A film composer scores a silent-film rerelease.
Joe May's 1921 action/thriller masterpiece The Indian Tomb has long been considered one of the greatest cinematic epics of all time. Budgeted at more than 20 million German marks (a very large sum at the time), this lavish two-part adventure film takes place in an atmospheric Indian setting of romantic imagination, complete with mystical yogis and dancing girls, ornate palaces and temples, roaring tigers, and hissing cobras. (The "authentic Indian locations" were filmed in Germany at May's 50-acre "film city.")
The legendary Conrad Veidt heads a large cast while having a field day as Ayan, the charismatic, sadistic Maharajah of Bengal. Written by Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou, the serial-style plot has Ayan carrying out an elaborate plan of revenge against his wife and her English lover. With the aid of a reluctant high yogi, Ayan brings a European architect to his palace under a cloud of secrecy to design a massive tomb, just so the evil Maharajah can supply the occupant! The architect's girlfriend (played by Mia May, Joe May's wife) follows him to India and immediately catches Ayan's licentious eye. Thus begins a roller-coaster ride of tense climaxes and assorted plot devices that include sexual extortion, man-eating tigers, exotic festivals, and chases across a crocodile-infested lake (see Fig. 1).
Long unavailable, a new, definitive version of The Indian Tomb has been digitally mastered for the home-video market by David Shepard, who is internationally known for his work in preserving classic silent films.
In restoring this visually stunning masterpiece to its former glory, Shepard faced many challenges, not the least of which was coming up with more than three and a half hours of appropriate music to match the exotic and sometimes fantastic action taking place on screen. When budget considerations ruled out such niceties as original scoring and the use of a live orchestra, Shepard turned to me. Working with a modest collection of home-studio gear (located in one corner of the family room), I previously supplied Shepard with electronic scores for the films of diverse screen personalities such as Buster Keaton, Boris Karloff, Clara Bow, and Koko the Clown.
As most people know, the so-called silent films were never actually shown in silence. Even in the earliest nickelodeon days, theaters provided a piano or small string ensemble to play during the performance. In many instances, the music bore little or no relationship to what was happening on screen. Later, as films became longer and more sophisticated, it became apparent that the right choice of music was a key factor in making the proper emotional connection between the film and its audience. Early blockbusters such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and The Battle Cry of Peace (1916) had specially prepared scores performed by full orchestras.
At about the same time, music publishers began to offer special incidental mood music specifically written for picture use. By the end of the silent-film era, "photoplay music" was available for almost any situation or setting likely to be encountered on screen (see Fig. 2). Rendered obsolete by sound films, most of this specialized material disappeared into landfills or scrap-paper drives years ago. While I was still a music performance major in college, I unexpectedly came across a stack of silent-movie music in a thrift store. For 25 cents, I bought the entire lot. When I showed the music to my classmates and professors and declared that someday I would like to synchronize music to silent films, they thought I was crazy.
Undaunted, I began to collect anything related to the music used in silent-film theaters. My collection received a significant boost a few years later when a man in Iowa answered an ad I'd placed that asked for old film music. His reply stated that he had a complete library - more than 4,000 orchestral arrangements - that had come from an old theater and asked if I was interested. I couldn't get the check to him fast enough!
At first I prepared scores and parts for classic films such as Phantom of the Opera and Buster Keaton's The General. Through my company, Cine-Phonic Music Service, I rented those scores to major symphony orchestras in the United States and Canada for silent-film concerts. In 1996, Shepard called me to do an electronic score for a video release of Douglas Fairbanks' 1922 smash hit Robin Hood. Before I even finished the project, I realized that I had found my calling.
Although it was longer and more complex than my previous assignments for Shepard, the score for The Indian Tomb followed the same general process as the others. Here's a brief description of how I created the score.
THE BREAKDOWNWork officially began with the arrival of the film on a videotape workprint striped with SMPTE time code. The tape included a time-code window that allowed me to identify the exact location of any scene or piece of action in terms of hours, minutes, seconds, and frames. After screening the film once so I could become familiar with its plot, characters, and action highlights, I went back and broke down the movie into sequences. The running time for each sequence was then computed in minutes, seconds, and frames.
That information became the first draft of the cue sheet that would eventually serve as the blueprint for the entire soundtrack. The cue sheet, however, was subject to frequent revisions during music selection and editing. Often, I combined several sequences or broke down a long sequence into shorter segments. The final cue sheet consisted of 205 sequences running from a few seconds to several minutes in length.
THE SELECTION PROCESSSilent films that are released on video have scores using everything from rock and avant-garde to new-age music. But because I'm a stickler for authenticity, I insist that the score be composed of music that is contemporary with the film. The Indian Tomb initially played theaters in 1921 and 1922, so I limited myself to the music that would have been in print at or before that time.
