Monday, November 14, 2011

Hugo and the Orchestrion

Late this past summer I received a call from Howard Shore, who was then in London working on Hugo with Martin Scorsese. I’m not even sure it was public knowledge that Shore was on the project at that point. Maybe it was. He’d been involved for a while; in fact, he’d even visited the set when he and I were in London in September 2010 for the release of The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films and the Royal Albert performance of The Return of the King. By the time we met up in Luzern in March, he was deep into the writing – if you attended the Skype lecture at the KKL, those were Hugo sketches he quickly flashed before the camera’s eye.

Orchestrion Detail
Regardless, it wasn’t the score itself he was calling about. Rather it was a bit of source music that had proven to be a sticky wicket for the post-production team. In mixing the source music – that is, the music in the film that comes from an on-screen source – the post team had used a recording of Strauss’ Radetzky March. However, appropriate to the world of Hugo, this Radetzky was performed by an orchestrion. An orchestrion is a sort of a self-contained automated orchestra. Complete with internal pipe organs, triangles, snare drums, xylophones, and bell-striking automatons, orchestrions were all the rage in nineteenth century Europe. Hugo takes places in Paris in the early twentieth century, and its plot is partially constructed around a mysterious automaton left behind by the central character’s father. So you can pretty easily trace the team’s thoughts. This was the perfect sound for the film.

They had located a French recording of an orchestrion playing Radetzky, and it was everything they wanted. The tone was right, the energy was right, the orchestrion on the recording was even of the correct period. However, as is often the case, there was a catch. For one reason or another, the recording could not be licensed, thus it was unusable in the film. But the performance was so perfect, the team decided that, rather than seek out a different recording of a different orchestrion, they would try to track down the actual orchestrion used in the original recording.

The instrument had gone to a private collector in France, but after that it was sold into another private collection in the States. This collection, as it turned out, was located on the north side of Chicago, not too terribly far from my home. Since I was nearby, Shore asked if I’d be interested in producing a new recording of the orchestion for Hugo.

I said “yes” … which was strange, because I was actually thinking “yesyesyesyesyes!”

The orchestrion was now in a collection belonging to the Sanfillipo Estate. The Sanfilippos had made their fortune as the owners of Fisher Nuts. Along the way, the family had begun collecting orchestrions, and player pianos, and phonographs. They own the world’s largest restored theater organ, which resides in a room full of chandeliers and art glass, and is just a stone’s throw from the building that houses their salon carousel. The collection, which you can see in the video below, is truly a sight to behold.

I immediately got in touch, but found there was another issue. Yes, the orchestrion was here, yes they were happy to participate … but no one was sure where the Radetzky book was. Orchestrions, as I would learn, read perforated pages like player pianos. However, orchestrion books, unlike piano scrolls, fold end-to-end in tall rectangular heaps, thus are referred to as "books." There was no time to create a new Radetzky book since the Hugo producers needed the new recording before the second half of September. The clock was running. The original French owners were contacted to see if the book had indeed been shipped with the instrument years ago. (It had, they said.) Other private collectors in the States were contacted, though their numbers were prohibitively small. Finally, the book was found in the back of a Sanfilippo storage room along with other non-musical materials that had come over from France when the instrument was originally obtained. We had what we needed!

So, on the afternoon of September 8, I met my recording engineer, Josh Richter of Victorian Recording, at the Sanfilippo’s Place de la Musique to record the same orchestrion that had played the Radetzky that the filmmakers had loved so much. As we set up a couple of high-tolerance ribbon mics, Gregory Leifel, the Foundation Director who oversees the collection like a proud papa, cheerfully warned us: “Stand back!” The instrument was shockingly loud – charmingly so, of course, but if you weren’t ready for the slap-in-the-face dynamics of the live performance, you could easily be caught unprepared.

After a few runs, we stepped over to the on-site recording studio and quickly mastered what we’d captured. We tweaked the tempo, shifted the pitch a few cents, and warmed up the recording until I felt it was a close enough match for the original. It was quick work. Once Josh and I were pleased with the results, we began uploading the audio files and Pro Tools elements. While we waited, I was given a private tour of the Sanfilippo’s collection, which is every bit as beautiful as it is extensive. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated the time they took with me. They’re clearly quite proud of their collection, and they have every reason to be.

Josh soon texted me that the files had all been successfully uploaded to the server, so I started back home to inform the production that we were all set on our end (ahead of schedule and under budget!) I heard back almost immediately: the new Radetzky was a perfect fit!

Last week I received my confirmation that our Radetzky recording is in the final Hugo edit. It only lasts about ten seconds, but it takes over the soundscape during its moment upon the stage, and fills the entire 7.1 mix ... and it's still really loud! You'll know it when you hear it. Maybe it’s not really much in the long run, but it was a chance to be a part of a Scorsese film, an excuse to see a truly outstanding collection of instruments … and it will be my first on-screen credit in a studio film. I'm incredibly honored to have been asked to assist, and incredibly proud to be associated – even in a tiny way – with such a wonderful project.

Thanks to Howard Shore, Jennifer Dunnington, the Sanfilippo Estate, Gregory Leifel, Josh Richter, and Alan Frey for helping to coordinate this project. I’ll be back with more Hugo talk in the near future … and maybe a little Hobbit news, you know, just to justify our URL!

blog comments powered by Disqus
Image copyrights and trademarks are held by their respective owners and their use is allowed under the fair use clause of the Copyright Law | Original Blog Content Copyright 2007 - 2012 Middle D, Inc. | Original Blog Template by www.blogerthemes.net