Back in 2002, I interviewed composer Maribeth Solomon, who, with husband Micky Erbe, have scored most of the IMAX space films, right up to Space Station 3D.
In fact, it’s probably safe to say the composing team has written the most IMAX scores out of anyone. They are impeccably versed in the nuances of the format, and began their association with the company with its first film, North of Superior (1971), which was also edited by Toni Myers.
An accomplished editor, producer, writer, and director, Myers has seen IMAX progress to its current state as a large film format with films – short, medium, and feature-length – now screening in major commercial movie houses. Her best-known films are space-themed movies (Blue Planet, Hail Columbia!) as well as Rolling Stones Live: At the Max (1991), on which she served as co-editor, but it’s the recent underwater 3D diptych, Deep Sea 3D (2006) and nowUnder the Sea 3D (2009), that are getting attention for the fine balance between adventure, edification, and interactive fun.
Warner Bros. distributes a number of Myers’ work on DVD (there’s an all-space IMAX DVD boxed set, as well as the first trickle of some of those films on Blu-ray), but their involvement with the two underwater 3D films as sponsors has arguably brought more attention because of their commercial engagements outside of the more familiar museum venues.
Our conversation covers the themes of ecology and preservation within Myers’ work, and her collaborative relationship with composers Maribeth Solomon and Micky Erbe.
Mark R. Hasan: You’ve worked Maribeth Solomon and Micky Erbe for many years, and I wonder if you can explain why they’re so well-suited to score IMAX films, like your latest production,Under the Sea 3D (2009)?
Toni Myers: Our original film was North of Superior, which was made for the opening of Ontario Place in 1971, and at that point, that was my first encounter with them. We had a tiny budget, and they brought an incredible versatility… I asked them, ‘Please, can you something with this score?’ and I was enormously impressed with their adaptability to various ‘wild’ situations.
On that film we had Maribeth’s dad, Stanley Solomon; he played on Unders the Sea, and he’s ninety-two now.
MRH: What instrument did he play?
TM: He was Concert Master of the TSO [Toronto Symphony Orchestra] for years, and has played with Isaac Stern and everybody. He’s a viola, and he was first viola of the TSO. We also had Maribeth’s brother Lenny (he’s a fiddle player, and has a group called Bowfire), and Brian Leonard, who had played the percussion on North of Superior.
MRH: When I talked to people about that film, they always remember the opening, where there’s a driving percussion set to a small, standard 1.33:1 image, and then with a bang, the entire IMAX screen pops to life, six stories tall.
TM: My husband [Michael Myers] invented that opening. The percussion was foot peddle drums played by Brian Leonard for two minutes, and he practically broke his ankle on that.
Maribeth and Micky brought those kinds of people to the arena, and I just loved working with them. As we went along, we got bigger and bigger budgets and were able to utilize bigger parts of the TSO because of their connections. Micky is the arranger-conductor, so that all came with the package.
When you work with composers you develop a kind of shorthand language, in terms of a way of communicating. I’m not a musician, I don’t read music, so you have to develop a language where you’re communicating what it is you intend for a sequence, and you can do that partly through temp music – whatever you choose for that – but you don’t really want them to duplicate it; we’ve always had a great rapport, and found it very easy to work with one another.
MRH: Is there a specific stage when you bring in the composers, or do you have them write sketches?
TM: Well, in this case, we had a really short time-frame. We knew we had a post-production crunch because I didn’t even get the last footage ‘til late in November, and that was the last whole last expedition, but we pretty much knew that was going to happen.
We had the structure of the film pretty well defined, but in fact this time [the composers] had a music editor who just took care of the placement of everything. [Normally] I do very detailed cue sheets for each sequence, and then we kind of sit down and spot the film.
I already had a temp track on it, culled from all over the place. I knew that we wanted a world music feel to it, and that it wasn’t going to be a sort of classical score. We wanted to bring some of the flavour of Indonesia and the places we shot to it, but it needed to have a lyrical component as well.
I already had “Octopus’ Garden” on the end [sung by the composers' daughter, Leah Erbe], and Doris Day (“Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps”) in the middle, so certain things were defined, and boy, the score they eventually came up with totally blew me away. It is really rich, and I’m hoping to get a soundtrack organized for it. I can’t say right now if that’s going to happen, but I hope so.
MRH: As an editor, you have to deal with the music and the sound effects and the picture elements, but the 3D component deserves special consideration. I imagine that when cutting for 3D, there are certain ‘rules’ you have to observe because if certain transitions happen too fast, they can be overwhelming.
TM: There’s always a couple in every film that you can’t really avoid, but you do have to be careful in cutting from radically different focal lengths; sometimes it takes your eyes a minute to adjust.
MRH: You have a lot of subjects that move but stay within a certain depth of field.
