Lights, Camera, Music! How do orchestras play with films?

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 just aren’t as happy. A live orchestra can take the emotional impact of a movie’s music 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.

John Williams and Yo-Yo Ma take their bows after a sold-out 2013 performance with the Houston Symphony.

John Williams and Yo-Yo Ma take their bows after a sold-out 2013 performance with the Houston Symphony.

Of those luminaries, the reigning king of film scores is without question John Williams, and the Houston Symphony will be performing two of his most popular scores live to picture this summer, including Jurassic Park. Just to name a few of his many honors, Williams has won 5 Oscars, 3 Emmys, 4 Golden Globes and 23 Grammys Awards, and with 50 Academy Award nominations, he is second in history only to Walt Disney (who received 59). 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. Operations Director Becky Brown oversees just about everything that goes on backstage at Houston Symphony concerts, including our film with live orchestra presentations. “When the orchestra performs a live film score, there are definitely technical challenges,” she said.

On June 15 and 16, 2017, the Houston Symphony presents Jurassic Park—Film with Live Orchestra.

On June 15 and 16, 2017, the Houston Symphony presents Jurassic Park—Film with Live Orchestra.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge is that the musicians have to remain in sync with the film. There may be room in some scenes for a little give and take, but every film has lots of key moments where the music and image need to line up precisely.

The first line of defense is the conductor, who is ultimately responsible for keeping the orchestra together. “As with any type of repertoire, all conductors work slightly differently,” Becky said. Depending on the conductor’s preference, there are several kinds of technology he or she can use to keep the music and film in sync.

Becky explained, “The first is called a click track. The conductor and musicians wear headphones, and listen to what is essentially a metronome in order to stay synced.” So while you are listening to the music and watching the movie, all of the musicians are hearing the tick-tock of a metronome that keeps them in time with the film. “The other common way is for the conductor to have a monitor playing the movie near the podium. As the movie plays, a black bar goes across the screen from left to right. When it hits the right, the conductor gives the first beat in the next measure.”

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. Fortunately, our conductor for Jurassic Park this summer, Constantine Kitsopoulos, is among the best in the business, as he demonstrated during a Houston Symphony performance of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek in 2014. The click track and monitor failed, but Kitsopoulos knew the film so well that he was able to conduct the score flawlessly anyway—no mean feat, considering that composer Michael Giacchino (who also wrote the music for Up, Ratatouille and Rogue One) was in the audience that night. As Becky said of Kitsopoulos, “he is a great colleague for the orchestra, staff, and technical crew.”

Constantine Kitsopoulos, conductor

Constantine Kitsopoulos, conductor

Besides staying in sync, “Another challenge is balancing the sound,” said Becky. “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,” Becky 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.”

Our John Williams presentations this summer are just a few of the films we have planned in the coming year. Movie lovers can also look forward to Psycho at Halloween and Disney’s Fantasia in January. Hope to see you at Jones Hall soon!

Don’t miss our next film with live orchestra presentation, Jurassic Park.

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