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Just a Fad? – Film Screenings with Live Orchestra

TThe Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra performs Jeff Beal’s score for The General. Photo: Jamie Pham. Courtesy Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Have film screenings with live orchestra really been around so long? Jon Burlingame writing in Variety in 2013[1], cites a 1987 live screening of Eisenstein and Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky by the Los Angeles Philharmonic as the ‘light bulb’ moment when Steven Linder of IMG Artists realised these could be a thing.

Thirty years! Is it long enough to prove that ‘Live Screenings’ are not a fad? Of course, music and film have been united for quite some time. Live music – usually a pianist or organist – used to accompany Silent Films. And even in the early days of Sound, Charlie Chaplin favoured music over dialogue in, say, a movie like The Kid, although by now we’re talking about music fixed to the permanent soundtrack. The point is what potential does this phenomenon have for any sort of development that will be useful for orchestras?

By one reading of history, Classical music has struggled for audiences in the period when films rose to prominence. But suddenly, re-emphasising the link between music and movies through live performance has seemingly given classical music a new lease on life, providing orchestras with audiences they could once only dream of.

Over the past 30 years, the phenomenon has certainly not stood still. Even a decade or so ago ‘the methodology was incredibly unformed really,’ says Brett Kelly of his experiences conducting the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra: ‘I had a separate video feed with literally a clock-face in the corner of the screen and I would get a 30 second countdown to the beginning of each cue, and then the clock would just turn. I actually had to pace everything with this clock-face so I would know if I was a second ahead or a second behind and then basically modulate the tempo to arrive at certain hit points. One cue ran continuously for more than 13 minutes.’

The technology for conducting music live to movies has become more complex since those pioneering days but preparing music for a live screening is still incredibly time-consuming and involves novel musical skills. I met up with Mae Crosby, a former professional orchestral musician who now works for the Los Angeles-based Epilogue Media, a boutique media and technology company that in addition to working in all forms of audio post production creates and adapts existing technology to assist the conductor and musicians with film and music synchronisation during the preparation and performance of live film concerts. Most recently they were the technical directors for the preparation and playback of the Star Wars Trilogy with the New York Philharmonic.

For ‘cases where no-one knew that a film was going to end up being done live’, Epilogue produces tempo maps, click tracks, a reliable score that actually matches the locked film (the absolutely final edit), and essentially a conductor video so they can see everything that’s going on.

GW: ‘Tempo maps’? What are they?’

MC: ‘Essentially they are a digital representation of the speed and beat patterns of the music. They can be used during the composition process to transfer information about the music to the written musical parts and to the recordist for the click so that the music stays synchronised with the film. Because of film and music editing, the music that was recorded does not always match exactly what is in the released film so we use tempo maps in reverse. We create them from the music tracks in the final film to make new written parts and ultimately to give the musicians at the live concerts an audible click during tightly synchronised moments between film and score.’

Then Mae and the people in her team have to work out which of the numerous cues for each passage of music actually made it into the film and how they match with the score. ‘So you have 1M1 which is “the first music cue in reel one” [called ‘reels’ because they used to physically be reels]. We sit there with the original written score in front of us and say, “Okay run 1M1” and then things like, “This is clearly not bar 17. Can we figure out what’s going on?” So you reconstruct the edits basically.’

GW: ‘So in order to do the live concert, you reconstruct a new score based on the finished film which is different from what the composer provided in the first place?’

MC: ‘It is what the composer provided; it’s just that their recorded music gets edited to match the ongoing edits in the film which in the digital age can happen almost up until the release date. As a result, the original written music parts prepared for the recording sessions are no longer usable.’

‘It doesn’t get re-orchestrated though?’

‘Well, oftentimes film scores are specialty scores that might have non-Western instruments or eight French horns or woodwind players who double on multiple instruments which isn’t the way a standard symphony orchestra is constructed.’

‘So you prepare a regular orchestral score out of a studio score?’

‘Our team doesn’t do that usually. That’s the music prep house because they have professional orchestrators – but that’s also why it takes so long. It can be a three-month process.’

‘Which has got to be worthwhile.’

‘I think that’s why you just tend to see the big films.’

And actually, if you look at some of the movies that have been given this treatment, you do tend to see just the big popular blockbusters. For example, what was being presented around the world on 1 December, this year?[2] Home Alone, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life… Of course, that’s not counting concerts such as James Newton Howard – Three Decades of Music for Hollywood, or A Night at the Movies: A Celebration of Star Wars composer John Williams.