In keeping with the film's Eastern setting, I began my search in the Oriental section of my music library. Rimsky-Korsakov's Antar Symphony provided the haunting theme that I used for Veidt's Ayan character. I underscored the big festival scene, featuring multitudes of soldiers, elephants, and horses, using "March of the Mogul Emperors" from Elgar's Crown of India Suite. "Patrol of the Boxers" by Irenee Berge, composer of many silent-film themes, accompanied a journey by elephant train to the tomb site.
To acknowledge the film's German origin, I worked in quotations from Wagner's Ein Faust Overture and the funeral music from Gotterdaemerung. Rimsky-Korsakov's Le Coq d'Or and Ippolitov-Ivanov's Caucasian Sketches provided material for some of the more mysterious moments. One important action sequence uses "Orgies of the Spirits" by Ilynsky, a selection often heard in 1930s adventure films such as the Flash Gordon serials. I also employed selections from Delibes's opera Lakame, Cesar Cui's Orientale, and Berge's Oriental Suite to good effect.
Rounding out the score were silent-film standbys such as "Weird Oriental Theme" by Sol P. Levy, "Sunrise and Incantations" by Gaston Borch, and "La Foret Perfide" by Gabriel-Marie. (The fact that all of this music was in the public domain was another bonus for producer Shepard.) As I selected music, I matched it to sequences on the cue sheet. Often, the music for a given sequence had to be changed several times before I felt that it evoked the proper mood and feeling (see Fig. 3).
Using Coda's Finale music-notation program, I sequenced the individual instrumental parts using the original orchestrations. For its audio output, my PC-based home studio relies primarily on a collection of E-mu sound modules, including a Proteus 2000, two Proteus/2s, and an ESI-32 sampler. The outputs from the sound modules are routed to a Mackie 1402 VLZ 14-channel mixer, and the combined signal is sent to a Lexicon Alex effects processor, which adds the approximate ambience of a medium-size theater (see Fig. 4).
My ultimate goal was to emulate the sound of a small pit orchestra that might have been used in a medium-size theater in the 20th century's second and third decades. Through trial and error, I came up with a combination of instrument voices that blended well together. For The Indian Tomb, this nucleus "orchestra" had to be expanded to accommodate the lush Oriental numbers, which often made prominent use of bassoon, oboe, and English horn. With so many instruments playing at once, extra care was required to balance individual voices to achieve as realistic a sound as possible. Following the sequencing and mixing process, I edited the music to match the running times listed on the cue sheet.
THE RECORDINGMy hard drive recording setup consists of a second PC equipped with a Digital Audio Labs CardD Plus sound card and an Opcode Music Quest MQX-32M card that generates the SMPTE time code. Innovative Quality Software's SAW multitrack program provides the four stereo tracks that I need as well as the time-code support.
Throughout the recording session for The Indian Tomb, my son Bret, a high school senior and computer whiz, handled the recording and editing chores while I looked after the virtual orchestra. Recording was done at a sampling rate of 48 kHz. Once the music was finished, a few key sound effects were dropped into place. After playback in interlock with the video, only a few minor corrections were left to be made.
The final step was to record the composite soundtrack (music and sound effects) onto DAT for final delivery. As an extra courtesy to the producer, I used SAW to generate a 44.1 kHz WAV file of the composite track, which I used to burn an audio CD. I provided that CD along with the videotape to Shepard as a producer's advance copy. By starting the CD and videotape together, Shepard could preview the soundtrack in reasonably close sync with the picture before going into the studio for the final playback. (We jokingly refer to those CDs as Vitaphone disks, after the early sound-on-disk playback system used in theaters during the late 1920s.)
With The Indian Tomb safely transferred, I had one last chore to perform: coming up with a name for the "orchestra" for the credits at the end of the film. For past projects, most of the names have been in-jokes having to do with the movie or its star. (For Robin Hood, my electronic musicians were billed as the Elton Thomas Orchestra, a reference to the pen name Douglas Fairbanks used for his film scripts.) After much serious consideration, I finally decided that The Indian Tomb orchestra would be billed as the Tiger Hof Kapelle. In the film's original German titles, Tiger Hof was the walled enclosure in which Ayan kept his pack of murderous pet tigers.
FADE OUTWith all of my Finale orchestra files backed up onto a CD, I began to think about the music for my next assignment for Shepard: a trio of films about the Civil War produced by Thomas Ince from 1913 to 1915.
My success in producing composite soundtracks for commercial video releases of silent films demonstrates that owning a room full of expensive gear is not necessary to be a viable player in the electronic-music field. Primarily through trial and error, I've learned how to make the most of a very basic studio setup, which has provided me access to an area that I find personally and financially rewarding.
I'm constantly working to refine my technique and to gain an even better understanding of what my modest system is capable of. Following the completion of each project, I make a point to reinvest some of the profits into system upgrades and perhaps one or two new components to increase my studio's capabilities.