The Music of Ellen Pakkies

Ellen Pakkies, played by Jill Levenberg

A bit of time has gone by since Ellen - The Ellen Pakkies story released at local cinemas, however, I thought it's never a bad time to reflect on the work that I was involved in over the last year.

It was truly an honour and priviledge to be involved in a project that meant as much to so many people as did "Ellen". With that being said, it was also quite daunting. Most South Africans were aware of or had heard of Ellen Pakkies in the news but this was the first time that the details of her story would be explored.

Ellen - The Ellen Pakkies Story, is based on true events and tells of the troubled relationship between a mother and her drug-addicted son - a relationship that will eventually drive her to the edge and lead to his murder.

Edited by one of South Africa's top editors, C.A. van Aswegen from FiX Post Production, the story is told by cutting between Ellen's story as she prepares for her trial, and the events that led up to her murdering her drug-addicted son, Abe. Daryne Joshua, the director, and C.A. spent quite a lot of time in the edit room placing reference music to capture the tone of the story and the characters. I find that having reference music helps me as a composer to get a feeling of what the director wants to hear but at the same time making it completely original. Good editors also use music to enhance the edit and so C.A. and I spent time going through the entire film and discussing the music choices and cues in detail.

Ellen is my first feature film where I was able to record with live musicians, something that is quite rare given the constraints of the film budgets we work with in South Africa. We were able to get some of the finest musicians in country.

The talented string players from the Resonance string quartet

The incredibly talented string musicians are from a group called the Resonance String Quartet. Violin was played by Kabelo Motlhomi, viola by Kabelo Monnathebe and on cello was Daliwonga Tshangela. They are a brilliant group of musicians to work with and were really able to capture the emotion of the pieces written.

Playing the flute was the equally talented Khanyisile Mthetwa. Many of the the pieces had solo flute parts that needed the haunting realism of a live flute player and Khanyi delivered in spades. She was also able to switch between the C flute and the alto flute as required which is quite remarkable.

Khanyisile Mthetwa

To top that all off, the guitar pieces were played by the legendary Mauritz Lotz. It's incredible to see a musician of his calibre live in studio and how he can bring a piece of music to life. One piece in particular was really tricky in terms of timing and I don't think we could have gotten it done without his expert musicianship.

Mauritz Lotz

The string and flute sections, where they weren't performing solos, were layered with virtual instruments mainly from the EastWest Composer Cloud library. Live instruments really do make all the difference as there are numerous articulations that can be performed by a live player that just aren't possible with virtual instruments. Budget allowing, I do hope to be able to do so again in future.

It was an honour to work on this incredible film. If you have a moment, take a listen to the opening theme of the film below. If you haven't seen the film yet, it is available to stream and on DVD.