And there’s got to be enough music to make it worthwhile to have an orchestra sitting there. Composer, Patrick Morganelli, whom I spoke to in connection with future developments, told me the story of the production house that was delighted to discover a whole trove of Dimitri Tiomkin’s music that had never made it into the theatrical release of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life [3]. The Live Screening phenomenon could clearly have the added benefit of reviving a whole lot of music that would otherwise have remained unheard.

Patrick Morganell. Photo: Anna Webber

Morganelli’s own special project is a work he wrote for Opera Theater Oregon called Hercules vs Vampires. It’s essentially an operatic re-dubbing of a 1960s sword-and-sandal flick, Mario Bava’s Hercules in the Haunted World, which starred bodybuilder Reg Park and English actor, Christopher Lee as the villain, King Lico.

Morganelli removed the film’s original score but the opera necessarily retains Bava’s plot. Hercules discovers that his lover, Princess Deianira, has lost her mind. Her only hope is the Stone of Forgetfulness in Hades. So Hercules and his companions set out on a dangerous quest for the stone, unaware that King Lico, the girl’s guardian, actually covets her and is responsible for her condition. The film was made with the technology available to Bava, and modern audiences get a kick out of such elements as Procrustes the stone monster, who is obviously a guy in a foam-rubber ‘stone suit’. But Morganelli takes Bava seriously. And the film has everything that a traditional opera contains: love, death, jealousy, revenge…

‘Don’t forget incest,’ says Morganelli when I speak to him in Blue Bottle Coffee on Hillhurst Avenue, Los Angeles’s caffeine alley. ‘The thing that motivated me to pursue the commission was the fact that I was a fan of Bava’s. Opera Theater Oregon had a whole set of things that they wanted composers to do to be considered for the project.’

GW: ‘So it was an obstacle course, kind of?’

PM: ‘Oh yes, absolutely. They had two to three sections of the film roughly four-minutes long and they said, “Pick one”, and then you had to do a digital mock-up of the score; you had to do a conductor’s score. You know write the whole thing.’

‘They wanted to make sure that you were not just a guy who could do it on the Midi?’

‘Yes. Because there are composers who produce astonishing work, but if you say, “Well now you have to create something that has to be performed live, they’re like, “Oh, I don’t know how to do that.” Now we have a problem.’

But Morganelli’s Hercules vs Vampires introduces a new element into opera – action that is in the film. The singers stand with the orchestra oratorio-style – ‘park and bark’ is how one singer described it to Morganelli when North Carolina Opera presented the work. And surprisingly, perhaps, the singers don’t see what’s on screen.

PM: ‘In rehearsal, working with the conductor who has of course the click track, the singers would have a television screen so they could get a feel for “What is my character doing?” Now, when the original was done in Portland (Oregon) and when we did it with LA Opera we found that the singers, once they had learnt their parts, really weren’t looking at it. They were projecting to the audience. So, after that, I just made the decision to get rid of the monitors for performance.’

‘The project was exponentially way more difficult than I expected,’ adds Morganelli. ‘Part of the deal was that I was going to be primarily responsible for creating and adapting the libretto – you know, taking the dialogue from the movie, transcribing it, and then figuring out, okay, the difference between writing a play and a libretto. In addition to that I had to find a way to synchronise with the mouth movements of the actors on screen. When I first started working on it I thought, “Okay, I’m not going to sweat that. I’m just going to have it start and end roughly with the mouth movements.” But after doing that for about a week, I had to make it a little tighter. Otherwise the effect is lost.’

GW: ‘Did that process help you create melodies?’

PM: ‘Yes. Absolutely. Because, you know, in any kind of vocal music with words – and if you’re aiming high with this – the meaning of the words has got to be reflected in the music. If the words go to a place dramatically, the music has got to go there too, so it’s like, “Great, now there’s another thing to worry about.”

Perhaps with Hercules vs Vampires we’re talking live screenings going into a wholly new realm – works actually conceived for live accompaniment of film but Morganelli also raises the tricky issue of copyright issues with films already made.

‘With Hercules the copyright almost brought the project to a screeching halt. One of the reasons Opera Theater Oregon chose this film is because they found it listed on a website that said “public domain”. But when we got to the point of doing contracts (we were doing it at LA Opera as well), we were told, “Oh, by the way, you must conclusively demonstrate either that you have a licence from the copyright holder or conclusively prove that this is in the public domain.” Then my attorney and I found that it had gone back into copyright. And then we found that the copyright holder lives in LA, he’s in the film business, and he has a law degree. As it turns out, he’s a very nice fellow who’s an opera fan and it all worked out.

Copyright-searches are another reason cited by Mae Crosby for the length of time it takes to prepare a live-screening product, but she also mentioned that ‘It’s made easier if the studio that made the movie is the one that wants the live performance.’

