by Dan Goldwasser
This week, Peter Jackson's ambitious remake of King Kong hits movie theaters worldwide. James Newton Howard came on board late in post-production, leaving him with only about 5 weeks to write, record, mix and deliver almost three hours of music. With Jackson and his team down in New Zealand, and James Newton Howard and his team in Los Angeles, getting it all done on time would mean that a lot of technology would have to be called into play.
James Newton Howard got the King Kong assignment on October 14th, 2005, and immediately began writing themes for the film. His studio, located in Santa Monica, California, was outfitted with a modest DSL connection for their internet access. After talking with the team in New Zealand, it was determined that the Santa Monica studio would need to be upgraded with a T1 for high-speed Internet access, to transmit files and video conferencing, and ISDN to deliver an audio stream to New Zealand. After calling the local carrier, they were told that it would take about a week to get done - but they needed it sooner. Tiffany Jones at Universal Studios made a few calls, and the next day, a team came down to install a microwave transmitter/receiver on the roof of the studio - providing them with "wireless T1".
Howard's Supervising Technical Assistant, Stuart Thomas, explained that just prior to getting the call for King Kong they had purchased a DigiDelivery server, created by DigiDesign - the same people who created ProTools. . Digidelivery is a self-contained, self-managed automated distribution server. Files are uploaded to the server, and then the intended recipients are automatically notified. Once they download the file locally, it is deleted off of the server, which also happens automatically. Everything is done securely, with encryption. Thomas explained, "It was a trial by fire! We had gotten the system just two days before Kong landed in our laps!"
According to New Zealand-based Music Coordinator Nigel Scott, before DigiDelivery was up and running, they were delivering video and audio using Aspera, a new file transfer technology. It would take less than 30-minutes to deliver 3GB of data across the ocean, but ironically they had to wait two hours to get the material delivered to Universal by courier! In the end, DigiDelivery worked very well for their needs.
The newly installed ISDN lines allowed James Newton Howard to provide a music feed to New Zealand, for Peter Jackson to listen to. Using a Dolby Digital AC-2 encoder and decoder running off two ISDN lines, good quality stereo audio could be sent in both directions in realtime. Paired with an IS -1 synchronizer on both ends, audio and timecode would be transmitted. This allowed Jackson's ProTools rig in New Zealand to "chase" the timecode streamed by Howard's - and as such, he would watch the video footage with music, synched up to the image . In addition, the system compensates for the latency created by the ISDN feed.
During the writing process, Peter Jackson and James Newton Howard would talk face to face over a video conferencing system called Polycom. This set-top device connects using a standard Internet connection, and it was used in such a way that Peter can see and talk to James while he's working on the score. They could then go over cues listening through the ISDN system described above, and make any changes that were needed.
For the first week of the project, the Polycom system wasn't set up. As such, they used iChat - but due to a firewall issue, the computer had to be directly patched into the T1 connection. This was also before the ISDN line had been installed, thus rendering the Santa Monica studio without any email or Internet access! "Thankfully, it only had to be done four or five times," recalls Thomas.
In the past, Jackson has almost always attended the scoring sessions for the film. But with the release date looming, and post-production still churning away, it would not have made sense for him to fly 30-hours round trip to attend scoring sessions in Los Angeles. Earlier on in the process, Howard sent his long-time Music Editor Jim Weidman down to New Zealand. He also felt it would be useful to have a composer in New Zealand to represent him in ways that Weidman was unable to do so. Blake Neely (Everwood, The Wedding Date) was sent down to New Zealand so that any minor revisions requested by Jackson could be realized and demonstrated without taking precious time away from Howard who was busy writing the score. As Neely puts it, "James proved unbelievably prolific and fast on Kong, so my role became less active in this capacity, and more about being there 'just in case'."
During the recording process, things ramped up a notch. Howard was still writing the score when recording at Sony began, and as such, there was a 3-way feed going on. Howard could be working at his studio in Santa Monica, and monitor the live feed from the scoring stage - at the same time, Peter Jackson could listen to the feed as well - and he and Howard could talk through the Polycom system. Through some creative thinking by the engineers in the studio control rooms, both Peter and James were able to communicate with the conductor and the orchestra as if they were sitting right in the control room.,They never quite knew exactly when he was listening in, and on at least one occasion, he surprised them by chiming in on a discussion that they weren't aware he was listening to! In the end, though, Howard attended most of the sessions, so this three-way approach was rarely used.
Weidman would normally sit in on the Polycom sessions, listening to the score as recording commenced. Whenever a cue was ready for review, he would run across the hall where Jackson was busy with the final mix, and pull him in for feedback. According to Nigel Scott, "Peter himself commented that it felt almost as if he were in the control room of the studio in LA."
King Kong was scoring at the same time as John Williams' score to Munich, as well as other film projects. With a limited number of session players available - and stages - Kong had to move from Sony to Todd AO, and then to the Newman Stage at 20th Century Fox. Fox Stage Engineer Bill Talbot recalls that they had about seven hours to do two-days worth of installations, getting the stage ready for Kong.
After five weeks of writing, recording, mixing, and delivering - all remotely - Kong was finally locked. "Without all this technology the score couldn't have been completed in the amount of time we had," recalled Howard. "Being able to have what amounts to a face-to-face meeting with Peter through video conferencing was an invaluable part of the process. We had to move an unbelievable amount of digital material: sending my demo mixes, receiving video from New Zealand and delivering the final 5.1 music mixes- all of which we did entirely over the internet. As more and more projects are completed outside of Hollywood, I'm sure I'll be increasingly reliant on technology to facilitate the process." Peter Jackson and James Newton Howard recorded nearly three hours of music for a major studio film - and never met in-person until the premiere in New York City last week. As the technology improves, more and more overseas productions will be able to record remotely here in Los Angeles, and it's quite possible that entire films could be made without a single person meeting.
The soundtrack to King Kong is available on Decca Records, and the film opens this week. For more information on DigiDelivery, visit their website. For additional information on Polycom, visit their site. Special thanks to Stuart Thomas, Nigel Scott, Blake Neely, Bill Talbot, Annica Ackerman, and James Newton Howard for their assistance with this article.
Photo of Peter Jackson watching Polycom is from KongIsKing.net