Where were we?…….ah yes, we’ve had our scotch egg and a reviving pint of ale and we’ve set off again on our ramble from Hogwarts to Ewoks.
John Williams is one of the last of a dying breed of composers.
Nowadays, music is composed on a computer programme where, instead of beats per minute being the measuring tool, film frames per second are used. Using this method it is quite easy to sync the music with the screen action. We usually then record the film soundtrack listening to a ‘click track’ which is linked to that frame rate. If the music stays in time with the click, then it will stay in time with the frames of the film. John Williams, on the other hand, writes music which, when played at the right tempo, fits perfectly with the screen action. He conducts, facing the screen, with the orchestra seated in between. The screen is showing the movie in real time and he uses hisÂ inner metronome and immense musicianship to link the two. In fact, he conducts his film recording sessions in the same way that William Walton must have conducted his music for the 1944 Laurence Olivier film, Henry V. Williams is the only composer I have worked with who has recorded his film music in this way .
I was lucky enough to do a session just like this with the LSO for Star Wars – Revenge of the Seth. The screen was set up behind us but the film was scrambled so we couldn’t see it clearly – such is the top secret nature of these cult films. I remember that there were also huge, burly minders at Air Lyndhurst Studios to guard the first Harry Potter extracts.
For both films, John Williams would do a first read-through with the orchestra and almost have everything correct the first time. Then we’d go for a ‘take’ and he’d absolutely nail it – brilliant to watch. This picture is the closest I could find to give you the idea of how the studio was set up.
I asked a good friend of mine, Dee Palmer, to explain the process to me. (Dee is also a formidable composer and orchestrator who has often worked in the recording studio in this way). As far as I understand it, (apologies Dee if this is incorrect) the conductor has headphones on one ear and these feed the conductor four audible clicks – on the fourth beat the conductor raises their baton as an upbeat and then places their downbeat to coincide with the fifth click – which is the start of the musical ‘Cue’. During the Cue there may be particular actions on the screen – on Harry Potter there were lots of monsters jumping out – which the high points of the music had to match up with. This might be signaled by white horizontal ‘streamers’ traveling across the screen warning the conductor to speedup or slow in order to coincide their crescendo or big chord with that action.
The director and composer used to go to a private screening and move the film by hand, frame by frame on the Moviola machine. They would mark the specific frames with a chinagraph pencil so that the necessary information could be added to the film in order to help the conductor.
My goodness, how things have changed in a relatively short time frame. Technology has made things so much easier but I wonder if it hasn’t made film music sound more rigid and uniform?
After the Star Wars session, I nervously asked John if I could take a picture of him and he very kindly asked me if I wanted to be in the picture – what a lovely man! You often find that – the most talented people have nothing to prove and are generous and respectful to their colleagues. He always lined up with the french horn and trumpet sections to have his photo taken. Williams always used the LSO because of their legendary brass players and the sound they produced for his epic themes.
He particularly admired Maurice Murphy who played the Star Wars theme and there is a story in the industry that even when Maurice had left the LSO, John Williams insisted on him being brought back for the sessions – allegedly he could name his price as the gig meant so much money for the orchestra – I don’t know if that is true. I found an interesting podcast on the LSO website entitled Beyond the Legend which is all about Maurice.
Feeling quite exhausted the ramblers arrived back at the Devil’s Dyke carpark. A few of us went on to a tea shop to have a reviving cup of earl grey and a cheese scone. The fees for joining this club are only Â£7 per year. For this tiny amount, you turn up on a Saturday (5-6 mile) or Sunday (9-13 mile) and are taken on a fantastic, scenic walk, experiencing all the different terrain that Sussex has to offer.
The perfect hobby for a cash-strapped musician!