Poland for Australia and what influence did Poland have on your music?

Before I came to Australia I spent a year in Paris. The decision not to go back to Poland was influenced by the political situation, but also by a desire of adventure.

Everything in my childhood and my youth in Poland had an influence on what I am now. My mother’s classical piano playing, the theatre, ballet Chopin, the contemporary music of Penderecki and Lutoslawski, Howling Wolf in Warsaw Philharmonic, Polish Jazz, and great Polish filmmakers like Polanski, Kieslowski and Wajda. But also my life after I left Poland has had a tremendous influence on how I challenge myself creatively.

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It's one thing to learn the technical skills to be a great film creative or technician, it's quite another thing to have the attitude, the feeling and understanding of the project as a whole. In being introduced to Cezary's work, I am struck by the efforts that he makes to totally understand what the film is about, what it is trying to say and what emotions are up for exploitation!

A composer of Cezary's calibre is a workaholic who will not stop till every musical idea has been explored and all but the best discarded. Don't miss his workshop at The Big Screen Symposium, Composing for Screen and The Functions of Music, August 11, 1pm.

Written by

Ande Schurr

1 Aug 2013

Corporate video producer and production sound recordist now based in Singapore after a 15-year career in New Zealand. Video clients incl. universities, tech startups, medical clinics and business consulting agencies. Sound clients incl. Netflix, Discovery, BBC, National Geo.