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“What—and give up show business?”
© 2000 Stuart Vail

The last day of recording for the Kevin Costner film, “For Love of the Game” (music composed by Basil Poledouris), was under the most extreme battle conditions I have ever experienced, by far, in my 21 years working in Hollywood. I am the supervising music copyist at Universal Studios, heading up a crew of musicians whose job it is to transcribe from the composer’s scores the individual instrumental parts for each player. Basil had already scored six days of double sessions (consisting of two 3-hour sessions with a lunch break) with a 104-piece orchestra at MGM-Sony Studios, and by the end of Day Six it was obvious that an extra single session was needed to finish the movie. This was on a Thursday. The additional recording session was booked for Sunday from 1-4 P.M. Eight cues (pieces of music), representing about fifteen minutes of music, were still to be recorded and I expected to work my crew Friday, Saturday, and Sunday morning. Under the Motion Picture contract, five minutes of music are allowed to be recorded each hour of a three-hour call. Fifteen minutes may not seem like a lot of music, but in real time it can be a tremendous amount of notes. Very quickly it was realized that a double session would be necessary with that much music still out, and so another three hours were booked, with a possible fourth.

In days past, the craft of music copying consisted of notating music by hand, very much akin to the method of creating illuminated Bibles practiced by Benedictine monks in their cold and poorly-lit cells of medieval European monasteries. This is not to say that the contemporary offices of music preparation services are cold and poorly lit. Other adverse conditions abound, such as ammonia fumes from the parts repro machine, stress from relentless deadlines, and—until recently—back aches, hand cramps, and secondhand smoke from cigarettes. Until the development of today’s reliable and efficient computer programs, which occurred only a few years ago, music notation was still done by what many people referred to in the industry as “ink slingers.” Ideally, copyists had to have a beautiful hand and be fast and accurate. Long hours and eye-straining work were common, and under extreme last-minute conditions, music parts with ink barely dry were put on the stands for recording the score to a television series, an ice show, a commercial, or a motion picture soundtrack. The long hours and eye strain remain; only the method has changed. The computer allows the ability to make quick edits, change entire arrangements to a different key, and, using the “copy” and “paste” commands, restructure entire pieces of music which otherwise could take many hours or even days.

Each member of my crew is an accomplished composer in his own right, and brings to the job a knowledge of theory, ear training, proper notation, and many styles of composition. Each must also know how to write for all of the instruments, knowing their ranges, transpositions, and capabilities, for it sometimes happens that a composer or orchestrator may unwittingly write a note that is beyond the instrument’s range. An oboe, for example, cannot play an A below middle C; a tenor trombone cannot play quickly from a Bb to a B-natural in the bottom of the staff, unless equipped with an “F” trigger; a violin cannot play two notes simultaneously below the third string. All this and more a copyist must know.

While every composer works differently—some working with paper and pencil, some with a computer—let me explain the circumstances for the film at hand. Basil faxed his music sketches to his orchestrator, who then entered the notes into a computer notation program called Encore. The orchestrator then fleshed-out the music by voicing the appropriate harmonies for the various instruments of the orchestra, building a full orchestration to underscore that particular scene in the film. The score format was quite large, and even with the 22-inch monitors we use, one couldn’t see the top and bottom of the page at the same time (the list of instruments included flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, trombones, tuba, percussion, timpani, 2 harps, piano, 2 guitars, electric bass, first violins, second violins, violas, cellos, and basses).

As the orchestrator finished a cue, he then e-mailed me the file. Once I downloaded, I prepared a file to print in a somewhat reduced and reformatted form on 11x17 tabloid paper. I also had to prepare an extractable version for the instrumental parts which included changing the page setup to 89% letter; hiding staff names; adjusting compressed rests to 5% with a 24-pt. font size; creating assignments for page headers with the proper project information, font size, and pagination; creating defaults for clef spacing, measure-number size and placement, and measures per system. By preprogramming all of these parameters into the master extract score, each part was already formatted in a printable form (a lot of work still remained for the copyist, such as transpositions, dynamics, slurs, compressed rests, and any directions that may have been displaced [pìu mosso, accelerando, crescendo, etc.]). Once that was done, I sent the file to each copyist’s computer through our file sharing network and assigned one person to extract the woodwinds, one to extract the strings, and so on. Clarinets and trumpets, being transposing instruments, must be transposed up a major second. Horns go up a fifth, alto flutes up a fourth, alto sax up a major sixth, etc. Each copyist then printed the parts he extracted, which were then proofed by the proofreader. Corrections were made in the file and final parts were printed. The masters went to a person who enlarged them to 9-1/2 x 13" on 80 lb. stock, and enough string parts had to be printed for the 32 violins, 14 violas, 12 cellos, and 8 basses. Multiple-page parts were taped and 5 copies of the scores were bound (one each for the conductor, orchestrator, engineer, music editor, and librarian). The librarian made up the books, which were checked and rechecked to make sure that every musician had a part for each cue.

The music preparation aspect of the business is very involved and is a key element of the whole recording process. Music doesn’t just “appear” on the stands for the players to play. A great deal of skill and experience is necessary to get the printed page of music in front of the musician.

As I said before, we expected to start working Friday; however, we saw not a single note of music until 2:00 A.M. Sunday morning. The film had been cut and recut and Basil was behind in composing, which would dangerously delay the orchestration and music preparation process. I set my alarm Saturday night to wake me up at 1:45 A.M., but two factors prevented me from the benefit of the few short hours of sleep I had hoped to get: worrying about 104 musicians sitting on a recording stage with no music to play, and a brand-new head cold which I had caught that morning. The alarm clock, not caring about any of that, rudely evicted me from my bed and, like one of the creatures from Night of the Living Dead, I stumbled through the dark house to my office where I booted-up the computer. My cold had blossomed into a full-fledged war zone and my head felt as if it would split at any minute. By the time I had showered and was on-line, it was 2:00 A.M. One file was there waiting, a five-minute rewrite of a cue Basil had recorded Thursday. I downloaded the file, dressed, and drove the 23 miles to Universal. Once there, I created the printed score and the extract file for the copyists who were to show up at 4:00. While we worked, three more cues came in, and by 8:30 we had at least four pieces of music to send to Sony for the one-o’clock downbeat.

