Payload (2011) is a character-driven short genre film set in a future Australia, written and directed by young film-maker Stuart Willis as his masters thesis project at Melbourne’s VCA School of Film and Television. A family struggle to survive in a dystopian world, scavenging a living from day-to-day in the shadow of a space elevator that rises skywards, tempting them with freedom from their bleak existence. The story centres on how circumstance drives a boy to sacrifice everything in order to save what’s left of his family. The film features a score from Australian composer David Barber who, as well as being a composer for film and television in his own right, has also helped prepare the score for the animated feature Happy Feet Two and has worked with fellow Australian composer Christopher Gordon.
Barber has stated that he is interested in blending together electronic textures with acoustic elements and this mix is particularly suited in a film such as Payload with its emphasis on character interaction and the emotional consequences of these situations. A significant proportion of the score has a strong emphasis on dark electronic textures (e.g., “A Lot of Hungry Men”, “The Deal”) which, to be honest, are not particularly interesting when heard away from the film. They do serve the movie well though, adding a certain level of tension and menace to a number of conversation-heavy scenes. The opening of the film has an emphasis on establishing the story and there is a significant amount of time set aside for dialogue-heavy scenes. Since the music on the album is in film order this means that the score – once the opening track, “How Can I Trust You? (Overture)” which is an exciting and energetic cue written for one of the trailers for the film – is very low-key at the outset. There are moments within these quiet opening cues where the tempo and intensity does increase, particularly during car journeys (“Family of Scavengers” and “Finding Davina”), however the engaging music doesn’t really begin until latter half of track 6, “Finding Davina”. At this point Barber introduces a string quartet into the score at a time in the film when we suddenly understand the family’s predicament and, perhaps more importantly, what choices need to be made in order to save what’s left of their family.
After the brief passages of string quartet in the earlier part of the score, this small ensemble comes to the fore in “The Sacrifice”. Here, the family is reunited after having been separated briefly. But, there is no pleasure here; they are now embarking on a course of action that will ensure the survival of Davina (females are particularly important in this world) but which will have significant consequences and sacrifice for the rest of the family. Framed by a strong ostinato rhythm, the composer uses the strings in “The Sacrifice” to great effect, emphasising the emotional trauma associated with the choices being made. Strings are again prominent in “Keep Moving” during the climax of score. A semi-triumphant coming together of the string quartet, synths and percussion brings the score and film to conclusion but again Barber imbues the music with a hint of sadness as a reminder of the sacrifices made to get to this point. This thematic material is heard at the opening of the album, a track that contains a number of the elements heard in the score (“How Can I Trust You? (Overture)”). Both this track and “Yallah! (Trailer)” contain some of the most energetic music of the score but are used in a couple of the trailers for Payload rather than within the film itself.
Overall, Barber’s score seems to be too dependent upon the atmospheric soundscapes to be a truly satisfying listen away from the film. Within the movie itself his music is particularly memorable when we hear the string quartet taking over, providing an emotional dimension to supplement the actors’ performances. When writer/director Stuart Willis was in discussion with Barber, detailing what sort of score he had in mind for Payload, he suggested the tone should be something between the small, intimate string ensemble music of a Clint Mansell score and the grand electronic vistas of Hans Zimmer. A tall order and a goal that, I think, Barber doesn’t quite reach on this project. There’s some definite highlights in Payload that certainly linger after this short score has finished. It will be interesting to hear how Barber gets on with a bigger project with larger ensembles. David Barber’s score for Payload can be listened to on his Bandcamp page HERE and his music can be heard in the film by watching Stuart Willis’ short film HERE.
- How Can I Trust You? (Overture) (1:16)
- The Elevator (0:44)
- Family of Scavengers (1:57)
- Welcome To Clarke’s Town (0:21)
- A Lot of Hungry Men (1:56)
- Finding Davina (3:07)
- The Sacrifice 1:47)
- The Deal (1:59)
- Keep Moving (1:05)
- The Only Way Out Is Up (1:02)
- Yallah! (Trailer) (1:03)
- Davina’s Lament (Unused) (0:55)
Running Time: 17:17