Where to start?
Congratulations, you’re going to be conducting a movie in concert. Now roll up your sleeves because you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you.
The first question to answer is: what sort of movie are you conducting? Not Action vs. Romantic Comedy, but what sort of technology are you using? Depending on when the movie was created and when it became available for live concert performances, different movies come with different playback systems and technology for the conductor and orchestra to use. In general your film will fall into one of two categories: movies with click and streamers, or movies without. Typically the answer to this question is available from the producer at the time of booking the show. When the orchestra materials are sent from the producer they will include the conductor’s score as well as a practice video file sent either as a flash drive or as a download link via email. Now you’re ready to start preparing!
Movies WITH click and streamers
The first time you open a score or video file for a movie that uses click you might experience a bit of sensory overload. Let’s start by breaking down these foreign markings and indications:
Rather than using titles (such as Hedwig’s Flight), you will find number indications throughout your score at the beginning of every new “movement” called a ‘cue’. For example, 1M3-2M1. This numbering system dates back to when movies were made on film and contained on reels. The letter M stands for music. The number before M indicates the reel number and the number after M indicates the cue number. These are the numbers you will use when communicating with the orchestra and video operator. For example, “let’s start at the beginning of 10M1”.
TIME AND MEASURE INDICATORS
On screen you will also find two other indications of time. A digital clock displaying the time code of where you are in the overall movie and a measure/beat indicator displaying the measure number and beat within the measure of where the music should currently be. The example below shows an indication of being on beat 2 of measure 9.
Time indications (minutes and seconds) will also appear both in the score as well as on screen to show how much time there is between cues.
If you’ve never recorded or worked with a click track before, a click is a tone, pitch or auditory beat recorded on a track which you listen to using headphones and that functions as your metronome throughout the film. At the beginning of every cue there will be an indication of how many preparatory clicks will occur before the intended start/initial downbeat of that musical number. This is either written out (i.e. 4 Clicks or 6 Clicks) or represented by the use of ‘X’ (each representing 1 click). In 4/4 you will often either see XXXX indicating 4 quarter note clicks at the before the first downbeat. This symbol may also appear after a fermata or before a tempo change to represent the preparatory clicks you will hear before the start of a new section.
The colored lines or “sweeps” that move from left to right on the conductor’s video monitor demark important moments in the music. They can be used to indicate the moment when you start or end a particular cue, important musical moments that line up with the screen, or even points when the tempo changes.
Sweeps always move from left to right and the point at which the sweep hits the right edge of the screen is always the point being indicated by the sweep (i.e. the downbeat of a new bar or the cut off at the end of a piece/section). Sweeps on screen are always accompanied by a bold bracket indication at the top of the score that looks like a sideways T or half of a multi-measure rest. The right edge of the bracket indicates the point that the sweep is identifying.
· Yellow lines are preparatory lines. The beginning of every musical number will start with a yellow sweep indicating that the click is about to begin. The click (usually a pre-count of a certain number of beats indicated in the score) begins when the sweep hits the right edge of the screen. Yellow lines may also appear after a fermata to give you a new prep before the next downbeat. They may also be used during a tempo change to show the preparation of a new tempo that is about to occur.
· Green lines typically follow a yellow line at the beginning of a cue. These lines help indicate the start or downbeat of the new piece/cue or section. The point at which the green sweep hits the right edge is the same point at which your baton should be showing the first downbeat.
· Red lines indicate the end of a cue/piece. This is the point at which you cutoff the orchestra and, depending on how much time there is before the next musical number, catch your breath/wipe your sweat.
· White lines are simply additional cue points in the score to help you stay in-sync during a musical selection. They are often used during shifts in tempo to give you a visual guide of where certain measures need to line up with the film.
The white circular flashes on screen are a tool to help indicate tempo. Flashes occur on screen at the beginning of cues as well as during tempo transitions. The flashes will occur on every beat within a bar (or at least the number of beats indicated in the score). Every flash on screen is paired with an indicator in the score that looks like a plus sign within a circle.
Who should be on click?
This is, in part, a question of financial and contractual stipulations as well as personal preference, but not just your personal preference… also the orchestra’s! Some films stipulate a contractual click track requirement (i.e. every member of the orchestra must be on click), while others do not. When not stipulated, it becomes a decision of the orchestra and conductor whether or not to use click track as well as who should use it. Preferences range from every member of the orchestra using click, only percussion on click, only the conductor on click, or even no one on click (including the conductor). Always ask if the orchestra has a preference or financial limitation on what might be possible in terms of click track.
For conductors who choose to be on click, the question of what headphones to use will often arise. When a movie is on click the film producer will typically provide a headset system for the conductor. This is usually a single over-the-ear headphone to be placed on either your right or left ear depending on your preference. Of course, you have the option of bringing your own ear buds, IEMS (In-ear-monitors), or headphones if that would be more comfortable to you so long as they use a 1/8 inch standard headphone jack. Movies are long so you want to be comfortable!
Practicing with the video file and click
Getting comfortable with the video/click system is crucial. And like everything in life, practice makes perfect. Depending on what media player and media file format you are using while practicing with the video, you may have different audio capabilities to consider. With some video files, the click track will be panned stereo left while the music track is panned stereo left. On some video files you will have the capability of controlling the sound effects, dialogue, music and click all independently depending on you media player. Try different combinations to see what best serves your study goals.
Beware of the click!
Conducting with a click track is like accompanying a soloist who will never adjust to the accompaniment; instead it is your sole duty to follow it! How hard can it be to accompany a steady metronome you may ask? Well that all depends. It is critical that early on in the study process you determine the reliability of the click track. For many films, a click track was added after the film was distributed. This can often lead to an inconsistent click that rushes or slows down randomly in places not indicated by the score. If you only study while listening to the click track and music together, this may not be immediately obvious. By isolating the click track alone without any music you will be able to hear if there are any potential irregularities. This may also become an issue in movies with vocal musical numbers, such as Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas. There are several musical numbers in this film where the click track does not line up with the singing that is taking place on screen. This is one of the many challenges you will therefore have to navigate. So the sooner you can start studying your materials the better!
Movies WITHOUT click or streamers
As you may surmise, movies on click can take quite a bit of preparation time. If you can believe it, movies without click may take far greater preparation time than those with click. These (typically older) films will use either an analog or digital clock indication system. Generally speaking, for analog clock systems, a clock will appear on the conductor’s video monitor. This is accompanied by indications in the score of particular timings used as cue points to demark important musical moments where the music and screen are intended to line up. For digital clock systems, timings (rather than a clock with hand positions) may be listed as a form of indication for the conductor to sync the music to the video. There are, however, some cases (i.e. Howard Blake’s The Snowman) where no indications of timings will appear in the score whatsoever. Instead, written cues might be found, such as moments where a particular line of dialogue are spoken or a particular action on screen (i.e. falling down or lighting a match), which serve as the verbal or visual cue with which the conductor must line up.
The preparation video becomes even more critical to mastering conducting these sorts of projects. The video files will always include a guide audio track, which is the best way for a conductor to memorize the tempi and synchronization of orchestra with screen. Practice and repetition are critical to getting the tempi “into your body”. In the case of a film like The Snowman that does not include timing indications in the score yet does have a digital clock on screen, writing additional timing cue points into your score is an excellent practice—creating an additional guide and helping you to ensure greater tempo accuracy throughout the performance of the piece.
The Film Operator is your best friend!
Each movie in concert comes with a film operator who runs everything on the technical side. Get to know this person as soon as possible and be very nice to them as they will be your most valuable lifeline in case of any issues. This person has more than likely run the film for dozens of other orchestras and is therefore very aware of any potential tricky spots and may be able to suggest tips to help navigate these sections (i.e. manually turning off the click on a particular cue with a very inconsistent click).
Rehearsing a movie
During the rehearsal, you will either have a talk-back mic or an iPad on a stand, enabling you to control the starting and stopping of the movie in rehearsal. If you have a talk-back mic, you will speak into it to ask the film operator to start/stop the film or go back to a particular measure number in a cue. Usually the operator has a limited number of starting points within a given cue at which he or she can start and stop the film. This means, unlike a normal rehearsal, you may have limited options with regards to where you can start the orchestra and click. If you are working with an iPad system, the touch screen will show you cue numbers as well as different measure numbers from which you can start the film. In either situation, always give the orchestra a couple bars of click before asking them to play. If, for example, your iPad/film operator’s start point is 3M1 measure 58 tell the orchestra, “The click is beginning at measure 58, orchestra is in at measure 60.”
Most movies are allotted between one and three rehearsals before the first performance. Having a rehearsal plan in advance is critical to ensure the successful preparation of a movie. Remember that the limitations on start positions in a given cue may require more time to work on sections than you may be used to.
It is always best to use the final rehearsal as a run-through without any stopping. You may, of course, still skip over large breaks between cues in the movie, but allow the orchestra to feel what the timing is like during some of the more consecutive cues so that they are aware of how much or little downtime they may have between certain sections.
Now go have fun on your new adventure!