Live Cinema: Would Kubrick approve?

Screening films with live orchestration is technically demanding. Tim Stevens, BFI’s head of business development and production, describes the experience of producing one such large-scale live project — 2001: A Space Odyssey


Even silent cinema was rarely silent. In the early days, film relied on live musical accompaniment to provide mood and to mask the whir of the projectors. When the Lumiere brothers put on the first ever public cinema screening in 1895, their films were accompanied by a guitarist to provide a suitable soundtrack to this new medium. But then technology moved on and the talkies took over, adding sound to the films.

Live music and cinema went their separate ways for almost a century and only in recent years are they back together: the live cinema experience has been reborn. From the reappraisal of old silent classics with contemporary re-scores, to symphony orchestras filling concert halls with live versions of new theatrical releases, everywhere you look today you can experience film with a live soundtrack. This phenomenon now seems to have come full circle, and it has been made possible, in part, by the recent digital revolution in cinema technology.

the  high-quality option

When the BFI and Southbank Centre commissioned the live concert version of Stanley Kubrick’s celebrated classic 2001: A Space Odyssey in 2010 there were very few of these large scale live cinema events. The commission was made possible by significant investment by the Royal Society. 2010 marked the 350th anniversary of the organisation and to celebrate they put together a science and arts festival at the Southbank Centre. For us at the BFI, the project was a no-brainer: one of the greatest films of all time with a beautiful and terrifying score that included music from the past and the present.

The result is breathtaking: a full symphony orchestra and choir perform the music live as the film plays in full. It’s a seamless theatrical cinema experience with the addition of 95 musicians and a 64-voice choir onstage, all kept precisely in time with the film by the conductor. First premiered at the Royal Festival Hall, it has since been to more than 20 concert halls across the world and has been watched by an audience of more than 85,000 people.

In 2015, we produced the show at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles to an audience of 12,329. It was a magical evening and one which I will never forget, but every time I see the show I always have a voice in the back of my head asking the same question: “What would Stanley think?” Sometimes I shudder and imagine his anger — why meddle with a masterpiece? Or would he be happy to see his film given new life, new voice? In more confident moments I hope he would approve. Our ambition was always to present the film to the highest possible standards.

a truly unique experience

What interests me about the modern film concert is that it has the ability to create a one-off experience for audiences. These events cannot be replicated on the small screen or in multiplexes. Their ambition and scale demands the best musicians, the best conductors, the largest venues and most importantly for cinema, the best possible technical presentation.

In many respects, the technical aspects of the project have been the hardest of all to overcome. Unsurprisingly, the only venues big enough to house a symphony orchestra and choir are concert halls. By committing to this project, we were immediately not showing the film as it was intended. A live show, by it’s very nature, changes the experience, and if you are not careful it quickly becomes an experience that is not cinema. Added to this, we were also dealing with one of the greatest films ever produced, made by one of the most talented and exacting practitioners the industry has ever known. For this project especially, the presentation of the film had to be at the very centre of our ambitions.

Warner Bros and Jan Harlan (Kubrick’s brother-in-law and long time collaborator/ producer) were both incredibly supportive from the outset. They understood the scale of what we were trying to achieve and trusted that the BFI and Southbank Centre were the right organisations to be able to do the project justice.

the technical challenge ahead

Our first major task was to strip out the soundtrack from the film. The plan was to be able to create a new 2K DCP from the master scans in Burbank, but without any of the score. The dialogue, FX and foley all would need to remain on the DCP. Warner Bros in Burbank were willing to try, as they had previously made digital versions of the assets from the original analogue material.

The lead time for the premiere of the show was tight, and to be safe we needed a back-up in case the teams in California came back with unforeseen problems. We engaged with several sound designers to investigate whether it would be possible to cut out the music by using frequency filters and frame-by-frame analysis, but after much testing it became obvious that our only real solution would be to rely on the skills of the technical experts in Burbank. Thankfully they did what they set out to do and returned with a new concert version of the DCP which had no music recorded.

A series of potential pitfalls

The effectiveness of this process is dictated in the most part by the condition of the original film materials. We were lucky Warner Bros had a 70mm print and had already made separate digital stems of the music and sound. For older films, or ones which are lesser known, it is more of a gamble as the condition and location of the original material is likely to be less certain.

One of the biggest challenges when producing a live cinema experience on this scale is ensuring that DCI compliance is maintained. If you have the correct equipment, creating 14fL for 2D is easily done in a black box cinema. A concert hall is a different offering altogether: a space made from almost entirely light-reflecting wood, 159 people sitting on stage each with individually lit music stands, no installed screen, no cinema sound system, and no acoustic baffles. On the contrary, most concert halls are designed to create as much reverberation as possible in order to carry the acoustic tones of the instruments. The list of challenges  we faced is endless; these spaces were never designed to show film.

We collaborated with Motion Picture Solutions to achieve the best possible presentation of the picture. Ian Thomas and his team are masters of digital cinema and they were confident from the outset that we could achieve our ambitions. Within a concert hall venue a single Christie CP2230 is just about sufficient to get 14fL from the centre of the screen, but with all the players on stage and their individual music stand lights on it requires more output. To remedy this we double up and slave the second system so that both are firing simultaneously. The issue then is whether we have too much light hitting the screen and distorting the colour range and conformity. Each time we show the film, it’s essential to do the fine tuning with the orchestra in situ.

reaching new audiences

Live cinema concerts are now ubiquitous. The medium has become big business as commercial promoters, orchestras and distributors have realised the power the format holds to reach new audiences, re-invigorate back catalogue titles and promote new releases. Part of the challenge with the 2001: A Space Odyssey project was that it had to be the best it could possibly be.

Our focus from the very start was that the image and the sound both deserved to be presented to the highest possible standards. We wanted to speak to both film and music audiences, and show respect for both art forms. The growth of the market is encouraging to see but it comes with a warning: too often the art is compromised for the sake of ticket sales, and the first aspect to suffer is the film. Unfortunately I see this more often than not. Producers, promoters and technical experts must not lose sight of our duty to present films in the best possible way. When asked about how I ensure that projects don’t fall into that trap, it always helps to ask myself whether or not Mr Kubrick would approve.