Rhian Sheehan: Soundtracking the Planetarium

20:23, Nov 19 2012

Wellington composer Rhian Sheehan is known for his albums - including Blog on the Tracks favourite Standing in Silence. When he's not making his own albums, Sheehan's day-job has him composing music for films and TV: short films, documentaries - and it's a very different experience from taking the time to shape his own music from (and for) his own vision.

He explains, "Working on my own releases is different in that there is far more freedom to create what I want. I also have more headspace and time to work on my own music, whereas writing soundtracks is usually a fairly hurried affair and the musical style is dictated by the pictures and story you're working with. Time is never on your side, you're working within budget constraints, the deadline is always looming. You do the best you can with the time and resources you have. You need to have your s**t together."

Wellingtonians have a chance tomorrow to see the Southern Hemisphere premiere of We Are Aliens at the Wellington Carter Observatory. It's the fifth Planetarium show soundtrack that Sheehan has written; he's been working on Planetarium 360-degree Dome film soundtracks with the UK's National Space Centre since 2009.

Rhian was first approached by NSC dome show director Max Crow, who had stumbled on to one of his tracks. "He approached me requesting to license that piece of music as the theme for a new show. After explaining to him that I write soundtracks for a day-job here in New Zealand, I was asked to come on board and write the full score. That show was called We Are Astronomers and was narrated by the Dr Who of the time, David Tennent. It's now been seen by around one million people worldwide, so I'm told."

It's something of a dream job for Sheehan, given he's "a big space and science buff". He goes on, "Writing soundtracks for the cosmos, what more could an astronomy-loving composer ask for, really? The process is somewhat different from writing soundtracks for film or TV though. The score needs to be subtle and help back up the narration, but at times take over and become more dynamic and support the dramatic and immersive CGI footage. It's sometimes a challenge getting the music to work well, so you can't be too precious about a cue you've written that you're emotionally attached to. But usually with lots of feedback from the director we get the emotion working in the end."

Sheehan says he's learnt that a good soundtrack seems to be purely about creating an emotional backdrop that nudges the viewer's emotional state, helps support the story, amplifying and heightening certain moments or scenes when attention needs to be drawn to them.


"It's an art form I'm always working on improving and developing, it's an elusive, mysterious process that I don't think I'll ever truly understand. It's a constant learning process."

And Wednesday's We Are Aliens screening is something special. Sheehan clarifies, "Most people don't realise how far 360-degree Dome shows have come and many people have never experienced one. They truly are an immersive and educational experience ... The full dome fills up your entire peripheral vision; the film is all around you so it's an experience completely different from anything most people have seen before." It's also a great opportunity to check out the Carter Observatory itself, he says. "It's a fantastic facility that all Wellingtonians should support."

Sheehan has uploaded some of the cues from the film to Soundcloud, and bits of his soundtrack work can be heard at his own website. He says there has been some talk of doing a digital release of the We Are Aliens soundtrack.

He enjoys the "different process and somewhat challenging outlet" for his creativity that is soundtrack work, saying it's "very different stylistically from my own album releases".

"I listen to lots of soundtracks and watch a lot of films, so I guess I draw inspiration from that. What fascinates me about good soundtracks is how subliminal they are to an audience, yet they drive the emotion in such a powerful way, yet many people often don't even remember hearing the music. This is a particularly exciting position to be put in as a composer, but also a challenging one."

For his work on We Are Aliens, Sheehan says, he had three to four weeks to write, record and mix the entire score.

There are two screenings tomorrow, 7pm and 8pm. To book, call 04 910 3140 or email: info@carterobservatory.org

And fans of Sheehan's albums might like to click here for a teaser/taster of his new album due for release early next year. For more of Rhian's music you can visit him at bandcamp.com.

And here's the trailer for We Are Aliens.

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