Three hours passed before we saw another cue. My cold and lack of sleep were beginning to take their toll, and I dearly wished I could take a nap, however the constantly-ringing telephone precluded that luxury. I lost two members of my crew who had to go to Sony at noon to pass out the music and be responsible for receiving and printing the remaining cues that I would be e-mailing from Universal. From that moment on, the game had changed. Aside from the printouts for the proofreader, no more parts would be printed, as there was no time for a courier to get from Universal across town to Sony with each cue as it was finished. In fact, for the rest of the day the orchestrator e-mailed me only pieces of each score at a time. First the strings came through. I downloaded the file, prepared a print score which I then e-mailed to my person at Sony who would create the necessary score copies on that end, and I also created the extract file which would go to the copyists and, via e-mail, to someone working for me off-the-lot in Valencia. Finished parts were proofed, corrected, and then “packaged” in a compressed file to e-mail to Sony, where they were downloaded, printed, and taped (at a table behind the conductor, in full view of the orchestra). Great care had to be given to not disrupt the recording process with the noise of the printer and the taping of parts and scores. Most of that was done during any rehearsing and during the all-too-short ten-minute breaks every hour. During a “take,” silence is paramount.

The first session ended at 4:00 P.M. and, since Basil still had to write two more short cues which my people there would take care of, it was decided that the one-hour dinner break would be extended to two. Back at Universal, we received two of the last three cues from the orchestrator and processed them as fast as humanly possible. It was an amazing juggling act to keep track of the details of the attention I had to give to the new scores as I received them, including the e-mail transmissions to and from Valencia and to Sony. The two-hour dinner break allowed my people at Sony to download and print the two cues in time for the evening session at 6:00. That kept the orchestra busy for well into the second hour. By 7:45 they were running out of music and I still had not received the last cue from the orchestrator—one that he had only just begun to orchestrate at 7:00.

I kept the stage at Sony completely informed of every iota of progress, and Basil was well-aware that there was a good chance that he would not be able to record the last piece of music because the orchestra had to be dismissed exactly at 9:45. One minute into extra-overtime would be very costly. There was always the last option of the editor chopping up an already-recorded cue in ProTools and reassembling it to fit the picture, not an uncommon practice in the industry.

At 8:30 I received the strings from the orchestrator. He had decided to send me pieces-at-a-time so that we could work in stages, allowing me to e-mail portions of the score bit by bit. We worked at a fever pitch: me desperately juggling more and more balls in the air while trying to manage head-splitting congestion; copyists furiously plowing through the extractions; parts being proofed, corrected, and sent off. At 8:50 the stage at Sony received a glimmer of hope: the string parts finally arrived via e-mail. The librarian quickly printed enough copies so that Basil could at least rehearse the strings. Twenty minutes later they received the woodwinds and brass, and Basil rehearsed that portion of the orchestra. I began sending parts one-at-a-time, just to get them there. Every second counted. By 9:31, with 14 minutes left in the session, I e-mailed the last parts: 2 harps, piano, and timpani, and by 9:40 everything had been downloaded, printed, and distributed to the musicians. There was time left to rehearse the cue and record one take. In fact, the person who pulled the last part out of the printer raced across the room to the timpanist and held the two pages out with both hands for the timpanist to read, just in time for the downbeat of the final take.

Needless to say, we were heroes. Basil could not believe that we had accomplished the impossible. He had been able to record every note that he had written, maintaining the full integrity of his underscore. It took a behind-the-scenes operation and the abilities and dedication of an incredible team of music copyists to pull it off. With the exception of the three-hour break in the middle, my nineteen-hour day had been run on full-throttle adrenaline. There was no choice in the matter. At no point could I afford to stop and wonder if we could handle the job: once we had stepped onto that bobsled, there was no turning back, no room for failure. Everyone performed far beyond normal human capabilities, not pausing for a heart beat, and proving that, yes, we can build pyramids, climb Mt. Everest, and send a man to the moon.

As I sit here writing this, it is the following day. My cold has started to move down to my chest and I feel as though I had been dragged twenty miles by a team of runaway horses. The events of yesterday remain a blur of chaotic activity, something that will take awhile to settle down in my head. I know I will relive the unending stress and pressure that I weathered, but at least I now have the week off, and I am thankful that there will be time to recuperate before the next project begins. Every job has its quirks, blind alleys, and unforeseen hazards, and has the potential of unleashing unmitigated terror and anxiety. Why do I put up with it? It’s a job, and a well-paying one at that, however I wouldn’t wish these experiences and working conditions on anyone. It reminds me of the joke about the man with the carnival whose job it was to clean up the smelly bucketloads of prolific elephant dung. A passerby, who saw him hip-deep in the excrement, asked, “My good man, how can you put up with such demeaning conditions? Haven’t you ever thought about another line of work?” To which the carnival worker replied, “What—and give up show business?”

[UPDATE 2005: While most of the battle conditions described above remain, the technology has changed — for the better. We now use Sibelius software, a rock-solid application that virtually eliminates the procedures listed in the fifth paragraph. Fast file transfers are accomplished with iDisk, and the office size is unlimited with the use of virtual copyists working at home.]

Links to items mentioned above:

Sibelius
Encore
ProTools
Sony Studios
Universal Studios

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