Last Sunday I found myself in a wonderfully creative environment with a team of eight high school students who were creating a film, in just 64 hours. Not just a film -- a musical!
I was there to add some acoustic violin to the sound mix.
Another reason I was there: the director of the team was my son, Brian Niles, a senior cinematic arts major at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. This was his fourth "64-Hour" film, so by now he understood how to assemble a team and how quickly they need to complete each task: write a script, write the songs, record the songs, cast the movie, find the locations, get the costumes and props, shoot the scenes, assemble the video and audio, edit, do special effects, colorize.
It kind of blows my mind.
They randomly drew their topic at 4 p.m. on Friday, from a list of completely zany "genres." This year, his team (the "Space Bandits") drew "Oregon Trail: the Video Game, the Film, the Musical." (A few of the other topics: Kanye Western; Apocalyptic TED Talk Film; 1980’s Japanese Theme Park Family Vacation Cult Film ...) This is the second time he has been on a team that has drawn a musical. As a mom, I was thinking, it's a good thing I made him take those 10 years of piano lessons and pushed him to sing in the chorus...
But even better: this time they had a music major on their team - a composer and vocalist named Charlotte Mirkovich.
By the time I reached their base camp (they'd brought their equipment and were staying all weekend at one student's house) it was Sunday. They were past the shooting and well into the editing phase. My son and some others were in one bedroom editing video, and Charlotte was in another, editing music.
As I was unpacking my fiddle she said from the computer, "Let me just loop this, and see what you think would work." She made the loop, got it playing so I could listen and learn it, then left the room to consult about which mic would work best for the violin.
She already had recorded the singers (she was one of them; fellow music student Sara Watson was the other), and I was listening to the completed vocal tracks, with temporary backup to show the harmonies. She was composing the music in Ableton Live 9, a software program that allows for a fairly improvisatory musical process but then provides a lot of finely detailed options for editing. She had written three songs (in one night!) for the musical, using her own voice and synthesized backup, so that the actors could listen and quickly learn and record their own parts. They recorded the vocals on Friday night then used those tracks for shooting the scenes the next day, so they could lip-sync the musical numbers.
Everything about this very compressed process was practical, I mused, all focused on the end product. The irony of digital natives like my son and his friends is that their comfort and competence with technology actually allows them to get back to creating and composing in a very natural way: sing it, do it, record it. Fix it and do it again, until it's just right. I could see, just from the set-up, Charlotte was obviously very adept at this style of music-making.
As I listened, I noodled around until I found the notes that worked. Then I simply played around, making up descants and other accompanying figures. Charlotte came back into the room and sat at the computer. Occasionally she would hook into a figure - "That -- I like that!" she said. "Can you do that, but change it just a little here..."
She would sing, and I would adjust. While I latching on to the harmonies and musical figures she'd written, she was also tuned into the words of the songs, so occasionally she wanted to do something to emphasize a word or turn of phrase, or to parallel the vocal line.
She recorded our efforts on her phone, so we could recall those things we liked best when we wanted to record them for the soundtrack a few minutes later.
Before recording, I told her that I'd like to tune my fiddle to match whatever pitch system the program was using (I'm usually around a 442, so I was sensing correctly that I needed to be little lower). Lo and behold, the computer had a built-in tuner, so I could tune every string straight into that pitch world.
When we settled on what she liked, we recorded it, with a microphone that she held in her hand. I put on the headphones so that I could hear the other parts and play along. "Do you want the metronome?" she asked, as she could add in a click track to help me align with the beat. I found it helpful.
With each take, my little sound wave created a new line in the editing page on the screen. We recorded each one several different ways, and she could use several or just one of the tracks. Then we moved on to the next phrase, recording each separately. This is nice when you're doing everything by ear, without writing anything down! The very last thing we invented was an introduction to the song.
Somewhere in the middle of this process, I realized that I hadn't thought at all about what notes I was playing, what key we were in, or the time signature. I stopped for a second to compute that, and it was all very straightforward: 4/4, C major, normal harmonic changes. No matter, the point is that this was certainly a different process for a lifelong classical musician, accustomed to reading from sheet music!
I realized that, with the education she was getting at their arts high school in theory and vocal arts, Charlotte would be well-versed in both strains of knowledge: the traditional as well as the technological. What a powerful combination.
When we finished, she played back the entire song. Other members of the team wandered into the room and listened, "Oh that adds so much!" they said happily. They really seemed to like that acoustic touch. I was happy to that my 200-year-old violin retains its special ability to pull at the heartstrings, even in the digital age!
* * *
Here is the completed film, "The Oregon Trail," which won "Best Film" and "Audience Favorite" in the 64-Hour Film Festival at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. I think it will make you smile, enjoy!
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