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July 29, 2021

Bringing Movies to Life

Principal Pops Conductor Jack Everly on the process of conducting a live film

Principal Pops Conductor Jack Everly on the process of conducting a live film

We all know the importance of music in a movie, even if we aren’t always paying attention to it. But without it, the attack scene in Jaws or the fighting scenes in Star Wars just aren’t the same. As part of its yearly Bank of America Film Series, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra brings movies to life on a big screen hanging above the stage as the orchestra plays the musical score live. For Principal Pops Conductor Jack Everly, the experience of presenting these films to the audience is a delight.

Though millions of movies exist, only about 100 of them are available for orchestras to play with a live screening of the film. These films range from old musicals such as Singin’ in the Rain and Wizard of Oz to newer releases such as La La Land and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. “Movies are part of some of my best childhood memories, and it’s a reason why many of our patrons attend,” says Everly. “Those old MGM movie classics and films like American in Paris and Casablanca have such amazing musical scores. They demand to be played with a symphony orchestra.”

Showing the movies to the audience may sound simple, but the preparation process is far from easy. For each movie, Everly spends two to three months studying the film and the score. He watches it countless times, noting bits of dialogue in the score and marking down important themes and cues. “I’ve been lucky to conduct a lot of films and I do love them,” he says, “but the amount of time preparing the score and studying the film is enormous. When it comes to scores by John Williams, there are multiple themes that represent a moment, a place, or a character, and those need to be communicated through the music.”

Making movie magic

Coordinating the music, the more than 80 musicians on stage, and the pacing of the edits in the film require a number of tools. At the conductor’s podium above the printed score is a computer screen that shows Everly the film, and it is loaded with visual cues. Vertical lines called streamers cross the screen from left to right to indicate tempos and when to start and stop, in addition to white circles called punches flashing the tempo on the screen. The upper corner has words that give the beats and downbeat preparation cues, and he also wears an ear piece that gives him a click track with tempo. All this is in addition to the printed score that he has marked with his notes. “I work on the redundancy theory,” Everly says. “I used to work in musical theatre, so I know it’s better to have plenty of information available from many sources.”

When older films were produced, the music was not meant to be separated from the film. The process of removing the orchestra from a movie and keeping the vocals and sound in the movie is a painstakingly slow process. When the ISO shows older movies that were recorded in the 1930s and 1940s—such as the Wizard of Oz—Everly relies on an analog clock in the corner of his screen. He carefully marks notes in his music, down to the split second, of where to bring the orchestra in or cut them off. “Dance sequences sometimes don’t have a steady tempo,” he explains, “so sometimes if you’re out of sync by just half a second, you’re out of sync when the vocals come back in. And that can be terrifying. You want to be in perfect sync when Burt Lahr comes in with ‘If I Were King of the Forest,’ for example.” Everly says that Wizard of Oz presents its own set of challenges, especially in the “Munchkinland Sequence.” “During the filming and editing of that part, a beat was dropped somewhere,” he says. “You don’t notice it while watching, but boy you notice it with a live orchestra. I have to listen to that part a thousand times to know how to conduct that section. It takes a lot of study and doing your homework.”

While older films may have editing issues, newer films can bring their own special challenges. In Return of the Jedi, for example, the score barely stops in the second half of the film. “This is a particularly demanding movie for the musicians,” says Everly, “because there are only 2 minutes and 14 seconds in the entire second half that does not have music. Most of the musical cues are consecutive, leaving the musicians no time to take a break and catch their breath. It’s pretty much like ‘fasten your seatbelts—here we go!’” But what keeps the musicians and Everly going during those complicated moments and hours of tedious rehearsals are the reactions of the audience. “We can hear them cheering and applauding for their favorite parts and it just feels great. When John Williams was here in 2018 and conducted ‘The Imperial March’ from Star Wars, people shrieked like they were at a rock concert. This is hard and demanding music, but to hear the satisfaction and joy of the audience is an amazing feeling.”

Watch Jack explain the process of aligning the orchestra with a film: