The summer of 1977. While most of us Super 8 Spielbergs and K-Mart Kubricks were turning our cameras to the stars in an effort to make our own 8mm space epics, one amongst us had both feet firmly on the ground...even if his head was still in the clouds. In the wake of STAR WARS, and in anticipation of the soon-to-be-released CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, Ken Thomas was not alongside best friend Gerald Cox and myself as we raided hobby store shelves for rockets, robots and ray guns to use as props for our own productions. Instead, Ken wanted to tell the more dramatic tale of a burnt-out musician torn between his commercial success as a rock star and his desire to branch out into other types of music, even at the risk of alienating himself from his fans. The venture would combine Ken's love of music and his interest in photography, as well as give him a crack at writing. The end result was a 20 minute short called BEAUTIFUL NOISE.
A good song writer and piano player (keen with a keyboard since grade school), Ken was always more into music than movies. In spite of his own preferences, he was always there to help out when one of us had a “Super 8 Super Spectacular” in production. But now the filmmaking bug had bitten him, and Ken was determined his directorial debut would be well thought out and carefully crafted. That was pretty much how Ken—"K.T." as classmates called him—handled everything. When something caught his interest, he examined and explored every aspect of it until he knew the subject inside and out. To finance his film, Ken spent his weeks of summer vacation from high school towing a gas-powered push mower behind his bike around our small Midwestern hometown, mowing yards from early morning to early evening, and supplementing that income by teaching piano in his "spare time." (It was this methodical approach to everything he did that would eventually help him get his break as a professional studio musician in New York. Sometimes adopting an alias, he would go on to work on television commercials and motion picture soundtracks!)
Ken had put together a script, he had put together a cast and had recruited me as a "production assistant," but there was one slight hitch...all of our film equipment was silent! Unfortunately, our rural community did not have any place that rented sound gear in the mid- to late 1970s. And while there were camera shops in the surrounding cities that sold sound motion picture equipment, it was a bit beyond the budget...especially for a filmmaker who really only wanted to make this one film. But once Ken had made up his mind to do something, nothing would get in his way; even if he had to piece together a system from scratch using discarded parts. Fortunately, a more practical solution presented itself.
During his preproduction research, Ken had read that professional filmmakers often did not shoot sound on film, but recorded the sound separately, with the soundtrack being physically added to the celluloid strip in post-production. This seemed to be "a sound idea" for us, as well. We would shoot and edit the film, work on the soundtrack, and once it was all finished have the film striped so that the music and dialogue could actually be attached to the picture. Now we had to determine how compatible and practical our equipment would be....
An early experiment involved first filming a clock with a second hand on it in a tight close-up for a few minutes, then projecting the processed film while timing the onscreen clock with its real-life counterpart to make sure both projector and camera operated at the same rate of frames per second. As it turned out, the projector did not show the film at the exact same speed at which it had been photographed. Although not a noticeable difference in speed to the human eye, it was off enough that sound recorded during filming would eventually no longer be in synch with the projected image.
Although dejected by the discovery, we decided to double-check our findings with a second test: A fifty foot Kodak cartridge of silent Kodachrome 40 was used to film a conversation between Ken and I while a cassette deck recorded the sound. When the film came back from the lab, we played the tape and film together. Everything started out fine but, by the end of the reel, sound and picture no longer matched up. However, we did have one hope: Find a projector with a rheostat control for the motor, to subtly speed up or slow down the film as needed during the course of projection to keep everything synchronized. Unfortunately a search of the camera shops, pawn shops and garage sales in the area failed to turn up such an elusive piece of equipment. (Although, during the course of our hunt, I did find a second-hand copy of the Beatles' White Album for fifty cents!)
In the end, it was decided the problem could best be solved by careful camera angles and lighting, so that the actors speaking were not filmed straight on, allowing for some leeway in the attempt to synchronize sight and sound. Scenes that featured our leading man singing were aided by his hand-held microphone, which obscured enough of his mouth to cover any mismatched musical moments. (Believe it or not, the technique worked out well enough that the final film didn’t look like a badly-dubbed Toho movie.)
After viewing the (then) recent remake of A STAR IS BORN with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, Ken wanted some really impressive concert scenes for his movie. Since a couple of our high school teachers were very supportive of our endeavors, they arranged for us to use the school auditorium to film the concert footage…a generous gesture considering the school was closed for the summer! Having been lighting director for a number of school productions, I found myself once again manning the light board for the auditorium’s stage, the banks of multi-colored lights overhead allowing us to give a strong sense of energy to these sequences.
To give us plenty of footage to work with in the editing room, Ken decided to take a tip from the pros and cover the concert scenes with three cameras (his own, mine and another filmmaking friend's), giving the camera operators pretty much a free hand to run all over the place during the band's performance. This provided plenty of great shots when we went to cut the film, capturing a sense of spontaneity we could not have achieved with a single camera and/or pre-planned angles. There was a slight downside to this situation, however: A) Three times the film = three times the cost, and B) It was very difficult to decide, at times, what material to use and what to discard. (Ultimately, the excess footage actually saved us: Ken later decided he wanted to use a different piece of music for this opening concert sequence, but we couldn't afford to go back and re-shoot the thing from scratch. Because we had so much material from different angles, we were actually able to re-cut the sequence to the new music without anyone being able to tell they were originally playing a different song!)
When it came time to put all the pieces together, out came my editing gear since I was one of the few people to have an editor/viewer. (Each of us had equipment that the rest did not, allowing us to form an unofficial film co-op. Unlike some of my fellow student filmmakers, I was someone who loved the editing process, occasionally getting asked to help others with post-production.) Having worked on numerous Standard 8 and Super 8 silent films, I had put a lot of miles on my splicer, but I was used to editing for myself. Now I found myself co-editing someone else's film...a situation enhanced by the challenge of cutting the silent film to a separate soundtrack using a stop watch and frame counter to insure everything was in synch. It took several sessions, but we were seeing it all come together. Surprisingly, the film and the cassette matched convincingly during test projections.
Except for adding an epilogue, BEAUTIFUL NOISE was almost finished when our leading lady, Linda, suddenly moved away. (The new school year was just a couple of weeks away and her father had been transferred to another city, so their family wanted to get settled into their new home before classes started.) There was another girl who lived close by who resembled the “lost” Linda enough that, if photographed carefully, could pass for her for the closing sequence, although the voices would not match. After some debate, it was decided the film worked well enough without that final scene. With little visual cues hidden in some scenes so that the projectionist could make sure the picture and soundtrack were still properly lined up, the film had its local premiere with success.
Having proved to himself he could do it, Ken never attempted making another movie of his own (although he has recently drifted away from songwriting to try his hand at screenwriting), but was always on hand to help any of us out as needed. And in spite of overcoming the odds that he did to make BEAUTIFUL NOISE, it took a lot of coaxing to get him to show it for us from time to time after those initial screenings. (Since none of us actually owned a sound projector back then, the movie was never striped.)
As the years passed and we all moved on (and away), Ken, Gerald and I still kept in touch. One day, during a phone conversation in 1991, Ken asked me about transferring some of his family's old home movies onto video for him, which I said I would take care of. In exchange for doing this, he offered me his small, long-unused collection of Blackhawk Films’ Charlie Chaplin comedies. A few days later, the package of films arrived. In addition to the home movies and Chaplin shorts was another set of reels with a note attached to them—it was BEAUTIFUL NOISE! Not just the film itself, but all the outtakes, alternate takes...every piece of used and unused footage exposed for the project!!! Ken had watched the film recently and decided that, while an ambitious effort, he had no need of it and decided to pass it on to me to do with as I saw fit.
There was a rush of adrenalin as I thought about how this little film could benefit from the modern miracle of video. No more trying to juggle a cassette deck and movie projector; I could have the print transferred to VHS tape, do an audio dub of the soundtrack cassettes onto the video and finally, over a decade after it was made, have sight and sound perfectly matched together once and for all! Then I noticed something; the package did not contain the cassettes. A quick call to Ken confirmed my worst fears: The tapes had either been lost during one of the many moves made over the years, or had been recycled for use as demo tapes when he and his old band were trying to get gigs. In short, I now owned the world’s only silent musical.
In the years since the initial shock and disappointment of that moment, I have dusted off the film cans and started running BEAUTIFUL NOISE again, making notes on the short subject and all the unused footage. (Unfortunately, no copies of the script seem to have survived for me to refresh my memory on the exact dialogue.) Having been given Ken's blessing to either salvage or scrap the picture (making it clear the latter is probably the best option), I can't help but feel that somehow, in that little sea of celluloid, there is a way to still make the movie work. It might mean re-cutting the film into an even shorter short subject and using intertitles for the dialogue (like we did for the rest of our other 8mm silent efforts), but there is still a solid story there. (Then again, if anyone out there is interested in stock footage of a '70s rock band in concert….)
...Keep those projector bulbs burning!