Hanging out with the Ewoks at Skywalker Ranch's scoring stage
While the rest of the fine Hitfix staff is at Comic-Con in San Diego this week, I will be at the Canary Islands off the coast of Spain covering a film music conference. But as my small contribution to Comic-Con, I wanted to write about my recent day up at George Lucas's Skywalker Ranch in Marin County outside of San Franciso, where I watched composer Shawn Clement record his score for "Quantum Quest."
Clement will speak at Comic-Con on July 23 at noon on a panel dedicated to "Quantum Quest: A Cassini Space Odyssey" with the movie's co-director and writer/producer Dr. Harry Kloor. The CGI-animated film is a fascinating hybrid of science fiction and science fact. The made-up story has elements of fact that are based on real data collected from seven NASA missions.
The film, sponsored by both the Jet Propulsion Lab and NASA, is the tale of a photon named Dave and his battle to keep from being destroyed by the Void. The Void, as you may imagine, is the evil force (in a nice inside joke, he's voiced by Mark Hamill). The Core fights the Void to save the solar system. In addition to Hamill, a number of other actors associated with Sci-Fi movies voice characters, Robert Picardo, William Shatner, Chris Pine, Brent Spiner and Sarah Michelle Gellar. Oh yeah, a real astronaut, Neil Armstrong, also appears.
But back to Skywalker Ranch. It was my first time there and I have to admit, I expected a bit of a theme-park feel: garbage cans shaped like R2D2, Yoda signposts, the "Star Wars" theme piped throughout or Indiana Jones sandwich in the commissary. I was wrong. Other than Lake Ewok (where there is no evidence of any ewoks) and a teeny tiny gift shop that you have to know somebody to figure out where it is, the ranch is elegant and understated (my favorite part was in what's referred to as The Main House, which holds a 13,000-volume library complete with a librarian. It's there, behind glass, that Indiana Jones' whip and fedora are kept, as are the light sabres from "Star Wars."
As you may know, scoring stages are disappearing around the U.S. as more and more scores are recorded in cheaper, non-union locales like Poland. Only three remain in L.A. at Sony, Fox and Warner Bros.; over the last few years, both Paramount and Todd AO shut down, according to Dan Goldwasser, who runs a very cool website, www.scoringsessions.com.
At Skywalker Ranch, the scoring stage feels grand and stately and like magic could and does happen there. When we arrived, Clement, in a cap and t-shirt, jeans and a plaid shirt, was in the booth watching a 77-piece orchestra bring his notes to life. There is something majestic about watching a conductor, with the fluid motion of a baton, bring a cinematic swell of woodwinds into the air. There's a constant flurry of activity between takes as the score is consulted and the conductor checks with Clements.
Scores are recorded a few bars as the conductor watches an action sequence over and over. So there were a lot of starts and stop, so the magic reoccurs over and over. The soaring, sweeping strength of so many instruments together is impactful and emotional in a way that few things are. With the change of direction from the conductor-such as making the piatti more of a crash than a slice-completely alters the mood. It's altogether breathtaking and humbling. It's easy to feel very small when you're surrounded by sound on a 70' by 80' sound stage.
To hear more about the score or Clement's other work, go see him at Comic Con. It will be worth your while.