If you have ever watched part of a movie on mute, you know that without music, scary scenes aren’t as scary and happy endings aren’t as happy. A live orchestra can take the emotional impact of a film to a whole new level, making suspenseful scenes terrifying, sad moments heartbreaking, and our protagonists’ victories truly ecstatic.
Movies—they’re better with a band
The practice of accompanying a film with live music recalls the glitz and glamour of the silent movie era, when lavish premieres would feature music provided by full orchestras. Recently, film with live orchestra has made a surprising comeback, due in no small part to increased recognition for Hollywood’s leading composers.
Of those luminaries, the reigning king of film scores is without question John Williams, and the Houston Symphony will be performing one of his most popular scores live to picture this holiday season with Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets™ in Concert. Just to name a few of his many honors, Williams has won 5 Oscars, 3 Emmy Awards, 4 Golden Globes and 23 Grammy Awards, and with 50 Academy Award nominations, he is second in history only to Walt Disney (who received 59).
What is the secret of his success? According to Constantine Kitsopoulos, our conductor for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets™ in Concert, “John Williams can write great tunes, but what I especially admire about his writing is his ability to deal with scenes that need the music to create and build tension. It’s how he builds that tension musically and then releases it at just the right moment that I think is masterful.”
Having scored dozens of films, television shows and live events, John Williams has contributed to the soundtrack of modern American life in a way that few can rival—and his instrument of choice is the orchestra.
For film scores, precision is key
Coordinating a live orchestra with a film isn’t easy. Fortunately for Houston audiences, Kitsopoulos is among the best in the business. According to him, “The over-arching challenge is that no matter what happens, the film keeps going. The conductor has to steer the orchestra so that the music always keeps up with the action. You have to anticipate problems before they may or may not happen.”
The conductor is ultimately responsible for keeping the orchestra together, but there are also several kinds of technology he or she can use to keep the music and film in sync. “At the conductor’s podium I’ll have my written score, a video monitor showing the film, and an earpiece through which I’ll hear what’s called a click track,” says Kitsopoulos. “It’s essentially a metronome that indicates the various tempi of the music. In addition to running the film, the video monitor also displays what are called streamers and punches. This is a synchronization system invented by Hollywood composer and conductor Alfred Newman.”
What if technology fails?
Technical aids aside, the conductor really has to know the score and how it fits with the movie, especially in the event of a technical mishap. “If something goes wrong—and it’s not usually if but when—the conductor has to solve the problem instantly so as to keep everything on track (pun intended),” Kitsopoulos said.
This is exactly what he did in 2014 at the U.S. premiere of the film with live orchestra version of Star Trek: The Future Begins. The film’s composer, Michael Giacchino (who also wrote the music for Up, Ratatouille and Rogue One), was sitting in the audience that night. Kitsopoulos recalled, “About ten minutes into the film, I heard nothing in my earpiece. No click, no nothing. I looked at my video monitor and realized that the beat counter was about two seconds off. I had to calculate the timing offset in my head continuously, use visual and dialogue cues and somehow conduct about 130 musicians through the first half, after which the tech guys fixed the problem. I came offstage and Michael Giacchino was there to greet me. He gave me a big hug and simply said, ‘Fantastic! Great job!’ We had kept things rolling along and no one except the orchestra, chorus and myself were the wiser.”
Behind the scenes
What goes on at the conductor’s podium may be the most visible part of a film with live orchestra presentation, but there are a host of other activities going on out of sight to make sure the performance is a success. Operations Director Becky Brown oversees just about everything that goes on backstage at Houston Symphony concerts, including our film with live orchestra presentations. “Another challenge is balancing the sound,” said Brown. “Often films have loud sound-effect sequences or uneven dialogue levels.” An audio engineer may have to tweak sound levels in real time during a performance to make sure everything is balanced.
Besides the music, there is also the projection of the film itself to worry about. “We set up a playback station for the engineers who are running the movie,” Brown said. “The films themselves run on software that allows the engineer to jump to specific points. This allows us to skip through dialogue sections during rehearsal. The playback station is sometimes backstage and sometimes in the mezzanine section, but it is from these positions that the technician sends the film onto the screen through the special projectors in the film booth.”
Movie lovers can also look forward to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets™ in Concert this holiday season and Disney’s Fantasia in January. Hope to see you at Jones Hall soon!
Don’t miss Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets™ in Concert December 29 & 30. Get tickets and more information at houstonsymphony.org.