Thursday, June 11, 2015

Star Wars Scores! Watching the film with the isolated score is like seeing it again for the first time.

Star Wars fans are always hoping for something new each time the saga is re-released. Some want versions of the original trilogy as they were first shown, without the Special Edition changes made for their 1997 re-release. Many more hope for an isolated track of John Williams’s score so they can watch the film as a kind of silent movie, finally fulfilling an alternate vision of the series’ creator and director, George Lucas.

“I’ve always been a follower of silent movies,” Lucas explains, “I see film as a visual medium with a musical accompaniment, and dialogue is a raft that goes on with it.”

For 38 years, John Williams original film score to “Star Wars” has reigned supreme as the best selling non-pop recording in history. The American Film Institute’s (AFI) voters chose it as the greatest film score of all time, besting “Gone With the Wind,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Psycho,” and “The Godfather.”

At a time when film directors were asking their composers to create scores using jazz, pop, and rock and roll, George Lucas, asked Mr. Williams to create a romantic score with a large symphony orchestra. The success of Star Wars and its music ushered in a new era for romantic symphonic film scores. It’s almost unimaginable that any film today would be accompanied by anything but a symphonic score.

The music was so vital to the success of the film that when early viewers saw Star Wars with existing classical music as a temporary score (like 2001: A Space Odyssey), most thought the film was a sure flop. That changed once Williams began conducting the London Symphony Orchestra at Abby Road Studios in early March of 1977. Film Executives at Fox who underwrote most of the costs of the film, were finally ecstatic: they knew they had a hit. Still, they were unprepared for the stratospheric frenzy that was to come.

Star Wars became the most successful film of all time when it was released. It swept past every previous record holder, and was nominated for 10 academy awards, winning 6. Williams won for his score and has been nominated for 49 Academy Awards in total, second only to Walt Disney.

The Disney Company purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, and is now in post-production on a new Star Wars film, “The Force Awakens.” As Mr. Williams prepares to score his seventh Star Wars film, fans can hardly contain themselves.  When word hit the streets that Disney was planning a digital downloadable version of all six films, the rumor mill exploded: We were going to get isolated scores as a bonus!

That didn’t happen. So no big deal, right? If you own a purchased copy of the movie on disc or download, and you own a copy of the soundtrack recording, all you have to do is play the movie on your television with the sound off and start the recording on your stereo (or phone/Sonos/Bluetooth speakers) at the right moment. Or you could use a program like iMovie and sync the two together.
Not so fast! Setting aside the copyright issues, the music won’t match up. Why? It’s complicated, but I’ll try and explain.

The scoring process often begins with the director and composer meeting to view the film after it’s been roughly edited into shape. They view this “rough cut” with the film’s music editor, and spot the places where music will eventually go. The composer will start composing to this rough edit but the film will constantly be changing as special effects are added, scenes are reshot, or maybe additional scenes are needed to clarify the film’s plot or sub-plot.

As a side note: Movie making is an extremely expensive process, tying up tens, or even hundreds of millions of dollars for a couple years while the film is being made. This expensive juggernaut is rolling along at high speed, racing to reach a preset release date, so that investors can finally recoup the money they’ve shelled out. They can’t wait for a composer to craft a symphony that might take another year or two to wait for.

For the composer, who is operating on too much coffee and not-enough sleep, it’s a nearly impossible task. Like trying to shoot a moving target a mile off from the back of an elephant riding on a train car that can’t keep up with the target: it gets closer sometimes and just when it’s in sight, it moves away again. Fortunately, the music editor is there to assist with temporary music approved by the director and edited in for the composer’s reference. Music editors assist further with their excellent memory and skill for keeping track of all the composer’s completed work.

Eventually it’s time to record the orchestra while viewing the latest edit of the film. The conductor will interpret the composer’s score, hitting all the right moments in the film: Leia’s hologram suddenly appears, a pod escapes with the Droids, Vader’s entrance, etc. All of these moments must be precisely recorded in time to the image to elicit the desired response from the audience when played back later. Once the score is recorded, the film will still be edited into a different state. For instance, a few frames might be cut from the middle of the scene, so the orchestra recording is now out of sync with the image: Vader’s entrance fanfare is late. The music editor’s job will be to edit the music so that it fits the final edit of the film. With sound effects and dialog covering some of the rougher transitions of the edited music recording, the audience is blissfully unaware that the music was essentially re-cut and pasted together again.

Those edits can make it tough to listen to an isolated score. The soundtrack recording that can be purchased won’t be the same as the score in the movie. Different "takes" or versions chosen by the music editor to fit the film might be better left off the soundtrack to be sold for listening purposes only, and the rougher sounding edits made to hit the precise moment won’t have sound effects or dialog to cover up behind. It is possible, though, to prepare an isolated score. With modern Non-Linear Editing (NLE) software, a powerful computer system and excellent monitoring equipment, a talented individual with access to the recordings might be able to recreate a score with clean sounding edits that make musical sense. It’s been done for over 100 films and many are available today on Blu-ray and DVD. The list includes films scored by Jerry Goldsmith (Alien, L.A. Confidential, Planet of the Apes, The Omen) and Bernard Herrmann (North by Northwest, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Mysterious Island, Vertigo)

Unfortunately the cost of re-creating the score can be prohibitive, and it may be difficult to find an individual who knows the film and score well enough to pull it off. The job itself can take a lot of time to get right, and for many years, Kenneth Wannberg was THE Star Wars music editor. He passed the shears to the talented Ramiro Belgardt on the last film (Revenge of the Sith) and will assist Williams and new director, wunderkind J.J. Abrams on The Force Awakens. Even if these talented individuals were available to recreate an isolated score, music rights, performance rights and synchronization rights all have to be worked out with different groups or individuals who have disparate reasons for cooperating, or not.

Now the good news: it can be done. I did it. Twice. Fortunately, I'm a huge fan and I've been very familiar with the scores since they were released. Since I've scored a few small movies, I'm well versed in all the technology needed to do get the job done in ultra-high quality.
After a couple weeks and hundreds of edits, I was able to create an isolated score for both Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, but additionally, I let the original sound effects and dialog fade back in  when there is no music. Modern audiences aren’t used to watching an image without some sound, and it’s enjoyable to hear the dialog and sound effects when the score isn’t present; favorite lines jump out, whether they’re heard from the actor, or underscored by the orchestra, and somehow, even expository moments are made more poignant.

When I viewed the films in my private reference home cinema, the effect was astounding: it was as if I were viewing Star Wars again for the first time.  The emotional impact of John Williams’s score playing at full volume is so strong that your breath is taken away. Emotions are heightened by the music, revealing another “Take” on the film. Mr. Lucas was right. Star Wars is a modern day silent movie.

Now for the bad news: You can’t see these versions of the films. These edited films have been created for my own enjoyment. I cannot share them by screening them in any public venue and I can’t post them to the Internet without permission. Fair use allows me to enjoy them in my home with my friends only. I can share some clips online showing the process for educational purposes and for discussion on the merits of isolating the score, etc. It would be very cool to be able to show them at the landmark Castro Theater, just a few blocks from my house, but those permissions would have to be worked out, and I don’t see a path forward on that, yet.

It’s my hope that Disney sees value in an isolated score as an added bonus to build excitement for future releases, to introduce the films in a new way to young and older audiences, and as a tool for live symphonic performances played to the film showcasing John Williams’ extraordinary and ingenious contribution to the greatest film soundtrack of all time: Star Wars.