But do Live Screenings actually bring orchestras new audiences? ‘They’re constantly being market-researched,’ says Australian conductor, Ben Northey, who has become something of a specialist in this kind of work. ‘This is the biggest audience-development opportunity the orchestras have ever had in my opinion and there are all these studies looking into how many people cross over into regular orchestral concerts but these concerts have got their own audience. It’s a unique experience.’

GW: ‘How satisfying are these concerts for the musicians?’

BN: ‘It depends on how the conductor manages the synchronisation. I choose not to use click track unless there’s something like a piano player on the screen where it needs to be timed micro-second to micro-second. I try to conduct in a normal organic musical way, just to use time-codes, the punches on the conductor monitor and the streamers [the technology that has been around since the days of Alfred Newman in the 1930s] and generally speaking you can work out the points where you can be a bit free. But I don’t think it’s a much different experience than serving anything bigger. We accompany singers all the time, we accompany opera, ballet…’

Brett Kelly: ‘The satisfaction is being part of a holistic experience with people. You go to a cinema and hear the music integrated in the movie and that’s the way it’s meant to be. Pulling it apart so you can see – it’s a little like looking into the back of a watch to see all the moving parts. It’s a whole other level of interest. For the conductor, I think it’s just literally about the skill required to do it. It’s particularly exciting when combined with the inevitable time pressure and incredibly high expectations of the audience. They’re used to hearing a soundtrack that’s been manicured and edited and mixed and tweaked and had fairy dust of every kind sprinkled on it. Replicating that in a live environment is always going to be a challenge.’

Does the quality of the music compensate for all the time put into the phenomenon?’

BN: ‘Nearly all of these quality film scores are somehow referencing particularly the 20th-century composers. You can hear Prokofiev, Bartók, Stravinsky, Gustav Holst, Shostakovich… You name me a 20th-century composer and you can hear the colours and sounds from those composers in, particularly, the film scores of John Williams. It’s only a matter of time before there is an audience expectation that they will hear some film music suites in a stand-alone orchestral concert, the same way that opera or ballet suites are performed in orchestral concerts.’

BK: ‘The music is almost always terrific because you’re usually only doing movies where the score justifies the size of the undertaking.’

It does occur to me that it has taken orchestras centuries to build up a tradition of Absolute Music and there’s a question about the reduction of meaning in Absolute Music if music is tied too tightly with familiar visuals, but this is probably a larger aesthetic discussion for a bigger piece. Perhaps the biggest test of the viability of Live Screenings is the phenomenon’s potential for future development.

When I see that the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra does an annual Silent Film performance and this year presented House of Cards composer Jeff Beal’s new score for Buster Keaton’s The General, I can’t help thinking that Live Screenings may revive many unjustly-forgotten Silent Films. Morganelli talks of the two audiences he got for Hercules – contemporary opera fans and Bava enthusiasts. But it could be that the live orchestra is now being conceived as part of the film presentation concept very, very early in the process. Mae Crosby tells me about being involved in the world premiere of Star Trek Beyond at Comic-Con where Michael Giacchino’s score was performed live by the San Diego Symphony. Red carpet. Actors. Symphony Orchestra!

Orchestral administrators still have to worry about filling the ‘subs’, of course. But perhaps Film Screenings with Live Orchestra will have a bigger-than-expected effect on the art-form we know. Morganelli says that working on Hercules ‘made me feel I wanted to write another opera but one that would be fully staged to where I could break free of the tyranny of the time-code.’ Most significantly, Hercules taught him that an opera needs ‘First and foremost, a great story. The audience can listen to a really brilliant passage of orchestration and think, “Oh that sounds interesting, or that sounds scary or that sounds pretty” or whatever. But when there’s things happening on the stage that grip them, it’s, “Oh my god, look what he just did – that bastard!”’

Nietzsche’s first book was called The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, but it was always drummed into me at the Conservatorium that the classical symphonic language arose from the opera house. Perhaps Film Screenings with Live Music will instigate a rebirth of music from the spirit of the blockbuster. Who knows? After all, the phenomenon has only been with us about 30 years.


Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2017

[1] Burlingame, Jon, ‘Score One for Movie Maestros: Audiences Grow for Film-Music Concerts,’ Variety, Nov 14, 2013’,

[2] http://www.moviesinconcert.nl/index.php?page=past-concerts

[3] David Llewellyn, ‘It’s a “Wonderful” score that Dimitri Tiomkin wrote for the Capra classic’, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 2016 – https://csosoundsandstories.org/its-a-wonderful-score-that-dimitri-tiomkin-wrote-for-the-capra-classic/