TM: Yeah. I work in 2D when I’m editing, but we made a point of printing up to 70mm everything that we knew would be in the film and carrying that along, so when we got to a pretty much rough fine cut, then Julianne Brown and two other assistants match cut the 70mm (I work in Final Cut Pro) so they could take it down to the Scotiabank Theatre and look at it.
Basically there were no surprises, but you do have to be careful not to go to extreme close-ups suddenly from something that’s been a fairly wide sequence, because you can’t fuse your eyes to the change.
MRH: There are some really effective sequences, but I think my favourite involves the sea snakes, because there’s a moment where you eventually get three snakes that converge and get close and closer to the camera, almost drifting onto your lap, and it’s a great trick.
TM: Well, that wasn’t a trick, that’s what they did! What director Howard Hall said is that they liked the vibration of the camera, and that’s what attracts them, so whenever he turned the camera on, they had more snakes than they needed, although they had had to travel something on the order of six to eight hundred miles off from where they originally started looking for the snakes because they had all been fished out… It’s not exaggerating when the narration says most of them are handbags and shoes.
MRH: I noticed in this film, as well as in some of the other work you’ve done, that there’s an ecological theme going on, and I wonder if that’s deliberate, or is that just because of the circumstances of going to areas that are very unique, and how many seem to be threatened by various factors?
TM: First of all, on this one Alan Horn, the Chairman of Warner Bros. (our sponsor), is very active in the NRDC (National Resources Defence Council) and ocean conservation organizations, and it’s something he cares about deeply, and Howard Hall did want to embrace the theme of global warming affecting deep sea… Deep Sea 3D (2006) was really about over-fishing; that if you take away all the large animals, everything collapses.
In Under the Sea, he wanted to really speak about climate change affecting the oceans. A lot is published on its’ affecting the air we breathe and various other things, but in many cases it’s not really talking about the effect on the animals in the sea – the rising ocean temperatures, and ocean acidification, which is relatively new, but it’s only just begun to be measured by science in terms of the effect on calcium carbonate-based shells and coral.
Howard very much wanted to get that message across, but our mutual feeling has always been that you want to make these films to inspire people, especially young people; first, to see what an amazing environment it is and what incredible creatures inhabit it; and secondly, to inspire people to go out and find out more about it, and do something about it if they want to.
It is not the function of the film to tell people off; I think that there is a forum for a more in-depth explanation, which is television documentaries where you have a whole series, or even a channel devoted to such things. I think for the IMAX 3D experience, what it really is, is to introduce people to the amazing creatures who live in that world as a means of helping them understand that they won’t always be there unless we do something about it.
MRH: The early IMAX films perhaps had a similar functionality as the Cinerama films (like Seven Wonders of the World), which were designed to bring to people the sounds and images from places they weren’t generally able to visit in a large film format, but because of the increase in jet travel over the years and eco tourism, it’s now more possible for almost anyone to visit exotic places.
TM: That certainly was one of the reasons the founders, or what they call the inventors of IMAX wanted to do; it was born out of Expo 67 specifically, and those films were all about that; they’re all about adventure in all its forms, whether that’s of the human condition, or the plant.
MRH: I guess the educational content evolved within the early IMAX films?
TM: Yeah. Originally the theatre network grew up to be sort of fifty percent theme part, and fifty percent institutional, so there was a very strong museum component, planetarium and science center type component, and their mandate of course is to educate their audience, so we were making films that had to deal with both, initially; the theme parks liked the adventure side of them, but didn’t mind some information as well, so [the films] kind of evolved as family attractions, really, and now they’re playing in commercial theatres.
MRH: Because digital technology is making greater inroads towards feature film production, is there a sense that maybe that will also happen with IMAX as well, or do you think 70mm film will always be used as a delivery or acquisition format?
TM: I think as long as you’re in the institutional market you can make 70mm film work, because the model is one in which the films play for an enormously long time, unlike feature films that are gone in three weeks.
I mean, Deep Sea, our last film, is still opening in new theatres, and has played for months and months; it’s got a box office of $80 million. Space Station 3D (2002) is $110 million, and it’s still playing, albeit in one of two theatres.
This is new to the feature film market for sure, but although know Dark Knight (2008) was shot partially in IMAX, that’s a mammoth blockbuster film, and [director Christopher Nolan and Warner Bros.] can afford to do that, but to deliver IMAX prints of a three-hour film in 70mm, especially if it were 3-D, is hugely expensive in film, so to scan and deliver it digitally is the way it’s going to go, and eventually it’ll be image capture as well.
An interview with composer Maribeth Solomon.
KQEK.com would like to thank Toni Myers for discussing her latest film, and Victoria Gormley at Warner Bros. Pictures Canada for facilitating this interview.
For more information about IMAX, visit the official company website HERE.
For a history of Canada’s large film format, check out this Wikipedia entry.
All images remain the property of their copyright holders.
This interview © 2009 by Mark R. Hasan
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Categories: Filmmaker Interview