Cover story: Pixar in Concert combines live music, movie magic

(Design: Christopher Street / Photo: Mark Hancock)

(Design: Christopher Street / Photo: Mark Hancock)

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t seen or at least heard of Pixar movies. The studio’s unique animation style and storylines with complex emotional depth and visual appeal earn them love from fans.

This month, the Oklahoma City Philharmonic (OKC Phil) combines live music synced with film selections in Pixar in Concert, a multi-faceted, immersive tour of the studio’s repertoire, which includes 14 feature-length movies. It is the creation of Pete Docter, who directed Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. and Up.

click to enlarge (Disney / Pixar)
Disney / Pixar

“[Disney] wanted it to be a celebration of the music and the films, primarily the music,” said Jonathan Heeley, who works in the musical licensing department of Disney, in a recent telephone interview with Oklahoma Gazette. “[Pixar’s film department] had an idea of what they wanted to include, and they really embraced it as a unique way to expose people to their films.”

When the piece was finished, Heeley said he was especially proud of how well the music stands on its own. It plays an important role in the features, but that role is, by nature, unobtrusive. However, Pixar in Concert highlights how effectively music communicates emotion and action.

“The music is, all of a sudden, a No. 1 priority,” said Heeley. Finding Nemo, for instance, has a richness that I don’t think I would have noticed, and now I love it even more.”

click to enlarge (Disney / Pixar)
Disney / Pixar

‘International language’

When Eddie Walker, the executive director of OKC Phil, has time, he attends other symphonies across the country to scout for what audiences might like to see here. In November, he traveled to Michigan to see the Grand Rapids Symphony perform Pixar in Concert.

Beforehand, Walker knew little about the show. His primary concern was whether people who weren’t familiar with Pixar would enjoy it.

“What I found was it was so much fun. This is fantastic music,” Walker said. “We could probably have just the music and have a great evening.”

He was wowed by what he witnessed.

“It’s amazing how effective the imagery is,” Walker said. “I think it’s one of the best shows for all ages out there.”

He thought OKC audiences would think so, too. He reached out to the Michigan conductor, John Varineau, to see if he would work with OKC’s symphony for the same production, and Varineau said yes.

“It’s a lot easier to hire someone who already knows it, because conducting a live orchestra with a movie is not easy. We sought out someone who had already learned it and did it well,” Walker said.

Varineau was happy to have the opportunity to conduct Pixar in Concert again.

OKC Phil and Varineau have two rehearsals to prepare for the performances. He said that he has to have the symphony’s trust in order to lead it. He, in turn, must have faith in them.

“We’re lucky that music is the international language,” he said. “I’m always astounded at how quickly the symphony adapts.”

click to enlarge (Disney / Pixar)
Disney / Pixar

Measured magic

Early in the show’s creation process, John Lasseter, chief creative officer at Pixar, liked the concept and green-lighted it. With input from Docter, Heeley finished the editing process.

“We had decided early on that the music was going to be the primary focus,” Heeley said. “You really don’t want to see a long monologue by a character with no sound; it would be distracting.”

Pixar in Concert was first performed with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in 2012. Almost immediately, symphonies across the country asked for the rights to perform it.

The show has been performed by 130 symphonies worldwide over the past two years.

Heeley said that his job is the easiest. His department selected clips and music and then measured and marked them to make them sync.

The work of the conductor and more than 90 OKC Phil musicians is the most difficult, as they must create a seamless live experience.

To help do this, the conductor uses a click track, which helps him keep time by way of an earpiece. The drummer has one as well. The conductor also watches visual cues on a monitor in front of him.

Varineau said the high-tech additions are helpful but restrictive.

“I’ve been doing live music to movies almost 28 years, and this is much harder [than other methods]. There’s absolutely no wiggle room,” Varineau said. “Used to, when you got off of the action, you simply had to work it out where you caught up. With this, [if] you get off track, it can be a nightmare.”

With other, older methods, like visual cues from a sweeping watch, there was more allowance for timing errors. Varineau said that mistakes were more exciting and left room for improvisation while getting back on tempo.

However, Varineau also said that mastering these “fiendishly difficult” tasks means the audience sees a virtuoso performance.

click to enlarge (Disney / Pixar)
Disney / Pixar

Print headline: Right on time, Pixar in Concert combines live music and movie magic to celebrate the film studio’s catalogue in fresh and unexpected ways.

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