(Photography: Philip Holahan)
Screenings of film favorites, such as “Back to the Future,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “West Side Story” and “The Wizard of Oz,” accompanied by a live performance of the score have become a global phenomenon, giving a much-needed boost to orchestras everywhere. We recently spoke with composer and conductor David Newman, one of the pioneers of the trend, to get his take on the hybrid medium’s popularity and the technical challenges it can pose. He had just finished two nights conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, where they performed Michael Giacchino’s score for “Star Trek,” and was leaving the next day to conduct in Germany.
David is well known for having scored more than 100 feature films, ranging from “War of the Roses” and “The Flintstones” to “Ice Age” and “Brokedown Palace.” He has conducted many of the world’s premier orchestras, and his original compositions have been performed in concert halls across the country. He is the son of nine-time Oscar winning composer, Alfred Newman.
David began conducting live music for full-length film screenings in 1989 when he presented the score of F.W. Murnau’s silent film classic, “Sunrise” at the Sundance Film Festival. Since 2007, he has conducted every Hollywood Bowl live orchestra movie performance and is leading 11 such events in different parts of the world this year.
“Every orchestra is participating in these programs,” said David. “It’s a great way to introduce audiences to the wonder of live orchestral music and for them to participate in the spectacle of the event while experiencing world-class sound. And, for orchestras that struggle to grow their audiences, it’s a tremendous way to engage new fans. It’s definitely a win-win, but the shows are not without their technical challenges.”
During movie concerts, films are projected from start to finish, ideally with an isolated music stem that’s been muted, so the orchestra can supply the score. Preparing a soundtrack without the music may be simple with recent films but, with older films, separating the score from vocals, dialogue, sound effects and Foley, can be difficult.
“The first step is determining which stems are available,” said David. “Sometimes the studios are unable to locate the individual stems, and sometimes they never existed. In 2011, we did ‘West Side Story,’ an MGM film from 1960. We wanted to keep Marni Nixon and Rita Moreno’s original vocals and only replace the orchestra. Unfortunately, the singing was married to the orchestra on the music stem. So, what do you do in a situation like that? Or with ‘The Wizard of Oz’ or ‘Casablanca’ when you only have a mono stem?”
“There are two ways to resolve the issue. The first uses what’s termed ‘dip and dive’ and entails having a mixer move the fader up during dialog sequences, then down when there’s no dialog, leaving room for the score,” he said. “In this case, some of the music from the original soundtrack is audible during the dialog sections, but it works well enough. Filling in with a bit of Foley or sound effects, when the fader is down, helps fix the whole track. It’s kind of a cobbled approach to using an old film with only one stem, but is still effective.”
“The more sophisticated, and far more costly, way to remedy the problem is to bring in one of several companies that have come up with frequency algorithms, which allow them to eliminate any part of the track. That’s what we did with ‘West Side Story.’ We were able to strip the orchestra out of the music stem, leaving the original vocals intact.”
The second technical consideration in live movie concert performance is maintaining the synchronization of the orchestra’s performance throughout the entire movie. In film scoring, cues are recorded individually with the luxury of multiple takes. And, in theatrical productions, cues are separated within the show. Once the first frame of a film plays, however, it’s the conductor’s job to synchronize the entire movie for approximately the next 90 minutes.
Until the 1930s, the sync process used for film scoring entailed a sweep hand clock with stopwatch functionality that sat within sight of the conductor, who had a marked-up score referencing what second they should be at, as they approach a specific bar. “Then my father developed the Newman System at Fox, which composers still use both in scoring sessions and live film performances,” said David. “It’s an arrangement of streamers, flutters and punches that cue timing and sync points. I still use the sweep clock as well, but the Newman System allows for more detailed cueing.”
“When we were still using analog film, we would scratch a diagonal line for a few feet of film and have an apparent line move from the left to right on the screen, signaling the approach of a sync point. Of course, now we do it on a computer and can color-code various aspects, like signaling that the music is about to speed up or slow down,” he said.
“We also punch holes in either every other frame or every few frames and separate the sequences with an un-punched frame, which causes the flutter. The punches and flutters work as little markers, like buoys in the ocean, that conductors can see in their peripheral vision, telling them they’re too slow or fast. It’s like a visual metronome.”
“It’s absolutely critical that the orchestra stays in sync with the action throughout,” he said. “Think of seeing Cirque du Soleil, watching a high-wire act, and the guy trips and ruins it for the audience. It’s the same with music getting out of sync; it makes the audience uneasy. It’s going to happen; it’s the nature of things. But, as a conductor, it’s my job to minimize fluctuations—to stay in sync and make music. One is not more important than the other,” he said.
Coming from a composing background, we asked David what attracted him to the live film format. “I’m glad to be part of pulling the veil away from what film music really is,” he said. “If you think about it, film scores are inherently subversive. What is music doing in a movie anyway? I’m sure most directors would love not having to deal with music in their movie, because they can’t write it or really control it. But, the reason the score is there is because it tells the story in a different language, a language we all intuitively understand.”
“On the surface, film music can seem simple or eclectic or referential, but it’s very hard to discuss it in exacting terms, because it uses an abstract, not narrative, language. I did a concert at the Tanglewood Music Center of Paramount Pictures music, and one of the pieces was the main title of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘North by Northwest.’ It turns out that the rhythm is a Spanish dance called a fandango, and you have to wonder what a fandango is doing in an urban thriller with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. It doesn’t make sense that it works, but it does, and you can’t imagine the movie without Bernard Hermann having used that form and informing nearly the entire score from it. That’s what’s so incredibly cool about film music,” said David.
“Original film music is a very young art form that started in 1933. The first real score was Max Steiner’s composition for ‘King Kong.’ Warner Bros. had tested the film, and it was disastrous, everyone laughed at the ape, at King Kong. They thought he was ridiculous looking, and the filmmakers were at a loss of how to fix it,” he said. “Steiner asked permission to write an original score, and the studio agreed to let him try it. He composed a really scary score—to our ears it’s a little stupid and crazy—but it absolutely changed the film’s impact. The audience was fainting, scared to death of King Kong, and you can point to that moment as the beginning of modern film score.”
“The thing is, Steiner’s score had unity—a phrase or melody that would come back at various times in various ways. It might be hidden, played backwards, inverted or up and down. It might be repeated or orchestrated in various ways, but it told the inner story of the movie—a story that couldn’t have been told visually with the camera, the acting or the art direction. That power is what I love about the relationship of film and music and about sharing it with audiences.”
Many thanks to David Newman for his insights into live movie concerts and the relationship of film and music. Have you worked with live orchestra for film? Share your experience in the comments.